Tag Archives: conformity

Excerpt: a chorus of the living, an orchestra of echoes

A brief excerpt taken from Book III of Volume I of The Constellation of Man. These metaphors, like others I use in the book, introduce realism concerning the novelty of our personal appearance on preconstructed stages of history and human culture, atop mind and neuroanatomy, all much older and more extensive than ourselves alone. They remind us of our limited capacity for spontaneous reinvention, how originality relies on legacy, and how much the living unknowingly repeat.

No matter our modern wishfulness for reinvention at will, and the age’s typical convictions that we become New and Different—teenage egocentrism uncorrected by youth advertising, the optimism of self-help, democratic-age political rhetoric like revolution, ignorance of the comparable past and lives of others, New Age spirituality, religious rebirths, et cetera—our mere wishes and naive convictions do not make it so. —CPB


Culture lingers like many echoes after making the first sound. A small innovation propagates in a medium until it dissipates, like a sound wave no longer audible. Across time, people sustain the note by picking it up, far more than they innovate.

Suppose culture were music. We hear its echoes in the air. We might listen intently, but listen in passing a thousandfold. When we make sounds, we add notes in harmony, follow the timing or the rhythm, or pick up the motif, naturally and without discretion.

An echo plays in memory. It plays back from transient personal experience of hearing, changed by its time between the ears but repeated, imitated, echoed. In this way, passed from source to contemporary ears, heard and made a sound again, echoes can persist beyond lifetimes.

We join a chorus of the living. We do not begin to sing a song by ourselves. We learned what we know of melody and harmony since the cradle; we learned to imitate pitch; we sang along with lyrics and verses, wanting to be heard. And if we should learn with great difficulty to step away and sing alone, we sing as soloists and not as though we have never heard the chorus before. It is doubtful whether we can sing our very own song, like the creation of a new music, a new language, or hearing with ears that have never heard the old songs.

There is so little silence to hear. Notes hang in the air long enough to be picked up: cues from the living to the living; cues from the dead to the living.

We play along in orchestras that began their symphonies long before we were born, and did not cease as one composer, conductor, or musician died after another. It might seem, to one who could listen across time, that we are each instruments reproduced to play ancient and antique sounds, not that we are born to compose ourselves. Over time, the dead play out through the living, in an orchestra of echoes.

Musical Alchemy: The Soloist, Alberto Montacchini, 1934

On Ugly Ideas and Intolerance

Ideas are neither benign, nor malignant, out of the context of a specific mentality. They depend entirely on our subjective mental context to affect us. As we respond to ideas in one way or another, as we adopt one idea versus another, the ideas we use to operate in the world alter the chances of a given possibility coming to pass versus almost infinite others. This is how ideas benefit or harm us, which we can only judge by the experience of what we did believe and what did happen. We model the effect — not very accurately — by the metaphor of a polar charge, positive or negative. But ideas themselves are neither.

— Colin Patrick Barth, THE FALL OF THE CULTURE OF MIND

Due to recent events recalling the intolerance of disagreement when it comes to offending and so-called “dangerous” ideas, I want to reproduce here two more excerpts concerned with the ramifications of making this essentialist and moralist philosophical error, which also makes a category error, and an error in logical typing (as the cyberneticist Gregory Bateson might refer to it). Remember always that thinking, at least with what we figuratively term an “open mind,” concerns a process or exercise of improvisation, which leads to many achievable outcomes. It is not some computerized output that given inputs already assure.

The essay I quote from is concerned with becoming capable of the exercise of thought with an open mind, and the social costs of prohibiting “bad ideas” and therefore the exercise of profound disagreement itself.

The nonsense of ideas malicious in themselves, outside the context of a moment in a mind, ignores the multitude of perspectives, the many different lights cast upon circulating ideas by subjective considerations of different and changing individuals. After all in terms of their relationships to people, ideas remain fluid, ever-shifting entities, not constant things. The belief that a given idea is like an atom of evil is not only primitive, it is inconsistent with a free society allowing liberty for individual minds. It shows no faith at all in the principle of free speech, and in the ability of an open mind to separate value from worthlessness. 

If the deniers of a widely accepted theory are wrong, they can and should be proven wrong, again and again, and thereby discredited by the standard of accuracy. If the deniers of a widely accepted ethic seek to overturn it for some dubious motivation, bring all this out into the light, and let them scamper away. To do otherwise is to overestimate their power before any reckoning. It suggests that to do battle with them on the open field of ideas would bring defeat, or perhaps that an open debate would likewise draw unwanted attention to one’s own motives.

If all Holocaust revisionists* are completely wrong and utterly-straightforward bigots, let them make their case, expose them, and devastate them. As with all such cases, we will know more than before. Our refreshed process of thought will lead to other thoughts. And we will avert the danger of censorship, as well as the danger of falsehoods. But, if they are even a few parts in a thousand right (which even a bigot might easily manage), don’t we want their yield added to our truth, as well?

* This is the example already introduced in the essay (because of censorship practiced in Europe), but many other examples of derided ideas could be inserted instead—pulled from contemporary accusations made against wild conspiracy theorists, white nationalists, et al., or anybody inaccurately smeared as such.

The crowd always hates disagreement, strong disagreement most heartily. It does not matter whether the individual who takes exception is a dissident with answers to illuminate humanity in an hour of darkness, or some bigot determined to revise provable facts. 

Of course this is why the founders of intellectual and ideological freedoms — familiar as the slogans and shibboleths of the West and modernity — first protected the disagreeable individual from the crowd. Only a fool asks a mob, or a ruler pandering to the mob to know and do only what is right, and suppress only that which they deem wrong [emphasis added]. This is the wise rationale behind free speech: that only an individual can decide what to like and what to dislike while a mob reacts, and moreover, only an individual child or adult can decide for himself how an idea affects him personally, in his distinct context — as we say, positively or negatively — and nobody else. 

The concept of an open mind freely consuming new ideas is not designed for social groups but individual minds. Only an individual can sift gold from sand. As masses, people seek to conform, to remove difference, and tend towards intolerance. Only an individual can experience and learn the value of internal discord. Social conformity, on the other hand, is the process which counterbalances novelty and differentiation. On a mental level, this produces similarity of thoughts with fewer catalysts in the form of different concepts and contrary information. Left to itself, conformity therefore tends to produce a slow-witted stasis.

The accord of society must be refreshed by the discord prized by open minds. Eventually a closed-minded culture is composed almost entirely of dull, conservative conformists, with many superficial differences that persuade them of their own breadth and tolerance, but a poverty of deep variations in thought. They are bored to tears with their well-worn comfort zone, and manufacture neverending permissible transgressions. Their sclerotic culture struggles to cope with changes their ancestors once weathered merrily. They are frightened by their own lethargy. Dimly recalling debate, they have too much trouble summoning up different points of view to stage a productive argument. Instead they bicker ineptly and tediously about nothing at all fundamental, nothing at all relevant to their predicament [emphasis added].

In their intolerance, those who forget why we need freedom of speech attack the very purpose for which it was created. That freedom of speech might, and does allow objectionable points to be raised in a society of two or two billion is not some price to pay for it, but the soul of the principle. To hear objectionable ideas is the goal! If we no longer value objection, if we do not prize the tutelage of discord more highly than uniform agreement, we are unworthy of this great freedom, and we will surely see the collapse of civilization follow the complacency of its engineers.

Read the whole essay for more development of the meaning of an open mind, and the importance of a culture of debated ideas. I first published The Fall of the Culture of Mind online in 2007, and included it in the print anthology Rising in Words in 2008.

I’m sure I was thinking in part about the intolerance of debate and social criticism I experienced in America that peaked from 2001–2003, which allowed the state’s wars, police state tactics, and surveilling bureaucracies to expand rapidly with few questions asked, persecution of dissidents, and a generosity towards lies and misinformation that fit media narratives.

Recent years again seem no less unhinged, detached from reality, and disinterested in hearing about it from those who know. Now an expatriate, I wonder what the grave consequences will be.

Consider that a generation will lose every worthwhile piece of civilization that they fail to recreate in their own lives, as virtues: showing tolerance, having courage, making peace, suspending judgment, and performing intellectual work, among them.

The “free world” only means the world which has inherited freedom. Those would-be open minds who inherit free thought must perpetually recreate themselves as worthy heirs, and earn their world in order to keep it. An open mind is not a present one can give, but an engine firing that must be maintained.

Excerpt: Soulless Faces and Dread Urges

Here is a Constellation of Man preview taken from recent drafts, just a bit late for Halloween. It illustrates a technique I mentioned in August: developing the subjects I have in mind by intuitive branching from an arresting cluster of imagery, instead of organizing material by topic. Aspects of the human face were the starting point for this part, and a few others. It’s a better way to sort out voluminous material than filling out one abstraction after another, like “human nature.” A compelling journey follows the most memorable lines.
—CPB


To look into human eyes, and see no liveliness, no awareness, or no cleverness there, can unsettle or scare like a nightmare.

So can seeing no recognition, or no empathy. We shiver at a familiar face who suddenly does not act familiarly toward us. We feel as though we have met an impostor or a stranger in their skin, or a perfect copy. Feeling betrayed, we wonder if we have ever known them.

Even provided with a temporary explanation, such as hunger, exhaustion, despair, or catatonia or frenzy induced by an illness or a drug, we get an uncanny feeling from someone we expected to know.

Dread of the soulless, or fear of the automaton following reflexes and instincts, are among the most gripping unconscious fears to have, whether they concern society that surrounds, or reflect a fragile personhood which is contingent—subject to chance and circumstance—or terribly hollow, after all.

What elicits fear in an abject form will suffice to cause anxiety in a moderated form. The same reactions continue to be important and instructive as they commonly occur, not only in rare intensity.

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Dante running from the Three Beasts, illustration for Dante’s Inferno by William Blake, 1824-27.

Consider the great and historic fear of instinct. This is the tension engendered by pretending that men and women, girls and boys are not also animals, whose “ignoble” needs, demands, and urges are not unlike those of other omnivorous, sexual, territorial, social mammals. It is a consequence of maintaining a dichotomy between those instincts and “noble” characteristics unique to humanity, scarcely to imagine that one provisions the other.

The ideologues who severed values for socialized Man from his animal nature no doubt discovered ugliness—the genuine ugliness of stifled, cornered, agitated perversions of instincts, which corrupt refined and civil qualities of mankind. Yet the evidence must have confirmed their culprit, and the moralists redoubled efforts to separate the “spiritual,” human creations and divine experiences, from mortal flesh and base desires that distract.

Those who do not permit primal invigoration make themselves the most vulnerable to frightful instincts. Consider too the ordinary jeopardies of those who do, but insist that sublimations of instinct must shed the bestial, primitive, or irrational character of the source. Perhaps that means they eschew visceral qualities, or disallow sexuality, or emotional honesty, or strangeness. Perhaps they inhibit spontaneity, like an artist who expects to produce inspirations on a schedule.

Even some ferocity might need release in order to move flesh and blood behind the head’s enterprise—or to ever embrace a calling. It is certainly not unusual for acceptable aspirations to be tame, or pursuit of them timid. These are among the old and traditional solutions to that “civilized” ugliness, blamed on vigorous desire.

To refine instincts to the point of thwarting them produces dissatisfactory results, and confounds expectations of pressing them into safe and civilized service, as predictably as forbidding instinct to exist makes it monstrous.

Fear is perpetual among the effete, who are forever chased by denied beasts, and the darkness of a savage past. The modern human looks back, and sees the shadow of an animal behind him, and cannot bear it. Something comes too close. Something bares its teeth. Something creeps along the edges. Escape is hopeless. Wherever Man goes, a creature follows. He is evolutionarily preceded.

Instead the usual man enacts, and he projects. He calls others hostile, possessive, or irrational, and he is afraid of them. He curses the “dark side” of the human race. He has reason to feel anxious in his own company. Some furtive, disallowed compulsion really might catch up, and spoil expectations.

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They Live, written and directed by John Carpenter, 1988.

Consider also the apprehension felt over social conditioning. This is the inherent tension between natural and personal inclinations, and social systems aggregated over the years under various constrictive plans to use individuals.

Social institutions are organized for these designs at the expense of an antithetical vision of how civilization should pass its torch to the next generation: by fostering each person to enable their natural gifts and sustain their expression. Any practicable system is most likely to have to grant some latitude and support, in addition to directing abilities. Few institutions have managed to radically replace and subsume initiative, even briefly. Pragmatic ambitions to utilize a collective depend on cross-purposes: on providing some education worthy of individuals, and indoctrinating them in some mass-produced worldview; on letting them go their own way, and drafting them to serve nominally greater things.

To impose goals, social systems must be intolerant of the diversity present in each new generation of individuals, and antagonistic to realistic inferences of human nature and personal nature, able to raise objections. Any yoke draws attention to itself, but especially by subjugating contrary individuals.

Oppressive means of social control have provoked creative resistance as well as paralysis, including depiction in art, articulation in dystopian fiction (or—in obscured allegories—certain tales of horror), and liberal theories in political philosophy, economics, and other social sciences. More frustration and antipathy has been misdirected to blame or attack every sort of prominent, contemporaneous target.

Even those prepared to conform and not to understand why feel an unconscious unease, at least. Those who are gradually going down in the whirlpool remain too quiet in their desperation. Unable to resist the pull, unable to admit they are losing freedom, spontaneity, and individuality, they are loath even to speak of the threat instead of a more ordinary or narrow complaint, lest anyone think ill of them. They keep smiling, and acting as they should. Unconscious recognition of their plight keeps them twisted up, underneath.

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Happy by Laurie Lipton, 2015

Dread and angst have found their way into lore, set into one story formula after another. Preoccupations in culture would give signs of the times to anyone able to decode, for examples:

  • Medieval revenants (from French revenir, Latin revenire, to come back). They return from death as blood-suffused corpses or ghosts to terrorize the living, usually those they once knew.
  • Masses of these, called mindless zombies. Hungry like starved animals, they want to devour the brains of individuated human beings.
  • Takeovers by automation. First, factory machines threaten jobs. Then robots do, and then computers. Finally, androids threaten to resemble, and artificial intelligences threaten to displace Man.
  • Aliens. Shaped like men, but generic and lacking human sympathies, they abduct the powerless.
  • The apocalypse of callous or thoughtless invaders. Brought about by an alien, robotic, or undead army, the end of the world is not just imagination, but metaphor.

As though the unconscious warns through personal and cultural stories, those who do not live as they could—or have a sense they should—put unconscious fears into metaphors.

Articulated thought may succumb to rationalization, and remain out of touch with the rest of our organism. The greater domains of the unconscious mind beware wretched social regimentation. They know torment by the socialization of instincts managed by suppression rather than acknowledgment. They even take the pulse of automata within—the psychic automatism that contrasts often with avowed decisions and self-image. So it is that:

We are confronted by robots. We are threatened by the rise of machines.

We who fear for our individuality could join the shambling dead.

We who fear for our humanity could become just as pitiless as monsters driven by appetite, or just as devoid of thought as their instinct to kill.

Those come out in nightmares, waking imagery, and stories—unreconciled feelings cast out into the world, like the fears projected onto other things and other people. Recycled into symbols, compounded with other symbols, buried under details added to superstitions and fiction, repeated warnings go unrecognized.

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H.R. Giger built a human skull into the face of the phallic Xenomorph featured in the film Alien.

The psychological significance of horror is readily eclipsed by entertainment when its form of expression becomes a public story told for melodrama and pet scares—the thrills of an apocalypse safely not occurring, a monster safely not under the bed. Many can claim horror as a matter of familiarity without resolving it. Depicted horrors—monstrosities, abominations, dying, gore, and even torture—become unaffecting horrors. Sincere fears remain, unmoved.

Part of the enjoyment of the genre has been comfortable distancing—dissolving empathy with menaced characters who feel fright, agony, or powerlessness. Managing to resist emotion identification with their situations can yield a pleasurable sense of control. Stereotypical or unlikeable characters actually contribute to the appeal of performed horror, because this excuses schadenfreude, and permits the viewer to laugh at them without remorse.

The escapist audience knows they have nothing to fear from any monster shown to them. All the more if they take for granted that the real terror sleeps even closer than under the bed—a monster of exaggerated passions and urges. This is the devil inside who mobilizes darkly-regarded, repressed instincts.

It is not untrue that the faces of anger, arousal, hunger, and defensiveness perch on unsettling thresholds. The threat of the liminal expressions is that we could find ourselves looking into contortions instead of a familiar face. In their ultimacy—rage, lust, ravenousness, and panic—these faces of human nature do not reason, or show mercy. They are single-minded. They do not care about anything else. More than coarse or rough, these turn savage. More than moods, these are like personalities—and not our own, we feel assured. They are disowned people.

Yet each and every human being can transform or be transformed by desperate need, or under duress, or by psychoactive effects including drunkenness, like Jekyll’s potion to bring out Hyde. Upon witnessing this universal susceptibility in their own experience, each human being usually fails to accept it.

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Fredric March in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, directed by Rouben Mamoulian, 1931.

The visceral and primal deserve respect lest they become troublesome or dangerous. That is possible if the teachings of culture permit a sanguine interpretation of natural instincts. But the base and vile can only be cast out and destroyed, instead. No organism could ever do that to intrinsic parts of its nature. Many who have lived have learned from moral teachings to expect the impossible from themselves, and specifically to deprecate and banish the roots of disturbances, and to feel guilty when they fail.

Therefore, they have long told story after story commemorating their unsettlement. It has never been uncommon for figments from these stories to take on suggestible reality, because they allowed confessions, of an evasive sort, that were intensely desired. In much the same way that a criminal or a survivor plagued by guilt might see a ghost they had been told about, a superstitious man, woman, or child suffering from a repressed, now-fearsome “shadow” might become convinced they were stalked by a real monster.

Consider the recurrence of folklore across time and place describing some humanoid form, some dead, some not, ravenous for blood or flesh, and often identified with viscera, including the heart. These were creatures with the sympathies and kindness of a demonic enemy of the living, as though possessed by bestial hunger—the vampire’s bite—and rage, and in some incarnations, lustful and beguiling also, like a succubus or incubus.

Tractat_von_dem_Kauen_und_Schmatzen_der_Todten_in_Gräbern_trimmed

Title page from a 1734 “Treatise on the chewing and smacking of the dead in graves, in which the true makeup of the Hungarian vampyrs and blood-suckers is shown” by Michael Ranft. This references a posthumous (and pre-Freudian) oral fixation: reported cases of corpses continuing to masticate after burial, biting coffin linen or their own arms.

As late as the eighteenth century, officials in Eastern Europe were obliged to formally investigate cases of supposed vampires in order to quell rural panics. In some areas, corpses were staked until the twentieth. Modern-era fiction made this trite, losing its significance. Confront it as a close, physical reality: some unspoken, desperate terror linked to vampires was great enough for mourners of recently passed loved ones to impale their bodies. That is no small fear at all. It is not to be rationalized as hysteria over a superstition that was never real, and must instead find explanation in grave, yet incorporeal matters.

The legend by many names speaks to the fear of losing one’s human qualities to appetites, like the vampire and its victims do, losing personality and losing control.

These stories might remember fears of the uncontrollable hunger of the starving, in particular. What the uncontrollable bite can do even includes cannibalism, during famines. Prosperity elsewhere and since led to forgetting what starving people have seen themselves or others do. (Modern people who can generally eat whenever they want get only the slightest of reminders of what they are capable of from the passing viciousness of hypoglycemia.) Unforgettable transformations for desperate survival are hardly to be reconciled afterward, felt to be worse than death.

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Necronom II by Hans Rüdi Giger, 1976.

They sum up alarm at recognizing primitive nature, for having witnessed it: We could be monsters inside. That is, nothing but a beast, when cornered, or famished, or insatiable. The life-force of blood† and viscera; the sex of rape; the ingestion that devours other life without pause—our nature can be reduced to these by severe circumstances.

But it is still more frightening to contemplate if it could happen capriciously, through temptations, which guilt both anticipates, and follows—and which attempted suppression of desire actually intensifies. One succumbs, obedient and bloodless.

Old vampire stories reflect acute fear of the sexual urges which might lead to transgression of taboos, or moral norms of the community, and even fear of consequences for violating religious dictates. It was said in various traditions that numerous different transgressions (such as sex out of wedlock, or improper burial rituals) could produce a vampire, even before death.

The vampire turns soulless (absent from the mirror, in the modern telling) because it is bestial, and therefore, deemed inhuman. It is also a demon: the vengeance of an unacceptable impulse sent down. Suppressed instinct, moralized, socialized, does not go away, as it is told. Damned nature comes back as perversion and hate—that is all a revenant has left. Having been marked as evil, instinct can manifest in no other way.

The vampire trope also points to an alternate, timeless referent which is not universal human nature, but contributes to its blameworthy image. There is a recurring cultural warning about psychopathic characters who lack empathy for others and enjoy tricking, manipulating, and corrupting them. It is easier to express that warning in stories and accept them as inhuman monsters, than to admit they are living among other people in society, as brother, sister, friend, or lover in bed. Like an evil impostor of a familiar face, they pretend affinity until it does not suit them.

 


† As usual, frequent mutation of storytelling complicates tracing a continual meaning of symbolism. Compare with the considerable positivity of emphasis on ‘eternal life’ through curse/gift of blood in modern versions of the story, surely inspired by the gift of eternal life through blood of Christ. In some treatments the curse of blood does not even place the soul (personality) at risk; it is almost entirely a gift of supernatural powers.

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