My Interview on Stark Truth Radio

I had a great conversation with Robert Stark and his co-host Pilleater on Robert’s podcast the other day. We talked about my book Paradise Theater and the background that led to my writing it, as well as different aspects of life in Shenzhen and Hong Kong, and comparisons of East and West in culture and philosophy.

Stark Truth Radio is one of the most interesting and eclectic mixes of opinion and information from the fringes of politics, culture, and art, and it was a privilege to be on the show.

Check it out here: http://www.starktruthradio.com/?p=4484

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HyperNormalisation and Hyperreality

Continuing our Baudrillardian theme this month, we here present the newest documentary by the BBC’s Adam Curtis, HyperNormalisation. If there’s a better documentary filmmaker than Curtis working these days, I don’t know who it is.

HyperNormalisation was released in the fall of 2016, just before the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency. Curtis weaves a complex narrative showing the interconnectedness of, among other things, the rise of cyberspace and suicide bombing, alongside the politics of persuasion that Trump used to such great effectiveness in his campaign.

The Master Persuader

One of the most important commentators on the election has been Scott Adams, who analyzed Trump’s campaign style in terms of what Robert Cialdini calls persuasion. Cialdini literally wrote the book on persuasion back in the 1980s, and it has become a must-read classic among businesspeople and politicians. More recently, he published a kind of sequel, Pre-suasion.

Adams says that Donald Trump is quite simply “the best master persuader I have ever seen.” Adams also noted that Hillary Clinton’s “persuasion game” mysteriously went from nothing to high-grade in a short amount of time, when she suddenly stopped criticizing Trump’s policies in concrete terms and began instead to talk about him as “scary.” In other words, she stopped trying to appeal to the electorate’s rationality (always a questionable approach) and started to appeal to their raw, even subconscious, emotions. Adams wondered whether she hadn’t hired Cialdini as a consultant at this time.

Another author who, like Adams, both predicted Trump’s ascendancy and analyzed his approach in terms of psychology, is Mike Cernovich. His short book MAGA Mindset utilizes Carol Dweck’s concept of “mindset” and deduces Trump’s inner game based Trump’s own writings, as well as those of his early mentor and pastor, Norman Vincent Peale, who pioneered the concept of “positive thinking” in the 1950s.

Few people realize that Trump was raised attending Peale’s Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan, and is thus a product of New Thought, that peculiarly American religion which seems to be always available for repackaging into a new bestselling book every decade or so, from William Walker Atkinson to Peale and on to Rhonda Byrne in more recent times. The gist of the sales pitch – for, as I previously wrote, New Thought seems to be above all else a pyramid scheme – is that people can create their own reality.

Both Adams and Cernovich noted many times that Donald Trump is a master of “reframing” events to make them seem more favorable to himself. There’s no question that this is true, and that one has to understand this in order to understand how Trump succeeded against the combined efforts of the media, Hollywood, the entire Democratic Party, and even much of the Republican Party. However, what allows both Adams and Cernovich to admire Trump as much as they do is that both authors seem to have embraced postmodernism as their way of seeing the world.

The Logic of Simulation and the Vertigo of Interpretation

Scott Adams lays out his worldview in his How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. It’s an excellent book, filled with a lot of practical and useful advice about business and life in general. Adams says, echoing William Burroughs, that human beings are basically “moist robots.” We think we have free will and autonomous personalities, but really, we are just programmed by our surroundings. The upside, if it can be called that, is that we can take some of this programming upon ourselves, with psycho-cybernetic tools like affirmations, and biochemical tools like nutritional supplements and controlled diets, and thus, we can control some of our reality.

Mike Cernovich also advocates self-programming in his best-selling Gorilla Mindset, another worthwhile book filled with a lot of good advice about self-improvement and what the ancient Greeks called σωφροσύνη. But whereas Greek philosophy culminated in the Aristotelian view of the real world and the distinction between truth and falsehood, Cernovich, in a profile piece for The New Yorker, said:

“Look, I read postmodernist theory in college. If everything is a narrative, then we need alternatives to the dominant narrative.” He smiled. “I don’t seem like a guy who reads Lacan, do I?”

It would seem that Nietzsche was right, and the future belongs to those who embrace the esoteric message of the legendary Hassan i Sabbah that “Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.”

That is certainly one of the accusations being leveled at Donald Trump, with his history of making questionable and sensational claims, such as that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the U.S.A., or that Ted Cruz’s father may have been involved with Lee Harvey Oswald. But if nothing is true anyway, then why would it not be permissible to make such claims, especially when his opponents operate according to the same principle, using all manner of lies and innuendo to discredit the President? What is the morality of fighting lies with lies? Or, if reality is just a narrative, a mental construct, then are they still lies, or are they just impositions of will upon life, like affirmations?

In 1981’s Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard noted that the ambiguity of events like the terrorist bombings in Italy – which were unsolved crimes, of unknown origin, and thus simultaneously blamed on both the left and the right – allowed them to be interpreted in multiple ways at once.

“Is any given bombing in Italy the work of leftist extremists, or extreme-right provocation, or a centrist mise-en-scène to discredit all extreme terrorists and to shore up its own failing power, or again, is it a police-inspired scenario and a form of blackmail to public security? All of this is simultaneously true, and the search for proof, indeed the objectivity of the facts does not put an end to this vertigo of interpretation. That is, we are in the logic of simulation, which no longer has anything to do with a logic of facts and an order of reason.”

As Mike Cernovich said in the aforementioned article, “Logic is pointless.” And indeed, who would argue that he is wrong, when our whole political system demonstrates, each and every day, that logic is powerless against the rising tide of irrational emotion?

I remember watching the debates between Al Gore and George W. Bush in 2000. Gore was clearly a man with a superior command of facts. Yet Bush was able to get the better of him, not by superior argumentation, but by being more human, more likable. It was like the argument between Judd Nelson and Anthony Michael Hall in The Breakfast Club.

Bender, did you know that without trigonometry, there’d be no engineering?

Without lamps, there’d be no light.

It’s not about who’s right, it’s about who’s cool and who’s just a nerd. A man with too many facts appears “wooden,” as they all said about Gore (lest anyone think that Trump invented the art of the one-word deadly epithet). In earlier times, they might have said “robotic,” when that word still brought to mind the stilted, boxy, metallic beings of old science fiction films. But today, with the advent of artificial intelligence and cyborg chic, it is the new man who is the “moist robot,” the enlightened self-programmer who isn’t concerned with facts but rather with creating his own reality, while those who still cling to notions of truth and falsehood, fact and fiction, right and wrong, reveal themselves to be merely human, all-too-human, antiquated relics of a dead age.

A longtime friend back in the U.S. wrote to me, exasperated, and said, “What does one believe/adhere to anymore?!!? I can’t remember a time when ‘truth’ was so subjective. Have ‘facts’ as we knew them become extinct?”

I wrote back to him with some links to Scott Adams’ articles about Trump’s powers of persuasion and the view of reality that they entail. But it was merely an offering of explanation, and not consolation. While I recognize the value and importance of the insights offered by the persuasionists, I remain skeptical of the greater worldview that they seem to present. My feeling – and perhaps that’s all it is – is that reality, however elusive it may be, is not quite as unreal as adherents of New Thought or psycho-cybernetics would have us believe. And perhaps reality, rather than having “disappeared” as Baudrillard claimed, is merely hiding in wait, plotting its return, or its revenge.

Total Screen: How Baudrillard Anticipated Trump

The wacky ideas of Jean Baudrillard get less wacky every day. I previously wondered how the eccentric Frenchman would have found 21st century China. Here, Pepe Escobar shows that Baudrillard’s theories of simulation and hyperreality are the keys to understanding what passes for politics and culture in our world.

It was, indeed, a Trumpquake. And the sequel was a given; the whole world, transfixed, in real time, 24/7, hanging on every word, tirade, feeding frenzy oozing from the swamp and its various flesh-eating monsters and manmade pathogens, deep state-related or otherwise.

The Trump presidency is the ultimate larger-than-life – for many the only – show on earth. It’s open to debate whether the vicious civil war currently in effect between Team Trump and powerful deep state factions enmeshed with the neocon/neoliberalcon galaxy is just shadowplay; or whether this is the real deal underlining the eventual crash and burn of the American Empire.

That’s all too predictable, when a reality TV star becomes president. When “post-truth” pseudo and/or non-events on screen 24/7 make a mockery of “reality.” When the screen determines the perception of truth; if an “event” is not on show, it never happened.

Read the whole thing: Total Screen: How Baudrillard Anticipated Trump

There Are No Shortcuts

I was reflecting this morning on the life of Morihei Ueshiba, the creator of the martial art called Aikido. The name means “the way of harmony,” and the story is that Ueshiba created the art after a spiritual awakening in which he realized the interconnectedness of all phenomena. But before that, he was a ruthless warrior, having participated in numerous death matches with other martial artists, always emerging victorious.

Ueshiba was an exceptional martial artist, and it’s difficult to know where the facts end and legend begins. It is said that he hit a hole in one the first and only time he ever swung a golf club. He also supposedly faced off against a military firing squad, firing live ammunition, and was able to dodge their bullets.

Morihei Ueshiba in 1922, before the creation of Aikido.

Since the founding of Aikido as a martial art, it has attracted numerous students around the world. But none, so far as I am aware, have approached the level of skill of Morihei Ueshiba. Why is that?

I believe one of the reasons might be that, although students undoubtedly would like to arrive at the same high level of skill as the master, they are not actually following the same path that the master walked. Students of Aikido train in Aikido, the system of techniques that Ueshiba developed. But Ueshiba himself trained in older, traditional Japanese and Chinese martial arts. It was only after he had mastered those arts that he had his breakthrough which led to the creation of a new art. But why would someone who didn’t follow the same path be able to realize or practice that new art in the same way?

Jack Kerouac developed a new method of composition that he called “spontaneous prose.” The technique utilizes a quasi-meditative mindset, in which the conscious mind gets out of the way and allows the unconscious (or, as the ancients might have said, the genius, the daemon) to express itself in the writing. In its essence, the idea is quite similar to what a martial artist strives to attain: effortless fluidity and immediate execution of the appropriate technique, without recourse to the conscious mind.

Kerouac never did perfect this method. But he was able to produce some staggeringly beautiful passages in the novels that he wrote in this way, especially Visions of Cody. What mostly gives his “spontaneous prose” a bad name is not his work itself so much as the people who sought to emulate it, without doing the same work that Kerouac did to arrive at it.

Kerouac was steeped in the Classical tradition of Western literature and was an erudite and thoughtful writer, (even if verbose at times.) It was only after working through other, more traditional methods of writing that he arrived at his new method of spontaneous prose. But many people who heard about this new method simply went ahead writing down whatever undisciplined garbage passed through their untrained minds, deluding themselves into believing that it could be as good as the work of a seasoned and trained writer.


People are always looking for shortcuts. We would like to be able to achieve the same levels of greatness – in art or business or sports or whatever the field may be – as the great masters, but very few of us are really willing to do the same amount of work that most if not all of those masters put in in order to attain their high levels of skill. And it doesn’t help if the teacher takes a “Do-as-I-say, not-as-I-did” approach.

What’s worse, there are countless fools and charlatans who shouldn’t be teaching at all, who attempt to cash in on our desire for a shortcut by selling quick-fixes and empty promises of easy attainment. There’s no foolproof method of discerning who has something worthwhile to offer and who is just selling snake oil. But I think two things to look for are: 1) whether or not this person has himself done what he is recommending to others; and 2) whether or not the person giving advice on “how to succeed” has ever accomplished anything significant besides writing a book or producing a seminar.

For example, ten years ago the big thing was The Secret. I didn’t read the book, but I saw the film, and I noticed that everyone featured in it giving testimony as to the great efficacy of practicing “the Secret” all had one thing in common: they all made their living as teachers of The Secret. They wrote books, sold seminars, or led church-type groups. Supposedly, all these men and women have mastered the art of manifesting reality with their thoughts and intentions, and yet the only thing that any of them can think to do is to make money selling this idea to other people.

In other words, it’s a pyramid scheme. I don’t deny that positive thinking and deliberate intentionality are good things, but they aren’t shortcuts. The best philosophy to have, in my humble opinion, is this:

There Are No Shortcuts. Just Do The Damn Work.

 

Believe none of what you hear, and only half of what you see, as the old saying goes. Pay attention to what people do and have done, not what they say and talk about. And even if the author or speaker is genuinely successful, what guarantee is there that he’s being honest with you about how he achieved that success? Maybe he’s successful because he’s a cheat and a liar – he wouldn’t be the first – and maybe the last thing he wants is for you or anyone else to join the ranks of his competitors.

But then, don’t take my word for it. I’m a Cretan, and we’re all liars, the lot of us. But I’m a more honest liar than most.

Spider-Man vs. Rimbaud

spideyRimbaud

I recently returned to China after a few weeks back home in the good ole U.S.A. On the plane, I watched The Amazing Spider-Man for the second time. It’s still not as good as the first Spider-Man from 2001, mostly because I really don’t like the reinvention of Peter Parker as a hipster skateboarder, but nonetheless it was enjoyable because, hey, it’s Spider-Man.

I was struck by one of Uncle Ben’s lines in the film.  He tells Peter that his father believed that “if you could do good things for other people, you had a moral obligation to do those things!  That’s what’s at stake here: not choice, but responsibility.”

I immediately thought of a scene from Total Eclipse, the biopic of Arthur Rimbaud starring Leonardo DiCaprio.  Paul Verlaine, upon finding out that Rimbaud no longer writes poetry, says “But you have a gift!” to which Rimbaud coldly replies, “It’s my gift.  I can do with it what I please.”

As a child, my hero was Spider-Man.  I collected his comic books, watched his cartoons, played with his toys and Colorforms, and even drew my own comic adventures.  But then, as an adolescent, I attempted to grow out of it and get better heroes.  I started reading the Beats, and from them I got into Rimbaud.  (Actually, the first I’d heard of Rimbaud was from the film Eddie and the Cruisers.)

Rimbaud is a prime example of the sort of character that appeals to artsy intellectual adolescents, but whose life example leads absolutely nowhere. He stopped writing poetry either in his late teens or early twenties, after producing some extraordinary work, and then proceeded to traipse all over Europe and Africa in an attempt to get rich or die tryin’. He died tryin’ at age 37, from cancer.

His refusal to use his talent is often lauded as some kind of supreme integrity or gesture of ultimate rebellion. Writers as diverse as Albert Camus and Julius Evola have praised him for it. But I think it’s better to see it as a tragic mistake. While Rimbaud’s way with words and Spider-Man’s way with webs are hardly the same thing, it’s worth considering what Spider-Man would be without his morality, his sense of responsibility that comes with his great power.

Actually, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko dealt with this question in the very first issue, where Spider-Man initially uses his powers only for his own gain, before his Uncle Ben dies as a direct result of his actions, or rather inaction. It wasn’t just the bite from the radioactive spider that created Spider-Man, but this tragedy as well. It’s an integral part of Spider-Man’s origin story, because his morality is an integral part of his identity as Spider-Man. After all, the difference between a superhero and a super-villain is only their morality.

uncle ben

In Buddhism, the path of spiritual development leading to enlightenment is divided into three yanas or vehicles, called hinayana, mahayana and vajrayana. Hinayana means “the lesser vehicle” and denotes Buddhist practice which is undertaken solely for one’s own benefit. One recognizes the truth of Buddha’s statement that every aspect of existence is tinged with dissatisfaction, and so one strives to free oneself from this situation.

Mahayana means “the greater vehicle” and denotes Buddhist practice undertaken for the benefit of all sentient beings. One necessarily begins as a hinayana practitioner, but through practice one realizes that one’s own happiness is inextricably bound to that of others, because the distinction between self and other ultimately does not exist.

The third vehicle is vajrayana, which is the superhero path. This is the part where practitioners develop all kinds of cool siddhis – “magic powers” – like sitting naked in the frozen snow, being able to eat anything, drink copious amounts of liquor without effect, walk through walls, levitate, and fly through the air leaping from mountaintop to mountaintop. Or so the texts say, anyway. But they also say something more important and fundamental, which is that the mahayana is the necessary basis for the vajrayana.

The goal of the mahayana is to become a bodhisattva, someone who works ceaselessly for the benefit of other beings. In order to undertake vajrayana practice (also called tantra although the two terms are not synonymous) one must have the motivation of a mahayana practitioner; that is, to benefit others. Without this purity of heart, acquiring the siddhis of the vajrayana practices with selfish motivation will make one not a buddha but a demon. Or a super-villain.

The question of selfishness vs. altruism (or, if you prefer, loving-kindness) is at the center of the Spider-Man character in more ways than one. The co-creator of Spider-Man and the first artist to draw him was Steve Ditko. I’m not sure whether it was Ditko or Stan Lee who came up with the famous “With great power comes great responsibility” line, but it would only be a few years later when Ditko would stop drawing Spider-Man, leave Marvel altogether, and fully embrace the philosophy of Objectivism developed by Ayn Rand.

The-Virtue-of-SelfishnessRand is the author of, among other books, The Virtue of Selfishness, and Ditko’s later work often features characters who embody the Objectivist ideal. (The most extreme, and my personal favorite, is Mr. A, who is basically a precursor to Dirty Harry but without the badge.)

Ayn Rand’s philosophy is not supposed to be a justification for villainy (although it did inspire Alan Greenspan) but it nonetheless would be difficult to cast Spider-Man as an Objectivist superhero.  The Fountainhead, one of Rand’s two most famous novels, is centered around a philosophical position which is essentially that expressed by Rimbaud in Total Eclipse, and which is diametrically opposed to what Uncle Ben tells Peter: one’s gifts are one’s own, and there are no moral obligations to help others.

While I like The Fountainhead’s emphasis on artistic integrity – it’s actually an anti-materialist book in that it values creativity over money – Rand ultimately ends up championing business moguls and tycoons as the highest form of humanity, as in Atlas Shrugged (an inferior novel and a truly awful set of films.)  I can’t help but be reminded of Rimbaud, who forsook poetry and creativity in favor of a cold, objective view of life and a pursuit of material wealth.

The fact is that if Spider-Man held Objectivist beliefs, he’d be a rich and famous wrestler, not a crime-fighter.  He would be, like Rimbaud, just another wasted talent.

Postscript: For those who thought there was a misspelling and this post was going to be about Spider-Man vs. Rambo, I sincerely apologize.  Actually, I would love to see Sylvester Stallone cast as Kraven the Hunter in the next film.

kraven quotationJohnRambo2008

P.P.S.  Why hasn’t anyone else noticed the similarity of this line from Kraven – published in 1964 – and the letter from the Zodiac killer in 1969?

zodiac cipher

Could it be that Zodiac is … Steve Ditko?

steve-ditko-1

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