It’s not true, but for sanity today it seems most useful to suppose I am the very last soldier of humanism, of civilization, potential, and progress beyond the material, technological, presently-understandable—the very last alive and fighting, a secret partisan for a reformation of intellect, creativity, and spirit in the midst of a dead culture—all echoes, reactions, politics and other devouring shallow sensations, a last vaunting glory of wastelands that still look like cities. For then I am not worried to feel cut off from comrades, whom I no longer expect to find. For then I do not question whether it matters if my sacrifices go unrewarded and unheralded. For then a clear, stubborn answer to despair wells up in words like: fight on alone! Go down fighting! —the bold sentiment of a soldier of civilization who marches unrested through the cold to a university bookstore without a single student in it, a scouting expedition, perhaps to recruit a few dead thinkers. Quick, boys, over the (lap)top! and let us grimly write a few more badge-of-honor books, out of step with these times and full of resolve to seek wisdom, before the grave. And all thoughts of resignation to a few softening pleasures are for a moment forgotten in struggle for its own sake.
My attempted email to the Stephen Jay Gould Archive bounced, so I reproduce it here.
Hello, I noticed that the website is down. In case there are no plans to continue on with the site I wanted to say that I have found it to be a valuable resource and a wonderful gateway to a very important thinker. A lot of my thinking/writing has drawn on evolution and I’ve increasingly relied on Gould’s clarity on the subject, and I’ve been thankful to have the archive handy on the internet. Thanks for providing it as long as you have. I hope it will return. I note in the meantime that some pages are archived on web.archive.org, fortunately.
Colin P. Barth
PS. The Wayback Machine/Internet Archive link I mentioned above: https://web.archive.org/web/20120915010723/http://www.stephenjaygould.org/
To readers of Promethea.org, followers of my Promethean writing online or in print, and members, associates, and well-wishers of the Promethean movement:
I have written you a sort of open letter, part essay and part story, instead of a spare announcement of my future plans. I feel that the announcements I have to make merit explanation, and that fifteen years since inaugurating Promethea.org merit a span of reflection also. If you will indulge me in digressions and recollections, I will communicate the background to these announcements in the manner of considerate but unflinching honesty which has delivered me to more answers over the years than any other method of philosophical inquiry. I have constructive steps to relate as well as cessations, and perhaps some commentary of general interest on the recent history of the internet, literature, and more.
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The story of Promethea(.org) began in the late 1990s. The burgeoning internet was still compared to a frontier. Self-publishing online was a pioneering approach to putting words in front of others that required web design. The new-media futurists’ predictions held that the internet would change society, and indeed opportunities were changing appreciably. For me and for others, publishing and communication on the net held promise for a radical change. It seemed possible for a small budget, hard work, and the right talent to propagate new and transformative ideas. Optimism about reaching other people across the globe—formerly costly through conventional media, if not made impossible by the obstruction of media gatekeepers—did not seem misplaced. That the internet was implicitly built around the free exchange of information and founded on freedom of expression has often been asserted explicitly and celebrated by its first devoted generation of users. Today they invoke this primarily to reject censorship. Back then it very often also suggested various positive values, changes the internet could bring. (I don’t mean to overstate the difference in attitude. I acknowledge the marvelous exception in recent years of Wikileaks representing the promise of transparency as a positive value, by making independent reporting and whistleblowing famous.)
In that context, it did not seem to me unachievable for a small movement to snowball using the novel methods of access and communication possible on the internet and succeed by taking remarkable approaches, especially the movement I wanted to found on a well-considered philosophy.
First of all, the internet’s advantages seemed to offer an historic opportunity to change the world, an analogue to contemporaneity with the movable-type printing press—without which coincidence Martin Luther, Philipp Melanchthon, et al. could not have spurred a Reformation (however one judges that outcome).
Secondly, with multimedia still a recent concept in the 90s, web pages also seemed to me to offer the same sort of opportunity that William Blake had once had for philosophical artistry integrating color visuals and text in the same space. (This led to my experiments with “illuminated” versions of principal philosophical writing, echoing the manuscripts once copied laboriously by monks.)
Thirdly, instant and inexpensive international communication could, in theory, link up individuals capable of spearheading a personal and societal change process. We could find each other for the first time, and work together.
Even before considering the web, I was fired up by a desire to change the world through individualism, free thought, and liberty, and I’d committed myself to the mission of writing philosophy in this cause, starting with The Promethean Manifesto in 1998. I felt compelled to help save the world from the crisis of civilization I predicted and feared if we continued to follow the same traditions of force and other folly. I knew that beyond simply saying “no” to them, the solution would be to supersede collective goals for so-called “society” with an enlivening hope instead: the reinvigoration of human potential in individuals, in the finest spirit of Nietzsche or Renaissance humanism.
I was experiencing for myself that indeed, the individual with spirit could step into a life greater than he’d imagined. I had proven to myself, in my own case, that once we understand that a constraint is not fundamental to our identity we can find a way outside it. We can unlock many doors with the right keys of knowledge and practice, for which we can search. I knew that it was possible to straighten up, and stand higher than before. I knew it was possible to become more than familiar walls allowed to their prisoner. In my joy I wanted to awaken others to unlocking the doors of their own painful cages or modest prison rooms. In the energetic pursuit of that ambition, I found joy reignited fiercely that very few get to experience. That too, I wanted to share.
I followed also the hopes of (classical) liberals—men of the Enlightenment on the Continent, in Britain, and America, and their successors—for “society” to loosen the grip of constructed social hierarchy, and let other men grow like wildflowers. (I had, at the very beginning, no knowledge of the obscure politics of libertarian “anarchism” and had to logically reinvent that particular wheel [of stateless society], which I think turned out to facilitate original and post-political thinking on the problem.) I was interested not just in broad strokes but in figuring out all necessary particulars, not only by acquiring knowledge that I could, but by inspiring the assistance of others to supplement deficiencies in my own reach.
To reach other people, I began to create what would be the internet’s first website to depict an original philosophy, in works designed from the first for portrayal on the internet—laid out for the web, but also to enable a living philosophy that could be revised, continually updated and improved, instead of remaining static on the pages of fixed and permanent books. I adopted the term Prometheanism for the philosophy I envisioned, and Promethean for the movement I envisioned.
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I felt an acute responsibility, but from the beginning, the future of this movement was never solely in my hands simply because mine wrote down the founding ideas of Prometheanism. Responsibility would have to pass to the hands of hundreds of others also, before it could ever rest in the hands of thousands. I would have to begin by searching for individuals also able to take initiative and responsibility to push the snowball along.
I needed to find others who felt personal responsibility to ensure that we, the human beings alive in modern times, took the steps necessary to resolve the great problems that the dead bequeathed to us, and the myths they made us believe. But success in convincing others was never guaranteed. No one who tries a great thing can ever be sure of a favorable outcome from it, even with the greatest will to realize it. Worse, having spirit might not allow us to admit this, but when one must work with others and count on others, an apathetic failure is as possible as a glorious one.
From the beginning I made the argument however that the attempt itself is noble, and the challenge without peer. Some like myself would always feel it necessary, dictated by passionate sentiments of character, foresight of historical concerns and crisis, and duty. I have since come to realize the combination is too unusual to find in an appreciable number of others today, unless perhaps one has the means to search high and low. Perhaps because I underwent a rigorous, old-fashioned intellectual training like a boot camp—or more accurately, like an officer’s school—abdicating the duty before me never seemed an option.
Beyond this, it seemed to me then, as it seems to me now, that no other strategy offers a pragmatic alternative in the long term other than achieving the objectives of Prometheanism, broadly including Promethean education in some form, accommodation and maximization of our own natures personally and socially, and—following the method of giving proof of concept—eventually founding a Promethean society suitable to Man.
Even the best of the less ambitious and cohesive measures offer band-aids instead of cures. They suffer from failures of imagination; they misunderstand the pervasiveness of the entire interconnected problem of misshapen society, stunted culture, and unrealized potential of human life on Earth. Each shows preoccupation with different syndromes—political, social, economic, legal, moral, cultural, physiological, psychiatric, linguistic, intellectual, or so on—without seeing their necessary interdependence, and without a properly holistic idea of health to encourage. The worst measures, on the other hand, mistake Man or human nature for a disease.
I began to appreciate the gap that strangely went unfilled. It would ensure a disaster for civilization, but at some indeterminate, stuttering pace that left symptoms in its wake, to appear unconnected from their real causes. I was determined to make clear the need for a collaboration of perspectives that—remarkably—very few grasped even in part. I was surprised that the fragmentation of general education—I suppose—had left such an obvious historic opportunity for leadership still unfulfilled. I was surprised that Balkanized activists for every meaningful angle on progress, even those I respected very much, apparently lacked an unknown banner of humanism and civilization to tell them: respect one another, for your different insights and ways are needed. Since I could find no one else already assembling the campaign that I felt would ultimately be necessary, I had to be the one to pick up that banner first. I would have to count on others to follow.
The heroic cause of Man, also the cause of heroic Man, was a responsibility I was not reluctant to accept and I wanted to be counted among those who followed it, but founding the necessary movement myself was my last resort. I only undertook it once I understood the fatal limitations of existing kinds of organizations. Their principles were typically confined only to “issues” that concerned them, ignoring other essentials. Often enough, I found their organization or methods aped the conceptual problems they sought to oppose elsewhere (hierarchy or collectivism, for example). I realized that all the relevant efforts I could find would fail in the long term, or find only partial and temporary success. They would not solve the great historical problem by chopping it up for a more “practical” assault. Their recognizing only bits of it also typically excluded their own psychological deficiencies, and the acute challenge of facing them. I knew above all that whatever one could not resolve for oneself, one was always sentenced to impose on the world. Like Cassandra, I was not interested in pretending I knew less than I did. I could not find solace, as others did, in the illusion of partial measures analogous to topical remedies for holistic illness or watered-down remedies for serious illness.
Otherwise, I would have sensibly preferred to join whatever some others—perhaps better suited to motivation or logistics, perhaps already funded or famous—had already begun to mobilize, although I did become excited by the challenge once I committed to building a new movement. My reluctance was not merely due to the prospect of maximum personal effort and self-sacrifice, although it’s true that I would have preferred less than I would have to do in coming years. I would have also preferred volunteering philosophy and strategy as I pleased without trying to play the central role. As an introvert, the prospect of promotional exhortation elicited distaste. As introverts usually do, I preferred my work to sell itself instead of cultivating unseemly popularity to magnify it. Of course, at the same time I risked the usual criticisms of quixotism, narcissism, elitism, or iconoclasm which accompany all nonconformist actions of lone individuals. I reassured myself that I would soon find more extroverted co-leaders and convince them to step in front of me, so that I could apply myself to solving problems, offering guidance, encouraging, and facilitating success. Instead, I was obliged to try to overcome my aversion to making myself into an outspoken representative figure, with mixed success.
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The work on Promethea proceeded from the earliest beta versions in 1998–1999. I thought and created, I wrote and designed and published, I agonized and second-guessed as only a perfectionist can, though I did not allow doubts to prevent proceeding as boldly as I could. Over the first few years, attention, praise, and dozens of supporters and members joining the movement encouraged me to think I was following a viable strategy, as well as the path that was necessary to me personally.
I do not mean to understate difficulties that were evident from the beginning, and indeed, obvious before I began. Indolence, apathy, vague misanthropy and pessimism have their fashion. It has always been easier to criticize those who act apart from the established groups and in unexpected ways than to act also, and expose oneself to criticism of the conspicuous. One may also expect that the existing terrain of ignorance and misconception raises more barriers than any deliberate enemies, particularly the modern landscaping, industrial-scale mal-education. Even the plainest counterfactual delusion may be more sternly protected by instinct, the deep-seated resentment against those who uproot loyally-held figments, than by rationalizations subject to argument.
But in those years I put all my determination, efforts and resources behind the movement. I communicated extensively with interested parties, and fielded a great many questions. I ambitiously expanded the writing projects I pursued. As much as possible, I wanted the principles to be in place for larger cooperative projects that could be organized in the future with more support. My concerted attempt at preparation for a larger movement would lead to writing about how we should be organized, later included on a website just for the movement (prometheanmovement.org).
I was concerned not only with growing the movement faster but also how to avoid expansion contrary to its spirit. Having studied or observed the fates of many other kinds of organizations and movements, I worried about making expedient compromises. After all, much attention Promethea attracted was from people who wanted to engage in narrow political philosophy or political strategizing, at the expense of self-development that would be more useful to them, and instead of applying themselves to creating things that could be useful to Promethea or the movement. I was concerned about giving the Promethean movement an exclusively political character, or subjugating it to alliances that would corrupt it. First, I felt that the world had enough politics and not enough civilization, civilizing culture, or civilizing institutions. Second, at the same time I was striving to make Promethean philosophy more holistic in consideration of Man, I was determined that the Promethean movement’s activism should differ from politics, and follow expressive, artistic, psychological, and educational avenues as well as sociopolitical avenues. Nonetheless, I evaluated various prospects for non-entangling alliances to address particular issues of freedom and individualism but not compromise our goals. Accepting the help of individuals who might otherwise differ on Prometheanism but could contribute behind the scenes as they felt common cause would be the smallest scale of this principle.
In the first years of Promethea obstacles and limitations, chiefly reckoned in 1) financial resources, 2) exposure, and 3) volunteers, seemed mere setbacks that even more effort or some alteration in tactics could overcome. If volunteer support proved more inconsistent and unreliable than initial enthusiasm, as has been my monotonous experience, it was reassuring whenever promising individuals appeared with a strong belief in the work or a desire to learn from it. If shoestring budgets seemed prohibitive, personal contribution kept the work going somehow, slowly. I awaited breakthroughs in getting the word out further and reaching the right people, knowing that more exposure could bring both more commitment and more resources. We had, I felt, not only a need and an opportunity to change the world, but superior “products” to offer in the market of ideas—if only we could get the word out to those who wanted to realize personal and social change (not “change” in the sloganeering of politics or self-help).
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But over the past fifteen years, various factors have combined to call the entire strategy (of online publication and organization, and of ramping up to definite goals) into question. I’ll summarize them at the risk of generalization:
- The proliferation of the internet in its second generation of devoted users swamped messages with noise—and with the same old messages from monied, popular, and conventional interests. The second wave of users discovered, populated, and repurposed the internet for impulsive entertainment, social networking, and commercial advertising.
- The usage profile of the internet changed dramatically along with the massive expansion in access—now nearly universal. The democratization of the internet marginalized content-driven use. Idealists, dissidents, and other unusual thinkers could once communicate substantive ideas to the first online generation, who would willingly read and frequently enough discuss ideas intelligently in forums or email at length. An atmosphere of frivolousness and indifference accompanied the incoming broader base of users. Ignorance amused with itself, attracted by distraction, seemed to outpace and displace curiosity to learn. I take this as a reflection of more numerous instead of better minds awash in the global flood of information.
- No longer is it possible to build a special website and expect that interested people will come. Affordable promotional strategies that once worked will be lost in the now-immeasurable internet. Traffic is now an expensive matter of competition. Well-funded websites and networks have come to dominate because comparable investments are impossible for small websites—especially those with select audiences, struggling to afford ongoing costs, hardware and software updates.
- Disposable content became typical of an internet culture obsessed with dynamism, obsoleting itself constantly through sheer quantity if not erasure, despite the technical capacity for retention of information. The old style of permanent web site acquired the dismissive label “static.” If civilization requires preservation, note well that net culture in its strangeness dismisses websites from the 2000s as old, and websites from the 1990s as antiques. Current readers expect nothing from “old” articles—from five years ago. Writing a retrospective for a website like Promethea is practically archaeology.
If the accretion of a movement suitable to promote the objectives of Prometheanism, such as Promethean education and eventually founding a Promethean society, could have been possible under these adverse conditions, untimely crises would soon make the efficacy of more core commitment or some alteration in tactics into moot points.
- In September 2001, the cultural environment changed dramatically to one of insecurity and cruelty. The misguided overreaction to one attack would jeopardize far more than an attack could. Untrustworthy, colossal spy and war bureaucracies received blank checks and unchecked powers. Legal excuses were invented to redeem torture, pundits endorsed ethnic cleansing or genocide, and it was common to hear demands that contrary opinions be silenced, or prosecuted for treason.
- Hostility and disinterest towards dissidents and social critics—at worst called public enemies, at best seemingly obsoleted by events—would mar the “war on terror” domestically. The proclamation of fearsome public crises like Terrorism and the “ratchet effect” of state power feeding on the psychology of crisis were nothing new. However, the timing was particularly unfortunate for recruitment by a young movement in need of open-mindedness and willingness to experiment in order to challenge the internal and social status quo. Defensiveness snapped shut the former (relative) openness to alternate ways of thinking. Former citizens of the world, discovering human identity on the global networks, reverted to territorial loyalties, nationalism, chauvinism, parochialism, bigotry, xenophobia.
It was possible at that time to observe familiar grounds for both contentious and productive debate on the internet re-fragment into camps that found meeting on common ground impossible and intolerable. One could watch polarization into oppositions: reactionaries and reactions to them. Dissidents who dug in to fight back also became embittered and consumed. The deepest corruption by politics being the occlusion of other psychology, I could not but think the disillusioned noble souls of the world were not only in danger from the powers they spoke against; more than ever, they were in danger of losing the best of themselves.
- 2003, the year we launched a sister site for the Promethean movement (a “portal” designed to accommodate changes in usage of the web), was unfortunately also the year of the Iraq invasion. Hostility and disinterest toward criticism of the public narratives would continue. We who did speak out then were subsequently proven right, but the inimical environment would not recede for years to come.
- It would first be obscured by a distracting change in public narrative, no less ludicrous and credulously believed, accompanying party-machine politics in the US shifting from red to blue and continuing with business as usual. Mencken’s guffaw has never been disproven.
For a combination of these and perhaps other reasons, the special cosmopolitan culture of the internet of the 1990s and before September 2001, an environment relatively welcoming of alternate ideas, would never quite return. The window of opportunity of having a unique means of access and education, a new printing press for a new literacy, had closed. The infrastructure, as it turned out, was the least of the opportunity.
It seemed to me that when the worst instincts of militancy and paranoia receded a bit, they left behind changed internet subcultures. They seem less often animated by common traits of curiosity and enterprise—and certainly, not so animated by shared optimism. It has been very difficult to say whether exhaustion of the internet’s once-special culture was due more to the great dilution by popularization, that inevitable spreading-out of the “cyberspace” frontier, or to the aggressive psychological environment of crisis that coincided with it.
Regardless, a young generation now uses the internet which retains no memory of relative quality over quantity, as well as no memory of a time in which dystopia seemed a fiction or an avoidable future instead of the unfolding present. Much has become typical that I once believed there was time to avoid and prepare to resist. Reality has outpaced warnings of dystopia to come, putting those with foresight into the awkward position of being right but too late, too few, or too much ignored when we could have made the most difference. Our best chance to wield the new printing press gave way to yellow journalism, rags and magazines, celebrity and lame titillation, noise and nonsense, but also to defensive politicization. Some have observed that in recent years the internet has grown more political, as though this were entirely a positive development akin to “waking up”; I do not agree that it is.
Inimical factors have no doubt contributed to the erosion of attention, support, and momentum that put the Promethean movement into a holding pattern. Attempts to reorganize and reinvigorate the movement have not succeeded. My own attempts to explore parallel, supplementary avenues for outreach and fundraising have not proven successful or sufficient.
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I must also be candid here about the role played by my personal health, since it has interfered significantly with my ability to continue strenuous work habits regardless of my motivation, and sometimes reduced it. I have undergone two phases of health issues that interrupted my work. The first was a stress-related blood pressure problem that built up during the years 2007–2009, not coincidentally a period of burning the candle at both ends. The other was an indeterminate neurological disruption that has not ended.
During May of 2011, after months of near-constant visual work to edit a 150,000 word manuscript, I underwent terrible headaches, nausea, and virtually lost the ability to read. I began to notice extreme and exotic visual symptoms including light sensitivity, palinopsia, visual snow, flashing, and edge-tracing. (These symptoms eventually led me to pursue treatment courses used for persistent migraine aura, after scans ruled out other possible diagnoses.)
With practice, the scary issue of dysfunctional reading partially improved months later, thanks to the plasticity of the human brain to readjust to neurological damage. By autumn of 2011, I had reacquired enough visual focus to slowly and stubbornly struggle through the same editing. My headaches abated gradually over the next year or so.
However, to this day abnormal visual artifacts and sensitivities impair my visual system, which is easily exhausted. My working times must be brief compared to the marathons I once managed. Careful reading or editing is a strain. My vision remains unclear and imprecise due to persistent visual artifacts, like negative afterimages, that overlay my view of the world. I stumble with words far more than I once did, not least because my brain must sort out each line I read from the overlaid shadow-bars of those before it. I am more or less able to write, as long as I limit glare and other sources of undue visual strain, but I must make allowances for my visual cortex having good and bad days and weeks.
As a consequence, I must be more patient with the progress I can make on any project, and more judicious in expending energy. I have less patience to follow cluttered sentences and large paragraphs, or academic meander. I try to focus my limited time to read and write on the projects of greatest worth. I have ceased work on completing many unfinished articles and essays. I tend to consider whether what I write will stand the test of time, or otherwise deserve the investment. My love of words, writing, and intellectual interaction for its own sake has thus been tempered.
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In combination with my personal health and other factors, the aforementioned insufficient financial support and disappointing volunteer support have meant that the Promethean movement cannot fulfill its original intent and ambition. The website presence cannot be updated as it should. The strategy of publishing my writing online to speak for itself and gather support (with limited promotional funds) has also not proven productive enough, after the “snowball” seemingly melted. For years it has no longer made sense to prioritize Promethea, always at my considerable expense in some ways, without a consistent return of attention among those I hope to reach or those I once did. My attempts to draw traffic with other initiatives have not succeeded so far. The sense of speaking to no one—or very few—has been palpable, even with some of my best work.
That is why I have finally decided not to pursue further projects designed to be hosted on Promethea and to suspend formerly planned additions and updates. As of this writing I have no plans to update or maintain Promethea.org further. I have no intention of stubbornness in this decision, and indeed acknowledge it only belatedly and with reluctance, because I feel I must. A return to the web is possible if circumstances seem more favorable, or opportunities can be made so.
I have for some time stopped actively furthering membership in an organized Promethean movement, although I plan to continue mentoring and teaching Prometheanism to some promising individuals who seek me out. I also plan to continue ad hoc collaborations with members of the movement, without formal relationships and responsibilities. This will allow flexible and organic associations in place of stable organization. The latter only confers advantages if the scale of operations extends beyond one person’s ability to oversee them personally.
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It is my task in this letter to relate my decision(s) and describe the ongoing state of affairs. However, I want to assure you that I have no intention of giving up on the larger game, so to speak. I plan to await future opportunities whenever they come, and prepare accordingly. I continue an adaption to longer-term projects with open-ended goals. These are no less ambitious but necessarily less definite. They require more patience, and will quite possibly only see fruition after my own time.
Close entwinement of hope with disappointment is oftentimes the lot of servants of human potential. It is impossible to ensure a result from worthy effort, spoiled to demand it, and irrational to expect it contrary to operative facts. If it is my lot to prepare for some historic opportunity that will only come to a future generation I will never get to meet in a time I will never see, I will try to accept my role to play as cheerfully as Nietzsche once did.
My work developing the philosophy of Prometheanism will not cease. I will continue to explore, create, and consider other possible avenues and media. I can at least ensure that my own creative output represents the cause of rekindling Man and civilization—for that cause deserves clarification and strengthening instead of neglect. I can do my best to ensure that the cause is not lost to all because it has been forgotten by too many. Of course it deserves more than I can ever give; it deserves the best of us.
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Since 2004, my work of writing and publication online has sometimes been slowed or interrupted by financial necessity or overtaxed health. But I have also diverted energy to other writing, including:
- The anthology Rising in Words (available in print), featuring the definitive essay on human progress in idea and reality, “Rising in Walls.” This picked up the theme of Balkanization in detail.
- A book describing a revolutionary model for understanding the human mind and personality.
- A book on the origins of hierarchy in human society based on research into the literature on psychopaths and narcissists, also warning about personal encounters.
- A mini-documentary script about war, anthropology, and commonly misunderstood human nature.
- A satirical literary novel called Pyramid of Babel (manuscript complete), telling an epic story of struggle against dystopia, as both a social and psychological condition.
I pursued these supplemental projects in part to bring my work to a bigger audience or a different audience. Most of them I intended for print publication, either through self-publishing or a publisher capable of marketing support.
The novel I specifically designed for both mass-market print publication of the book as a salable product and artistic or philosophical merits, instead of sacrificing one to the other. For me, it was never an option to subjugate art or ideas to sales, but I had no objection to sales and had great need of a way to make my work self-supportive. A broader reach for Promethean ideas (which I could then better promote) was also part of my thinking, and so I prioritized the novel.
I’m proud of the creative result. I’m proud of the ideas in the book, and that I managed not to drag down the art and craft of writing with mere ideological pedagogy. As for my strategy though, unfortunately I must report the timing has (once again) been inopportune, in this case for a shift from online publication to print. An artist ought not to create based on market research, but I have since deduced that the present is the most unfavorable era in publishing history for new authors to attempt to market substantive works of ideas or literary art. There are realities of the business that readers of books, acquainted with details about a few non-representative authors’ careers, are unable to appreciate. Pardon the digression as I explain what I mean. I believe that the plight of writers trying to create significant literature today deserves to be widely known.
Few with profound ideas in mind and the talent to write them out also grant themselves the experience of laboring for the years they need to perfect a magnificent book—building on preparation that begins long before. Most who do finish an opus discover that their prolonged anticipation of others finally reading and appreciating it was misplaced. For today, they struggle to have their work seen at all by literary agents and publishers, based on some tiny selection they are permitted to send, much less to reach the reading public.
It is difficult to convey such indecisive disappointment. The author is never allowed an entirely crestfallen resolution (unless he settles for some obscure press), but still the book sits, and no one sees it. A blunted book presses down many urges to create again.
A number of factors I will not enumerate here have led to a perfect storm of detritus in the literary world. A record high of manuscripts circulate, primarily of low quality, to which the gatekeepers for an indiscriminate market generally attach little value.
Typical gatekeepers include literary agents, whom authors must now use to reach most publishers. Many have the highfalutin vices of politically-correct university spawn. One can find repugnant talk about literature—reduction of books to demographic jargon, arbitrary specifications, or the “pitch”—in perfect doublethink with professing personal love of special books. An awful lot of agents seem to consider writing dispensable and interchangeable, not to be prized as literature—a marketable art—but fungible like coinage, as though one manuscript swaps with another in its genre.
All in all, in accordance with some corollary of Gresham’s Law for authors, low quality manuscripts in great quantity must drive the much greater investments that authors make in higher quality manuscripts out of the marketplace. Instead of trading unequally with the lowest entertainment, we authors must be tempted to keep high art to ourselves if we even trouble to write it.
Put another way—and I suppose I say so at the risk of sounding bitter, but I do say so—the literary industry or much of it is essentially abdicating from responsibilities to literature as traditionally understood. Too many gatekeepers have assumed they can only sell the miserable and regular supermarket-tomato cross-breeds of genre-fiction lines, the latest sprocket-widget assemblies of familiar tropes. Many seem unprepared to discern quality aside from professional craft inside these little boxes—but even that fails to explain the very bad writing one can easily find on the shelves.
The most obtuse gatekeepers attribute to authors the cachet of great literature because they sell well. They forget how much they select for the expectations of the market, and that the available English literature teaches each literate generation what to expect. Overall, it’s almost inconceivable that a great many of the high-selling singular classics of the twentieth century, irregular, original, strange and beautiful, would ever have made it past them.
Nevertheless, I will continue to pursue publication in print or explore alternate media as makes sense for each specific project. At most, anticipating publication shapes the form of my writing and the choice of projects I feel encouraged to pursue—the lure of readers having nudged me towards online articles once, and later to write a literary novel to be both artistic and marketable. The vector of publication certainly affects who will hear about my writing in order to have the chance to read it. A few success stories aside, it’s still very rare for either small presses or self-publishing without independent funding to match the exposure of major publishing.
That is the influence of publication. Otherwise, I continue quietly writing regardless of reception or appreciation. I think I usually manage without too many sighs and untoward complaints, even if I occasionally feel as remote from others’ notice as a nameless hermit.
I find that after any listless or doubtful fallowing of my creativity, at a primary level of encounter I come back to the writing I would create for myself alone—for my own inspiration, for my own experience, for my own understanding. I trust what comes when I listen closely to inner voices. I trust the process, not only the craft but also the more mysterious impetus from within. I believe in what I make as much as I believe in making it as well as I can. I write to clarify for others and to teach, but I do not write to satisfy anyone else.
It would be a great mistake to start, not only for the sake of what I write, but also for my own sanity and even for my own survival, according to some hierarchy of needs peculiar to the outsider thinker or artist. I depend on the honesty of the work.
My stubbornness in the matter of writing may be considered perverse by the financially-driven or socially-driven population. My writing will continue—must—regardless of publication or the means of publication, regardless of whether an audience awaits to notice or anyone stands ready to pay.
It would be misguided to entirely disregard others, and inaccurate to boast that I am untroubled by the opinions of others. But in the end I have to write not what others applaud or approve, but what seems to me important and most interesting, without too much concern for whether the work will come at my expense or (at best) remuneration will exceed penny wages.
I have nothing against profit and certainly prefer profit if it comes without significant compromise. But it seems to me that attachment to the work instead of the pay is the salient method to discern an artist or creator from an entertainer or employee. Likewise if an intellectual writes for remuneration by his university support structure, he must write what is acceptable to academic venues and cannot be free to think. A philosopher worthy of the name risks alienating others, and thus his own poverty. This lesson I learned first from Socrates.
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While I have had mixed news to communicate, I am more pleased to finally share the following news about what I have been writing in recent years. I have been sketching out and filling out a magnum opus of Promethean philosophy in two volumes. Prometheus Redux is the tentative title.
Obliged for the reasons I have described to step back from the goal of organizing societal proofs of concept, I have turned to another task instead: creating a landmark philosophical and literary work designed for the all-around needs of those who would shoulder human progress, including self-development (as real progress must). Few would imagine it possible to assemble a work this ambitious, either. I hope to inspire intellectuals with proof that philosophy, literature, and humanism worthy of the words are not dead, and show that standards can and must be raised. I hope also to empower individuals in the future with the keys I have managed to devise, or to collect from the great and special individuals who inspired me, and guided me on my own path.
In writing these all-new volumes, I have created a successor to fifteen years of Promethean material—a synthesis of ideas from published work and the considerable amount as-yet unpublished, with ideas new to my readers. I have challenged myself to improve, refine, and go further than previous work, to try to create the definitive expression of Prometheanism thus far. The volumes of Prometheus Redux are named as reimagined editions of my first foundational works, The Promethean Manifesto and Anticonstitution for a Promethean Society, although these titles may change.
Vol. 1, The Promethean Manifesto, and Vol. 2, Anticonstitution for a Promethean Society, have changed since their last editions in 2003. The changes reflect considerable effort to develop Prometheanism since 2003, and a more precise understanding of the most pressing issues for Promethean philosophy to examine in present day. This does not refer to current events, but neglected and poorly-understood fundamentals of life. The new books are intended to provide a foundation of knowledge instrumental to personal transformation and cultural reformation.
In brief, these volumes will not only put forth Prometheanism as a philosophy, but also integrate the broad foundation of knowledge needed by the remarkable individual who wants to make human potential real, personally and in the world around them.
For one of the things I have learned over the past fifteen years is the ineluctable importance of fundamentals, or the realizations that should be fundamental. Pioneering advanced ideas and techniques among those who lack more fundamental ones is not possible. The unfortunate mis-education of our times—to ignore some important things, misunderstand others, and particularly to fight against oneself—remains a terrible and broad obstacle in the way of human progress. Those who have somehow escaped serious mis-education or clawed their way back out of brainwashing are as scarce as hen’s teeth, far fewer than those who believe they have.
I aim to address the problem seriously, almost from the ground up, by supplementing available modern resources for self-education and holistic education (Bildung). This new work will be my answer to the challenge of reorienting any enterprising reader so that change can happen for him or her, despite unlucky mis-education. Of course, my goal is not merely remedial, so I have also labored to refine insights at the cutting edge of self-knowledge and understanding.
- The new Manifesto will encourage a deeper understanding of the philosophy of Prometheanism, explore essential inner experiences and the psychology of individuals, and suggest realistic steps for personal development based on fostering human nature and culture.
- More than an argument for inner development, The Promethean Manifesto will offer a guide to human nature, reconsidered, and a defense of human potential against both its traditional ankle-weights and the fashionable modern abandonment of humanism.
- The Manifesto will propose a new theory tracing the mind of Man out of nature. This model integrates evolutionary insights with cybernetics and complexity sciences to reform outdated philosophy of mind. It draws on personality theory, prehistoric anthropology, mythology, and more. (The case for this model will also be explored and brought to a different audience in a dedicated book for all intelligent readers curious about science or themselves.)
- The new Anticonstitution will expand Prometheanism from the individual outward, into society. The Anticonstitution will describe a Promethean society that best reflects the realities of human nature. The Anticonstitution will expand the Manifesto’s discussion of culture to the networks of exchange essential to material and experiential life.
- In addition to applying Prometheanism to the social realm and making an argument for connected individualism, the Anticonstitution will offer a defense of human civilization in an age of its casual and contemptuous erosion.
- Readers of former editions of the Manifesto and Anticonstitution will also notice developments of style more akin to evocative myth or storytelling, and more conducive to meditation on ideas, as well as retaining the immediacy of a manifesto. This “MMM” style strives to state what most needs to be said elegantly and boldly.
I have not yet decided on how best to circulate Prometheus Redux, and I’m far from an estimate of completion. As well as considering print and web publishing, I have considered recording audio readings of key passages, and other options for dramatization. I will have more concrete details to offer in the future, and I hope to have your support.
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I have always wanted to ride the edge of what might be impossible. Although once it seemed an opportune path, Promethea.org was soon faced with an increasingly unworkable set of challenges to overcome. I would like to offer my profound thanks for the volunteering and sponsorship that have aided the work at Promethea over the years—and to those who will no doubt support future trials and experiments which may succeed or fail. This is how we learn what is really impossible, after all. Anything assured is, of course, barely worth the ambition to do it.
The mentoring I have been able to conduct because of reaching some promising individuals through Promethea stands out in my mind as the greatest testament to the idea, which assumed the global internet could succeed or supplement the peripatetic method of the old philosophers, teachers, rabbis, sensei, without all the walking. Certainly, some of my finest experiences in life have come from teaching interested, intelligent, aspiring individuals who sought me out to discuss Promethean writings.
To all of you: more is possible. Never give up.
Phoenix / Colin Patrick Barth
written in the winter of 2013–2014
I missed the sad news that the prolific writer Colin Wilson died on December 5th. I had heard that he had a stroke last year.
Most of you have never heard of him, but he was a great thinker, and very important to many other great thinkers. He was an imperfect writer, but I think he could not be faulted for lack of important, provocative and intriguing substance—though academic philosophers would no doubt sniff and take exception, as much as critics of literature failed to understand his aims. Wilson himself was conscious that he was practicing philosophy of eternal importance (pointing the way to a “new existentialism” and one might say, a phenomenological spiritual sense), albeit unconventionally by academic standards. He was a great explorer of ideas, especially in writing about literature and the obscured side of life (crime, the occult). My own essay “Rising in Walls” (in the book Rising in Words) owes a debt of inspiration to his method in The Outsider.
A great man has passed, and like most great men, he was too little appreciated in his own time for his life to be celebrated and his passing to be mourned as it should be. I have confidence however that in the passage of time, he will be recognized for meaningful contributions to philosophy and humanism, when those words mean what they should and today’s so-called great men, politicians, popular artists, and VIPs are merely names and historical trivia.
On a personal note, his death considerably diminishes the very short list of my inspirations and influences who are still living, and adds one more man to the much longer list of the cultural ancestors who speak to me.
Can we stop democratizing writing now, please?
National Novel Writing Month, better known as NaNoWriMo (ugh), is coming up. I don’t like to dissuade people from anything designed to encourage the practice of writing. I must. Literally millions of manuscripts circulate in the hands of literary agents and publishers at any one time, far more than they have time to assess. Quantity is killing quality. The idea that hundreds of thousands of people should try to crank out a 50,000 word novel in 30 days is in no way going to teach aspiring writers to write fewer and much better books than the publishing industry now churns out or the unpublished manuscripts they choke on.
Think about how ridiculous it would seem to hold a contest to create fine art in 30 minutes—and not for amateurs and hobbyists, but as a proposed escalator to the profession. Think also about how the standards of any art form are lowered by making an assembly line of the process. I feel compelled to express negativity about NaNoWriMo precisely because I do love the art, the lofty goals and even the difficult craft of creative writing.
I’m one of those few who will probably write books whether or not we have any chance to obtain deserved recognition or financial success; I’ll just finish fewer and you may never see them. However, the sheer quantity of books of indifferent quality is making this an impossible business for most serious writers who deserve a career. They’ll simply stop. Whether they want to communicate world-changing new ideas, captivate you with a strange setting, or tell you a story you’ll never forget, most great writers today will be discouraged by the business and ultimately give up, and you the reader will be the poorer for it.
So think carefully about whether you want to be a writer, and why. What you should ask yourself isn’t “can I write some kind of novel in 30 days?” Instead, you might ask, “Can I work hard to write a novel as carefully as I can? Can I work as slowly as necessary to create an amazing book that no one else could write?” We have plenty of me-too books, and we don’t need any more. Write your only-this book, even if it demands years from you.
[via Open Culture on Facebook] Was amused by responses to an essay by Steven Pinker (“precious and facile as always,” as one put it) called “Science Is Not Your Enemy,” that misses its opportunity for the descriptive subtitle: “Steven Pinker Talks Down to the Humanities” (among which he seems to include “soft,” humanized, or subjective social sciences and psychologies).
“Pinker is a a bildungsphilister and this is one of the most vulgar and foolish essays ever published in a leading magazine. A masterpiece of middlebrow kitsch, nearly all of it is wrong, and in a risible, contemptible way.”
So upon reading it, I must say I too am impressed. Pinker doesn’t just set up a straw man. He has an entire straw debate going on there. It’s remarkable because most of what is correct in it has nothing to do with any real argument that intelligent people would present. But Pinker still has a lecture! Err, that’s nice Pinker—tell us some of the neat things “science” has done (not scientists – monolithic “science”) and *do tell* how it banished superstition (yes, you’ve heard this one before). Why not put on a whole performance of “Inherit the Wind”? We’ll wait.
But then, maybe go look into some things you don’t already know, like what the term “scientism” properly means when intelligent people use it, instead of pretending it has no meaning, a move worthy of Daniel Dennett’s argumentative tactics. My favorite ignorance is found in the paragraph accusing others of being “historically illiterate” while demonstrating his own in the very next sentence.
He makes evident that his grasp of a great many diverse subjects (including those grouped under political science, arts, history, anthropology and economics) is sometimes no more sophisticated than the preliminary biases, cliches, naivete, and prejudices of the average college-level intellect obtained from an undergraduate class or (more likely) casual reading.
Such an unprepared debater has all the moral authority of a man with no pants. Those well-versed in “the humanities” will simply wonder why he blundered in, so to speak, seemingly determined to pick a daftly-collective argument.
Pinker couldn’t have supported Gould’s assertion of two spheres appropriate to humanities and science (reflecting the classic distinction between “is” and “ought”) any better if he’d argued for it, instead of against it. I don’t incidentally draw lines between subjects like academic specialists too often do, but one has to be clear about the differences between describing the way things work, and prescribing what to do about it—as well as differences in preparation, methods and mentalities each properly require.
The fact that public intellectuals no better than this have taken charge of current philosophy of mind (via cognitive science in most cases, although not exclusively—some from traditional philosophy) does inspire me to correct their many deficiencies, though. There are still tremendous opportunities to write great books about human nature, evolution, psychology, the brain and the mind that are not mostly farfetched, beside the point, silly, or parochial in outlook. And it’s the last point that may be the most important strike against these academics’ stabs at writing definitive books to unravel the enigma of Man. Whether it’s Steven Pinker or John Searle or whoever, the most important thing about human beings will always be: “the field I’ve studied” or “the focus of my background.”
I want to note, on the positive side, that Pinker’s stated desire for collaboration and synthesis towards the end of the piece points to a laudable project (one which I wrote about at great length in my essay Rising in Walls), though the way he has written this piece, and comports himself, makes a productive “truce” impossible. And, to parallel Dennett’s distinction between good and bad reductionism, there is good synthesis and there is bad. The examples of cross-fertilization Pinker gives are pretty bad, having for example not enough of the humility before the unknown and uncertain, or appreciation for qualitative subtlety, that the best humanists in science or the humanities will call for. It would be wonderful for scientific techniques and rigorous epistemology to inform more of the subjective theory written about life on Earth, and vice versa. Pinker just doesn’t have a handle on what that would look like, because he is not enough of a generalist, either.
With an essay this bad, it would take more time than I have to unpack everything. Here’s a brief, eviscerating praeteritio that covers points that I did not go through—including, that Pinker obviously ignores and doesn’t consider worthy of mention a number of aspects one would normally consider quite essential to “the humanities.” Some criticisms may be less obvious though, and perhaps it’s worth the exercise of going through them. In the above post, I took for granted that, meeting Pinker halfway, we were going to talk about the humanities as functional—focusing on purposes and purposeful thinking, which is certainly not the only way to look at things. But this is the teleology you have to expect from scientism; it doesn’t have time for a lot of meandering around and reading poetry so to speak but rather wants to talk about what poetry does for the human race. In short, I took some deficiencies for granted, and arrogance—this is Pinker, after all, the man who went up against Stephen Jay Gould on evolution, though to this day, he casually misunderstands (or misrepresents?) the basic Darwinian argument.