Christmas 2021, Here’s What We Know

Torben Eskerod, photography.

“The erasure of the personality is the fatal accompaniment to an existence which is concretely submissive to the spectacle’s rules, ever more removed from the possibility of authentic experience and thus from the discovery of individual preferences.”
Guy Debord (Comments on the Society of the Spectacle)

“The story goes that Fermi was having lunch with some colleagues back in 1950 (notice how both the Drake equation and the Fermi paradox are very old concepts, which does not exactly mark SETI as a field burgeoning with theoretical innovation).The conversation veered to how many intelligent forms of life there might be in the galaxy, apparently with most participants taking for granted that the number should be pretty high (the Drake equation had not been published yet, but of course astronomers had already estimated the size of the galaxy at almost science 39 hundreds of millions of stars). Fermi listened to the arguments being made and then contributed a simple, but devastating, remark: “[Then] where is everybody?”
Massimo Pigliucci (Nonsense on Stilts)

“By the early 1930s, occultism was in several respects a mass phenomenon in Germany. One crucial element in this process of popularization was the esoteric appropriation of the rhetoric of science. Indeed the modern occult revival itself can be seen as a product of “the secularization of esotericism” in the post-Enlightenment era and a product of the hybridization of esoteric cosmologies and modern scientific cosmologies.”
Peter Staudenmaier (Between Occultism and Fascism: Anthroposophy and the Politics of Race and Nation in Germany and Italy, 1900-1945)

“Judaism, built solely on Phallic worship, has become one of the latest creeds in Asia, and theologically a religion of hate and malice toward everyone and everything outside themselves.”
Madame Blavatsky (The secret doctrine: the synthesis of science, religion, and philosophy, 1888)

During the past two years I have become more aware of something I knew, but upon which I had not really reflected. And that is the ascension of science (which I have written about, even) and the world view born of this ‘science’ has come about (it seems anyway) in direct proportion to the decline in philosophy, in both the study of philosophy and in its influence, both in the academy and out.

And this has led me now to a belated inquiry into mathematics. I know very little math. But its been interesting to try to learn algebra and geometry from youtube videos. Ive learned enough to probably pass a high school class in either. (this proving just how bad my math teachers were in high school). But there is something important to be discovered in a non math investigation of math, and by extension science.

“An elementary structure of the world is emerging, generated by a swarm of quantum events, where time and space do not exist. Quantum fields draw space, time, matter and light, exchanging information between one event and another.”
Carlo Rovelli (Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity)

“According to the real problem, the primary goals of consciousness science are to explain, predict, and control the phenomenological properties of conscious experience. This means explaining why a particular conscious experience is the way it is – why it has the phenomenological properties that it has – in terms of physical mechanisms and processes in the brain and body.”
Anil Seth (Being You : A New Science of Consciousness)

Danielle Mericle, photography.

Seth uses the idea of ‘redness’ as an example of how to describe consciousness, or really, the questions of what consciousness ‘is’. My four year old twins can recognize something as ‘red’. What is interesting to me is that they know an apple is red as well as the barn down the road. These are very different shades of red. And yet they both identify these objects as being red. So there is something that makes them red. They also will pause when given an object, a ball say, that is borderline purple. Its not purple, which is their favorite colour, but it’s also not quite red. I might describe it as a blue red color or some sort. And they know this, too. They just don’t have the vocabulary to express it.

“The gold-standard definition of a neural correlate of consciousness, or NCC, is ‘the minimal neuronal mechanisms jointly sufficient for any one specific conscious percept’. The NCC approach proposes that there is some specific pattern of neural activity that is responsible for any and every experience, such as the experience of ‘seeing red’. Whenever this activity is present, an experience of redness will happen, and whenever it isn’t, it won’t.”
Anil Seth (Ibid)

So my twins have a built-in NCC capacity– the almost purple ball wont quite register as red for them. So far so good, I guess. But as Seth notes, the problem of consciousness is not really solved here at all. Of course it wasn’t meant to be. But correlation is not explanation. And here it seems we arrive at the first issue for me: and that is this goal of explaining, controlling, and predicting. It’s the scientific method, essentially. And at this point another set of issues intersects. And that is language. In the above quote of Rovelli he refers to the structure of the *world*. And as perhaps pedantic as it is to point out, what is meant by world? Does that mean reality? And if so, what is meant by reality? And so on.

Phyllis Galembo, photography,

“Let us imagine men who express a colour intermediate between red and yellow, say by means of a fraction in a kind of binary notation like this: R, LLRL and the like, where we have (say) yellow on the right, and red on the left. [. . . ] They would be related to us roughly as people with absolute pitch are to those who lack it.”
Ludwig Wittgenstein (Zettel)

What Wittgenstein contributes at exactly this point is that the NCC capacity, regardless of its accuracy as such, is still intwined with human psychology. Someone is naming a colour. Much as android experiments are always dependent, or at least intwined with someone choosing something.

“When Wittgenstein presents later – in the ‘Remarks on Colour’ – a language game in which “-ish expressions” are to be learned as a situation where things are to be “ordered” or “selected”,… How do I learn use the word “yellowish”? Through language-games in which, for example, things are put in a certain order this is to signify a contrast. What one is not supposed to be taught is that pink objects are so by being red – be it by being of a certain degree or any other way of indicating their being in the “extension” of red.”
Frederik A. Gierlinger (Wittgenstein on Colour)

Wittgenstein wrote that colours are not things, they have no properties beyond themselves.

“i.e. that colours do not themselves have any properties beyond being the very colours they are, namely being blue, yellow, green and so on, seems to leave us without any means to account for what is a (vital) part in seeing, looking for, choosing colours.”
Frederik A. Gierlinger (Ibid)

Dmitry Shorin

Well, the NCC experiment might suggest they are experienced as a certain neural pattern or identifiable energy. But this still means a lot of people have to agree with my twins — both the barn and the apple are red. And this is the problem with scientific explanations of consciousness. They explain nothing. As a side bar of sorts, it is worth reflecting on early Greek arithmetic and ‘Arithmology’– which was taught in the same schools as math. The influence of arithmology can be seen, obviously, in the Kabalistic studies. Arithmology was the study of the mystical import of certain numbers.

“The mark which signifies the monad is a symbol of the source of all things. And it reveals its kinship with the sun in the summation of its name: for the word ‘monad’ when added up yields 361, which are the degrees of the zodiacal circle.”
Iambilichus (The Theology of Arithmetic-, tr. Robin Waterfield)

Waterfield’s is the first translation (I believe) of Iambilichus’ work, and it is a fascinating read, actually. Maybe not a page turner, but the gravity and tone are hypnotic, and its influence clear. And as Waterfield notes in his introduction: “In passing, it should be noted that the idea that the laws which govern the universe are numerical is not in itself at all silly. It is not just that we are happy with formulae such as E=mc2: these are perhaps different in that they are supported by scientific proof. More significant is the fact that we are still happy to accept more mysterious mathematical phenomena, like the Fibonacci series of natural growth, or Bode’s law of the distances between planets, and a host of other series and constants. Do we, I wonder, have the right to praise these as scientific, but condemn the Pythagoreans as irrational?”

‘New Longden’ tile, design by William Morris.

I will quote, too, from Keith Critchlow’s forward…

“The nine, which is the last archetypal number before returning to the unity of the decad or ten, begins the row of the four lowest positions. Thirteen, which is the number of the occurrences of lunar cycles in a single year, as well as the number of closest-packed spheres around their nuclear sphere, is followed by the very special number nineteen, which is not only the magic number of years it takes for the sun and moon to be in the same relationship, but is also a sacred number for both the Holy Qu’ran and the Christian Gospels. Finally, twenty-eight is the full cycle of the moon’s phases and is also the sum of the central number 7, because 1+2+3+4+5+6+7=28. Taken arbitrarily, such facts can seem curiosities and usually do to those ignorant of ‘arithmosophy’, yet in the light of a wisdom teaching they demonstrate particular depths of symbolic value and meaning lying within the arrangement of numbers.”

It is interesting that European theosophy, or branches of it, dabbled in the mystical aspect of number symbolism. The Nazi fascination with pseudo mystical practices and symbols is seen in very diluted form in Rudolph Steiner and the Madame Blavatsky.

“A dualistic-gnostic racial religion which attracted followers in Austria and Germany during the first half of the 20th century. The term “Ariosophy”, meaning esoteric wisdom of the Aryan race, was first coined by → Jorg Lanz von Liebenfels in 1915. He earlier used the terms “theozoology” and “Ario-Christianity” and founded the Ordo Novi Templi (ONT) at Vienna in 1900 as a Christian gnostic order to celebrate an Aryan cult of pure race.”
Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke (Ariosophy; Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism)

Ellsworth Kelly

The ‘woke’ sensibility of today is the stripped down algorithmic banalized legatee of Gurdjieff (certainly the most interesting in this grouping), Steiner, Eliphas Levi (earlier), Charles Webster Leadbeater, Annie Besant, and Alice Bailey. There were a number of notables who belonged to the Theosophy Society, among them Thomas Edison and William Butler Yeats, Charles Johnston, and William Cookes (inventor of the vacuum tube).Blavatsky also wrote a good deal on the mystical significance of colour (part of why Kandinsky flirted around the edges of Theosophy). And with Kandinsky were Piet Mondrian and from another angle Hilma af Klint. The influences here are complex, but it’s hard not to see Klint or Mondrian in Agnes Martin and Ad Reinhardt. And to return to Steiner and education, this legacy is entwined with both National Socialism and with New Age mysticism, a movement that near unanimously ended up authoritarian and quasi fascist.

There are undeniable echoes of this kitsch mysticism in both the visual arts, but also in more subtle ways in ideological and political projects. In fact the entire World Economic Forum feels at times, as do most of this new generation of massively powerful NGOs, as atavistic — and even Schwab’s weird black tunic suggests a vaguely Freemasonry vibe. I wrote a little while back about the underrated influence of Taylorism in not just corporate offices and factories, but in something deeper. And I think the entire occult/theosophic canvas remains steadfastly in place, albeit mostly hidden. Or it may be that it’s in plain sight, only transformed.

Vaughn Spann

And that an undeniable current of anti semitism ran through the Theosophy movement just reinforces the desire for privilege, from a class accustomed to such.And it speaks to the anal sadistic character structure attracted to such narratives. The resurgence today of fascist movements, more and more openly, is traceable, going backward, to post 60s spirituality, and often bastardized Eastern disciplines, to Theosophy, to the itinerant preachers in the US in the late 1800s (including the formation of Mormonism) and all of it, I think, responding to the loss of the authentic that took many forms after the Industrial Revolution. There was 350 years of slave trading, and there was the genocide of Native Americans, and especially in Europe the colonizing of the periphery, the so called third world… but cutting across this were the creation of something inauthentic in the human psyche.

But I want to return to ‘consciousness’ and science for a moment more before trying to identify this psychic malignancy. A good part of Anil Seth’s book is devoted to identity. How people arrive at feelings of identity, and how perception is, in a sense, manipulated to help with this. What is remarkable about Seth’s book (admittedly a very lay pop science best seller) is its philosophical incoherence.

“In the virtual world, the ability to alter first-person perspectives is generating some fascinating applications, many of them driven by the intriguingly named ‘body swap’ illusion, which was described in a 2008 study led by the Swedish researcher Henrik Ehrsson. In the body swap set-up, two people wear head-mounted displays, each with a camera attached. By swapping the camera feeds between the headsets, each person can see themselves from the other’s point of view. The effect kicks in properly only when they shake hands. The idea is that seeing and simultaneously feeling the handshake provides the multisensory stimulation so that, when combined with top-down expectations, each person feels they are now somehow located in the other person’s body, shaking hands with themselves. This experience puts you, albeit virtually, in the shoes of another. ”
Anil Seth (Ibid)

Millions of dollars are spent on this sort of *research*. And there is a growing use of androids and virtual voices (‘friends’) to increase empathy in autistic children. Robot ‘friends’. My first response is that it is likely to do the opposite. But regardless, this feels like a runaway train of well funded research to explore non problems.

Hilma af Klint

This post began with my curiosity to learn basic math skills. And this curiosity, I think, was driven by contemplating contemporary science, how it is now nearly completely owned by corporate interests. And how the philosophy of science today has migrated to either physics or AI. But behind that looms assumptions about the purpose of science. And that means ‘progress’. And after reading Seth’s book and Corelli’s book(s) the most glaring issue (because both are very level headed, to a fault) is the lack of any political insight. Corelli spends two chapters debunking ‘postmodernism’, as a sort of autopsy on the 90s culture wars without ever touching on class and inequality. What is missing is the historical changes undergone under capitalism. When he writes of Al Gore (in a few paragraphs on climate change) he makes no mention of Gore’s wealth or the extreme privilege of his family. The changes in mass media (the Spectacle) are never even mentioned. US militarism, Imperialism, are never mentioned. Science does not exist in a vacuum, but that is how it is portrayed. These two scientists simply take at face value what the Spectacle gives them. And anytime anyone questions the motives of, say, Pfizer or Moderna (as two recent subjects) one is quickly called a ‘conspiracy theorist’. The topic of institutional intention, let alone individual, is anathema. The always present spectre of ‘progress’ has also become inoffensive and bland. The language of progress, in science or society at large, is bloodless, and feels hygienic and sterile. There is almost a sense of falling birth rates globally (infertility, but also economic birth control) mirrored in the architecture of laboratory and University lecture hall. The architecture of infertility, as it were. But never without a residue of authoritarianism.

“Rather than talk of the spectacle, people often prefer to use the term ‘media.’ And by this they mean to describe a mere instrument, a kind of public service which with impartial ‘professionalism’ would facilitate the new wealth of mass communication through mass media a form of communication which has at last attained a unilateral purity, whereby decisions already taken are presented for passive admiration. For what is communicated are orders; and with perfect harmony, those who give them are also those who tell us what they think of them.”
Guy Debord (Comments on the Society of the Spectacle)

Earlier in that same paragraph Debord writes…“The empty debate on the spectacle — that is, on the activities of the world’s owners — is thus organized by the spectacle itself…” This is intentionally ‘forgotten’ in nearly all these ‘science’ books, that there ARE owners of the planet. And they have agendas and plans, and they are often irrational and sometimes sociopathic. And so what emerges from these mini histories or surveys of science, or aspects of science, are oddly disconnected from the real world. And that same psychological, and ideological, vertigo (and amnesia) is apparent when trying to have conversations on social media regarding Covid lockdowns (for example).

Pt. Loma, Ca. Theosophical Society Headquarters, 1900.

“The individual who has been more deeply marked by this impoverished spectacular thought than by any other aspect of his experience puts himself at the service of the established order right from the start, even though subjectively he may have had quite the opposite intention. He will essentially follow the language of the spectacle, for it is the only one he is familiar with; the one in which he learned to speak. No doubt he would like to be regarded as an enemy of its rhetoric; but he will use its syntax.”
Guy Debord (Ibid)

This is particularly true today (Debord wrote the above in the mid 80s). And this extends to the culture of science, as well. It is almost as if not just the grammar and language of dissent is enclosed, but that the aesthetics of dissent and rebellion are stage managed ad hoc. It is this language of hyper instrumentality, but with the curious oder of faux mystical authoritarianism. And it is increasingly normalized. The lingering sensibility of Theosophy is interesting to follow when examining the current resurfacing of fascism. On the one hand the contemporary culture of corporate funded science is the anodyne version of National Socialism, delivered through the scientists who were scooped by the CIA and taken to the US, and who had internalized a fair share of occult symbology and racialism. On the other hand the language of today’s AI practitioners is one marked by an absence of personality and style. It is akin to the language of the World Bank or UN. It is the sound of the real-estate brochure.But one with an ideological backdrop of domination.

Allow me a brief digression (since Im a native Californian) but the Pt Loma (Lomaland) headquarters for the Theosophical Society (with rumours of overtly authoritarian treatment of children) was taken over by the Church of the Nazarene (Evangelical and missionary). It remains a campus of the Church of Nazarene. Just as a peculiar side note, besides alumni like Hoku, daughter of Don Ho, there was Matthew Taylor Coleman, who ran a Surf School, and last year murdered his two children, a 2-year-old boy and a 10-month-old girl, after he said he was “receiving visions and signs revealing that his wife possessed serpent DNA and had passed it onto his children” . He felt he had protect earth from monsters. California has always held this attraction, it seems. And buried somewhere in its yet untold history, I am sure, are connections one can barely fathom. Pt Loma, by the by, is only a 30 min drive south of Rancho Santa Fe, site of the Heaven’s Gate cult.

End digression. (if that’s what it was).

Peter Piller

It is interesting that Hitler probably had some exposure to Theosopy via the Thule Society (founded by occultist and political activist and intelligence agent Rudolf von Sebottendorf). Albert Speer among others was an active member of the Thule Society. Established in Munich in 1919, and aided by right wing agitator Anton Drexler, the Thule Society formed alliances with right wing workers groups. Thule’s Karl Harrer formed the Deutsche Arbeiterpartel (DAP). Hitler joined the DAP in 1919 and transformed it into the National Socialist Workers Party.

There were many pseudo mystical organizations in Germany at the time, and Blavatksy’s unapologetic racism and anti semitism were perfectly aligned with the right wing ascension throughout Bavaria and much of Germany. This is all by way of saying the origins of this kitsch spirituality, replete with esoteric symbols and volkish nationalism was itself the leftover skeleton of the moral and intellectual character seen in centers of study in antiquity. From Pythagorus to Disney by way of the thousand year Reich.

Jacob Holdt, photography.

It is important to remember, though, and Pigliucci should be given credit for his dissection of junk science, that genuine science has made significant contributions. And usually the defenders of science will point to advances in medicine. All true. But I do wonder if medical science has not already peaked. It is my impression, and this is purely anecdotal, that there are more bad doctors practicing today than ever before. And I know some truly great ones, too, I hasten to add. And with the protocols for the Covid event the problems with the profession have been more exposed than ever. It is the corporatization of medicine, firstly. But maybe it goes beyond that. I often wonder at how many unnecessary procedures are done every year. It begs the question of normal, or healthy.

A slight digression here because the rise of craft modernism in fin de-siècle France, (Art Nouveau) was steeped in and driven by the symbolism of colour. Art Nouveau, at least in France was partly about industrial competition with the rest of Europe, and with defining something representative of French character. Art Nouveau stalled after WW1 for a number of reasons, but with the advent of fascism in Germany and Italy, Art Nouveau was the antitheses of what Roger Griffin calls ‘stripped modernism’ of National Socialism. Art Nouveau was the anti-machine aesthetic. It was feminine and organic.

“…these ambitious building projects as material, visionary expressions of the total cultural rebirth of Germany promised by the Führer in the Kampfzeit and inaugurated with the NSDAP victory in 1933. They thus complemented the spreading network of ‘Adolf Hitler Streets’ which would one day enable ordinary workers to sweep through the German countryside in their newly bought Kraft-durch-Freude-Wagen (though in practice used before the war mostly by middle class families, lorries, and the Mercedes and Daimler-Benz of party officials).”
Roger Griffin (Building the Visible Immortality of the Nation: The Centrality of ‘Rooted Modernism’ to the Third Reich’s Architectural New Order)

Matt Atungonza

It is hard not to see the International Style in architecture as an extension, at least to some degree, of this machine/future directed sensibility, the inorganic of clean lines, regularity, and unadorned steel and glass. It immediately found a home in the U.S. as an expression of industrial progress. And while I have read critics suggesting it was in opposition to fascism, I think this is mostly wrong (Philip Johnson and Le Courbusier were both fascist sympathizers) and it has evolved (sic), like language and most else, into a watered down banality best expressed in the dental clinic aesthetic of Richard Meier’s Getty Museum in Los Angeles (speaking of the architecture of infertility). And perhaps the most blatant example of unconscious architectural aggression is Tadao Ando’s restoration (transformation, really) of the Bourse de Commerce in Paris (see here: )

In both theosophy and the occult trappings of National Socialism, and in a good amount of Weimer era art, even Art Nouveau, a streak of Orientalism appears. In Art Nouveau it was a fixation on Japonisme. But there were always the currents of ruling class anti semitism (at this time the Dreyfus Affair was hugely influential). The early influences shaping Art Nouveau (at least in France, though English art nouveau is a unique case) included, at the forefront, William Blake, the poet and illustrator. And Blake was embraced by the Pre Raphealite brotherhood, in the form of Dante Gabriel Rosetti. But the Japan mania was acute in the UK in the 1860s, with artists like Beardsley and American James Whistler. The turbulence, politically, in France was captured to a degree by the French craftsmen.

“Concerns about the politicisation of the workforce, social unrest, and indeed ‘the social question’, as it was termed, dominated political discourse. Various strains of left-wing para-political organisation – socialists, unions, anarchist terrorist groups and Christian associationalism – were all ‘construed by the elite as a single block of marauders against property’, decidedly evil in the eyes of a regime founded on the virtues of free market

Debora L. Silverman (Art Nouveau in Fin-de-siècle France: Politics, Psychology and Style)

G.A. Lindberg, architect. Residential building. Finland. 1905.

The Orientalism aside, there remained a mystical preoccupation in literature of the late 1800s in France and the UK, in Germany and Belgium and Switzerland. The comparisons in Art Nouveau style from country to country is fascinating, too (Finnish Art Nouveau architecture is remarkable, reminiscent of American Quaker building in some strange way). The English were the most naturalistic and probably most influenced by natural science and botanical drawings etc. But the point here is the French movement was radical in much the same way the English crafts movement around William Morris was. They were not overtly political in the same sense, but they were aesthetically more complex, and concerned with the stimulation of the viewer, with the experience of engagement with a work. An interesting aspect here is that the French artisans were critical of the medievalism of the English, what they saw as obscurantist symbolism and instead saw their own work as a new form of French modernity, linked, as Silverman notes, with ideas of privacy and contemplation.

“The term art nouveau and the goals associated with it are usually assigned to a purely artistic group in France, which coalesced in 1895 under the direction of the art dealer and connoisseur Siegfried Bing. In the decade preceding the 1900 exhibition, however, a much broader institutional craft initiative existed, directed by an organization called the Central Union of the Decorative Arts. After the exhibition of 1889, a coalition of prominent politicians and cultural administrators became affiliated with the Central Union’s efforts to promote the reform of design in France.”
Debora L.Silverman (Ibid)

This was also, in France, a movement that anticipated psychoanalysis.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler. 1863.

“one source of this artistic renewal was clearly unprecedented: the meaning of the 1890s craft modern style was inextricably linked to a new French medical psychology that identified the interior of the human organism as a sensitive nervous mechanism. The language of art criticism, the ideas expressed by artists themselves, and the statements of some promoters of art nouveau form a consistent pattern: an appeal to concepts absorbed from late nineteenth-century French neuropsychiatry. The diffusion of a specific body of knowledge, originating with Doctor Jean-Martin Charcot of the Paris Salpêtrière and his rival Doctor Hippolyte Bernhelm of Nancy, stimulated a discourse in the artistic world connecting the organic curvature of modern craft arts to nervous palpitation, hypnotic suggestibility, and the inducement of dream states.”
Debora L. Silverman (Ibid)

This was to be eclipsed by the end of WW1 with the machine aesthetic of fascist style. A style which almost denied the interiority of Art Nouveau. The point here is that today’s view of Art Nouveau has been kitschified. The least interesting artists of the period are the most promoted. And it usually assigned to a side bar of decorative practice.

“The merits of every great age are ultimately expressed in its architecture. When peoples internally experience great times, they also lend these times an external manifestation. Their word is then more convincing than the spoken word: it is the word of stone! “
Adolph Hitler (Speech at the industrial Art Exhibition in the Haus der Deutschen Kunst Munich, January 22, 1938)

Toulouse Lautrec (At the Moulin Rouge,) 1895.

I’m being reductive here to a degree, because 20th century modernism was extraordinarily complex. What seems germane is that Art Nouveau in France was a celebration of craft, the making beautiful of everyday objects; fireplaces, hair clips, chandeliers, doors, and chairs. It was the antitheses of mass produced. Now, so was the Arts and Crafts movement in the UK around William Morris, which preceded Art Nourveau to a degree. And then by 1903 the German collective ‘Wiener Werkstätte’ began to pare down the Art Nouveau aesthetic for something more commercial but also more forward looking, a style later dubbed Art Deco. Art Nouveau was a profound explosion of aesthetic restructuring. The truth is, Art Nouveau was best at mirrors and desks, it was somehow about the everyday, about accessing the everyday unconscious. Deco was slick and cool — it was immediately appealing in its approachability.

I must add that William Morris hovers above all of this as the greatest designer of textiles, and the greatest book illustrator of all time. He was also a committed socialist and Marxist. Morris was one of the great geniuses of the 19th century, and his own work (perhaps significantly more than his collaborators) was simply unimpeachable.

Later, of course, came the Bauhaus, through the early thirties. In the USSR, constructivists, and in Germany people like Adolph Loos (Austrian, actually) and Peter Behrens. But then WW2, and fascism, and somehow the lens through which artists and certainly architects viewed the world had changed. I’ve said before that Abstract Expressionism was the last sincere movement in painting. In architecture Id say early century modernists could be discussed, and then later outliars like Barragan, and Ludwig Leo, and Aldo Rossi. And Louis Kahn. In fact Im still hugely sympathetic to Brutalism as a whole I have to admit.

“These developments did not take place in a vacuum. Anthroposophy was part of a broader stream of ‘life reform’ movements that held considerable appeal in early twentieth century Germany and brought together tendencies which seem like strange bedfellows today, such as groups combining vegetarianism and holistic spirituality with Aryan supremacy.”
Peter Staudenmaier (Between Occultism and Fascism: Anthroposophy and the Politics of Race and Nation in Germany and Italy, 1900-1945 )

Frank Stella

The fascism of Germany and Italy, that peaked in WW2, has never left us. I might argue now, looking back, that the 60s was sabotaged when it veered away from the Black Panthers and Che and Fidel, and Malcolm X and found shelter at the health food store. I remember living in LA in high school, and already hating the direction of the counter culture. The anti war movement was huge and important. Saved me, in fact. I graduated high school in 69. Summer of love. The incense and crystals, the patchouli, all this was a currency of style, and I was fine with it. I grew my hair long. Literally everyone did. But after 75 there was something already wrong and you could feel it in the air. Just as now you can feel fear in the air today.

Siegfried Krakauer attended a seminar of sorts conducted by Rudolph Steiner, in Darmstadt in summer 1921. He wrote a scathing critique of it and of Steiner. He had been shocked at Steiner’s popularity and how many university students attended. Later, Walter Benjamin wrote a short essay on Hans Liebstoeckl’s book (quite well received otherwise) Occult Sciences on the Light of Our Age (1932).

I quote from Spyros Petritakis essay on Steiner and German Culture:

“Benjamin cautiously reflected on how this kind of literature found its way from the ‘anonymous obscurity into the brightly lit window displays of more expensive shops’.7 This improvement in status was, according to Benjamin, contingent upon a wider shift in middle class taste towards products of knowledge that not only assured of an exclusive reality of the spirit but also ascertained the ineffectiveness of class struggle. In Benjamin’s view, the occult trend has greatly profited from the collapse of general education and from people’s loss of faith in it. Hence, although Anthroposophy presupposes, as Benjamin remarks, a higher level of education than do straightforward spiritualists, it is, nevertheless, a product resulting from the withering of the humanities and the collapse of knowledge of the classical languages. According to him, the ‘oleaginous gibberish’ of the adherents of anthroposophy, by far the most ambitious among the false prophets, can easily be understood as ‘a residue of the great philosophy of humanism that had formerly constituted an integral part of general education, along with the hard sciences’. Thus, general education’s dissolution leaves a void, which is to be filled with the anthroposophists’ claims upon enlisting ‘the whole of world history as a marketing devise’.”
Spyros Petriatkis (Rudolf Steiner’s engagement with contemporary artists’ groups: art-theoretical discourse in the anthroposophical milieu in Germany in the early 20th century)

Ervin Marton, photography (Cafe Les Deux, Paris, 1950).

It is interesting that the theosophists were never overtly political, which was one of Adorno’s complaints. Their ersatz neutrality actually betrayed a tolerance for Nazism. There has been a revival of sorts, starting in the 90s, from various art historians, in an attempt, it seems, to rehabilitate the occult links between Kandinsky,Klee, Mondrian and Theosophy. The progressive side of this is to legitimize abstraction (although I’m not sure that’s necessary) but the regressive is to legitimate passivity and fatalism, resignation and an apology for barbarism. Benjamin was interested, throughout his life, with magic and occult practices. He wrote about it countless times, and struggled to articulate the serious work of signs and symbols from the kitsch side show mind readers or spiritual leaders who masked their authoritarianism with obscurantist jargon (Adorno saw Heidegger as an elevated form of this). It is also worth considering the popularity of gambling in the contemporary West (actually, everywhere) which as Benjamin noted is a form of divination, of magical thinking. But it also contains an opaque connection to capitalism.

“…the essential thing for Steiner, as with Krishnamurti or Bo Yin Ra, is the great universal harmony in which all individual details are subsumed. If we wish to gain a purchase on these details in the bizarre forms to which they have been condemned by the decay of general education, we have to look at their opposite pole. That the latter has just as powerful a magnetic attraction for the masses as the various essays in magic can be deduced from the popular “Ask Me ” columns or the items along the lines of “Did you know … ?” that have been a permanent feature of certain daily papers for years now. The chaotic scattering of pieces of factual information that characterizes such diversions is not as senseless as might appear at first sight. At any rate, there is one great branch of economic activity that makes use of them-namely, advertising. Look through the advertising section of the illustrated weeklies. On every page, you’ll find pictures of famous men and landscapes, cultural, historical, and technical information, classical rules on how to live, statistical tables, and chemical and physiological data.”
Walter Benjamin (Light From Obscurantists)

Donald Judd, 1972.

So, click bait is not new. What has changed over eighty some years is that the atavistic occult is now approvingly middle class. Usually white. Education is so degraded that the only books found in the few remaining book stores that sell are ‘self help’ books. The new age mysticism of post sixties radicals gradually lost its eccentric trappings and became vaguely scientific (L.Ron Hubbard, Werner Erhard et al). And for the more educated, though still almost consistently badly educated, are the lay science books. The execrable Yuval Noah Harari is the current pop star of these pseudo scientific books, often with a gimmicky ‘rewriting’ of history — it is honestly not very far from Erich von Däniken. This is the occultism of the TED talk era.

Much as the CIA routinely trots out a UFO sighting, there is periodically a new historical discovery. It keeps the proles occupied. Its funny that what Benjamin calls ‘Did you know…?’ is now ‘Here’s what we know….’. There may be something significant in that.

“The specter of ‘Nazi occultism’ remains a frequent theme in popular media. Such adumbrations of the topic miss the import of earlier critiques like Mann’s or Adorno’s, however; the concern of Hitler’s foes was not that the origins of the Third Reich lay in obscure occult doctrines or that Nazism had come to power through occult means, but that enthusiasm for occultism had contributed to a general predisposition toward cultural and political irrationality.”
Peter Staudenmaier (Ibid)

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  1. John Steppling says:
  2. Regino Robainas says:

    Shi…,that ghastly Walt Happy Themes ghost
    may continue to haunt through the magic

    I’ve enduring overenduring some of its all-too-
    sweet maudlin holidays’ lovee dovey garlamds
    lately. Feels somewhat like a last superparty
    in the bunker.

  3. Fascinating connections here. I’m glad you tugged gambling into your discussion, as apparently gambling receipts at casinos for 2021 have soared. Desperate people looking to magic.

    I’m curious about your investigations into anthroposophy. I wouldn’t know much about it EXCEPT that the healer who has helped me significantly over the past year seems devoted to it.

    Having received some training in critical thought (through the written word) and Marxism (ditto as well as personal observation on social relations and market economy) but also having turned away from an academic career based on persistent whisperings that it would take me down some unsatisfying paths, I have carved out a strange niche for myself, one consequence was that I had to rely on other ways to keep myself healthy, since health insurance (that is, western medicine) was beyond my financial means. Fortuitously (?), my first gig out of undergrad was working for a professional chiropractic member organization (specifically the California Chiropractic Association) after their big victory fighting AMA’s monopoly over insurance reimbursement. So I was familiarized with alternative therapies relatively early on, and my journey to stay well took me into Eastern modalities and diet/nutrition.

    What I’ve noticed about my current healer is that there are strains of just the kind of limited critical thought you are referring to here. For me, awaking to the nightmare of the covid narrative by adhering to a variety of thought streams (anti-corporatism, class consciousness, a knowledge of historical authoritarianism, and rigorous insistence on my personal autonomy especially through choosing my own health care modalities), I’ve noticed that the health provider community can teeter a little too close to a mysticism that, because it’s not grounded in class consciousness, gestures toward some really frightening authoritarianism. One specific example is a Dr. Mercola interview with Catherine Austin Fitts that I listened to recently. At the end he starts talking about his obsession with Atlas Shrugged, and I had to stop the podcast. It was almost embarrassing that someone whose exposure of a certain aspect of the covid narrative has made important, early contributions is admitting his fascination with a text that goes wells beyond advocating mere capitalist production values.

    I think as with any generalization, small differences within a movement can get muddled. Creating broad coalitions of real people battling in real time what’s being enforced globally has to be done. But it’s definitely worth remembering there are values that shouldn’t be washed away in the rinse cycle. I don’t think we need a digital reality headset to perceive them either.

    Thanks for holding our feet to the fire.

  4. Regino Robainas says:

    I believe there exists an important enigma
    contained in your concluding sentences re. irrationality
    and Magic. Like fire, dangerous and ,too, promising.

    I’m remembering Hess’ Magic Theatre in Steppenwolf, Garcia
    Marquez’s Magic Realism, the links between madness and
    theatre and my own sense of the significance of inspiring
    passion and music for any difficult and worthy undertaking.
    So, we should become intelligent madwomen & men, i propose.

  5. Regino Robainas says:

    I also wanted to praise your efforts &
    curiosity about Mathematics, Neural Networks
    & such (AI, etc.). The weltenshaung of
    Neural Networks is revealed in the typical
    introductory textbook’s example of a nn
    program to predict good vs. bad credit risks
    “kinds” of people. At the input layer of the
    neural simulation of an omniscient body-to-be
    lies a layer of nodes or neuron points representing
    defining defining the person to be bank evaluated.

    Subsequent node layers of the network of various
    lenghts (number of neurons) are then constructed. The
    connections between the nodes of different layers are
    embryonic weights to be discovered through a
    back-propagation of the feedback errors that are intended to
    be minimized as the network is “trained”.

    The suggested multiple or just outputs consist
    of good or bad credit risks. Oursoul’s
    Last Judgment becomes a cold, merely statistical
    machine release, like old IBM punchcards that
    cut their fingers.

  6. Regino Robainas says:

    Sweet to hear a scientist attribute divine felinity
    to comets. Doubtless, a sense of the sacred has not totally
    exited the Stage.

  7. Regino Robainas says:
  8. Tamara Sykes says:

    I don’t have a twitter account, but I check your twitter feed and appreciate it what you post there. I’ve gone down some interesting paths.

    I just have to quibble with your Didion crush. I will agree she’s a skilled technician. I lived in Sacramento and went to Berkeley, so I too had that glow of kinship discovered. Although Didion was 30 years older, what wasn’t to like about her jaded approach since it suggested that she once was a believer but is so much wiser now.

    I had to put that all in the past, however, when I realized how morally conservative her work was. I think it started to dawn on me when I read The Year of Magical Thinking or that last one which appealed only to the voyeuristic. Not that there weren’t elements of her critiques (of the 60s, for instance) that weren’t spot-on. But there was always a moral collapse ongoing that captured her attention and was usually located in the body/behavior of some other person/group. You could almost hear her pinching her nose.

    I think the missile of self-absorption in Didion’s review of Allen’s films at the end of the 70s falls short. I mean, really? If that’s not Didion’s metier, what is? The good news about Allen’s schtick is that at it’s best it’s hilarious and has influenced some good stand-up (Chris Rock, Dave Chapelle, early Seinfeld). Allen highlights these neurotics AS neurotics, or at least gives a viewer like me the ability to see that. Annie Hall isn’t a film that exists outside of comedy. Didion couldn’t do that, at least in writing, which to me illustrates the echo chamber she lived in, cocooned in her various rarefied environments.

  9. John Steppling says:

    Didion occupies a curious corner of political consciousness. Lots of leftists claim to dislike her but I think there is an element of bad faith in that. She is technically a remarkable writer with an unmistakable voice and she transcribed something singular and indelible about california, in particular the central valley. And maybe its because I know that area that she resonates with me. Her best work was the early work. Slouching Toward Bethlehem is remarkable. As for the allen review, remember this was written in 79 so I just found it amusing to read as if she had written it ten minutes ago because what she said was far more true of his last half dozen films… all very *serious*. Its funny how shallow he is as a serious artist. But hey, if you think allen is amusing, fine. I guess I did when he appeared on johnny carson. Not much since.

  10. Allen has become less and less appealing as I’ve grown older, and I think I’m discerning enough to separate his art from his personal life, to the extent that’s possible given the subject matter. (Polanski is much better, if the comparison is made. I’d rather watch ‘The Ghost Writer’ or’Venus in Furs’ again than anything Allen made.) He really is a little racist in his own fashion.

  11. Regino Robainas says:

    “Miami”, I felt, was one of her best. I had
    moved a bit north, to Palm Beach, but she
    portrayed the zeitgeist of the Versailles
    restaurant, its tropical surrealistic
    mirrors and all. You are on target, Slouching
    was possibly her best. May the Gods bear her to
    a better future land.

  12. Merry Christmas John,
    I also lurk in your twitter feed. YES! Bob Fosse in Kiss Me Kate! To which I’d add Steam Heat from Pajama Game (Carol Haney), Fosse & Verdon’s Who got the pain number from Damn Yankees…
    I’m not so conversant with Didion but (maybe I’ve had too much wine)–her essay “Goodbye to All that” on leaving NYC reminds me a lot of Fosse’s Rich Man’s Frug. The NYC “beautiful people” of the 60s. Not kidding all that much…
    have holidays as good as is possible to have given the scammania. I intend to.

  13. Regarding the matter of a rising interest in “magical thinking”, the writings of Guido Giacomo Preparata show both an explicit hostility towards Marxism and a somewhat covert approach towards the occult. In writing about his literary and philosophical hero Thorstein Veblen, he notes a kind of furtive dancelike play towards “supernatural agency as the main pulsion of all social action” whereby Veblen seems to be both attracted towards and repelled by such concepts. I don’t think it too presumptive to see Preparata as someone drawn to such occultism. He has even been explicit about this in an interview.


    I know it seems absurd,
    but in WORD war three,
    shepherds attack their herds

    Wake now my friend,
    we are in the House of Lies,
    where only the Wise will survive

    You must relearn to discern the light,
    for words are weapons now,
    a deceiver’s duplicitous delight…

    The House of Lies (continued)

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