David Bowie’s Blackstar Video-song

Deep, dark happenings are afoot in the new Bowie song, Blackstar. Long term, we’re all doomed. So worry is a contextual prooccupation. Some dead links may lurk here and there. This used to be at gettheebehind.me. I had to pull it off the Wayback Machine where you may find some of the missing links.

baudrelaire

 

By Norman Ball  (November 2015)

Recent developments in cognitive science find common cause with David Bowie’s new short-movie Blackstar where the latter’s solipsism dating back to We Are the Dead (‘I wondered if you saw the things my way’) and Sound and Vision, among others, receives a fresh, dark airing. (Note: As the focus of this ‘ranging essay’ expanded beyond the new Bowie video-song, I went back and hot-linked some of the more obscure Bowie lyric references to assist a non-Bowie audience. It’s also fairly burdened with links for those who wish to tumble down their own pet rabbit holes.)

The eyes, it turns out, are the center of it all. The challenge comes in sorting through the valances, good and ill, that lie behind all that our vision insists we see. This skepticism extends to the Bowie presentation itself. What forces does he herald? How does he come to know what he so clearly knows?

My fondness for the terms herald and heraldic device (the latter from poet Robert Duncan’s Letters XVII), which appear herein frequently, originates with Bowie himself. In fact I recall reading the Cameron Crowe interview as a kid (‘David Bowie: Ground Control to Davy Jones’, Rolling Stone, February 12, 1976) and registering a strangely durable mental note of one passage in particular long before it became a staple of Internet Bible thumpers:

“Rock has always been the devil’s music, you can’t convince me that it isn’t. I honestly believe everything I’ve said—I believe rock and roll is dangerous…I feel that we’re only heralding something even darker than ourselves” (Rolling Stone, February 12, 1976)

I prefaced my essay (circa 2010) on the Jungian-Bowie blog Red Book Red Sail with the second bit, noting at the time how,“‘Herald’ is a startling, non-accidental word. Bowie typically exhibits an eccentric though careful vocabulary…Heraldry always points beyond itself, or is it behind itself?”

It’s precisely the ‘what’s behind what’s in front?’ mystery that spurs my perennial, core interest. Inquiring eyes want to peer around dark corners, especially as so many of rock’s own inner circle are quick to pose Satan’s lair as their inspirational backstop. Occam’s razor is blunter still: what the hell’s going on if not Hell itself? Some serious ‘splaining is in order.

The heraldic question is finding indirect resonance, not to mention a strange bedfellow, in cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman who may be on the cusp of a truly Copernican breakthrough with his Interface Theory of Perception. (See ‘Objects of Consciousness’, Frontiers of Psychology, by Donald D. Hoffman & Chetan Prakash, June 17, 2014; stalwart scientist Hoffman, who frequently rails against metaphysical ‘hand-waving’ would in all likelihood be distressed over the deployment of his theory in this manner. That’s understandable.)

hoffman.png

Noting how the process of vision utilizes billions of neurons and trillions of synapses and commands an astonishing one-third of the brain’s cortex, Hoffman suggests that objects are highly processed, representational icons of a far deeper reality which has been hidden (occulted) from us by evolutionary forces that propel our sensory processing toward more stylized renditions. Translation? Objects are inside our heads.

The truth of the matter is, truth be damned. Consistent with evolutionary processes, vision works very hard at producing fitting icons to ensure our survival. Thus the ‘true’ role of vision is to deceive (overlook?) and filter prodigiously so we might live, procreate and—with the advent of culture and leisure—believe. But in the sense of fashioning our belief systems, how disturbing it is to learn that we can scarcely believe our own eyes and that self-deception is an evolutionary ‘advance’.  (In the Monte Carlo simulations Hoffman performs, evolution kills truth in the laboratory every time.)

Seers die. Breeders lie.

It may also be that artists, wizards and philosophers subvert this reductionism with alternate visions that—in reality—stress enhanced ‘truthiness’ (or conceivably, competing brands of deception) over creaturely survival. What’s most exciting though is how our venerable, metaphysical narratives are gaining fresh scientific credence via mathematical and probabilistic overlays. Of course there are antecedents to Hoffman’s anti-materialist approach, even in science; Max Planck being an exceptionally significant one. 

Analogizing the computer desktop, Hoffman notes that when we drag the blue folder to the trashcan, there is no trashcan nor blue folder lurking behind the screen. The Windows desktop is a highly representational, though quite useful, extended metaphor. The ‘reality behind’ the interface is vastly more complex, consisting of unseen microprocessors and electrical charges that defy most users’ understanding. Indeed the subterranean and surface worlds bear little resemblance to one another. However the iconic display provides a fitting enough interface such that a successful experience on the device is possible. As Hoffman says, though we take the interface reality seriously (deleting the folder would cost us a full week’s work) we do not take it literally. This workspace icon description combines Bowie/Duncan’s heraldic devices and Freud’s and Ernest Beckers’ Vital Lie. (“It is fateful and ironic how the lie we need in order to live dooms us to a life that is never really ours.”—Denial of Death, Ernest Becker). Caveat emptor in all cases. A June 11, 2015 Hoffman TED talk is embedded below: 

https://web.archive.org/web/20170419082608if_/http://www.youtube.com/embed/oYp5XuGYqqY?fs=1&wmode=opaque&rel=0

The cube’s a figment of the eye. Connect the dots. Accept the lie.

 

To expand on a Hoffman’s ‘blue folder’ example…

Bill drops dead right in front of us. Nice guy, that Bill. Such a pity. We dispose of his body in short order, effectively scrubbing his icon from the workspace. While he was alive, it behooved us to sustain a qualified belief that he and his body were one and the same whenever we needed to interface with him. Indeed seeing his head occasionally bob up above the garden hedge, we’d often call out ‘Hey Bill!’ On every occasion he would respond back. Perfectly workable assumption. Until it’s not.

With the retirement of his ‘icon’, we can find ourselves plagued anew with thoughts about the depth and extent of his existence. Many of us realize his body was little more than a heraldic interface for a consciousness (or soul) that lurked behind or within his body. (Assuming you and he are like me, and not simply one of David Chalmer’s zombies; but that’s a whole ‘nother level of solipsistic dread!)

Speaking as a Christian, I took Bill’s body seriously but not literally. He was an embodied soul. When his body reached its expiration date, his soul—which precedes, inhabits and survives the former—departed. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust; so goes the body-icon. (The same cannot be said for atheists, materialists and physicalists who believe Bill has departed in all but our memory of him; for them, Bill is his body.) We cremate Bill’s blue folder and offer some words of remembrance. Suddenly Hoffman’s work, rooted in science, puts skeptics of transcendent existence on the defensive. They are forced to re-address the central question: where did the operative reality behind Bill go? 

 

I think therefore I am the Great I Am
Bring me the Viscous Things and their eyes on a platter. I’m ravenous for competing visions.

Adding to our sense of unease, all things Outside are an inside job. The falling tree produces neither sound nor vision in an empty forest because there’s no such thing as an empty forest, that is, a forest unsummoned by consciousness. Conventional notions of perception favor the existential weight of objects. However the human eye (really the eye-mind tandem) is so much more than a passive photographic device. Instead, it creates our reality interface from virtual whole-cloth, that is, from a remarkably narrow band of visible electromagnetic and light waves. (One can only wonder from what horror of rooms and malign Principalities it spares us.) Our aural perception is similarly truncated. Reality is an imaginative construct. Or as cognitive scientist Gregory Hickok puts it: “Our perception is nothing more than a useful fiction.”

Hoffman, a radical monist, debunks the object permanence myth—internalized by most human babies by nine months—that objective reality has an existence independent of our perception. On the contrary, says Hoffman, objects are introduced into existence only when various photons are cast, upside-down, on the backs of our retinas. This assertion is very close to 18th century Christian philosopher Bishop Berkeley’s esse est percipi (aut percipere) [to be is to be perceived (or to perceive)]. In essence, the room is there only to the extent there are photons striking the eye and allowing its creation in the brain. No less a seer than Einstein struggled with this bedeviling optical delusion wrapped in quantum paradox, oddly enough reporting his misgivings to colleague Abraham Pais by way of the moon: 

“We often discussed his notions on objective reality. I recall that on one walk Einstein suddenly stopped, turned to me and asked whether I really believed that the moon exists only when I look at it” (Pais, 1979). Einstein was troubled by interpretations of quantum theory that entail that the moon does not exist when unperceived.” –from Pais A. (1979), Einstein and the Quantum Theory

As for that fabled lump of meat between our ears, the brain is as much an object-myth as are the trees and vases that purportedly stand before us. Hoffman’s theory makes short work of the mind-brain dichotomy. The brain doesn’t exist. Nor do our eyes, though both are somehow implicated in ways as yet unimagined to that ultimate inward-out mystery, consciousness. The implications are clear should Hoffman’s theory prevail. Physicalism should be seeking a sublet with the Flat Earth Society. ‘Hard-eyed’ realists have it all wrong. Flesh, blood and front-men are the true figments. How could I not help but look at you and wonder if you saw things my way? 

Nor can much solace be found gazing into the reality-factories of others. Shepherds of the spirit realm, eyes are the visibly haunted portals of the commandeered souls we pass every day on the street. (I’m reminded of the Jesuit exorcist, novelist and ‘trained eye’ Fr. Malachy Martin who once commented on the number of haunted, demon-occluded eyes he encountered just strolling the streets of New York City.) If reality is an iconography produced mostly by imaginative energies and if some manage better than others to impose their imaginative visions on the collective conscious, then it pays to understand the affiliations of the inspirational source, back, front and center. 

In his book Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought, Martin Jay suggests that the dilating pupil, “can unintentionally betray an inner state, subtly conveying interest or aversion to the beholder”. Kevin J. Hunt (from the essay cited in the picture above) adds a Bowie spin to this ambivalence:

“Part of the uncanniness transmitted by Bowie’s eyes is due to the simultaneously mixed messages they appear to impart: dilation of one pupil potentially signifies attraction, whilst contraction of the other more likely shows recoil of interest.” 

Listen to me, don’t listen to me? Ocular ambiguity could be the ultimate silent gun. So, keep a hand on your heart and keep your eyes peeled, boys and girls. This is no less important for those who’ve relied for decades on a left-handed anisocoric rock god from Brixton as their go-to reality arbiter. For all we know, his mind could be in thrall to Descarte’s evil demon. He is on record as seeing things turned around and upside-down. The amount of light an eye shuttles to the brain quite possibly has a bearing on the fabric of reality itself.

Might our eyes be betwixt hoverers, neither fully out there nor firmly affixed organs in our heads? Adding to the mid-distance fog, Freud avails the strange ‘disembodied eye parable’ of E.T.A. Hoffman’s 1816 story The Sandman to propel his 1919 essay ‘The Uncanny’ (or Das Unheimliche which Freud’s etymological study discovered, interestingly enough, equates to the demonic in Hebrew and Arabic). The uncanny occurs when the familiar is stopped in its tracks, acquiring a disconcerting unfamiliarity as when the eyes he sees us with do not match the eyes we see him with.

Bowie’s mismatched eyes solidify and prolong the hovering effect that forms the very basis of uncanniness. A stubborn blind spot forever haunts our locked gaze. While this alienating effect creates a rather plausible alien, Lis Møller in her book The Freudian Reading: Analytical and Fictional Constructions notes even Freud’s failure to collapse the distance:

“The Sandman is an enigma Freud sets out to solve, but that which is enigmatic appears to be inextricably bound up with those aspects of the story that are set off by this reading—those aspects for which his archaeological reconstruction cannot account. The enigma lies ‘in between’ as it were…The focus is the figure of the ‘eye’ in Hoffman’s story—the eye that constitutes the point of departure of the psychoanalytic interpretation, but which at the same time confronts us with that which this interpretation ignores or excludes.”

Clearly, the eyes have it in spades. Yet, an unresolvable infinity can hover between two pairs of eyes intent on regarding one another, (not unlike the mise en abyme of two mirrors). This is no less true for an odd-sock(et) set.

Idolatry is the elevating of one object over another when the truth is no objects possess any transcendant power since no objects exist. Careful then what might be gained or lost when exchanging a gazely stare across the idolatrous abyss. (Nietzsche: “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster…for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.”If you can see him, he can see you. But does this shared field of vision offer a fair fight? This is after all the man who sold the world. Sold it on what, one has to wonder. 

Having fairly kicked the eye in the head, this inquiry now moves out beyond our muddled noggins to the myriad unperceivable entities that lurk Outside our consciousness: interdimensional trespassers, extraterrestrial interlopers, fallen angels, spirit-world tricksters, ex-girlfriends and their complicit heralds that seem to share an awareness of the contours and limitations of our sensory faculties, and vie in the middle-realm for the deflection and theft of our love (John 10:10: The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.)

Put another way, there are active and formal occultists, in league with nonhuman entities, who together exploit the naturally occluded faculties of humankind. 

One elemental background figure, far darker than ourselves, who has competed since the beginning of time to manipulate and control our realities is the Great Deceiver, or the Devil of yore. The yore part is apt, great artists assure us, because—via pen, paint and song—they have succeeded in ‘de-literalizing’ him into nonexistence such that, today, he barely hangs on in the backwatered province of pastiche and heavy metal send-up. Others are not so sure.

Recent tragic events in The City of (En)Light(enment)’s le Bataclan nightclub prompt a re-familiarization with Charles Baudelaire in a hurry, in particular his 1864 prose-poetry collection, Paris Spleen, where we find Lucifer in a loquacious mood. I had already been pondering that devil of late, thinking in fact he had never lost control. In fact so much couldn’t have happened had his intimate proximity not been so effectively veiled behind heraldic devices. This is the Prestige Act of the modern era. How did the Devil manage to vanish ‘right before our eyes’ while converging ever more closely on our souls, “transforming from a symbol of evil in a Manichean universe to an articulate arbiter” of wealth and taste (from Satanic Indifference and Ultimate Reality’, by Brian J. Reis, LUX: A Journal of Transdisciplinary Writing and Research, Claremont Graduate University, 2013)?

The culture crowd applauds genius with indiscriminate abandon, never asking which Principality of the Air underwrites the uncanny effort. As we’ve seen, even science has cast a fresh eye on immaterial realities and spooky actions at a near-distance. This unconcern is a fascinating phenomenon in and of itself, especially as our real struggles arise from all we cannot see. Yet, in true Eyes Wide Shut fashion (the latter itself being a potpourri of hidden meanings), culture aficionados seem content to busy themselves in the intellectual and aesthetic folds of Satan’s robes, ignoring the implications of the occupant within. How did this invisibility cloak come to be?

demon He flung to earth

For the purpose of this discussion, Satan’s coy evolution into the midst of our indifference warrants a brief recounting. Seizing the baton from a stubbornly Catholic Dante, Milton proceeded to make Satan more interesting than God. The Romantics, via Shelley and Byron, elevated him in order to balance the Manichean scales of good and evil and obtain for God a proper adversary. Twain takes it further, imbuing him with a compartment of truth. Lovecraft shifts the onus to the universe at-large which he describes as being so supremely indifferent and oblivious to Man’s presence that all anthropocentric notions of good and evil are destined to burn out, unnoticed. Human affiliations, godly or demonic, thus extinguish themselves in the fullness of time. 

By the late nineteenth century, Satan is eager to escape superstition and move onto the Enlightenment and some really cool science experiments. Through his lieutenant Abraxas (the demon of ‘magic’ in the Arthur C. Clarke sense of any advanced technology being, “indistinguishable from magic.”), Satan has science covered—and my how he has us marching to its drum at an inhuman clip! Few grasp that the driving imperative behind transhumanity is nothing less than the Babelian bid for immortality. The prospect of cosmic immunity is a tantalizing one for those whose sin-driven lives make death all the more dreaded. At the deepest unexpressed murmurings of their souls, the damned fear Judgment Day like no others. What though if death could be forestalled forever? Lazarus interrupted.

By the time we reach the Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil, Satan is fully acculturated (and I’ll swear on a stack of Blackstar Bibles Jagger and Baudelaire entertain the same Luciferean permutation). However to imply that a succession of artists are the autonomous ‘re-imaginers’ of Satan gets things turned the wrong way round. Satan doesn’t require our imaginations for his existence. What he seeks is a cultural and artistic sensibility consistent with his eschatological designs for a given human era. Propitious artists are guided accordingly. In short, he’s cool with ceding authorship, anointing front-men and ‘inspiring pens’ (automatism much, Mr. Burroughs?)

Drive like a demon. Satan has human history to conduct and needs to reach a prearranged place at a designated time. The Man won’t wait. The End Times must crescendo aptly into the Antichrist or else the whole show gets dinged for bad choreography. Yes, everything has already happened and the battle is already won. We’re in the paradoxical realm of free will and determinism. For reasons known only to God, we tread a preordained path fully endowed with the choice to venture good or evil.

Thus Baudelaire’s Satan is already signaling his boredom with cultural pedagogues (he can sniff rock ‘n roll just around the corner). With Christianity largely subdued on the continent and the artist fully permissioned as spiritual arbiter, the Devil’s preoccupations will lie elsewhere in the century ahead (my bold-face):

“He complained in no way of the evil reputation under which he lived, indeed, all over the world, and he assured me that he himself was of all living beings the most interested in the destruction of superstition…my strange host declared to me that he didn’t disdain, in many cases, to inspire the pens, the words, and the consciences of pedagogues, and that he almost always assisted in person, in spite of being invisible, at all the scientific meetings.” —Charles Baudelaire, The Generous Gambler

Today, our worst superstitions have been vanquished, seemingly tamed and commodified onto black polyester T-shirts emblazoned with Morbid AngelBlack Sabbath, etc. to which no one raises an eyebrow (never mind a batted eye) anymore.

Consider for example a front-man in 2015 called The Devil exorting a demonic invocation (Song? The Eagles of Death Metal’s Kiss the Devil has no discernible hook, chorus or verses) only to have his ‘prayers’ answered in the form of unmitigated evil bearing not-so-silent guns—yet none save the usual shrill chorus of evangelicals thinks to offer comment. One need only sample the vehement scorn visited upon those on Youtube and discussion boards who dare suggest what Eagles front-man Jesse Hughes stated unequivocally on prior occasions. Eyes wide shut.  

In a way (and as regrettable as it may be to Hughes now) this unabashed literalness is the most comprehensible part of what otherwise is an epic, foretold clash of Principalities on par with 911 (an event pregnant with its own foreshadowings). Were we to re-literalize the Devil (in effect reconstruct superstition) the ‘rationale’ (albeit couched in supernaturalness) would become immediately self-evident. The Devil was summoned. The Devil arrived. Yet there are powerful societal forces that resist this rendition. Why?

Fellow Jungian intronaut and visual artist Tanja Stark’s insights pervade this essay, particularly her indispensable synchronistic linking of the Eagles of Death Metal band with Blackstar. Her recent blog essay Eagles in my Daydreams, Diamonds in my Eyes is very much a companion piece to this that I can’t recommend enough. The title of course is taken from a line from Blackstar and directly implicates the song in some pre-cognitional business, entangling the Eagles of Death Metal and the Deftones in a tightly-wound script. Beware deaf fools, the tones you cannot hear. I urge you to read Stark’s compelling breadcrumb trail to fully absorb her thesis.

Stark and I have chatted around this territory since the 2012 inaugural of my Jungian-Bowie blog, Red Book Red Sail (which consists mostly of 2009 writings; even earlier, formative ramblings, circa 1999-2000, are cited in Peter R-Koenig’s The Laughing Gnostic— David Bowie and the Occult and elsewhere; herehere and here are some recent ones). 

aim for the Apple, Bill

A brief comment is warranted here on Jungian synchronicity or, better, acausality. Precognition is not as counterintuitive as one might at first think. Remarked Einstein: “People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” Space-time possesses physical properties. There are vantage-points in the universe where the totality of human history is observable. God exists outside time (what Spinoza called sub species aeternitatis), and often shares through prophecy what linear time prevents us from seeing. The 1976 ‘Station to Station’ locomotive with the warning horn is the last thing Brother Terry hears as he lays his head on the tracks in 1985. How could it be otherwise? Traumatic events reverberate—overflow in all directions—beyond the chaste tracks of time’s stations. Everything’s already happened. This makes our lives seem no less eventful.

Others express skeptical amazement at how fine-tuned these entanglements can often be. There are precedents supporting this tight-woundness. For anyone who has spoken with bona fide Torah scholars (spare us the the Youtube jockeys please), every moment of history—your life, my life—is embedded in the Torah. The whole of human existence is a unitary exhalation of God. For the cleverest angel, the backwardation of human language in such a manner as to create twofold meaning could very well amount to a walk in the park. This is a speculation, not an affirmation of the backmasking claims.

How fascinating though that the human herald always feels obliged to divest authorship. When automatism vanguard William Burroughs describes Naked Lunch as the “horribly wrong” product of a “hostile entity”, we can well imagine a competing, antithetical force (some cosmic Blackstar scribe) insisting that its own counter-text receive equal airing. Similarly, when John Razimus claims to find unsavory messages (including the one heading this section) within Blackstar when it’s played backwards (that they are alleged to be in French would please Baudelaire immensely!), we want to laugh outright except, in all seriousness, we can’t.

But back to beating the devil…

As attested to by the post-Enlightenment blindness (Brian Reis calls it ‘satanic indifference‘) that today’s culture swims around in, Baudelaire’s Devil has indeed succeeded in destroying superstition precisely as he had hoped in his 1844 recounting to the star-struck man of the cloth. He is everywhere. No one can see him. His symbols have been expropriated as a carnival act. And yet, despite being the object of derisive parody and dead superstition, the Devil becomes, oddly enough, more potent, certainly more proximate, to the unobserved moments in our lives. (“I—of whom one says so much evil—am often enough bon diable, to make use of one of your vulgar locutions.”—The Generous Gambler) The kids stab the air with horned fists. It’s a great night out. Yet the soul never sleeps. Our best attempts at mindless leisure are always attended by a restless menagerie of competing Principalities:

“The soul is so invisible a thing, often useless and sometimes so troublesome, that I did not experience, as to this loss, more than that kind of emotion I might have, had I lost my visiting card in the street.”—The Generous Gambler

Culture warriors can wield allegorical and metaphorical alibis all they like. The Eagles of Death Metal’s Hughes, a professed (though can we say deeply conflicted) Christian begs to differ. Here he is clarifying any confusion, pre-Bataclan of course:

“I’m sorry, but I’m going to take full fucking credit right now for fucking the destruction of everything good, OK? Because it’s true,” he says. “Everything that the Bible thumpers said about Elvis is fucking true. It destroyed everything: Intimacy, the ability for people to be married — society at large is gone.”—from ‘The Devil and Jesse Hughes’, Grantland, October 2015

Hughes never fails to give everything up. I suggested much the same here in 2009:

“There is a tendency to write it all off to the lurid imaginations of bored teenagers i.e. KISS is no more than a 3D Marvel comic book. So leave the kids alone as, mostly, they’ll be alright… Atala, situated in the hips, is the lower chakra of fear and lust, source of Elvis’ pelvic gyrations…However Satan’s masterstroke, in the heavy metal genre, is his reliance upon disarming honesty…There is no subtlety or subterfuge in Megadeth announcing, “I am the devil’s advocate, a salesman if you will…Come join me in my infernal depths…”—from Headlong Plunges Down Mineless Shafts, Red Book Red Sail blog

Video

My guess? Hughes is a lapsed bi-polar Southern Pentecostal waist-high in porn stars and good drugs with the hope of circling back to Calvary someday (a surprisingly common aspiration). He’s a woefully transparent heraldic device, a practicing Satanic Christian if such a denomination exists who insists in more than one interview that a hotter place in Hell is his certain lot. Whereas Bowie, with his decades in the craft, is in all likelihood a full-on conscious agent, a Faust of the first-order. He knows exactly what he’s doing and who he works for. Faust was a brilliant man who inspired envy and awe. Yet look how things turned out for him. The mortal coil is a deception-riddled realm where the intellect and the soul need never break bread together. Our culture has jettisoned moral consideration. Talent and ability are the sole heralds under which it now sails. Was morality just one more superstition?

Red Book Red Sail blog collage (Aug 2012) gun – concert – minotaur – labyrinth

Guns. Guns. Guns. They came to me in spades during my Red Book Red Sail project and for reasons, at the time, unknown as attested to by the blog banner assembled in late 2012 (below). Then this blog entry in May 2103 after TND’s release, On the Horns of a Hypostatic Dilemma: Guitar, Axe, Gun. What is recourse to a gun but the impetuous dispatching of an icon? Consciousness cannot be grazed by bullets. It simply reemerges elsewhere behind another form. There are not enough guns in the universe to halt the perpetual reemergence of all that must come forth. 

The supernatural is the sandbox of the Supermen in our midst. Yet if we’ve learned anything watching the Straussian nation-destroyers of late—pointing Takfirist against Shia against Wahhabist—all that lies beyond good and evil is insufferable hubris followed by further boatloads of evil (The Bible knew this: ‘evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving, and being deceived.’ 2 Timothy, 3:13). What we’re living through are the effects of sustained deception. Our Noble Liars have lost the place. The Internet makes quick work of their duplicity. False narratives crumble, under cyber-scrutiny, within hours if not minutes. The more evil normalizes within our culture, the more culture becomes parched for normalcy. Lacking a proper foothold, natural processes find themselves increasingly eclipsed. The Lord of Deception is living up to his name and well he should. These are his crowning hours.

Most revealingly, Bowie shows no signs of dismantling his Tower to the Sky. After a ten-year hiatus, his construction process renewed in earnest with 2013’s The Next Day. He’s not retiring. He’s deifying. Doubling down. As Peter-R Koenig posited years ago, “What next, godhead?” Indeed. What’s left?

Where The Next Day wanted to go, had it not settled back into the comfortable shoes of collaborators-past, was ‘If You Can Hear Me’ and the oblique confession of ‘Heat’. Blackstar follows through, erasing all ambiguity. We’re past agnostic torn-between-ness. All seers must choose. Bowie’s on the Dark Team. His Father runs the Black Iron Prison on the hill behind the village.

As we’ve noted, the best seers (the cleverest ones out there) may be consciously manipulated liars or oblivious heraldic devices. Popular culture—cleverly portrayed in the most banal terms as blow-off time sandwiched between work and sleep—is where today’s happnin’ preachers hang out. Larkin’s churches are crumbling relics. Leisure (or as Lucifer describes it to Baudelaire the ‘bizarre affection of ennui’) is the devil’s plaything, certainly the silly space where he does his most furtive and productive work. Most people are on look-out for swiveling Linda Blair heads and cinematic spews of guacamole-vomit. Now that’s evil (‘cause Wes Craven told them so). However, Hannah Arendt assured us the most effective forms of evil are officious, silent and banal. C.S. Lewis: “Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual onethe gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” What would these chaste folks have made of a Slayer concert?

“it’s the uncanny feeling that the band are creating something that’s not entirely down to their own consciousness…” —Alex Needham on Station to Station

Laying aside for a moment all that cannot be laid aside, Blackstar is Bowie’s most imposing piece of work, certainly in terms of spiritual portent, since he flashed no color at an earlier station circa 1976. Here I am again says the Great I am, as tall in my room as ever. The title misdirects somewhat as what we see depicted is not so much a star as a sun occluded by an ‘affronting’ moon (though perhaps not our own). The solar eclipse heralds an imposed narrative, a false prophet, crept in from the side and usurping the Source of All Light. Those who expropriate the tools of reality production succeed in imposing their imaginative constructs on others. This is a usurpation that informs the false idolatries of fascism and fa-fashion.

As though fashioned for the express purpose of hiding the sun, our moon is sized and distanced for optimal occlusion—oroccultation (when one object passes between an observer and another object, completely hiding the latter.) For all our burgeoning knowledge about the backend of the universe, no one really knows what the moon is or from whence it came. Jewish mystics insist it (and the sun) exist solely to convey signs from God—a notion not unsympathetic to Hoffman’s consciousness-driven universe. Alternate theories abound.

In Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self, Carl Jung notes the alchemical tradition’s view of Saturn as the ‘star of the sun’ or ‘black star’. In a Great Conjunction event (occurring every twenty years), Saturn crosses Jupiter. Maleficence occults beneficence. In Under the Sign of Saturn, Susan Sontag describes the saturnine personality as displaying (my bold-face), “dissimulation, secretiveness…masked by…the most scrupulous manipulation.” Saturn (Satan) was considered by medieval astrologers to be the abode of the Devil. But that’s a whole other rabbit-hole and rabbit-hole-jumping (the tireless quest for cultural referents) encourages the ‘ennui’ of delay, keeping us from that most crucial rendezvouses—with God.

Speaking to the ‘iconicity of the text’ and noting how, “idolatry is connected symbolically to the demonic other side”, Judaic Studies scholar Elliot Wolfson in his book Poetic Thinking translates a passage from the Tiqqunei Zohar thusly (my bold-face):

“The place of the Shekhinah is in the west, which is the back (ahor), but this is also the region of the other gods (Elohim aherin), the demonic potencies led by Samael. The latter is identified as Saturn, a planet that is frequently depicted in malevolent terms, the astrological maleficus. The letters of the Hebrew name for this planet, shabbetai, can be translated into the expression ayyeh Shabbat, “where is Sabbath?” This play on words denotes that the demonic force of Saturn is the antithesis of the holy force of Sabbath.”

Life is not a random daisy-chain of this bumping into that. Keeping in mind the Torah example, human history is an eschatology planned down to the hairs on our heads. We don’t careen into the present moment. We reach it because we had to and because we elected to. Time’s arrow (a stubborn illusion) is far less important than the force animating each iconic gesture. Language is a heraldic device for two competing first-order Principalities, Good and Evil. Between these poles, the curious mystery of human free will contends.

First they steal your moon in order to occult your sun. After that, trust is easily ushered through the strangest doors. Bowie could probably teach us a lot about the alt-God deification process. Though he may not know why (and I suspect he does), he seems to knows how. All that can be said is that, one day a leper messiah emerged from the beer-light to guide us. No one asked to see a passport, an astonishing lapse when you consider all that was at stake. And yet, the most important things are wagered away daily on the palest excuses. It only looks like a game. The gambler wagers sin in the guise of harmless pastime. The highest stakes shadow every played hand.

My conviction has only grown that, with Bowie, we’re being bathed in some dead serious moonlight. Our favorite heralder, by now completely shorn of pop music industry obligations, seems to be asserting his significance with unabashed vigor. Nowadays, pictures of The Man are released with such parsimonious self-veneration, the Vatican gift shop could take a lesson in mythos-building. If video killed the radio star, Twitter celebritized the bathroom break. Bucking the trend, Bowie holds himself in reserve like precious urine. Hyper-veneration ensues. Video director Johan Renck gets teary-eyed upon receiving The Call to Collaborate. Momus has a tribute cover out before the ink dries on the master’s voice. In the theophany business, less is always more. Bowie quite possibly learned this from the same source that instructed him never to smile on album covers.

There’s no point rehashing my The Man Who Sold the World thesis here (as it’s tirelessly hashed out on the blog), but it describes a variant of the preternatural stare shared between the Gambler and the minister. Such are the encounters that define a fate and activate a herald. 

Hermaphroditic estrangement: “I harbor Jesus in one half of my heart and Muhammad in the other.” —Khalil Gibran

Bowie has toyed with the clash of civilizations since ‘Loving the Alien’. And indeed, the Islamic shadow-form has been building for some time, (ever since Zbigniew Brzezinski activated the jihad archetype in 1979 as a means to overextending the Soviet Empire with ‘their own Vietnam’). ISIS is everybody’s shadow, a Rorschach with a universalized imprimatur. Who didn’t play a hand in its emergence, either directly or indirectly? Like Goethe’ssorceror’s apprentice, our weaponized nihilism has proven itself an autonomous and unwieldy broomstick. ISIS has gone viral and now looms as a global epidemic.

Writing for The Western Muslim in 2008, I attempted to translate for a western mindset the rigid core lurking at the heart of neo-liberalism that lay begging for its own shadowy recoil. Less cryptic observers often express this as the ‘liberal paradox’:

“Many liberals (in the classical sense) are contemptuous of all orthodoxies, even as they fail to see their own. In this absolute adherence to relativity, they share a feature common to all fundamentalists—intolerance– cloaked albeit, and with devilish paradox, in the mantra of tolerance. Certainly they are intolerant of anyone seeking to impede their own forays into another’s sacred terrain. The liberal permissions himself and brooks no sanctions on his inquiries. This has been called (most notably by Wendy Steiner in her book ‘The Scandal of Pleasure’) the liberal paradox.”

Oddly enough, In Viral Synchronicity: Avatar and Seal (Oct 2014), I cite Bowie’s ‘Loving the Alien’, something I practically never do in non-Bowie writing. But the mirrors were everywhere as were the mirror-blind. Clearly, we were being asked to look at ourselves, at our explicit culpability in the emergence of the twin nihilistic viruses, Ebola (escapee from a CIA lab?) and ISIS. Now it’s clear ISIS is as much a creature of western intelligence agencies as it is a spontaneous and organic off-shoot of Saudi Wahhabism. Syrian jihadism is also a flashpoint for the simultaneous reigniting of Neo-Ottoman, Pan-Arab, Greater Israel and Persian aspirations. Poe’s ‘Red Death’ helped to differentiate the two strains of deadly virus, the biologic and the ideological: “Ebola is the Avatar. Isis is the Seal.” Both are as contagious, and unstoppable, as evil itself. German journalist Jürgen Todenhöfespeaks of meeting ostensibly ‘assimilated’ first-generation European kids of Islamic heritage from top-flite western schools who walked away from bright ‘modern’ futures to take up medieval barbarism in Syria and Iraq. Rule Britannia is being roundly rejected. The shadow is asserting.

But we drift a bit from Bowie whose own excursions tend to wander. Having a Muslim spouse (by birth at least) and a biracial daughter, he is bound to reflect these global tremors in his art. And he does. Those who listen aloud pick it up. In August 2014, Stark posted Christians and the Unbelievers Hanging by the Cross and Nail with the ‘Loving the Alien’ video in sad recognition of ISIS’ practice of crucifixion of the Zoroastrian Yazidi sect. Here’s Stark again from “Confronting Bowie’s Mysterious Corpses” in the Bloomsbury book Strange Fascinations:

“Bowie’s linking of violence, spiritual belief and death, and the lack of contemporary, culturally resonant frameworks to meaningfully process these powerful energies explored on Outside is intriguing, particularly when considering why people are attracted to violent expressions of belief, such as “Islamic State”.

This recalls for me my 2011 cover recording of The Width of a Circle’, a song Tanja Stark identifies as being in righteous brotherhood with the Eagles’ ‘Who Will Kiss the Devil’. Curiously, the cover begins with an Islamicized version of Warszawa‘s phoneticized chants, almost like a Muslim Call to Prayer. The blackbird evinces the Nietzsche of Ecce Homo. Even more, the bird harbingers the doomed equanimity between Christianity and Islam, a sensibility that Kahlil Gibran internalized all of his life. The video itself is immersed in black stars and pentagrams. I make no claims and seek to convince no one, but merely offer these strange occurrences for the reader’s review.

Who will kiss the devil’s swollen tongue (video)?

Though not directly referenced in Blackstar, ISIS is the ill wind blowing ominously off-stage across the Catcher’s rye field. There are three distinct Principalities at work here—faltering Christianity, Lucifer’s Modernity (the heathen lie) and Radicalized Islam—two explicit, one implied (‘the Christians, the unbelievers’ and the merciless believers from the tribe of Ishmael). Rock ‘n roll is one wheel of the devil’s Trojan Horse. Troy has been overwhelmed, as evidenced by the video’s Elvis pelvic gyrations on Mt. Calvary. 

This is an internal or internecine Western struggle. Rock launches a feminized death cult (The feminine is not being deployed here in a positive manner, in my opinion, but more the fem-glam boys with make-up and long hair. This would make it more misogynistic, certainly parodistic, than matriarchal.) Thus the West has lost its moorings (to Luciferean subversion), becoming easy prey to outside foes (such as radically monotheistic Islam, or ISIS).

False idols form egregores, symbiotic arrangements of shared psychic energy, with their followers. Each must see the other as their powert is interdependent: Worship me and I will be your slave. Whereas God’s power is apriori of His creation. The Bowie death cult raises an egregore in their midst. That’s the shaggy-bodied Id-like creature. But there’s a larger, exogenous enemy on the horizon.

The barbarians at the gates can only prevail against a weakened foe. The West’s greatest enemy is not ISIS (which is not explicitly referenced in the video and has been denied by the artist as being ‘the message’ of the video, to the extent an official message means anything at all), but the leper messiahs (rock gods) who rot the tradition from within. Are the boys in the band up to the task of defending the city? Bowie pondered this very confrontation decades earlier:

“How many are going to pick up a gun and how many of you are gonna cling to your guitars?”—1976, Rolling Stone interview with Cameron Crowe

ISIS at Bataclan becomes an emissary or instrumentality of the Devil. Not the ‘house devil’ the Templars know from their Christian Bibles, but an alien form, Islam’s Iblīs. Satan roams the whole of the earth and, as we’ve seen, employs a contextual and opportunistic plasticity to match the human moment or context he seeks to corrupt. The devil we know is an odd, familiar comfort, encircling us with culture. This Satan is of altogether exogenous features. 

Damien Hirst Interplanetary Cargo Death Cult

At the moment of execution, Eagles of Death Metal guitarist Dave Catching raises his guitar in a seemingly futile gesture to stop the hail of bullets; though no less futile, some might say, than holding up the cross to banish Satan. This is the same gesture employed by Bowie to ward off the wanton killing spree of TND’s Valentine. Live by the guitar. Die by the Cross.  Christianity is reborn on the blood-drenched floor as people use their bodies, Christ-like, to protect and ‘save’ loved ones. I’ve had my share of bullets. Now I’ll help you with the pain. (This is not an attempt to impose a Christian template on the dead; only that it resonates with me in this context.)

Nobody breaks a song down in the middle like Bowie. The interrupting segue is the Leper Messiah’s attempt at an explanation as to how he saw the Blackstar book lying there on a bench outside the Tavistock Institute on Piccadilly circa ’70 and, well, bravely picked it up and ran with it. Even more confoundingly, we ran after him. There are no true victims here. Bowie’s apologizing for kicking the legs out from under our teetering bullshit faith. On The Next Day, he’d levelled heaps of blame on the Catholic Church (and in an unacceptably sacrilegious manner, in my opinion) for making it all too easy and for sealing rock’s effortless death cult ascent. It all seems rather quaint, a veritable in-house squabble, in light of today’s scary monsters set loose in Paris. Now there’s the devil on an existential search-and-destroy mission. (Though I always hasten to add my profound sympathies to the fallen.)

Interesting how most think of the risen Lazarus before they do the thirsty one, especially when both may be the same.

So, how does the Bowie corpus fit into all of this? Long since graduated from heraldic device to conscious agent, Bowie strikes me as the elder statesman of a culture whose first-order inspirational source has become increasingly demonic. This unremitting yet aimless advance of ennui (fashion in, fashion out) amounts to a stylized death march from one dry well to the next. Therein lies the unquenchable thirst.

Ultimately, souls must stake a claim and drill down beneath the iconography. There is a reservoir for those who seek it. Thirst is not a natural condition. The fate of Tantalus is meant to allegorize punishment, not normalized human existence. (Much as my analysis runs counter to that of my friend Steele Savage I’m not deaf to the Gnostic rendition: Sophia smiling with a sense of release on the day the body is shed to earthly execution. However my inner Calvinist bristles at those who refuse God’s quenching. The Edenic God is not a demiurge, but the Almighty Himself. The serpent is Satan, not a well-meaning Sophia. Caveat emptor, reader.)

Decades of idolatry have solidified an unhealthy master-pupil dynamic. One feels Harold Bloom’s anxiety of influence pulsing beneath the surface as people either try to please or sink their favorite art-daddy. It can get pretty servile pretty fast as world-class allusion-hunters sift clues and surface arcane cultural referents. What did he mean by this, by that? The quest is the thing as it detains the earnest sleuth in the endless folds of deception, delaying his departure for all that really matters. Satan’s genius is as surpassing as his rabbit holes are deep. Many a decoder ring will be burned out mapping the labyrinthine sub-terrain of God’s cleverest angel. And then what? Nothing ever yields anything. Seductive winks yield blind alleys.

On a more personal note, Bowie strikes me as a man of almost palpable loneliness. (Nietzsche would call it solitude.) With his Zarathustran project so consummately realized and in such an individuated manner, one shudders at the endurance that might be required to live it. What axe on earth could shatter the remove of such an unrelatable existence? This is the sort of life project easily regretted in late life. Mountaineers don’t succumb from natural causes. They topple from ever more arduous ascents. I may be conflating David Bowie with David Jones. For the latter’s sake I hope so. 

When the hour is late, diversion (culture) become deadly. Increasingly we will find events weighted with essential meaning, pregnant with portent and yet tantalizingly indecipherable, always just beyond our ken. This keeps us at our decoder rings while our souls pace the floor tapping at our watches. We should be on by now. Satan’s surpassing genius is now more directly engaged against the ever-more surpassing genius of God. The former is after all fighting for his kingdom on earth. At this late juncture, man finds himself increasingly backwatered as an intellectual agent. We are in over our heads, our puny aptitudes vastly exceeded in this titanic struggle. Prayer, the creaturely recourse to mystery and awe, becomes our most articulate response. 

What Baudelaire mistakes for the faces of the past are the tragic fatal faces of modernity, RIP.

In the end we have this lonely rich man Lazarus, ensconced somewhere in Manhattan’s sterile landscape, swimming in rivers of wealth and genuflection, ripping and rewrapping his eternal thirst in the bone-dry immersions of imagery. Every cultural plaudit is due this rapt, still-toiling black-star disciple who has the gestures of dispensation down pat. The danger lies in confusing oasis for desert, in one parched, doomsday mirage after another. We can no longer see who or what stands before us because he has imposed his room on our existence from the start. Our eyes are sewn too wide shut.

Who would have imagined that, in the final days, dust would flow like water, and so many in their confusion would mistake the dryness in their cups for spiritual refreshment? Raise, raise, raise your glass. Raise your glass. Why?

Who will pick up a gun?
This site is authored by the Red Book Red Sail blogger who can be reached at gspressnow@gmail.com (or click CG’s hat.)

Write a comment

Comments

  • Paul A. Toth(Wednesday, December 09 15 12:18 am EST)

    Excellent and frightening!

  • Anne Merino(Wednesday, December 16 15 08:37 pm EST)

    A monumental piece that will resonant with me for ages as I ponder all the images and their connections.

    Brilliant!

  • Jorin(Thursday, December 17 15 05:35 pm EST)

    Wow! So revealing. I could not believe my eyes while reading this 😉 Indeed Excellent!! If only you get more people to read this! It was quite a challenge for me (dutch) i had to look up a lot of
    words but learned so much from your writings. Thank you! i have a lot more reading to do now 🙂 you opened my closed eyes some more. Thanks for the effort you put into this!!

  • cindie m(Friday, December 18 15 10:10 pm EST)

    This is not run-of-the-mill hellfire & damnation…I won’t sleep aftr this. thx mister :0 is that u next to CG?

  • Fred Barnard(Saturday, December 19 15 08:03 pm EST)

    The tangential ramblings of a reflective and brilliant mind. However, if you wish to better understand Blackstar you might want to refer to the JOHAN RENCK interview: where he says “Most things like
    this are for the eyes of the beholder, you know? You make of it whatever you want. What I can say, on one side of things there is no deliberate, underlying, firm quest to have any references to past
    times.” As for me, I think it’s merely the equally brilliant Bowie having a good time.

  • Jacob(Saturday, January 02 16 05:37 am EST)

    A few answers, many more questions. Onward, I search. Though I know not what for.

  • Norman Ball(Tuesday, January 12 16 09:38 pm EST)

    Rest in Peace, David Jones. May you discover the best of whatever lies behind the door.

    My speculations mean nothing in the end.

  • Tanja Stark(Wednesday, January 13 16 04:46 am EST)

    [A-mazing] Grace to the whole damned lot of us.

    Seriously.

    Pax, Tanja

  • Fill(Thursday, January 14 16 05:35 am EST)

    Is it too much to ask for a more simplified summary? I read the whole thing but I’m not sure I understand how or why he’s a herald of this greater evil.

    I agree with the points on culture, Elvis etc. having corrupted us. But it’s a huge leap to then take lyrics at face value like Megadeth’s. If Mustaine or the Sabbath guys are actually Christian are
    they being used against their will?

    Exactly how Bowie is some kind of musical Nazi working for the supermen or worse, I’m not clear on.

  • mark fisher(Friday, January 15 16 08:07 pm EST)

    I read the entire ‘essay’ with an open mind. This is not an essay per say. There were nice connections and many obscure ones. Not an easy read. Pepe Escobar suggested it so took it in. in the big
    picture there is neither good nor evil, rather love or fear. eyes or no eyes, we create our reality based on these principles. brevity is the soul of wit.

  • Agustín(Sunday, January 17 16 05:55 am EST)

    Thanks, this was a very interesting read.
    Beats me how a man of your culture and reflexive nature still resorts to the “Good VS Bad” meme.
    Then why you talk only about the “Evil with guitars” but never mention that of the Churches, the one with the guns (and the most horrible incoherencies)?

  • Barbi Bandor(Thursday, January 21 16 03:25 pm EST)

    I read this , reading all the little references, bookmarking stories. Very interesting. I have now become obsessed with studying David Bowie. LOL … this should be interesting…

  • Dillon(Saturday, January 23 16 01:03 am EST)

    Thank you for this; I’m officially a huge fan of your weblog.

  • פרסום אתרים באינטרנט(Saturday, January 23 16 11:04 pm EST)

    I really like your blog.. very nice colors & theme. Did you make this
    website yourself or did you hire someone to do it for
    you? Plz answer back as I’m looking to construct my own blog and
    would like to know where u got this from. cheers

  • Leon(Tuesday, January 26 16 10:59 pm EST)

    Write more, thats all I have to say. Literally, it seems as
    though you relied on the video to make your point. You definitely know what youre talking about,
    why waste your intelligence on just posting videos to your site when you could be giving us something informative to read?

  • Javier(Tuesday, February 02 16 10:25 am EST)

    Hey would you mind sharing which blog platform you’re using?
    I’m looking to start my own blog in the near future but I’m having a tough time
    deciding between BlogEngine/Wordpress/B2evolution and Drupal.
    The reason I ask is because your design seems different then most blogs and
    I’m looking for something completely unique.
    P.S Sorry for getting off-topic but I had to ask!

  • popcorntime(Wednesday, February 03 16 03:39 am EST)

    May I simply say what a comfort to uncover a person that
    really understands what they’re discussing on the
    web. You actually understand how to bring an issue to light and make it important.
    A lot more people must look at this and understand this side of your
    story. I can’t believe you aren’t more popular given that you
    definitely have the gift.

  • hydra maximilien(Monday, February 08 16 08:33 pm EST)

    Hey there. Somebody in my Facebook group distributed this Bowie website with us so I came to take a look.

    This is Bowie + a whole lot more. You really nail his spookiness and ice in his eyez. I’m bookmarking and will tweet to my followers. -kh

  • Cinda(Tuesday, February 09 16 01:14 am EST)

    I like this post, enjoyed this one thanks for posting.

  • valentinius anger(Tuesday, February 09 16 03:28 pm EST)

    who told u to do this? Im curious if its the same people.

    http://thevillaoformen.tumblr.com

  • popcorn time(Friday, February 12 16 04:03 pm EST)

    You really make it seem so easy with your presentation however I in finding this
    topic to be actually one thing that I feel I’d by no means understand.
    It seems too complicated and extremely large for me.
    I am looking forward for your next put up, I will try to get the
    hold of it!

  • https://www.rebelmouse.com/(Wednesday, March 02 16 11:44 pm EST)

    Thank you for sharing this story. I am certainly tired of desperate for relevant and intelligent commentary
    on this subject. Everyone nowadays seem to go to extremes to
    either drive home their perspective or suggest that everybody else in the world is wrong.
    thanks for your brief as well as relevant insight.

  • Brent Flast(Friday, March 04 16 12:28 am EST)

    I just finished watching Black Star.
    Very enigmatic piece, yes.

  • cie.calpoly.edu(Monday, April 04 16 02:07 am EDT)

    Cheers for this superb write-ups. Keep sharing excellent articles!

  • http://www.ahzkt.com/comment/html/index.php?page=1&id=324875(Monday, April 11 16 07:42 am EDT)

    Keep this going please, great job!

David Bowie’s Blackstar Video-song

My conversation with Senator Mark Warner’s office on TPP today

tpp lips

I had an interesting conversation today with Sen. Warner’s office. This TPP thing is like a Kafka novel absent the breezy nonchalance.

My conversation with Senator Mark Warner’s office on TPP today

A Discussion with Jack Abramoff: Ten Years On

A Discussion with Jack Abramoff: Ten Years On

Biased Pluralism, the Tragedy of the Commons and the Demise of American Democracy

Previously appeared in Dissident Voice, Counterpunch and Dark Politricks

By Norman Ball

 “…society appeals to an individual exploiting a commons to restrain himself for the general good–by means of his conscience.”—from ‘Tragedy of the Commons’, by Garrett Hardin

abramoff-on-60-minutesBy this time, the particulars of former lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s now-decade-old crimes have been well-documented, fully aired and even Hollywoodized. He’s served his time and continues to pay his debt to society in the form of sizeable restitution.

That said, not everyone feels obliged to extend Abramoff forgiveness—an altogether personal and defensible position. (At this point, I reserve the weight of my derision for the system itself which, on the day of Abramoff’s sentencing, barely slowed to slap its own wrist. The usual legalized bribery meet ‘n greets in the form of Congressional fundraising events proceeded that very evening.) Suffice to say, Jack Abramoff remains a polarizing figure in many quarters.

This interview endeavors to move the ball forward, soliciting Abramoff’s observations on the business of lobbying today. After all, his activities led in large part to the law federal lobbyists presently operate under, the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007 (HLOGA), amendment to the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 (LDA). More on this later.

Interested readers are also urged to reacquaint themselves with the historical particulars of the affair (as this interviewer did), including interviews with 60 Minutes’ Leslie Stahl, Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Harvard Law School Professor Lawrence Lessig, Russia Times (RT) and C-Span2 AfterWORDS as well as Abramoff’s own book, Capitol Punishment (2011).

********

Norm: Good afternoon Jack and thank you for joining us.

Jack: My pleasure.

Norm: Perhaps you’ll indulge me for a moment with a preamble.

Jack: Certainly.

Norm: There was a study released last year by Princeton and Northwestern University professors Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page respectively, which sought to examine empirically-derived political data from the period 1981 to 2002, specifically 1,779 enacted policies over that period. (Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens; Perspectives on Politics / Volume 12 / Issue 03 / September 2014, pp 564-581; Copyright © American Political Science Association 2014).

We won’t delve statistical analyses and methods here except to say the study was peer-reviewed. The key finding was that the 90th percentile of the population (by income) was fifteen times more likely to have its preferences reflected in policy decisions than was the 50th percentile. This led Gilens and Page to conclude that average citizens have “little or no independent influence” on the policy-making process. In short, we inhabit an oligarchy with only the barest democratic façade.

The good news is that 1) we now have an empirical protocol for quantifying relative influence as a function of socio-economic status and 2) we possess rigorous academic confirmation of a reality which registers a big ‘duh’ with the average Joe. As this is not a televised interview, I’ll note for the reading audience your jaw didn’t exactly hit the ground either. Nonetheless I’ll ask you anyway. Are you surprised at just how lop-sided and anti-populist these findings are?

Jack: I am not surprised at all.  In almost every human endeavor, the elite have more impact and influence than the average person. Political influence in the United States can be acquired either by dedicating time and effort to making your voice matter, or by buying that influence and impact. Those who are more wealthy have more discretionary income and those among that group that are politically inclined are more able to expend those resources than the rest of us.  Similarly, those activists who have politics in their blood have more time than the rest of us to spend impacting policy.

Norm: I should note that the academic community was caught off-guard for the most part by these findings as they suggest a heretofore-aberrant form of democracy that travels under the moniker ‘biased pluralism’. Perhaps you could recommend to the American Political Science Association a good lobbyist to get democracy back on track.

Jack: I’ll see if I can find them someone [laughs].

Norm: You’re on record as not being a big fan of publically funded elections. Could you elaborate on your misgivings with this approach?

Jack: The money in the system that I believe needs to be removed is the money spent by people seeking some special favor or interest from the government, and their advocates, otherwise known as lobbyists.  My belief is that, if you want something for yourself from a public servant and give that public servant money or something of value, then you have, in essence, bribed that public servant.

So, if I could wave a magic wand and change the campaign finance system, I would eliminate the ability of lobbyists and their clients to give any money at all within the federal system, including Super PACs.  If someone wants to give money for any other reason, including admiration of a candidate’s positions on issues other than those that impact that donor’s pocketbook, I have no problem with their giving whatever they want.

The truth is, of course, that virtually all big dollar donors on the Left and Right have a quid pro quo in mind. Removing them from the system would dramatically reduce the amount of money in politics. I favor this over publically funded elections for several reasons.  Primarily, I don’t believe public funding has any chance of becoming law. The Right is against it – as they generally oppose expansion of government, and since it would, at some level, put the decisions to fund campaigns in a public official’s hands.  That is anathema to conservatives.

Even if this could somehow become the law, I would be opposed because the folks most likely to benefit from public funding would be the cadre of political consultants.  You would find hundreds of shadow candidacies springing up, as consultants and lobbyists rushed to rake in the new bucks.

Finally, I am personally opposed to forcing someone to fund ideas that they find abhorrent.  Of course, one could argue that most people fund things they find abhorrent currently, but that does not make it right.

Norm: In ‘Capitol Punishment’, you zero in on the profound moral confusion plaguing the system: “Contributions from parties with an interest in legislation are really nothing but bribes. Sure, it’s legal for the most part. Sure, everyone in Washington does it. Sure, it’s the way the system works. It’s one of Washington’s dirty little secrets–but it’s bribery just the same”.

Forgive me, but this seems more like a dirty big secret whose roots may extend beyond the system, springing from the culture itself. In the 1987 movie Wall Street, Gordon Gekko famously asserts ‘greed is good’ in true upside-down fashion. Have we lost touch with what constitutes the unconscionable?

Jack: If bribery was the only sinful behavior our society embraced, we would be living in a very different world.  The hallmark of modern society is our ability to convince ourselves that aberrant behavior is normal and acceptable.  We see this is almost every facet of our lives. With bribery, the sophistry is fascinating.  Because our politicians are not accepting bags full of cash, they somehow feel they are not being bribed.  Worse, if most members of Congress were compelled to take a lie detector test querying whether they thought they were being influenced by the money they receive, they and their denials would pass with flying colors. 

Norm: In your CSPAN interview, you expressed surprise at how unconcerned our elected officials appear to be at the abysmal 11% approval rating of Congress as an institution. Might it be because the incumbency reelection rate is 96%? (Source of both stats: Politifact.com, November 11, 2014). How can we send the institution of Congress packing when we’re so enamored of our own local hero?

Jack: I think the problem is that most people view politics much like they view the weather: it stinks, but there’s not much we can do about it.  People have come to the conclusion that the nation is too big and the forces that impact our policies too powerful that their voices are now too small to matter.  They are wrong of course. But that depressing attitude has now become the default reaction that permits the powerful to run roughshod over our lives.  The only way people can push back, they feel, is polling negatively against Congress as an institution.  It’s very sad, especially since it doesn’t have to be like this.

Norm: You suggest a radical approach for separating power from money. HLOGA’s cooling-off periods (between public and private sector employment) are, in your opinion, simply not enough. Rather, Congress and their staffs should be precluded forever from entering the lobbying business. Such patrician forbearance seems more apropos to Plato’s Republic than the Land of the Wagging Styrofoam Index Finger. So I must ask, respectfully, are you pulling our index fingers? Everyone knows philosopher-kings never clinch the nomination.

Jack: Could it be achieved? Of course.  Will it be achieved? Probably not because there is no well-funded movement to make it a reality.  In our nation, things don’t just happen.  They happen because smart, powerful and motivated people push them.  I have been pushing a political plan to make some of the changes that are needed, but that plan requires funding to fight the battle in Washington.

Most of the people who dedicate resources to politics are terrified by the proposals we have presented, so they are not going to help.  There are very few who have resources and are willing to spend them to change the system.  Until there are resources, there won’t be change, sadly.  To change this playing field, we first have to take control of it.

Norm: Would you care to guestimate what percentage of Congress endures the indignities of public office for the chance to spin through the revolving door into the highly lucrative influence game at some later point or is the Senate gym just that darned well-appointed?

Jack: It’s hard to estimate that percentage, but it’s far higher than it should be.  When I was lobbying, it seemed like 90%, but now I’m not sure. One of the problems for future lobbyists – otherwise known as Congressmen – is that there are so many of them already out there lobbying.  Since most Congressmen are used to pampered treatment and consider business development unsavory, many are not good business generators.  Without the business, the lobbying jobs are more difficult to get. Maybe they should run training seminars for Congressmen to teach them how to get business and otherwise prepare for their next career. I’m kidding of course!

Norm: Black humor is allowed. I understand you observe a strict Orthodox kosher diet. Hopefully my analogy’s not too unpalatable. But let’s say someone enters my hamburger joint whereupon I suggest they try my new jumbo burger in lieu of the anemic single-patty burger they typically order. The customer agrees. I’ve successfully ‘peddled them upstream’ to a higher price and higher calories. Have I exerted undue influence or merely practiced good salesmanship? What was Willy Loman but a door-to-door lobbyist?

Jack: Of course we are all salesmen at some level.  A kid convincing her parents to let her use their car; a spouse convincing her mate that her parents need to feel welcome over the weekend; an employee seeking a raise from a boss.  We are all constantly selling and selling is lobbying

Norm: Ninety years ago, Edward Bernays’ Crystallizing Public Opinion explored techniques for compelling Americans to buy loads of stuff which invariably ended up stacked in their garages. Indeed without two-car garages the economy might have stalled decades ago. There seems to be something quintessentially American, if not downright patriotic, about buying and selling—an activity which you equate to lobbying. Shop influence ‘til you drop?

Jack: It’s not just an American phenomenon. It’s human nature. The reason lobbying is seen as American is because we enshrined the right to lobby –petitioning our government– in our founding charter. Most other nations had periods where petitioning their sovereign resulted in beheadings. In America, just as eventually it became nearly impossible to succeed at a criminal or civil court proceeding without the assistance of an attorney, petitioning the government became difficult without the services of a lobbyist.  Like attorneys in court, lobbyists know the rules of procedure and the deciders better than the average person. In America, assisting people petitioning the government because an industry called lobbying, but not just in America.  Europeans posit the delusion that they don’t have lobbyists, that no one in their nations can come in from the outside and influence their public servants.  It’s absurd and untrue.

Norm: Speaking of free markets, I think a lot of small government folks would cheer your observation that lobbying is more about defense than offense, that is, getting the government off a client’s back as opposed to winning them an unfair advantage.

Jack: First, I believe that most lobbying is good lobbying.  I define good lobbying as lobbying where the lobbyist does not use money to create an unleveled playing field.  Bad lobbying is a small percentage of the lobbying at a federal level.  Most lobbyists in Washington don’t have the money to play the game in a pernicious way. Thus, they are left fashioning their petitions based on the merits of their arguments, as it should be.  As for offense or defense, because of entropy it’s generally easier to destroy than build. In the lobbying context, stopping something from happening is much easier than making it happen, mainly because there are usually ten ways to stop something for every one way of getting it done.

Norm: Resuming the marketplace theme, I’m a baker. I get up at 5 am, ply my wares and drop into bed exhausted at 9 pm. Lacking the time and energy frankly to ‘petition the Government for a redress of my grievances’, I form a Bakers Association with my fellow merchants. We hire an agent to press our professional (read: special) interests on Capitol Hill. This agent then proceeds to lay awake at night imagining—if not even contriving—our industrial-grade grievances.

But hang on. Since when did the commons become little more than a big piñata to be swung at by a hundred self-interested rolling-pins? Why is it not enough simply to be an American? If everyone re-baselined back to unleveraged citizenry instead of hiring seditious agents to obtain a leg up, would we not have something more akin to majoritarian pluralism?

Jack: We could all be ‘simply Americans’, without anyone needing to protect our interests, if the government was not involved in every aspect of our lives, making decisions that impact our livelihoods and lives.  Also, we could all be ‘simply Americans’ if everyone agreed to do it.  We don’t live in such a society.  We live among human beings, not angels.  Some of us are going to be aggressive and use any means we can to get what we want, usually at someone else’s expense.

I write in my book about a fictional picture-frame-making company suddenly confronted with legislation that would put it out of business. After presenting the narrative, I ask whether the business should just ignore the new law and fold up or try to lobby to protect itself.  It’s not the business-owner’s fault a new law is on its way to destroy his enterprise. Therefore, how can he be blamed for hiring a lobbyist?

Moreover, I ask, which lobbyist would serve his interests best?  The lobbyist who is an expert in picture frames, or the lobbyist who plays golf each week with the Senator coming after their industry? The problem is not the picture frame company. Nor is it the lobbyist. The problem is the Senator, not to mention a government so gargantuan and overextended that there is no shortage of work for the tens of thousands of lobbyists traversing the byways of Washington DC.

Norm: Under majoritarian pluralism isn’t influence always ‘undue’ as the former more effectively averts a tragedy of the commons scenario?

Jack: Influence is a tool, like cash or a gun. It can be used for good or for evil.  We don’t live in a society so simple that the removal of lobbyists will give birth to heaven on earth. Lobbyists are a symptom of the problem of too much government. Of course, half the nation believes there’s not enough government.  This lack of cohesion enables the lobbyists to find plenty to do.

Norm: It’s fascinating how this debate invariably circles back on ideology. Is there an unexploited Tea Party issue lurking in here somewhere?

Jack: Absolutely. More government means more lobbyists. Limited government means less. The ideological implications are undeniable.

Norm: In the wake of the Obama Administration’s 2009 Executive Order 13490 which precluded lobbyists from the Administration while unleashing a de-registration trend, opinions differ on just how material this unregistered phenomenon became.

For example in my recent interview with Public Citizen’s Craig Holman, he suggests the exodus has been vastly overstated. Whereas James Thurber of the Center for Responsive Politics is more critical, saying, “most of what is going on in Washington is not covered” by the lobbyist-registration system. In your opinion, to what extent has lobbying, in effect, gone off-balance sheet?

Jack: First, let me mention that, while as a lobbyist, I disdained the work that Craig Holman and Public Citizen did, now that I am reformed, I realize Craig and his colleagues are real heroes. They are one of the only groups that has any real impact in this space. Craig is not only a great guy, he’s also one of the most effective lobbyists I know – and I mean that as a compliment!

But yes, I think lobbying is far too off-balance sheet. Even the act that regulates the lobbying industry –the LDA –and the changes provided in HLOGA still allow people who are lobbying to legally avoid registration.  That’s how former US Senator Tom Daschle was able for so long to lobby and not register. That’s how former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was able to proclaim with a straight face that he wasn’t a lobbyist, when he was lobbying Congress on the Health Care Act—as an historian! Most of the work done for clients is not actual lobbying. It’s strategizing, preparing, researching, etc.

As for the Obama rules prohibiting lobbyists from entering his Administration, I have a few thoughts.  I was against this, because if you are trying to put together a talented group of public servants, you cannot exclude lobbyists, since they are often far more knowledgeable about issues than are the public servants. My approach would be that, once you enter the Administration, you can’t return to the lobbying world.

Norm: So, a one-way, one-time revolving door? And yes, agreed. Craig Holman is a true warrior for the undivided public interest.

Jack: Exactly. That would enable those who are talented to enter and really serve the public. Those who want to enter the government to burnish their lobbying credentials – so they can charge more when they exit – would be precluded.  This would only work with forced recusal from any matter that you lobbied on previously.

Also, you would have to outlaw huge payments that companies make to their employees before they enter the government – an advanced bribe.  This was the case with the current Secretary of Treasury, Jacob Lew, who had a provision in his Citibank contract that he was due a mammoth bonus should he leave for a highly placed government job.  The only thing more aggravating than that abuse was how those in the media who otherwise are concerned with corruption ignored this one for fear of offending Obama and their friends on the Left.

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Norm: There’s another untagged carp in the lake, the unlobbyist who isn’t even a deregistered or former lobbyist, but rather a single-shingle wannabe in a cheap suit working an undisclosed business development contract. Of the tin men in his midst, veteran lobbyist Howard Marlowe recently had this to say:

“We in the lobbyist profession register, and the public and media can at least find out who we work for, what the issues are that we’re hired to work on, and what we’re getting paid.”— Howard Marlowe, 35-year Washington lobbyist, Bloomberg, April 3, 2014

Law360 was even blunter:

“More nefariously, some [unlobbyists] may not register simply because they doubt they will ever be caught.”—from ‘Criminal Referral of Alleged ‘Unlobbyist’ Is A Wake-Up Call’, Law360, July 31, 2014

Extending the analogy, let’s say this old guy with a cane bamboozles people into thinking he’s a retired granddad with loads of spare time and an unerring sense of civic duty—except he invariably has sales literature stapled to the back of his grandfatherly appeals.

HLOGA seems to impute ethics transgressions onto clients and Congressmen, and not just to the unlobbyist who sucks them in. What I’m asking is, are Congressmen obligated to vet and toss bogus lobbyists out on their ears for flogging thinly disguised (and implicitly undisclosed) economic interests?

Jack: I am uncertain whether there is a legal obligation for Congress and their staff to check the registration of lobbyists. Frankly, we need a new law that requires registration as soon as someone makes even one lobbying contact for pay.  The requirements for registration in the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) are far more explicit than for LDA.

Norm: Rather than chase the high-profile Senators and Congressmen whom you found to be rather lazy and self-absorbed, you wooed the hard-working staffers instead who remain, let’s face it, the nuts and bolts of legislative production. This afforded you a powerfully incentivized ‘Trojan Horse’ workforce until such time as they came to work for you directly. Is it fair to say you essentially turbocharged the revolving door back in the day?

Jack: Yes that’s fair to say. You see, the insiders’ class has an unparalleled ability to move seamlessly from government to the lobbying world.  These folks know all the players from the time they were in government, and, believe me, they get their calls returned. They are better able to get favors granted than outsiders and have every advantage possible. Stopping the revolving door would be devastating to the insider lobbyists and would do a lot to level the playing field.

Norm: You suggest smart lobbyists quickly figure out the latest reforms and devise techniques to get around them. Are we dealing with a whack-a-mole dynamic, that is, any reform bill can at best be effective for a few years after which fresh reforms become necessary?

Jack: There is never going to be a perfect law in this arena, because there are legitimate concerns that are opposed and have to be considered.  Free speech is at odds with undue influence here.  We can’t destroy our rights to free speech, but we must deal with undue influence. So, every remedy will likely need updating and adjustment as it is implemented.  That’s okay.  We live in a society of adjustment. Just take a look at our tech advances. We are constantly readjusting.

Norm: As you brought up technology, there’s much talk of traditional lobbying moving to a more technology-driven and social-media-based model. What effect do you see technology having on the future of lobbying in America?

Jack: Until and unless this system is reformed dramatically, while there will be a role for social media and technology enhancing the lobbying, it won’t change the paradigm that powerful insiders will control the playing field. They will control the social media and tech role in politics as well.  Social media and tech are tools, every bit as much as polling and phone banking are tools.  The tools will change, but the powerful will stay in power, until there is systemic change.

Norm: F. Scott Fitzgerald would be offended Jack if I didn’t press you a bit on how your second act is faring. Hopefully you have good news and fresh initiatives to report.

Jack: Norm, I’m just trying to do my best on the playing field I’m on today.  I am doing what I can to speak about these important issues and to encourage citizen action, but I am limited in my ability to make things happen because I am not a man of resources these days.  That’s okay, though.  One of the biggest lessons I had to learn through my scandal was that it’s all right to lose. In the old days, I never lost and wouldn’t even consider losing as acceptable.  That is an arrogance at odds with my faith and being a good citizen, but in those days, it didn’t matter to me.  Today, I realize that I might lose, including on this issue.  I hope we can do something, but if not, I am working hard on saying: ‘It’s okay’.

Norm: Thank you Jack. It’s been a pleasure. I wish you all the luck in your future endeavors.

Jack: Thank you, Norm.

A Discussion with Jack Abramoff: Ten Years On

Transhumanism Through a Greek Lens

(This essay previously appeared at CounterpunchDissident Voice The Burning Platform)

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In his February 18 essay appearing in The Guardian, ‘How I Became an Erratic Marxist’, Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis cites his intermittent mentor, Karl Marx:

If the whole class of the wage-labourer were to be annihilated by machinery, how terrible that would be for capital, which, without wage-labour, ceases to be capital!

This smugly circular quote exposing capital’s counter-intuitive enslavement to labor is taken from the 1847 essay “Wage Labour and Capital”, a twenty-year precursor and prefiguring of Das Capital; it speaks to the awkward and venerable slow-dance between Labor and Capital, specifically the latter’s unswerving determination to exploit surplus value until it ends in the annihilation of all parties.

One wants to say, ‘silly communist, no capitalist is that stupid as to denude the market of consumers by annihilating them at their workstations. What’s a consumer after all but a worker on his day off?’ And indeed most factory owners are no doubt singular and rational actors. However, being left to oneself makes a vacuum not a market as historical processes enjoy expressing themselves in aggregates. The macroeconomics of unimpeded capitalism betrays all the collective wisdom of a bovine stampede. So yes, capitalism is that self-destructive. Nonetheless we’ve devised remedies to help shave the wrenching peaks and valleys. Take for instance the swimmingly successful ZIRP monetary policy or Paul Krugman’s favorite cardiovascular exercise, Keynesian string-pushing. Moving on.

Soon, we will be stared in the face by the ultimate Marxian annihilator (of Hollywood Terminator complexion and proportion), a game-changing machine that promises to obliterate the age-old division between Labor and Capital. May we survive the healing of the breach, though it’s not clear how exactly. This machine will arrive courtesy of transhumanism which, if its proponents are to be believed, will combine the best of Man and Machine (sure sounds like the end of Man to me.) Whether this is a marriage made in heaven or at the end of a shotgun depends on which man or woman you happen to ask.

What the transhumanists are implying, in not nearly enough words, (and absent human referenda) is that the central crisis of capitalism, overproduction, will be mitigated in the final analysis, not by socialized amelioration of the subsistence wage, but by the elimination of wages, which is to say, by the elimination of labor itself. By now any worker bee worth his pollen should be abuzz with anxiety.

Like the bridge species preceding us (the existentially amphibious lungfish) Man is poised to pass the baton to a precocious bucket of sentient bolts, after which the former will duteously wither away. What, they haven’t spelled out the withering away part to you? Shame on those breathless transhumanist cheerleaders. Obsolescence and maladaptation are hallmarks of the evolutionary record. We could ask a Dodo bird. But that’s sort of the point. There are no longer any Dodo birds to ask.

Our incipient witherings are encountered daily on the telephone. In recent months, who hasn’t found themselves questioning whether the voice on the other end is man or machine? Sometimes it’s a man resembling a machine. Other times it’s a cleverly solicitous oncoming locomotive headed for the Keatsian soul. Please don’t attempt this at home, but I’ve devised my own Turing Test, saying things like ‘man, your wife’s a real hottie’ just to test my phone partner’s reaction. If I’m greeted with a chaste and polite ‘thank you, could you repeat that request please’, I know I’m the sole monkey over a barrel.

The sudden bumper crop of sociopaths is an evolutionary vanguard set out to emulate machine-implacability. Prospective employers of the future will use the Reverse Turing Test to ensure our compatibility with digital colleagues (‘cause you wouldn’t want to offend an overly sensitive microprocessor.) Soul slows the work-line. Empathy is gunk between the wheels. The blithest de-humanizees in our midst are converging, with Darwinian purposefulness, on their tin-can overlords in order to win for themselves a brief stay of euthanasia. The most soulful in our midst revolt at this whole prospect and, one way or another, beg off. We’ve been losing a lot of free spirits lately.

Heidegger was among the first to express a paranoia that’s since become the dystopian staple of books and movies. Technology is an enabling, up-close assassin that only feigns service to Man, the better to take our measure and cement our fatal dependency. It’s really its own weird thing whose demon is Azazel, sidling up to us on the way to certain defeat in a final epic battle. That traitor in our midst, transhumanist Hugo de Garis, has admitted as much. Is anybody still inviting him to weekend cook-outs?

I believe that humanity will split into two major ideological camps, one in favor of building artilects (the “Cosmists”) and those opposed (the “Terrans”). I believe that the ideological disagreements between these two groups on this issue will be so strong, that a major “artilect” war, killing billions of people, will be almost inevitable before the end of the 21st century.”

Who’s kidding whom? Technology’s barely concealed telos has always lain beyond us, in the post-human (the term ‘transhuman’ is both disingenuous gloss and euphemistic misdirection). Of course technology needed us—we, this great masochistic army of Sorcerer’s Apprentices—to attain its promontory. Unfailingly solicitous, it worked hard at bestowing upon us what Jack Nicholson’s Joker called a bevy of wonderful toys, mechanized entreaties that curried to an ancient line of character defects: (laziness) efficiency; (sloth) leisure; (avarice) productivity, (greed/pride) prosperity. On occasion, some bright Isaiah would point out technology’s troubling shadow-forms: acid rain, greenhouse gases. Invariably the coddled masses, drunk on their need for speed, would steer recalcitrant seers back to 0-50 mph in six seconds. The wind in our hair was pure seduction.

De Garis reminds us how, though we marvel at the aerodynamic miracle of mosquitos and that their feats still resist replication in the human laboratory, we routinely swat them from our arms nonetheless. Should we expect some sentimental forbearance from the coming Artilects simply because they borrowed our shoulders, as we, in our turn, stood on the striving gills of daredevil fish? It risks chauvinism, but we are a singularly remarkable species. Yet should our aggravation (or superfluity) factor grow to exceed our ability to elicit awe, creaturely fear or banal Chia Pet sentimentality in our clever little Frankensteins-to-come, who’s to say the swatter won’t be turned against us?

So we are perilously beyond quaint Marxian-isms such as equitable allocations of surplus value between human classes. Oh the humanity! Airborne drones will monitor billions of aimless human drones for a while. Yet the Panopticon is almost certainly pondering a post-surveillance phase for all this surplus labor. Anyone for Soylent Green?

Protean deflationary forces have been loosed all across the globe signaling a marked and profound disinterest in labor at any price. The capital-intensive means of production in this information age aren’t very intensive anymore. Industries can be replicated on desktops. Of course we’ve been instructed to cheer these productivity gains while refraining from the obvious question: if labor’s services are no longer required, even at the subsistence wage, then surely the non-existence wage lies dead ahead.

Labor is poking up like a sore thumb. Whether the whack comes through benign or malign neglect remains to be seen. However it’s not a stretch to envision neo-feudalistic city-states with Hobbsian badlands lurking just beyond patrician moats for the ‘extraneous’ 95% of the planet. Just ask Morgan Stanley’s Jamie Dimon. A canny algorithm is worth a hundred factories of sweating bodies. Math never sleeps. Even better, it requires no bathroom breaks.

We’re not in the grip of a cyclical downturn, nor even a secular collapse. We are converging on the cessation of mass economic activity as generations have known it. All that jostling inter-human, auction-value and price signaling stuff is being curtailed. Varoufakis has noted the extraordinary nature of the predicament too: “Europe’s current posture poses a threat to civilisation as we know it.” So great is his concern in fact that he’s abandoning Marxist leanings of a lifetime just to help hold the continent together.

Transhumanism’s heralded Era of Endless Bounty and Leisure (a wonderful entreaty worthy of bumper sticker memorialization) will not be broadly shared. The hyper-exceptionalist predilections of the elite simply won’t allow such magnanimity, even it were technically and economically feasible. Next year, the top 1% will own more than 50% of the world’s wealth. This wealth will never trickle back down. Rather it will evaporate, relinquishing its use-value to become little more than a gilded invitation to access some gated enclave on Earth. Wealth was but an interim ladder, a scorekeeping unit of measure to be retracted up the wall of the City-State at the worst possible moment. We badlanders will be left to make do in the world beyond Leviathan’s gates.

Transhumanism Through a Greek Lens

Serving Up Solitude: (Typing? We Don’t Need No Stinking Typing!)

This essay appears in CounterPunch and Fair Observer.

stinkin badgesGoogle Chairman Eric Schmidt made a splash recently at Davos with his quip about the vanishing Internet. Frankly, he does creepy better than obtuse, as when he all but begged the question: what the hell are the rest of us still hanging around for?

“We don’t need you to type at all. We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.”

Strip a man of his keyboard and all that remains is a blinking cursor and his wordless nightmares. Perhaps we are the dead already—carbon-based anachronisms awaiting the Insidious Hand of benign neglect to make our post mortems official. Have we overstayed into the Silicon Era such that an Artilect now wants our seat on the bus? Google approaches as a guillotine dressed in geek’s clothing.

Humor us Mr. Schmidt. For you see, typing (or writing, as Truman Capote might allow for the better tappers in our midst) helps us to converge on where you seem dead-certain we already live. Yes, we’re slow, but interiority is such a tough habit to kick. Google Earth is a marvel to be sure. Yet there is no small number of keen minds for whom the non-locality of consciousness defies GPS coordinates. We might even live to survive your Panopticon and have a laugh about it on the Otherside. So I’d be careful with that hubris. Some trans-human demigod could swat you absently like a four-eyed mosquito. Then where would your stock options be?

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Schmidt is a particularly bad bad actor. He slips easily into an exasperated tone when asked to wax eloquent on that last stubborn fly in the ointment, humanity. It was as clear in the long faces at Davos as it was in Eurogroup Chief Jeroen Dijsselbloem’s withering glare when Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis put food for Greece’s children before George Soros: We’ve become a vastly populated nuisance. They want us out of here so badly, it hurts.

Imagine Zeus running out of thunderbolts and having to fall back on pushing strings. There would have been a mutiny on Mount Olympus faster than you could say Eurogroup Chief Jeroen Dijsselbloem—maybe even faster. Quantitative Easing never got anyone a job who wasn’t already on the BIS Christmas card list. Austerity is a boot out to squash a colony of bugs. In their ham-fisted efforts at herding us, the elite’s faltering touch is showing. Long term, this may be good. Short term, it’s incredibly perilous. Never embarrass a faltering elite in broad daylight. Their numbers are too few, and their cognitive hold over We of Far Larger Numbers too tenuous for open monetary farce to prevail for long. You’re only asking for WW3.

Mass denouement has been underway for some time now.

Sigmund Freud’s nephew Eddie Bernays (the inventor of Public Relations) saw us as little more than bracketed swirls of subterranean appetites to be mined and monetized. Our irrational pleasure centers were invaded subliminally. This led to what cultural theorist Byung-Chul Han calls the Neuronal Age where overactive receptors create unnatural fatigue; a sense of helplessness against outside entreaties presides. And boy do we have the pounds to show for myriad uninvited entreaties. People now routinely eat themselves to death. Speaking of entreaties or at least odious treats, no one ever woke up yearning for a Twinkie until a Twinkie was first made to exist and then advertised onto our burgeoning list of manufactured pleasures.

Yes, victimology can be overdone. Nonetheless we were helped along mightily by cues we never had the explicit option of refusing. Maybe Mom didn’t love us enough or Dad was a little too stern. Was it the market’s right to sell into our unfillable holes, banishing us forevermore to the husky section of Sears? But for another hug Mommy and our asses would look just fine in these jeans. Over the ensuing period, the will to power swept through humanity like a hundred-year war. We’re looking weary and ripe for supersession.

Something is dying to usurp us and usher in the post-consumer age. The anthropic economy was an unoiled rack of Newtonian gears and pulleys shuttling supply towards demand, groping in the dark for equilibriums, one month producing too much, the next month too little. The surveillance apparatus is not being constructed to better serve us in the sense of a market perfecting its answerability to consumer demand, although that remains the party line. They’re not cataloging our retinas to sell us cereal, in short. For one thing, we are dismally predictable and not nearly the unique snowflakes we often fancy ourselves to be. The average Internet user visits no more than a few dozen unique sites per month. They know us more than well enough by now.

Analyst Daniel Castro of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation recently estimated U.S. tech company losses due to government spying programs could amount to $35 billion by 2016. This is a decidedly post-economic development couched disingenuously as an undesirable consequence. Frankly my dear, what spook gives a damn? Even Senator Wyden noted the suspicious absence of alarm:

“When the actions of a foreign government threaten red-white-and-blue jobs, Washington gets up at arms. But, even today, almost no one in Washington is talking about how overly broad surveillance is hurting the U.S. economy.”—from October 8, 2014 Public Forum

This current slow-motion global economic collapse is not scheduled for either a happy ending or a people-pleasing recovery. No, the final business cycle is an abyss-by-design. We are being ‘descended into’ transient serfdom on the way to superfluity. The main actors, Central Banks, are wringing their hands in premeditated angst as they stagger about ‘trying everything’ alas to no avail; all pure theatre to keep the masses spellbound and agape.

All currencies are collapsing against the USD after which the latter will perform the very last swan dive. Then structured (price-signal) economics will vanish. The economy is being put out to pasture. Mad Max barter might play a role on wild, wide stretches of highway. But for the most part, Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand will be replaced by the Panopticon’s Invisible Eye.

The great underlying tension that girded capitalism for decades was something akin to the Keystone Cops. Capital was forever teasing out the maddening vagaries of human want, often with humorous results. The landscape is littered with Edsels and New Coke. Nothing was wasted though. These misfires fed powerful feedback loops. The ultimate goal was never for Capital to please man, but for Man to furnish Capital with the ultimate prize, perfect control. Otherwise, what a way to run a railroad, chasing every Tom, Dick and Harry as though their appetites amounted, in some qualitative sense, to a covetable hill of beans.

Market research, product placement and needs assessment were midterm gestures until manufactured consent could perfect the ultimate gloved fist of demand implantation. Rather than stooping to glean the silly ramblings of the man on the street—as if that mattered—real power looked forward to the day when it would know what the man wanted before he articulated the desire for it. This is Huxleyian dystopia. Consent becomes the organizing principle on the way to the final solution.

Capitalism was the interim stalking horse the Bankers used to perfect the Final Mousetrap. Widely available prosperity was the inducement that coaxed the best minds into an endgame endeavor that ultimately they nor their families would live to partake. And to think we fell for the myth of sustainable upward mobility! Who can’t feel it in the air? There is a sense now they have all that they need. It’s written all over Schmidt’s smug mug. Covert technology is thirty years ahead of what’s in the public realm.

You see, it was never about serving markets. It was about serving up servitude. The mark of the beast might get you a Twinkie when total submission becomes the new coin of the realm. Relax. Most people will enjoy the final act and they say Diet Soma is low in calories. Only the poets will suffer.

Until death do us part, comrade.

Serving Up Solitude: (Typing? We Don’t Need No Stinking Typing!)

Big Brother, Big Data & the Sustaining Power of Kellogg’s® Eggo® Waffles

This article previously appeared in Pop Matters and Foreign Policy Journal and The Pennsylvania Review

barack tv

Nobody is listening to your telephone calls… But by sifting through this so-called ‘metadata’, [the intelligence community] may identify potential leads with respect to folks who might engage in terrorism.”
—President Obama, 7 June 2013

One of the blind spots of the digitized form derives, paradoxically, from its ravenous, undiscerning and all-seeing eye. Raw data has no introspective mechanism and affixes no value-coefficient to its own informational content. This evaluative process is left to external entities; sentient, sifting human beings—or their algorithm-proxies—who realize that within oceans of data, trophy catches are few and sea garbage is the norm. Actionable or useful data thus swims against near-insurmountable odds of detection. The ‘promotion’ from data to information requires human agency and recognition. How can humans accomplish this crucial anointing when information must be dredged from a great dismal data swamp that retraces God’s infinitude a little more each day?

The statistics are suitably staggering: According to a recent CSC study, data production will be 44 times greater in 2020 than it was in 2009. A July 2012 BT survey reported,

“…a quarter of the decision-makers surveyed predict that data volumes in their companies will rise by more than 60 percent by the end of 2014, with the average of all respondents anticipating a growth of no less than 42 percent.”

This fantastic upsurge in digital effluence is commonly known as Big Data.

Faced with towering silos of bric-a-brac, poets tend toward metaphysical swoons, certainly one technique for navigating the meta-morass. So consider this fair warning.

That said, I can’t help but think of Carl Jung’s Answer to Job. God is a stalking horse for today’s Big Data in the sense that His infinity induces a moral blindness that only Job, a human agent of particular discernment, can instruct Him through. Seeing everything is not unlike seeing nothing at all. Human insight, by contrast, is a narrowed gaze. Vision demands a focal point, a seeing-eye dog, a discrete POV. Poets are the woofers amidst the tweeters, our first-order data miners. They name things and in so doing give form to chaos.

Database administration is a degraded form of poetry, really a meta-poetry whose administrators play in a sandbox beside the legislators of the world. This latter poetic function Sven Birkerts, channeling Ranier Rilke, identifies as the human being’s seminal role—raising the world into consciousness, not just, “collectively, into a noosphere, and not digitally, into a cloud of data, but subjectively, inwardly, into language.” (“The Room and the Elephant”, Los Angeles Review of Books, 7 June 2011)

All that has first been named can be data tagged but only after our fervency—Rilke’s word—has expended itself. Thus, those who prioritize the Cloud have it backwards. Technologists are the post facto manipulators, the illusionists in our midst whereas poets keep it real. That’s why the latter can’t find jobs in a Big Data world. Birkerts quotes the following lines from Rilke’s “Ninth Elegy”:

Are we here perhaps just to say:
house, bridge, well, gate, jug, fruit tree, window—
at most, column, tower… but to say, understand this, to say it
as the Things themselves never fervently thought to be.
—(C. F. MacIntyre, Translator)

Birkerts and Rilke invite us back to Jung’s subjective self whose universe exists only because we have the eyes to (data) mine it. God recognizes Himself through our cognition. We suspect this pleases Him immensely. The Book of Job becomes a pre-Mosaic prototype for the Anthropic Principle. Data, by contrast, is a retrospective, a cataloguing of prior ‘authenticities’.

Far and away most data, if not much of life itself, is hardly worth our powers of recollection. Yet in the Digital Age, every traversal of Sisyphus’ hill becomes a discrete negotiation, an indexable transaction. By now Sisyphus’ travelogue would require a supercomputer. There is no human act or gesture so beneath our retrospective radar that it can anymore slip, blithely undetected, into the veils of time. The NSA and its commercial doppelganger, Facebook, are committed to the eternality of the less-than-mundane. Interestingly, Sisyphus’ punishment derived in part from chaining Thanatos, a ploy aimed literally at cheating death. Life seizes the moment. The life force doesn’t look back. Data storage makes its bones with the dead. All these data-dependent claims on our past help to encourage a retro-reptilian-hoarding reflex.

There’s existential philosophy; then there’s existential practicality. We compound Big Data’s overhang by adding to it daily. However, it’s in the here-and-now where the potential for comprehension is greatest. A host of nimble and proactive analytics tools loom on the horizon which will better prepare us for what Anukool Lakhina of Big Data company Guavus calls ‘knowing the now’ (“We Need to Prevent Insights from Dying in the Big Data Avalanche” Gigaom; 6 October 2012). Humanity’s accumulated now‘s form Big Data’s past. The future must be seized knowingly. We can ill-afford to dither and let it just happen.

The past will not be relinquished lightly as the bankers have our coupon books to keep track of. Old Power and Money cements its power on the backs of our deeply regretted past transactions. Usura’s how they make their game in the present and promise the future to the image of the past. They are the celebrants of stasis. Under their rubric, we are going nowhere fast. All these data-dependent claims on our past help to encourage a retro-reptilian-hoarding reflex. IBM Global Business Service’s Teresa Pritchard in a recent exchange called it Dino’s Albatross:

“…we now see the head looking behind at an enormous tail, a tail so heavy that the creature can hardly move forward. It is a tail comprised of hoarded information, kept without any measure of true value.”

Big Media casts its own Big Data footprint. We desecrate the up-close and sacred naming task with what novelist Don DeLillo calls white noise, that is, the make-work routine of papering over the hard work of consciousness-raising with a dust-layer of bytes and suspect media coordinates (or as DeLillo terms it, that “dull and unlocatable roar, as of some form of swarming life just outside the range of human apprehension.’‘— White Noise). Mediation is a diversionary campaign that traffics in the propagandistic terms of clarification and distillation; or, if you prefer the Fox News coordinates, fair and balanced.

Big Media’s Big Data diverts us from the task of Big Apprehension. We are kept to the realm of the observable. All that can be measured is pored over as though nothing else exists while Keats’ infamous Vale toils at the crucial work of soul-making at the subjective ‘unobserved’ level. Yes of course, the poets’ by-product, poems, are in evidence on the web. But the process of manufacturing soul through suffering evades the artifactual record. This flattening of poetry into bytes abets a shadow-project to equate poetry with food recipes and baseball scores. Suddenly at the time they are needed most, poets are marginalized further.

Fortunately, regular folks are more than taking up the slack. In the social media realm, we have the power to avert much of the Big Data landslide if only we could stop chattering amongst ourselves, continually giving up banal lives and journeyman repasts that surely drive our overlords to an ever rising contempt. Frankly, who could blame the Illuminati for its machinations as, handed the mic, all we could think to tweet was what we had for breakfast? My point Mr. Everyman, is that your grating ignorance and predilection for Eggo’s may have bought you a dystopia that’ll hang around well past the dinner hour. I told you to brush up on your Adorno and Marcuse. But nooo, you wouldn’t leggo.

The real little man disease is well-earned envy as the floodgates of Facebook fly open only to reveal oceans of drivel. How oceanic, you ask? “Just two days of the current global data production, from all sources — five quintillion bytes (a letter of text equals one byte) — is about equal to the amount of information created by all the world’s conversations, ever, according to research at the University of California, Berkeley.” (“Sizing Up Big Data, Broadening Beyond the Internet”, by Steve Lohr, The New York Times, 19 June 2013)

One could be forgiven for wanting to head some of this yadda-yadda off at the pass before the Word becomes flesh to make its dwellings among us. I mean, I gotta be me, you gotta be you. But must our Eggo’s leave behind minable contrails? The collapse in embedded processor pricing will soon allow for smart toasters. Every appliance will have a snappy retort. Every briefcase will carry an airtight alibi. The world is irrevocably data and sensor-rich and there’s no going back.

Going forward then, how can we vouchsafe an authentic human sphere within this sea of data? or is ‘soul’ ripe for a digitized deconstruction? The trans-humanists suggest Job v.2 will be a robot sent to teach the machine the ineffable nature of soul. That’s provided the ineffable (that transcendent, ‘extra-data’ realm which literature purports to stalk) is indeed antithetical to data and not subsumable within a Big Data skein. Stephen Marche suggests as much:

“Literature cannot meaningfully be treated as data. The problem is essential rather than superficial: literature is not data. Literature is the opposite of data.” (“Literature is not Data: Against Digital Humanities”, Los Angeles Review of Books, 28 October 2012)

Marche’s essay title hat-tips a vast field of endeavor known as Digital Humanities to which he (and I) probably give shamefully short shrift. Some of the mandates emanating from this new academic wing are tantalizingly terrifying. Here, Bruno Latour is discussing nothing less than Big Data’s potential for cataloging the ‘inner workings’ of the soul:

“The precise forces that mould our subjectivities and the precise characters that furnish our imaginations are all open to inquiries by the social sciences. It is as if the inner workings of private worlds have been pried open because their inputs and outputs have become thoroughly traceable.”
“Beware, Your Imagination Leaves Digital Traces”, Times Higher Education Literary Supplement, 6 April 2007

Wikileaks’ Julian Assange pointed out recently that the East German secret police employed ten percent of the population at one time or another as informants. That sort of high overhead will cripple any enterprise. No wonder the Soviet bloc collapsed. Fortunately, the fascio-corporatists have our backs. The genius of Facebook is that it is an emoticon-besotted surveillance apparatus through which friends rat out friends routinely, unwittingly and for free. Hey, if I’m sending my buds to the Gulag, I want beer money to help subsidize my tears.

Big Thinker Jaron Lanier proposes an even starker equivalence in his latest book Who Owns the Future?:

“Information is people in disguise, and people ought to be paid for the value they contribute that can be steered or stored on a digital network.”

Despite his defense of regular folks, Lanier seems oddly acquiescent to our object status as though we are in fact mere data warehouses, albeit with a propped-open backdoor that encourages shoplifting and prevents equitable compensation. Nonetheless Lanier is onto something when he suggests the value-exchange is poorly understood by the average Facebook consumer-supplier.

In a nation of rip-offs, the thief is king, so it pays to study his M.O. Facebook aggressively runs all of its employees, regardless of formal function, through Big Data boot-camps in an effort to “promote a culture in which everyone uses data to test and ultimately roll out new products, design changes, and other improvements.” (“What I Learned at Facebook’s Big Data Boot-Camp”; CNN-Money-Fortune, by Michal Lev-Ram, 13 June 2013)

The Facebook micro-culture may augur the macro-culture, or is a nation of thieves unsustainable? Clearly, Facebook knows the trove over which it presides and the extractive capacity for all nearby hands to just dig in. Good for Facebook. Apply the distributive computing model over a massive pro bono user base, paint a solicitous happy face above the front door and the cost of data collection suddenly vanishes into the ether. Where the East Germans insisted on payment, we give ourselves and our loved ones up without a fight, without a nickel.

Alright, so everyone gets a shovel and we’ll dig ourselves to a collective nirvana. On the other hand (said one equivocating economist to another), might what Big Data pioneer Jeffrey Hammerbacher calls the impending renaissance of the ‘numerical imagination’ yield up the metrics of what poets have insisted on calling since time immemorial, soul? Perhaps there is no ghost in the machine. Perhaps it’s all machine. Perish the thought.

Poets notwithstanding, all that glistens on human lips has never been gold, anyway. That our fingers excel at capturing every demiurge now with dispatch on one PDA or another does nothing to burnish the archival value of the utterance. Would Zeus have been less cruel, more circumspect in his meting out of punishment, had it also fallen within his purview to store the repetitions of his wrath?

Perhaps human data generation should consist of a finite annual allotment of bytes per year, per capita much like a carbon tax. No doubt Al Gore can invent the apt paradigm. Perhaps we are discovering the darker side of near-universal literacy, you know, those same seven billion souls who can’t wait to share what they had for breakfast on Facebook.

Are we being incorrigible elitists even to suggest such things? The carbon analogy is not as facetious as it sounds. In some sense, data is an exhalation. Of course there’s money in the quotidian. Facebook makes a fortune monetizing our errant chatter. But is there transformative meaning? Surely we’re not here only to make money (an imaginal exercise itself) only to have them listen to us very closely so that they can take it all back again—echoes of Sisyphus in his green-eyeshade permutation? Studies have shown three-quarters of all data has the retention value of an empty gum wrapper.

No, the human race didn’t wait for the Digital Age to dawn so that it could suddenly exhale en masse. What has changed is that we are all now affixed with carbon dioxide monitoring devices, low-cost handheld appliances that record our every hiccup. Our heart beats. Our data emits. Barely audible, off-hand remarks—veritable verbal tics—that our own spouses have the good sense not to query for clarification are being cataloged by digital devices.

Nor am I deaf to the durable idealistic notion that all human musings (nothing less than the murmuring of souls) are inherently valuable, certainly of a higher order than, say, other excretions, e.g., perspiration, waste product and the like. Indeed the democratic impulse is offended by the notion that quotidian effusions do not merit attention. This was not always the case.

In his 1994 essay, “The Future of the Book”, Umberto Eco reminds us that broadly prevalent literacy is a relative blip on the human culture timeline. All the hand-wringing over our TV-besotted age (a phenomenon Eco refers to sardonically as “mass media criticism of mass media”) forgets the profound illiteracy that preceded it for many centuries: “We can complain that a lot of people spend their day watching TV and never read a book or a newspaper, and this is certainly a social and educational problem, but frequently we forget that the same people, a few centuries ago, were watching at most a few standard images and were totally illiterate.”

Eco delineates further between publishing and communicating. With the advent of handheld devices, many of us have migrated unwittingly into the realm of publishing (fossilized entrails) versus ephemeral (sound wave-dissipating) communications. Indeed the NSA has conscripted all of us into the publishing game without so much as a referendum. Police states are funny that way. Every hiccup has a shelf-life. Long live the permanent record.

For the moment, Moore’s Law is still finding cupboard space for our personal effusions. But even that venerable efficiency curve is flashing the fault-lines of fatigue. (Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku predicts its collapse in ten years.) Only Uncle Sam has the real estate and the mindless profligacy to even try and keep abreast of the tsunami. In a   Russia Today interview (4 December 2012), whistleblower and former NSA crypto-mathematician William Binney suggested well before the Snowden revelations that the NSA is collecting everything from everybody (what a shrewd discerning beast, that Uncle Sam!), thus the need for the 1.5 million square foot, $2 billion data storage facility in Bluffdale, Utah:

“I don’t think they are filtering [the totality of society’s data]. They are just storing it. I think it’s just a matter of selecting when they want it. So, if they want to target you, they would take your attributes, go into that database and pull out all your data.” (William Binney, “Everyone in U.S. Under Virtual Surveillance”)

On one level, the NSA’s strategic plan seems to have stepped out of a French existentialist novel. It collects the data because, well, it and the data are there. Of course, part of the plotline involves forgetting that the Constitution is there, too—or once was, anyway. For the moment, storage capability and analytics techniques are evolving briskly and the government is flush enough to afford them. The day has arrived when, if the government decides it doesn’t like you, it will simply data-mine you to backstop all the reasons why it doesn’t like you.

Alas, profit-making entities do not enjoy the same boundless access to acres of Utah desert and public largesse. Big Brother enjoys scalability whereas profit centers cannot forgo front-end data analytics techniques. Capitalists have to take out the trash because data warehousing is a huge and growing expense. In a perverse twist on the crowding-out effect, the private sector could ultimately contract under the onerous burden of data storage costs (even as the business value of the stored data is known to be de minimus), while the public sector sits smug atop your paramour’s pet name. You call that fair, Mr. Orwell?

Studies have shown three-quarters of all data has the retention value of an empty gum wrapper. This is one way of saying the legal profession has zero interest in its liability value (and don’t think for a minute that defense against potential lawsuits isn’t a big part of the anal retention bias). IBM’s Pritchard, again:

A large part of the inability to push a delete button is the result of legislation requiring businesses to maintain certain identifiable information to ensure transparency when ostensibly working on behalf of stockholders. In addition, a business of any size being sued, or suing to protect its rights, better be able to produce evidence to prove its case. Court sanctions have been swift and harsh in the evidentiary arena.  Attorneys have responded to keep it all. Attorneys are focused on risk. They look in one direction, strictly adhering to the law, torpedoes be damned.

Fortunately, there are countervailing forces within the enterprise. IT departments, threatened by the predations of data storage costs on their budgets (and the resultant brakes on innovation and development) are as eager to take out the trash as in-house general counsel are to let the refuse just pile up. Nor did enterprising CIO’s climb the corporate ladder for the purpose of becoming graveyard caretakers. And yet a recent McKinsey & Company report (“Big Data: The Next Frontier for Innovation, Competition, and Productivity, May 2011) projects 40 percent growth in global data generation per annum versus five percent growth in global IT spending. With fewer allocable dollars contending with explosive and unabated data generation, Big Data risks becoming the dumpster that ate The Next Big Thing.

How will innovation maintain a place at the IT table? Slowly, senior management is coming to realize that the security blanket is really an anvil in disguise. The fact, is Big Data threatens to be a major job and productivity killer. With more bytes and less people, the machine wins again. Frankly, how many more battles can We the People afford to lose?
Even today, only two percent of all existent human data is on the Internet. Oh good, only 98 percent more to plow through! Rilke would be struck by the frivolity of the task, indexing the totality of (ever-expanding) human data, tantamount, one suspects, to moving every grain of sand on every beach from the left side of the beach to the right side and vice versa.

Suppose Sisyphus managed just once to tip his boulder over the crest of the hill. Would it not just careen into a meta-valley on the other side? How is our wisdom, our knowledge enhanced by the reptilian impulse to catalog everything under the sun or, as Sven Birkerts characterizes, the replicative meaninglessness of the so-called ‘digital path’, to invent:

“…a parallel realm… [that] would move us away by building a new world, with new human rules, and placing it squarely atop the old.” (“The Room and the Elephant”, Sven Birkerts, Los Angeles Review of Books, 7 June 2011)

Should the day ever arrive (it would have to be at the end of history) when the universe becomes fully indexed on the Internet, does the Internet not become the universe? or at the least a parallel meta-universe? What will we do then? Re-roll our boulders to their originating valleys? Admit the inevitable and collapse our souls into avatars? Who will conduct the first-order, up-close reconnoiter, what Emerson, anticipating Rilke describes as, “…the poet nam[ing] the thing because he sees it, or comes one step nearer to it than any other”? Metadata names names, making it at least one step removed from the poet’s sacred project. Our transformative energies are wasted on filing chores, relegating us to glorified machine-language adjuncts. Steve Lohr looks ahead to this very prospect:

“Decisions of all kinds, [Big Data experts] say, will increasingly be made on the basis of data and analysis rather than experience and intuition — more science and less gut feel…what psychologists call ‘anchoring bias.’” (“Sizing Up Big Data, Broadening Beyond the Internet”, The New York Times, 19 June 2013)

Anchoring bias sounds a lot like poetic voice, that woefully inadequate yet durable nemesis of analytics everywhere, the human soul. The impending Big Data train-wreck cries out for a deeper reckoning to which we must rally our poet-technologists, all five of them. If we would only self-listen with proper gnostic intensity our data footprints would collapse like the nervous babel they mostly are. Big Data is the shadow-form of all we could not bring ourselves to reflect upon. Intuition will not be indexed.

Therein lies its value. Intuitives risk being hunted to extinction by the NSA State. If you cannot tweet it, it will not exist, an assault on Rilkean consciousness Patriot Act IV will surely codify. The apotheosis of P. K. Dick’s black iron prison (and Bentham’s Panopticon) is the Internet in its late-stage authoritarian form. Even Hammerbacher asks rhetorically if belatedly, “What does it mean to live in an era where things and people are infinitely observed?” Thank you, Mr. Hammerbacher, for tossing circumspection on the pyre of scientific advance.

But then, scientists are famous for plunging ahead and leaving others to look like ridiculously out-of-step Luddites. Allow me to dig my heels in first: If the wonders of Hiroshima have taught us anything, it is that the huge potential of Big Data will be met with a mushroom cloud of compensatory magnitude. Thus, it is precisely the breathless claims of Big Data analytics that have me shaking in my boots. We must relight the early Christian catacombs somewhere off the grid as the soul is being driven underground, once again.

I’m also prompted to offer an updated definition of that cagey yet ineradicable word ‘soul’ as being the human region which proves resistant to data collection and surveillance, not because we erect a killer (and thus someday, ‘with the right technology’, surmountable) firewall; but because there is something within the very fabric of soul that is antithetical to data collection and looms one step beyond Hammerbacher’s ‘infinite’ field of observation. The proof for soul? That Sisyphus’ punishment is so incomprehensible in magnitude and scale that no data silo can ever hope to contain it in the shuttered language of binaries. Capture is impossible. Only poetry can evoke it.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. If the soul proves to be but a billion points of convergent data, we will brush through the trans-human era on the way to machine-hegemony and human extinction. There’s a whole human movement working earnestly towards this capitulation called Singularitarianism —how traitorous, how charming. Absent this forever vouchsafed realm, the poetic project collapses like a metaphysical hoax perpetrated against the centuries. As goes poetry, so goes the soul. Historic man cannot be so far behind.

In the meantime, we are high-tech beasts of burden dragging stones towards a Great Collective Pyramid of Cyber. Had we realized the Digital Revolution would enlist us in a massive water-carrying project instead of emancipating us to pursue a Greater Meaning (the manna-headstone of information), we might never have picked up those damned Blackberry’s in the first place. Now we’re hooked. But please, just hold that thought. Don’t type it.

Big Brother, Big Data & the Sustaining Power of Kellogg’s® Eggo® Waffles