Preface. Various factors this year have necessitated a leaner Annual Review. There follows excerpts from books I have read this year that have influenced my philosophical enquiry, a digest of my favourite songs that have come out in twenty seventeen, and the sections in italics are musings cribbed directly from my notebook for the year, here and there slightly edited, elsewhere slightly embellished. Caveat: Do not be drawn in by the dozen sections. I employed neither linear chronology nor hierarchy in the construction of this review. Rather, I attempted a spontaneous and holistic approach to writing and compiling.
Adam John Miller, 20th December 2017.
Like all genuine questions, the question about identity will never die. Such questions do not have answers, in the sense of a single definitive statement that eliminates the need to ask the question again. Yet that does not mean that talking about such questions is an endless and meaningless game, merely going back and forth over the same positions, more cleverly expressed. Instead, at crucial moments in this long conversation, something emerges that reveals a new truth, perhaps implicit in what has gone before but only now expressed. Because of that insight, everything appears in a new light. Such questions and conversations are living things; they are fascinating because, at any moment, something so compelling may emerge that nothing will be the same again.
Peter Pesic, Seeing Double: Shared Identities in Physics, Philosophy, and Literature
Vagabon, The Embers
I saw it happen as it was happening to me. Non-participation an idle fantasy, ultimately impossible. The bottomless depths and unfathomable heights are signposts, as natural as night and day. Content provision. Flicking through the dream diary I catch myself and wince at the opulent naivety: Please wake up now, it says, stopping short. Perplexed, unsubstantiated. An elaboration of protocol and rule. Olive branches, javelins. The metaphors of mind are the world it perceives. Downsize your expectations. An open invitation to the vinegar tasting goes unanswered. This nearly didn’t happen at all, but the field is more inviting than the stands whilst we wait for the whistle. Keep it succinct.
In the present century the opposition between negative and positive reciprocity has taken the form of debate between ‘capitalist’ and ‘communist,’ ‘individualist’ and ‘socialist’; but the conflict is much older than that, because it is an essential polarity between the part and the whole, the one and the many. Every age must find its balance between the two, and in every age the domination of either one will bring with it the call for its opposite. For where, on the one hand, there is no way to assert identity against the mass, and no opportunity for private gain, we lose the well-advertised benefits of a market society – and its particular freedoms, its particular kind of innovation, its individual and material variety, and so on. But where, on the other hand, the market alone rules, and particularly where its benefits derive from the conversion of gift property to commodities, the fruits of gift exchange are lost. At that point commerce becomes correctly associated with the fragmentation of community and the suppression of liveliness, fertility, and the social feeling. For where we maintain no institutions of positive reciprocity, we find ourselves unable to participate in those ‘wider spirits’ – unable to enter gracefully into nature, unable to contribute toward, and pass along the collective treasures we refer to as culture and tradition. Only when the increase of gifts moves with the gift may the accumulated wealth of our spirit continue to grow among us, so that each of us may enter, and be revived by, a vitality beyond his or her solitary powers.
Lewis Hyde, The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World
The Courtneys, Silver Velvet
Overcome not overthrown. Why won’t you arrive? So much more than a cardiovascular instance. Ease it down, keep them sweet, in modern vernacular. If you’re given lined paper then write sideways. Every new generation knows that their innovations won’t take root until the next. Or so we’re told. Values are limitations, mind over matter is a misnomer. A folie à deux. Reality is a procedure and I find exactly what I am looking for, as does everyone else. Unity and wholeness. You cannot discover the new world without losing sight of the shore. It is all a matter of agreement, a meeting of minds. If we do not believe in miracles then we make certain they shall never occur.
It has been claimed that our minds screen out far more than we accept, else we would live in a world of chaos. Our screening process may be essential, but it is also arbitrary and changeable. We pick and choose, ignore or magnify, illuminate or dampen, expand upon or obscure, affirm or deny, as our inheritance, adopted discipline, or passionate pursuits dictate. At root is an aesthetic response, and we invest our aesthetic responses with sacred overtones. Most people respond automatically to their given circle of representation, and strengthen it by their unconscious allegiance. This centering of mind fills a person with power and conviction. It creates mathematicians, saints, or Nazis with equal and impartial ease.
Joseph Chilton Pearce, The Crack in the Cosmic Egg
There is no march of progress. We all wallow in this myth, colluding, deceived as we scramble atop one another, clawing at the future. Why not use stumbling blocks as stepping stones? We only understand ourselves retrospectively, creating the self that sustains through the toil we dress up as time. Polysemy. I have a delusion of grandeur, I believe myself to be. But if I don’t believe that I exist, how can I insist? What can I confess? Is this foray necessary? I wasn’t there: I didn’t light the match, set the fuse, egg them on, film it on my phone, upload it to social media, brag about it to my friends, start a blog. I did not set this in motion.
The extraordinary patience of things!
This beautiful place defaced with a crop of surburban houses-
How beautiful when we first beheld it,
Unbroken field of poppy and lupin walled with clean cliffs;
No intrusion but two or three horses pasturing,
Or a few milch cows rubbing their flanks on the outcrop rockheads-
Now the spoiler has come: does it care?
Not faintly. It has all time. It knows the people are a tide
That swells and in time will ebb, and all
Their works dissolve. Meanwhile the image of the pristine beauty
Lives in the very grain of the granite,
Safe as the endless ocean that climbs our cliff.-As for us:
We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;
We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from.
Robinson Jeffers, Carmel Point
Omni, Southbound Station
Things we could have done instead: gone dancing, spiral out of control, shake our fists, join the resistance, stay at home. Elevation Blues, package deals and heavy lapels. Nature is only a hypothesis. The plans were grand but the product grated, we met demand and then separated. I no longer collect my notes together, this scattershot approach is necessitated by ennui, apathy and the pretense that I am spontaneous. Every moment is created. Mirrors always agree. We are all spellbound by ourselves, glorious fabrications, attentive, attended to. The biographer is always writing about themselves. Individualism is, all things considered, a decidedly modern invention, an economic necessity. Hide behind vice.
At the very roots of Chinese thinking and feeling there lies the principle of polarity, which is not to be confused with the ideas of opposition or conflict. In the metaphors of other cultures, light is at war with darkness, life with death, good with evil, and the positive with the negative, and thus an idealism to cultivate the former and be rid of the latter flourishes throughout much of the world. To the traditional way of Chinese thinking this is as incomprehensible as an electric current without both positive and negative poles, for polarity is the principle that plus and minus, north and south, are different aspects of one and the same system, and that the disappearance of either one of them would be the disappearance of the system. People who have been brought up in the aura of Christian and Hebrew aspirations find this frustrating, because it seems to deny any possibility of progress, an ideal which flows from their linear (as distinct from cyclic) view of time and history. Indeed, the whole enterprise of Western technology is “to make the world a better place” – to have pleasure without pain, wealth without poverty, and health without sickness. But, as is now becoming obvious, our violent efforts to achieve this ideal with such weapons as DDT, penicillin, nuclear energy, automotive transportation, computers, industrial farming, damming, and compelling everyone, by law, to be superficially “good and healthy” are creating more problems than they solve. We have been interfering with a complex system of relationships which we do not understand, and the more we study its details, the more it eludes us by revealing still more details to study. As we try to comprehend and control the world it runs away – from us. Instead of chafing at this situation, a Taoist would ask what it means. What is that which always retreats when pursued? Answer: yourself. Idealists (in the moral sense of the word) regard the universe as different and separate from themselves- that is, as a system of external objects which needs to be subjugated. Taoists view the universe as the same as, or inseparable from, themselves so that Lao-tzu could say, “Without leaving my house, I know the whole universe.”
Alan Watts, Tao: The Watercourse Way
Shy Layers, SEG
Peach and plum: Almost everything that was once free for all has been commodified. Tianxia. Every animal sings beautifully in tune. We have hallucinated Hell and decided that this is our lot. Thank you. I’ll take it, it’ll do. Streetlight effect. Culture is the most addictive drug we have created. We are all riddled with culture addiction: A synthetic, globally manufactured narcotic that constantly assumes novel and powerful forms to avoid detection. Even those in charge are dependent. Trade in culture is booming, no concerns about sustainable growth. It is perhaps possible to wean yourself off but full abstinence is the purest cure. Who wants to come down?
We sometimes think, and even like to think, that the two greatest exertions that have influenced mankind, religion and science, have always been historical enemies, intriguing us in opposite directions. But this effort at special identity is loudly false. It is not religion but the church and science that were hostile to each other. And it was rivalry, not contravention. Both were religious. They were two giants fuming at each other over the same ground. Both proclaimed to be the only way to divine revelation. It was a competition that first came into absolute focus with the late Renaissance, particularly in the imprisonment of Galileo in 1633. The stated and superficial reason was that his publications had not been first stamped with papal approval. But the true argument, I am sure, was no such trivial surface event. For the writings in question were simply the Copernican heliocentric theory of the solar system which had been published a century earlier by a churchman without any fuss whatever. The real division was more profound and can, I think, only be understood as a part of the urgency behind mankind’s yearning for divine certainties. The real chasm was between the political authority of the church and the individual authority of experience. And the real question was whether we are to find our lost authorization through an apostolic succession from ancient prophets who heard divine voices, or through searching the heavens of our own experience right now in the objective world without any priestly intercession. As we all know, the latter became Protestantism and, in its rationalist aspect, what we have come to call the Scientific Revolution.
Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind
Big Thief, Mythological Beauty
The wait for death is equalled only by the weight of life. And this is where things start to break down and the silence lurches forth, insidiously. Farewell, Queenstown Heights, you definitely happened. With every step we take we’re heading further North, with every breath we breathe a sigh of relief. Slow hands, origami: I’m glad that you’re not here to see all that’s been happening since you’ve been gone. I’ll raise every drink to you, I’ll praise every day I’m alive, thanks to you. And when things seem impossible, I will remember the love that you had for us all. I will love you forever. Farewell, John Henry Powell.
Humanists believe that if we know the truth we will be free. In affirming this they imagine they are wiser than thinkers of earlier times. In fact they are in the grip of a forgotten religion. The modern faith in truth is a relic of an ancient creed. Socrates founded European thought on the faith that truth makes us free. He never doubted that knowledge and the good life go together. He passed on this faith to Plato, and so to Christianity. The result is modern Humanism. Socrates was able to believe that the examined life is best because he thought the true and the good were one and the same: there is a changeless reality beyond the visible world, and it is perfect. When humans live the unexamined life they run after illusions. They spend their lives searching for pleasure or fleeing pain, both of which are bound to pass away. True fulfilment lies in changeless things. An examined life is best because it leads us into eternity. We need not doubt the reality of truth to reject this Socratic faith. Human knowledge is one thing, human well-being another. There is no predetermined harmony between the two. The examined life may not be worth living. The faith of Socrates in the examined life may well have been a trace of an archaic religion: he ‘habitually heard and obeyed an inner voice which knew more than he did … he called it, quite simply, “the voice of God”’. Socrates was guided by a daimon, an inner oracle, whose counsels he followed without question, even when they led him to his death. In admitting that he was guided by an inner voice, he showed the lingering power of shamanic practices, in which humans have immemorially sought communion with spirits. If Socratic philosophy originates in shamanism, European rationalism was born in a mystical experience. Modern humanism differs from Socratic philosophy chiefly in failing to recognise its irrational origins – and in the hubris of its ambitions. The bequest of Socrates was to tether the pursuit of truth to a mystical idea of the good. Yet neither Socrates nor any other ancient thinker imagined that truth could make mankind free. They took for granted that freedom would always remain the privilege of a few; there was no hope for the species. By contrast, among contemporary humanists, the Greek faith that truth makes us free has been fused with one of Christianity’s most dubious legacies – the belief that the hope of freedom belongs to everyone. Modern humanism is the faith that through science humankind can know the truth – and so be free. But if Darwin’s theory of natural selection is true this is impossible. The human mind serves evolutionary success, not truth. To think otherwise is to resurrect the pre-Darwinian error that humans are different from all other animals.
John Gray, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals
Chad VanGaalen, Old Heads
Who is the operator keeping all our cells together? If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter: this is where the magic happens. Bunny, Keys, both Minnies, Pissy and Snowy, Sad Cat. Everyone has something to say and maybe later on they’ll have something else to say. More fun, indeed. Death has a way of dividing, subtracting. And attracting. Collecting business cards, stolen wine. Three characters in search of an exit, foreshadowing. A dress rehearsal, a never-ending circle. Nothing forever. Funeral bants.
Most of our encounters with the world are not, as we have seen, direct encounters. Even our direct experiences, so called, are assigned for interpretation to ideas about cause and consequence, and the world that emerges for us is a conceptual world. When we are puzzled about what we encounter, we renegotiate its meaning in a manner that is concordant with what those around us believe. If this is the basis for our understanding of the physical and biological worlds, how much truer it is of the social world in which we live. For, to sound another familiar theme, the “realities” of the society and of social life are themselves most often products of linguistic use as represented in such speech acts as promising, abjuring, legitimizing, christening, and so on. Once one takes the view that a culture itself comprises an ambiguous text that is constantly in need of interpretation by those who participate in it, then the constitutive role of language in creating social reality becomes a topic of practical concern. So if one asks the question, where is the meaning of social concepts – in the world, in the meaner’s head, or in interpersonal negotiation – one is compelled to answer that it is the last of these. Meaning is what we can agree upon or at least accept as a working basis for seeking agreement about the concept at hand. If one is arguing about social “realities” like democracy or equity or even gross national product, the reality is not the thing, not in the head, but in the act of arguing and negotiating about the meaning of such concepts. Social realities are not bricks that we trip over or bruise ourselves on when we kick at them, but the meanings that we achieve by the sharing of human cognitions.
Jerome Bruner, Actual Minds, Possible Worlds
Nest in new environs, sound proof the walls to shut out the incessant bleating. Go bowling. Are you distancing yourself or is one part static? It is all relative. Colorless green ideas sleep furiously. Pewter curse, cloak. Defence mechanisms. Gradient deniers. I have a spell for you. We are like flashlights, everywhere we look is illuminated.
Once their faces were turned
outwards, men became
unable to see themselves,
and that is our great weakness.
No longer able to see ourselves,
we imagine ourselves.
René Daumal, The Head Inside Out
Mount Kimbie ft. King Krule, Blue Train Lines
…and what is left now the wasps are dead? A silhouette of a treble clef, a thirst quenched. A banged head? Hunger bears its teeth at airport bars as the same hills loom large. We live in nature. So do we. Cross words regretted, unfettered, tethered to other places, different times, but when the full moon shines the bats swoop low and the dogs howl. Oh, Croatia! Where is our compensation? Where are our playing cards? We mourn discarded barbecue as you lay yourself before us. At least we were never bored.
There is no nature, only Nature – an imaginary state of man’s own invention, a realm of concept and language. That is man’s place and it is nowhere except inside his head; a mirror image of a distorted fantasy he calls Mankind. A distortion of a distortion, exponentially phantasmagorical. Nature is a conceit: a man-made garden in which we wander to relax and preen, as we nod to one another in passing, and congratulate ourselves on being us. We created Nature so that we might take pride in how far we have ventured beyond it. Man has no place in nature because there is no nature: only what he makes. He is therefore beyond nothing. He is merely self-deceived. Forever trapped inside his self-inflated dream of what he is. A pathetic child imagining himself in the world, when, in reality, he is confined by the four walls of his playroom. His ‘world’ being nothing more than the arrangement of his diminutive models and playthings. Man is exiled from the real world, from nature, by language. He is the willing prisoner of words. All his high-mindedness, his ideals, morality, stemming merely from the necessity of language. True nature cares for nothing, neither life nor death. It is simply in a perpetual motion of growth and decay, beyond value or morality. Lacking the curse of consciousness and the petty ethics that entails, the natural world lives and dies blindly, without intention, regenerates or doesn’t. There is no system, only a multiplicity of life cycles; parts that remain separate, that never add up to a whole. Nature does not do arithmetic. Man is one of a myriad of dissociated parts, not outside observer of an illusory unity. If he tears down the forests or fights for their preservation, he does it for himself. It is of no consequence to nature, whose disparate parts survive or don’t, without sensibility. The ‘ecosystem’ is man’s vision of where he is and, in reality, no system at all. The environment is his own orderly invention, his realm, but the environment cares neither for its own death nor man’s. Nor does it care for man’s care for it. Man makes a lapdog of a planet in which he is merely a passing formulation of life: the current arrangement of molecules. His continued existence, and that of the planet itself, is of no importance to anything other than a few temporary particles that are our species.
Jenny Diski, Rainforest
Kamasi Washington, Truth
What’s the matter? What does this amount to? Read in, read out. Chakra tap. Operation: System. It is not the arm that is unjust, but the weapon that is too heavy for the human hand. Overhead, a buzzard circles, overhears the conversation. Sense censor, arbitrarily derived. I never would have known if I hadn’t been home. Some feelings outgrow the host, some people shed bones. The one and the many, pitted against each other to keep things ticking over. Past the water shed, through the wood, the overgrown bush and the newlyweds. There’s an owl in a tree, watching you, watching me, and a lighthouse on the horizon.
The Ego evolved as an instrument in social cognition, and one of its greatest functional advantages was that it allowed us to read the minds of other animals or conspecifics—and then to deceive them. Or deceive ourselves. Since our inbuilt existential need for full emotional and physical security can never be fulfilled, we have a strong drive toward delusion and bizarre belief systems. Psychological evolution endowed us with the irresistible urge to satisfy our emotional need for stability and emotional meaningfulness by creating metaphysical worlds and invisible persons. Whereas spirituality might be defined as seeing what is—as letting go of the search for emotional security—religious faith can be seen as an attempt to cling to that search by redesigning the Ego Tunnel. Religious belief is an attempt to endow your life with deeper meaning and embed it in a positive metacontext—it is the deeply human attempt to finally feel at home. It is a strategy to outsmart the hedonic treadmill. On an individual level, it seems to be one of the most successful ways to achieve a stable state—as good as or better than any drug so far discovered. Now science seems to be taking all this away from us. The emerging emptiness may be one reason for the current rise of religious fundamentalism, even in secular societies. Everything we know points to a conclusion that is simple but hard to come to terms with: Evolution simply happened—foresightless, by chance, without goal. There is nobody to despise or rebel against—not even ourselves. And this is not some bizarre form of neurophilosophical nihilism but rather a point of intellectual honesty and great spiritual depth.
Thomas Metzinger, The Ego Tunnel: The Science of The Mind and The Myth of The Self
Mind Over Mirrors, Restore and Slip
Boom for real. Absorb the world, take your fill: the brass trill and hieroglyphics. Same old, Great Jones, wave the Downtown Blues away. Xerox’d feelings. The lowbrow and high ceilings. Radiant child. Break free, shake the outstretched hand and say goodbye. Etymologicalypso! Ears loom, eyes dolled: Tongue wager. 116123, misty schisms. Stone, stone, stone.
Nature itself will always dwell out of reach. The scientific logos cannot catch what in Nature cannot be turned into logic or mathematics. Nature is like a living body covered with a coat – the scientific logos might one day catch each of the coat’s fibers that form a beautiful and harmonious whole, and find each fiber interwoven with all the others, but nevertheless, the coat is not the body of the person. The paradox of all this, of science’s unrelenting, progressing, but also infinite journey towards “understanding” Nature is this: Nature is constantly revealing itself to us “naked,” without a coat. It does so in the guise of the sensitive, richly diverse world that all men, of all times and places, can witness. It is as if modern science, heavily influenced by Plato, would in fact blind us in its frantic pursuit from the presence of the infinite Nature.
Marcel Conche, Philosophizing ad Infinitum: Infinite Nature, Infinite Philosophy
Julie Byrne, I Live Now as a Singer
Hold your breath, watch your tongue and put the bottle down. Slowly turn around with your back to the void. Every Joan of Arc is an arbitrary curve, and everyone believes in themselves these days. Everybody bleeds. Raise your hands, say your prayers and make your feelings known. Burn another omen on an open fire. Ramesses deceived with symbols and signs, the meaning is between the lines.