Dec 2007

Archaeologies of Consciousness

Having failed to give the excellent Dreamflesh Volume One the glowing review it so richly deserved here on The Quiet Road, Gyrus threatened to “burn down your home, and the homes of everyone you’ve ever met!” unless I at least mentioned his latest tome.

Archaeologies of Consciousness

Well, he’s a man of his word. So I shall do more than just mention it. I shall post a big shiny graphic showing the rather striking cover (designed by Andy Hemmingway) and urge y’all to get hold of this fantastic anthology.

Entitled Archaeologies of Consciousness: Essays In Experimental Prehistory, it’s billed as a collection of writing on “ancient monuments, prehistoric rock art, folklore, mythology, and altered states of consciousness”. But don’t let what may sound like a specialist book on a selection of niche subjects put you off. The essays in this book are explorations of consciousness, of what it means to be human, and of the environment and landscapes that shaped our development. It’s a book that drags these “niche subjects” out of the cosy, dusty libraries in which they’ve locked themselves and takes them for a much needed hike across a windswept moor to get their blood flowing again.

But what’s it actually about?

[…] in Freudian language [we say] that the operations of the unconscious are structured in terms of primary process, while the thoughts of consciousness (especially verbalized thoughts) are expressed in secondary process.

Nobody, to my knowledge, knows anything about secondary process. But it is ordinarily assumed that everybody knows all about it, so I shall not attempt to describe secondary process in any detail, assuming that you know as much about it as I.

Gregory Bateson | Style, Grace and Information in Primitive Art

In the space of these five extended essays and a few shorter bits and pieces, Gyrus boldly strides where Bateson fears to tread.

To be honest, that last line is hyberbolic to the point of sheer inaccuracy, but it’s a good pull-quote. In actual fact, the writing of Bateson and Gyrus complement one another in interesting ways. Both are examining the unsettling, blurred region where a number of disparate disciplines intersect; archaeology, anthropology, mythology, psychology (along with psychoanalytic theory) and biology. Both are aware that, for a whole bunch of reasons, traditional academia finds it difficult to comfortably accommodate research in this area, but are equally aware that for their work to be influential within these disparate disciplines (as it damn well should be), it must be accessible to them.

But where they differ is the fact that Bateson is writing from within the establishment; emerging from it as it were; while Gyrus is approaching it from outside. Both approaches have their strengths and both have certain limitations. Thankfully there’s nothing stopping us from reading both and allowing them to, as I say, complement one another.

One thing that strikes me though, is that Gyrus generally overcomes the limitations imposed by his position as a “freelance” / “amateur” researcher (a tendency towards flights of fancy, tangents and a perceived lack on intellectual rigour) better than Bateson overcomes the limitations imposed by his own (conservatism, unimaginativeness and a tendency to obscure meaning with over-complex prose and jargon).

Now Bateson can’t be accused either of conservatism or a lack of imagination, but his writing does occasionally become rather dense and opaque. In Archaeologies of Consciousness however, Gyrus presents his readers with clear, flowing prose that is at turns poetic, at turns scientific, but always comprehensible. And it’s not the patronising comprehensibility of “popular science” books that spoonfeed complex ideas to a mass market by simplifying them to the point of meaninglessness. This is the real deal… exactly as complicated as it needs to be, but no less accessible for it.

The collection opens with The Devil & The Goddess which I recall reading when it was first published over a decade ago. It was around that time that I first met Gyrus, and during the intervening years — in private discussions and through reading subsequent articles — I’ve seen how his ideas and research have evolved. So it’s interesting to revisit The Devil & The Goddess; not the start, but certainly an important early milestone, on a unique intellectual journey; and to find it’s still vital, still relevant and is filled with the questions and themes that would dominate his work for the next ten years.

Culture and civilization are inseparable from material technologies, and things are no less confused in the technophile / Luddite debate. The real dichotomy to be tackled here is that of harmonious / unharmonious technology. Do our tools help us achieve our desires, or do they become our desires?


This spiritual poverty, this rigid division of life into the sacred and profane (in their modern senses), has only been the norm of human experience for several hundred years, if that. And in their historical accounts, modern scientists have been projecting this division back in time for far too long. A re-vision of anthropology and archaeology is overdue, necessary and, I feel, imminent.

And concluding with…

For ourselves, living in a culture where the dominant spiritual institutions have insisted not only on separating themselves from everyday life, but directing their spiritual aspirations outside this world, it’s evident that a new vision of spirituality more directly concerned with life, the Earth, our bodies and survival is needed. We cannot live on bread alone, but I don’t want to try to live without it. It’s no coincidence that it took an affluent society like our own, where day-to-day existence is taken for granted, to produce a device capable of utterly destroying the biosphere.

… via a route that takes in Shamanism, Satanism, the Kundalini experience, anal eroticism, the origins of blood sacrifice, the Knights Templar and the landscape of Avebury…

It’s the least focussed of the essays in the collection, certainly, but it provides a perfect opener to the book by setting up many of the themes that are expanded upon in the later pieces.

My personal favourites (if one can be said to have favourites among essays on abstract and esoteric subjects) are probably the final two of the long pieces; Form & Meaning in Altered States & Rock Art and Aeons Past & Present. The former contains my favourite line of the book, where the author is examining some neolithic rock art while under the influence of 2CB (a synthetic phenethylamine which is known to produce, among other things, visual distortions not unlike the geometrical patterns found in much primitive art) and has the multi-layered revelation that “There’s no ‘blank canvas’ in rock art!” While the latter draws together theories about time and evolution from a remarkably wide range of sources and makes all manner of intriguing and insightful connections between them, eventually concluding with a call to action in the face of the seemingly paralysing desires manufactured by modern culture.

From the upbeat and characteristically enthusiastic preface by Julian Cope, to the meticulous indices, Archaeologies of Consciousness succeeds in being a well-researched, informative; indeed illuminating; collection of essays which is also a pleasure to read. This makes it a very rare item indeed; so I recommend you grab a copy.

4 comments  |  Posted in: Reviews » Book reviews

Dec 2007

Climate Change: A thought-experiment

First up, a cautionary note; this blog post may end up somewhere a wee bit extreme. I’d like to stress that it’s a thought-experiment and I’m certainly not proposing policy here. Thankfully my readership is small and consists almost entirely of members of the choir, so there’s little chance of misinterpretation and/or accusations of apologism for terrorism.

Secondly, let’s state an assumption. If you don’t share this assumption, then the question raised by this thought-experiment isn’t really aimed at you (though you may wish to pay attention to how others respond — not here but in general — over the next few years).

The assumption: Climate Change is a reality. The emission of large quantities of ‘greenhouse gasses’ (primarily, though not exclusively CO2) by human civilisation is resulting in a warming of the atmosphere. This warming is having a whole bunch of both predictable (melting polar ice) and unpredictable (shifting weather patterns) effects. But given just the predictable effects of atmospheric warming, we have good reason to expect significant death and destruction as a direct result.

[Note: for brevity, when capitalised, “Climate Change” specifically refers to ‘anthropogenic climate change’]

Anyway that’s the assumption. If you don’t share it, then could I ask you to perhaps hold off with your objections for a while? I’m writing a piece specifically on the subject of Climate Change Denial and I don’t want to get into it here. For this piece, we’re running with the assumption.

We’re Looking Out For The Whales

Merrick recently drew my attention to news that a Norwegian whaling vessel had been sunk by anti-whaling activists. I firmly believe that most of my readers will whisper a quiet “nice one!” when reading that story. The activists scuttled the ship while nobody was aboard, and did it in such a way that it took four hours to sink, so even if someone had been, the chances of them being in any real danger was negligible. It’s a perfect piece of non-violent direct action and I believe most people who oppose whaling would consider it quite legitimate. If I’m wrong about that then I guess it makes my views more extreme than I imagined, and it also makes the rest of this blog post entirely irrelevant. Sorry about that.

It goes without saying that I’m using a specific definition of “non-violent” action here. Clearly there’s a definition of the word “violent” that includes property damage. But I’m appealing to that a long-established principle within political activism that presumes ‘the tools of tyranny’ to be fair game. And yes, there are those who argue that “the police force” or “the army” or “management” are actually ‘tools of tyranny’, but as I understand it and use it here, non-violent political action includes a clear prohibition on interpersonal violence; “no action aimed at (or that has a significant likelihood of) causing physical harm to people”.

So yeah, assuming I’m not wrong, and most people see the anti-whaling action as legitimate, it raises an awkward question for me. Give it some thought, always bearing in mind the following three items:

  1. the unprecedented death and destruction that will result should we be insufficiently aggressive in tackling the threat of Climate Change;
  2. the outcome of the Ploughshares Legal Case, where peace activists wrecked a military aircraft built by BAe for the Indonesian airforce, but were acquitted in a British court when they successfully argued they were “preventing a greater crime”;
  3. the anti-whaling action mentioned above, where property destruction was achieved without endangering people, and which I contest most readers will feel is legitimate (on whatever “gut level” personal morality works).

The question is actually pretty obvious isn’t it? Context is everything, and by placing next to one another those three mildly controversial points, I pose a highly controversial dilemma. Specifically: are civil airliners, when grounded for maintenance (read, and take seriously, my previous point regarding non-violent direct action), entirely legitimate targets for acts of sabotage? And I’m talking here about legally legitimate as well as ethically. Combine items 1 and 2, above.

The Irish government, for instance, claims to accept the findings of the IPCC. However, the policies being implemented by our new greener government don’t even begin to reflect this. The same can be said of almost every government.

So if I can demonstrate (by the government’s own words) that Climate Change is a massive threat. If I can prove beyond question that current policies do not address the threat. Then if I show up at an aircraft maintenance facility and damage a 737 beyond repair, have I not done something both ethically and legally acceptable? Better yet, what if I and 5000 of my friends show up and wreck the entire facility? How can the destruction of commercial aircraft not be seen as direct action against Climate Change… as an attempt to prevent a greater crime?

Now, my suspicion is that while almost all of you were with me on the whaling ship thing, that I may have lost a few with the mass assault on the assets of the airline industry. It seems strangely less reasonable when it’s something familiar to us, something part of our lives, even though it may objectively be doing more damage. So it’s with some trepidation that I propose my real question…

Why stop with the planes… what about parked cars?

13 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Dec 2007

In Rainbows

As pretty much everyone knows by now, Radiohead released their most recent album online as a Pay-What-You-Want download. It got huge publicity because of the novelty of the approach. The second high-profile album that gets released that way will get almost as much publicity. Sometime in early February the frontpage of all the tabloids will contain photos of scantily clad Spice Girls next to the headline:

In Rainbows

Move Over Radiohead. It’s Time for Girl Power Dot Com
Following fast in the footsteps of Radiohead come the ever-innovative Spice Girls whose new album, Looking Forward, features live versions of all their Number One singles. The new collection will be available for two weeks exclusively from the Girls’ website before it hits the shops on CD, and just as with Radiohead’s In Rainbows, fans of Posh, Ginger, Sporty, Scary and Baby will be allowed ‘Pay-What-They-Want’ during that two weeks. As well as the nine live tracks, Looking Forward will feature two entirely new songs, including the 2007 Christmas Number One, Buying Stuff at The Supermarket For Christmas (Without You).

However, the third album released on a Pay-What-You-Want basis will garner almost no free publicity whatsoever. Things get old quickly these days. And the question is; without the free publicity can this distribution strategy work? I really hope so, but only time will tell.

PS: In Rainbows is an excellent album. Not that you’d know that from the acres of news-print on the subject.

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Dec 2007

Anatomy of an uninspiring essay

Bunch of arse quite frankly.

The essay has been submitted, but I’m not at all satisfied with it. There’s something very interesting to be said about the Schreber case, dear reader, and you’ll not find it in my essay.

In my defence, the reason the essay is so devoid of anything resembling genuine insight or worth is as much down to the restriction on word-count as any deficiency on the part of the writer. Though of course, I would say that.

All the same, just because I failed to do justice to Schreber this time round doesn’t mean I never will. I may well write my thesis on the case, if — and these are big ifs — (a) I can find an approach that appeals to me*; and (b) something else doesn’t capture my imagination before I start work on it.

So what went wrong this time round?

Well firstly, I came to the subject late. Having already mooched around the Existential Critique essay, and for weeks had a fair idea of what I was going to say, I made the decision to write on Schreber based on a single read-through of Freud’s analysis and with only two weeks before the deadline.

That was a big mistake, as I failed to realise that the subject was far bigger than two weeks research would allow. Even if I narrowed the scope radically. Even if I didn’t sleep very much. Which I did. And didn’t.

It’s never a good idea to decide to write to a deadline on a subject whose surface you’ve only scratched. When I started work I simply had no idea that the paper inspired damn-near an entire subgenre of literature. Nor that it would be so bloody interesting.

The second problem, linked to the first, is the simple fact that nothing interesting can be said about Schreber in less than 10,000 words. I’m a verbose writer at the best of times. I know that, and I try to curtail the worst excesses of this tendency. But all the same, it’s just not possible to provide a useful summation just of the basic facts of the case (including the contents of Schreber’s delusions) in less than 5000 words. And then there’s the analysis and observations which, let’s face it, you’d hope would be the bulk of the content.

So there I was three nights ago, 5000 words into a 3000 word essay, and I’d not even got to discussing Freud’s interpretation let alone my own. Twenty pages of scrawled longhand observations as yet untyped.

So I started afresh. I hacked the 5000 word exposition down to 2000, stripping out anything remotely poetic or beautiful, leaving only stunted prose and a sense of missed opportunity. I jettisoned the bulk of the really interesting stuff, concerning the actual content of Schreber’s delusions. Then I pared down the essence of Freud’s analysis to two specific insights; (a) that paranoid psychosis is a result of repressed homosexuality, and (b) that the agents of persecution in the delusions of paranoiacs are projections of childhood relationships.

Let me point out that those are hardly the only two assertions made by Freud, but they are the central ones. And it’s safe to say that they’re not without controversy.

Unfortunately given the limitations of space I was unable to investigate those controversies, nor delve into the numerous other readings of Schreber’s Memoirs, nor examine the implications that Schreber’s construction of a personal mythology has for our understanding of how the rest of us do the same. I didn’t even have space to examine the actual mechanisms by which Freud states the repression and projection take place.

I set the scene, but the plug was pulled before I could shout “action!”

As I say, bunch of arse.

* By this I mean, an approach that provides an opportunity to say something on the case that hasn’t been said before. The Schreber case has had a lot written about it, but far from everything. And I’m convinced there’s still something worthwhile that hasn’t been covered in the existing literature (mind you, I’ve not read it all yet, so perhaps I’m speaking too soon).

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