Thursday, 26 January 2012

The Transcendent Adventures of Philip K Dick

I've posted Robert Crumb's piece on Philip K Dick as a corrective to what I perceive as a deficit in the extant literature: Many assessments of his work ironically turn out to be the theoretical equivalents of the "kibble" Philip K Dick critiqued. I say this because all too often they seem to simply cherry pick by neglecting to mention the centrality of the religious impulses that drove him. I think it's fine, of course, to give a postmodern reading of PKD, but such an approach would be even more perspicacious if contextualized in relation to postmodern theology; rather than just lazily rehashing Baudrillard's thesis on simulation etc. And afterall, the author in question is on the record as saying:

"In Plato's Timaeus, God does not create the universe, as does the Christian God; He simply finds it one day. It is in a state of total chaos. God sets to work to transform the chaos into order. That idea appeals to me, and I have adapted it to fit my own intellectual needs: What if our universe started out as not quite real, a sort of illusion, as the Hindu religion teaches, and God, out of love and kindness for us, is slowly transmuting it, slowly and secretly, into something real?

We would not be aware of this tranformation, since we were not aware that our world was an illusion in the first place. This technically is a Gnostic idea. Gnosticism is a religion which embraced Jews, Christians, and pagans for several centuries. I have been accused of holding Gnostic ideas. I guess I do. At one time I would have been burned. But some of their ideas intrigue me. One time, when I was researching Gnosticism in the Britannica, I came across mention of a Gnostic codex called The Unreal God and the Aspects of His Nonexistent Universe, an idea which reduced me to helpless laughter. What kind of person would write about something that he knows doesn't exist, and how can something that doesn't exist have aspects? But then I realized that I'd been writing about these matters for over twenty-five years. I guess there is a lot of latitude in what you can say when writing about a topic that does not exist. A friend of mine once published a book called Snakes of Hawaii. A number of libraries wrote him ordering copies. Well, there are no snakes in Hawaii. All the pages of his book were blank".

We should, however, proceed carefully, so as to avoid the mistake of affirmative postmodern readings that tend to blur the crucial distinction between religion and religiosity. As explained in The Transcendent Adventure: Studies of Religion in Science Fiction/Fantasy (and the piece on Doris Lessing's turn to Sufism is worthy of inclusion in the A Mosque Among the Stars anthology I referenced in an earlier post), this distinction hinges upon the following:

"When religion turns into religiosity, insights into the fundamental nature of the cosmos become naive oversimplifications of reality, gods become idols, and teachings become dogmas. In a similar way, human life and its meaning are devalued, and in their place various individuals and objects, rituals and traditions are invested with ultimate value. Likewise, morality is reduced to formality, a legalistic network of obligations and taboos in which the trivial becomes ethical and the ethical becomes trivial.

Historically, religiosity of this sort was rejected by Buddha and Jesus, even though it is still too often found in Buddhism and Christianity, and in other religions as well. It is also rejected by science fiction writers who satirize religion or some aspect of it. This is to say, what these science fiction writers dismiss as unworthy of imitation or belief is not usually religion but its parody--religiosity. Occasionally they even reject religiosity in the name of genuinely religious fundamentalizing, ultimatizing, and moralizing."

Indeed, many scientists have rejected religiosity, and thereby found their faith compatible with scientific enquiry, which have together provided a driving impetus to many exciting fields of science that science fiction has in turn drawn upon--not least space travel and artificial intelligence. If you're sceptical about this claim, I invite you to read David Noble's The Religion of Technology in tandem with Steve Fuller's Humanity 2.0. Unfortunately though, some sci-fi authors, such as William Gibson, appear to be ignorant of this long-standing connection, as shown by their dismissive comments about the religious themes in Dick's work. This is basically an example of the aforementioned cardinal sin of conflating religion and religiosity. Where he and others go wrong then is in failing to realize that science and science fiction have in a sense already lain down together "in the fields of the Lord".

Sunday, 22 January 2012

"...for no outpost of aspiration can flourish in an ecology of entitlement." Freedom Device

A demonstration of the "Freedom Device", a rapid, structural adjustment delivery platform.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Islam and Science Fiction

Consider this a kind of follow-up to the topic of the previous post. I have to acknowledge Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad's path-breaking work on Islam and science fiction. Muhammad has compiled an anthology on the subject, entitled A Mosque Among the Stars:

He also maintains the Islam and Science fiction website. I was particularly impressed by Irfan Rydhan's contribution, "Star Wars: An Islamic Perspective". This is no mean feat, given how so much has been written about Star Wars, with Lucas generally excoriated for his portrayal of the Jedi faith. For example, Slavoj Zizek, as I have previously mentioned on this blog, seems to entertain no doubts that this integral aspect of the film is in keeping with the West's interest in Buddhism. Contra this view, Irfan Rydhan writes:

“The Force” is the common thread between all six movies and is defined as an energy field, which binds all living things together  (i.e. Allah, God, a Supreme Being or Power that most religion’s adherents worship, follow and/or yearn to become a part of).  According to Star Wars mythology, the Jedi “are a noble order of protectors unified by their belief and observance of the Force.”

"George Lucas, the creator of the Star Wars films, has attributed the origins of “The Force” to the film 21-87 (dir. Arthur Lipsett) which used samples from many sources.”One of the audio sources Lipsett sampled for 21-87 [a film that had a great influence on Lucas] was a conversation between artificial intelligence pioneer Warren S. McCulloch and Roman Kroitor , a cinematographer who went on to develop IMAX. In the face of McCulloch’s arguments that living beings are nothing but highly complex machines, Kroitor insists that there is something more: ‘Many people feel that in the contemplation of nature and in communication with other living things, they become aware of some kind of force, or something, behind this apparent mask which we see in front of us, and they call it God.”

The Wikipedia entry on 21-87 also notes how this short not only influenced the aesthetic of THX-1138 and American Graffiti, but is said to have inspired the term "The Force". Furthermore, Princess Leia's cell in Star Wars: Episode 4 (A New Hope) is numbered 21-87.

Intriguing enough to be sure, but I found that Rydhan's article maintains a consistently high standard of credibility throughout, in its jump from these recorded facts about Lucas's original inspiration, to the possible parallels to the tenets of Islam--including, for example, citation of a Sufi website, which includes the following description: "“We are at the core a Movement of Jedi..." Also noteworthy is the sympathetic reading of the "sand people" in the films as "a metaphor of the Arabs and other people of the Middle East."

I am still exploring Islam and Science Fiction, but read in light of my previous post, I believe it would be a mistake to dismiss  it as somehow divorced from "real world" concerns. Indeed, to the contrary, as we increasingly confront the conception of life as an "emerging property", there seems more reason than ever before to turn to science fiction to interrogate its provision of something like a "sociology of anticipation", with respect to these developments. It is certainly difficult to imagine a time when Islam would not play a constitutive, rather than a merely after-the-event role, in this emerging formation. I therefore commend Muhammad Aurangzab Ahmad and his fellow contributors for laying the groundwork for these conversations.

One final thing, if you're interested in watching 21-87, you can do so here.

Astrosociology and the Capacity of Major World Religions to Contextualize the Possibility of Life Beyond Earth

Given the steady advance of astrobiology in the last several decades, from the discovery of  extremophiles here on Earth, the likelihood of water in Mar’s past, to the discovery of hundreds of  exoplanets, the stage is set for a shifting worldview toward life as an emergent property in the universe. Like all great paradigm shifts, the absorption of this new understanding, should the evidence continue to accumulate, will take time, patience, and religious accommodation. As humanity’s quest for meaning, purpose, and place in the universe promises to begin anew, religion has the potential to mediate and broker this important discourse between abstract science and daily existence. People are likely to have very individualized reactions to astrobiology  and the evidence it produces; therefore any analysis of a given religious tradition to be viewed only as a starting point for scientific dissemination and public engagement.

 Based on analysis of the nineteen largest religions in the world, groups of religions can be arranged into the following categories:

1) Strong Anthropocentric Teleology (Conservative Christianity, Conservative Islam, Conservative Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Primal-Indigenous, and African Traditional and Diasporic Religions);  
2) Weak Anthropocentric Teleology (Liberal Christianity, Liberal Islam, Liberal Judaism, and Sikhism);  
3) Weak Teleological Detachment from Humans (Spiritism, Baha’i, Cao Dai, and Tenrikyo);  
4) Strong Teleological Detachment from Humans  (Chinese Traditional Religions, Shinto, Jainism, 
Rastafarianism, Unitarianism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Secular/Non-Religious Traditions).    

 The model presented in this paper posits that the more anthropocentric a religious teleology is (i.e. placing humanity at the core purpose of the universe) the more potential  there will be for religious resistance to astrobiological evidence and the possibility of life beyond Earth. The reasoning behind this analytical framework is that religious detachment of human beings from the ultimate end purpose of the universe will provide more elbow-room when adherents are asked to share the cosmic stage with the possibility of life, past or present, elsewhere in the universe.

While a Western perspective has dominated the literature on religious interaction with astrobiology, what analyses that have been done concerning non-Western world religion lend credence to the theory of correlation between anthropocentric teleology and resistance to astrobiology. In a Workshop Report on the Philosophical, Ethical, and Theological Implications of Astrobiology, Dr. Francisca Cho compared Eastern and Western thought on the topic of astrobiology in a paper entitled, “An Asian Religious Perspective on Exploring the Origin, Extent and Future of Life.” While the paper focused primarily on the (E.M. McAdamis /Physics Procedia 20 (2011) 338–352 351) Buddhist and Daoist perspectives, the methodology of the paper asserted that these perspectives were representative of some central differences between Eastern and Western religious thought, namely how Eastern religious thought on “the nature and creation of the universe often avoids or neutralizes the tensions that characterize science and religion in the West” ([14], p. 208). For example, the existence of the world, and all operation of things in the world, is taken for granted by Indian and Chinese philosophy, and thus are not in need of a creating and intervening god ([14], p. 209).

 Perhaps most germane to this study, Dr. Cho explains that in Eastern thought “heaven represents a conscious and moral agent, though never an anthropomorphic deity or a creator god” ([14], p. 210). For example, in the Buddhist tradition the “world is a monistic, continuous cosmos in which human activity and life is not significantly different from other existing things … [which Dr. Cho found to be in contrast with] the Western privileging of human life, particularly of human reason and intelligence” ([14], p. 210). “According to Cho, Buddhism would ask that we be skeptical of the distinctions we make between sentient and insentient life” ([14], p. 211).    

 In contrast, the body of literature working in the other direction addressing more Western, more anthropocentric religions identifies anthropocentric doctrines and raises concerns over their potential discord with the astrobiological endeavor. Addressing the potential for anthropocentric religious disharmony, Ernan McMullin summarizes the issue as follows: “… such a discovery [of life elsewhere] would challenge the belief that the origin of life on Earth required a miraculous intervention on God’s part. It would do so for two reasons. First, as we have seen, the discovery would strengthen the case for an evolutionary origin of the first life as a consequence of the ordinary processes of nature. Second, those Christians who believe that the first terrestrial life must have had a miraculous origin would be likely to link that life to the economy of earth, to human well-being” ([15], p. 157; see also, [16]).

Thursday, 5 January 2012


In Twitter mode again today; sorry, no time for anything more substantial. I will be monitoring Aubrey de Grey's reaction (s) to these latest findings.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

“The blood thing is the only thing you really have to know to understand capitalism"

The philosopher Christoph Spehr sums it all up, in a film that violates every provision of copyright. On Blood and Wings: A Study in the Dark Side of Cooperation is a contribution to the cutting edge of Marxist theory, clipped from the archives of B-grade vampire flicks. It starts from the classics of 1930s expressionism, then goes on to hilarious 1990s video, dubbed over with Spehr’s cutting-edge ideas on free cooperation. In this film, the Prince of Darkness counsels you.

The first thing is to understand is a monetary compulsion, a senseless momentum. Listen to its logic in the ghostly voice of narrator Tony Conrad, intoned in deep bass against a gory backdrop: 'The blood thing is the only thing you have to know to understand capitalism. The vampire can’t act without the blood. And he doesn’t keep it, he doesn’t feed on it in a way that he would ever be full…. He’s more like a machine that is fueled by blood. And the blood he takes only drives him to search for new blood. Like Marx put it in Capital: B leads to B prime. If you understand this, it will greatly improve your life under capitalism.'

Spehr ranges through the depravity of a civilization and its spectacles, showing how everyone in the developed societies – whether in the academy, the technology sectors or even in activism – comes gradually under the fangs. We are the dash between B and B prime. But the leading edge of a new productive system carries its promise along with its poison, at least when it remains in touch with the past that gives the future meaning. The next thing to understand is what that productive system is good for: 'Technology becomes more and more important in the fight against capitalism: networking, communications, the Internet, new forms of organizing. But the core of the action – the social struggle – is still the basis, and cannot be replaced by any of that.'

The film that began with the Prince of Darkness comes to an end with a sunrise in Mexico, and with a reflection on the way that solidarity acts as a grounding force to control the avant-gardes, who are necessarily infected: 'The ones we expose to highly contaminated areas – like boards, parliaments, any forms of leadership and representation – are always in danger, and they are a danger.' So while the would-be hero from the North goes off to a new struggle, the comrade from the South tells him he will 'pray… pray for the good medicine.' And the lesson of the pharmakon returns, as we hear the ghostly voice repeating 'pray… pray for the good medicine.'

Brian Holmes
"The Absent Rival: Radical Art in a Political Vacuum"