Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Programmed amnesia

[This is a guest essay by my young associate, Gregory, the leader of the revolutionary group, Mantis.  For more by Gregory, read his blog at: http://www.gregorysarmyoftheyoung.com/]

No one remembers being in the womb, even though research indicates that fetuses have memory.  The selective amnesia seems hard-wired, suggesting that evolutionary pressure made it advantageous not to remember gestation.  

In a second programmed amnesia, no one remembers being a baby, though all the evidence indicates that babies have memory. Why are no baby memories saved?  

Could the transitions from womb to babyhood and from babyhood to toddler jump chasms too wide to translate?  Do we protect ourselves from memory? A Darwinian might surmise that proto-humans who remembered the womb went mad from grief and confusion, and toddlers who remembered babyhood did the same.  The "fittest" were those who forgot.

Researchers have discovered a third programmed amnesia at age seven, when a child's brain undergoes a culling of the previous six years of memory.  Unlike the total blockades of memory before birth and between birth and age one, this third event deletes some memory but not all.  No one knows the criteria for remembering or forgetting, why the amnesia occurs at age seven or what its purpose is.

Humanity practices adult-driven amnesia as well, spread via social groups often with conscious intent.  For example, when one culture dominates and/or destroys another, the remaining culture usually doesn't want to remember the culture that was destroyed, at least not in uncensored versions.  The state helps by programing amnesia.  In Stalinist Russia people were not allowed to tour the tsars' palaces.  They needed to forget those palaces and a culture that often dazzled.  One of the Dutch party that first explored Manhattan Island reported that the native population were clean, healthy and sane, not filthy, sick, and crazy like people the reporter had seen in European cities (Gotham, A History of New York City to 1898; Edwin G. Burrows/Mike Wallace). That report has gone missing in most history books.  No one wants to remember it.

Sometimes we rewrite society's memories of events from the not too distant past, giving them a spin, while individuals having the original, unspun memories are still alive.  This causes controversy among those who remember the original events, as people with different spins grapple with each other to control the rewriting of the memory narrative.  Such a grappling was sparked after the recent funeral of President George H.W. Bush, in which he was eulogized as a "second founding father."  The controversy died down when everyone realized the rewrite would not make it to pubic school textbooks.  

There are cycles of amnesia in our long-term evolution as well.  We have forgotten what human life was like before we adopted agriculture, only 10,000 years ago.  If it weren't for a few fragments of bone and clay, and some vague myths, we wouldn't know we had lived in small tribes as hunter gatherers.  While we've figured out some of the basics, we cannot remember what it felt like to be human for those hundreds of thousands of years.  

Humanity is about to undergo another mass amnesia.  In a few centuries (or less), there might not be more than a handful of people in the world who've heard of Shakespeare, or the Roman Empire, or any of today's nation-states.  It could be the "end of history" we've been hearing about.  Genetic engineering, AI and machine/human interface will create a new humanity that will not understand much about the old one, except that it was primitive and should be discarded and forgotten.  

Today, as if to expedite the process, we are working on drugs to delete "traumatic" memories, in a bid perhaps to keep pace with our bionic offspring, whose memories will be moderated by coders.  The current flooding of quasi-legal marijuana into all levels of Western society seems part of the trend, as the latest research on THC, the active ingredient, suggests it functions by limiting short-term memory (if further research on marijuana is legalized, it should ponder why limiting short-term memory produces a "high").

How should we react to the coming mass amnesia?  We might as well fight it, don't you think?  By "fight it" I don't mean keep it from happening.  I mean, let's inject some memory into the future, while we can.  

That is the basic mission of my group, Mantis.  Much thanks to Harry the Human for giving me this platform.  I return you now to Harry.  For more of my essays, and information about Mantis, follow us at: http://www.gregorysarmyoftheyoung.com/

Saturday, December 1, 2018

There's a Bard in my Yard

What if, though all we teach our young
Be naught but dreams we teach ourselves,
We- in the throes of later-aged ambition
To be more upon the stage
Than aged babes,
Suckling, passive, small accounted in the public eye,
Or domestic ciphers
Sweeping dust to dust
And daily circling mile on mile
In quiet contemplation
-hidden watched the generations flow,
While all around the greatest triumphs
From the greatest minds 
Did cause calamitous clash
And magnificent ornament of the soul?

But children too,
Uprooted on life’s playground,
Who face the rousing slap
And challenge of the intellect’s 
swampy doubt,
Think not of quiet corners
But of noisy triumph on the field

Demanding that we set aside
The limits of our scope
And take them on a joyous ride
Of certitude and hope.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Movie review: "At Eternity's Gate"

When you live in the desert you shouldn't say, "It's a desert out here," because what else would it be, and because deserts aren't really deserted; they're full of wonderful things.  But you might find mine a cultural desert, at least if, like me, after weeks of gazing along with your fellow humans in forced passivity at the horror show of history, seeing it strive for some sort of climax in our time and in the process unveil your mistakes and demonstrate that you did everything wrong, that there is no one to blame but yourself for a parade of world catastrophes that seems to emerge directly from your guilt, you develop an urgent need to view a beautiful work of art about a man driven mad by what he sees.  

So you decide to see the new movie "At Eternity's Gate," about Vincent van Gogh, written and directed by the masterful Julian Schnabel.  With your laptop on the kitchen table in your Pearblossom shack, bathed in a blast of setting sunlight coming through the window, van Gogh's nuclear fission streaming over the San Gabriel Mountains, you search the theater listings, scanning hundreds of square miles of desert which you find contain too few people who want to see this film to justify the economics of showing it at a multiplex in Lancaster or Palmdale, so you continue to scan and finally locate a showing in Encino- an L.A. suburb sixty miles south- at the Laemlee, an art theater you've been to before (most notably with your telepathic lizard friend- keep reading for more on that), but the schlep has got to be worth it, you think, because it looked like it would be a really cool and rare movie, and that it was.  

If I may dwell on the Laemlee for a moment, the audience is an older crowd, especially for movies about guys who are driven mad by what they see, which always strikes me as strange...I mean, that a teenage boy, say, wouldn't be spellbound by a man going mad from what he sees but instead might be captivated by a giant robot smashing iconic buildings.  Are they not two forms of the same thing?

Anyway, back to the movie.  Willem Dafoe was stunning as van Gogh.  He's always stunning, but in this case he was stunning because he created an actual Vincent van Gogh, whether or not it was accurate in all respects (the movie opts for the recent theory that van Gogh's death by bullet wound was not self-inflicted), a van Gogh that shimmers off the screen like van Gogh's oils shimmering off the canvas.  It was almost too much, I mean how long can you love watching the beauty of a man going mad from what he sees before you start to wonder, is this entertainment, is it therapeutic, or is it about all of us joining together to merge with this Christlike figure and go mad from what we see, in which case I deserve double my senior discount because I don't want to go mad from what I see, I want to survive it, if possible, and not prematurely enter the heaven of exploding suns that must have informed van Gogh's study of theology and love of light.

Of course, you need help to not go mad from what you see.  Works of art like "At Eternity's Gate" help, but you also need help from the crass, physical world- what we often call "the real world."  What kind of help from the crass world?  I personally would like to see an element of political force at our disposal that is not cynical, because, seductive as cynicism can be, it's a dangerous indulgence when you're on the edge the way humankind is.

I should add that by cynicism I mean lying.  I'd like to see a political force that states the obvious so we don't have to feel like van Gogh, alone with what we see.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Midterm journal- Day 3

The midterm election acted as a closed mental floodgate, holding Americans in an emotional, intellectual thrall long enough so that politicians and our democratic system could focus us on a reality in which elected officials represent specific things, like taxing too little or too much;  opposing Trump enough or not enough.  During the process many people felt they were making decisions about critical matters.  On day 2 the floodgate held, as the midterm results defined our central reality.

But on day 3 the floodgate opened and stored-up real life poured in: A man undone by hatred killed 12 people and himself in a Thousand Oaks bar; the next day a fire of unprecedented destructive force erupted a few miles from the bar, ending the dreams and lives of many and sending shockwaves through millions of people in California and the world.  

But we did not vote on gun control in the midterm, or policy regarding the multitude of isolated, despairing people who live as time bombs among us.  We did not vote on development in fire zones, or effective moves on climate change.  

For the rest of today and in the days to follow the floodgate will remain open and real life will pour in unrelentingly. Very little of this real life will have been voted on.

My sense is that some of the war potential that has been stored in multiple locations around the world will soon be realized.  There will be provocations about everything from Brexit to Gaza.  War is the ultimate distraction, so distracting that if it happens now, no one will notice that war was not discussed in the midterm; we did not vote on it.

Are there decent alternatives to what we call democracy?  The word itself has sacred status.  No one questions democracy.  I'm not going to question it either, except to ask whether we have it. 

Let's keep our concept of democracy, but realize that it's an attempt rather than a fait accompli, and try to make it more real.  We can do that by inserting into our political vocabulary terms reflecting our immediate situation: genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, automation, mass displacement and unrest, total surveillance, total control.  If the national election in 2020 does not recognize what is actually happening to us, we will not have a democracy even in a theoretical sense.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Midterm journal - Day 2, Results

Today everyone is falling into their proper categories.  Here are three common ones (I'm in the second):

1. People who are empowered and joyful that the Democrats took the House.

2. People who are somewhat relieved that the Democrats took the House but are constrained by a sober reflection:  The basic uncertainties about humanity's current direction(s) remain uncertain, and would have remained uncertain even if the Democrats had also taken the Senate.  People in this category tend to see our elections as correctives for mistakes that came out of previous elections, but not necessarily as correctives for anything else.  

3. People who accept Trump's tropes and believe they are in a spiritual war against evil.  They will rejoice in the saving of the Senate and vilify the new House.

No one has been vanquished; the battle lines are sharpened.  There will be much noise ahead.

The word democracy was coined by the ancient Greeks to denote rule by slave-owning wealthy males.  In our culture, democracy means rule by politicians and consultants, who pick the terms and definitions for the rest of us.  Trump usurps the consultant role and uses only his own terms and definitions.  With the terms provided us, our democracy can connect us to immediate matters like taxes and social policy and give us some impact.  Unless it produces the proper terms, however, our democracy will give us no impact on matters like war and peace, or rewriting our genetic code, or replacing human judgement with machine intelligence.  Those questions, unless terms are provided, will be addressed behind closed doors as if there were no such thing as an election.

It's almost as if we are expected to project our lives onto a fantasy video game called Democracy, where everyone is battling about economics, ethnicity, gender, morality, religion and the future, fielding candidates and holding elections.  It can be an exciting game, but when you look up from the screen, you encounter your life.  Your actual life.  The video game is not real.

[For more Harry the Human, click on "Older posts" below right]