Saturday, November 23, 2013


Wow, I haven't blogged in a long time. It's been a long semester of doctoral work, managing classes, managing my full-time job, and trying to keep up with life in general. Now that things are slowing down for at least a week, I have some time to get back to writing. I hope I can get back into a regular blogging groove, but I can't make promises at the moment. Just check in once in awhile to see what's new if you follow!

What's new with me--I'm working on a chapter for a book project called "Little Horrors", about the notion of children as "monsters" in our modern society, rather than as the paradigm of innocence. When this moves forward and becomes available I will provide an update.

I'm also working on a presentation for the "Supernatural and Folkore in Tradition" conference in the Shetland Islands, March 2014. My talk is about the Jungian Trickster archetype with respect to the traditional "poltergeist". It should be an interesting conference, and my first time seeing the Shetlands. Of course, I still have to pay off the conference, and money is tight now that I'm paying for graduate school AND another car (my 2003 Toyota finally bit the dust in July). To that end, I am selling just about all of my Edward Gorey valuables--you can find them on eBay. First editions, signed copies, all of it. I'm sad to see it go, but it's not doing much on the shelf in my bedroom, either.

So, back to business:

I woke up early this morning to feed Mr. Shiva. It is Saturday, so I have no will to get up and stay up at 4AM. As I was heading back to bed, I noticed a yellow spider on the wall near the light switch. Spiders always seem to breed in old country houses, and this was one of many varieties that suddenly appears out of nowhere. The random appearance of living creepy-crawlies makes it easy to imagine where the notion of "spontaneous generation" came from among ancient philosophers.

I found myself thinking, "What is the meaning of a spider?" Joseph Campbell immediately came to mind, when Bill Moyers asked him about the "meaning" of life. He responded, "What is the meaning of a flower? What is the meaning of a flea?" It doesn't have a "meaning"--it just "is".

Yet, if I think about how this question is pursued, someone would suggest that the purpose of a spider is to keep certain bug populations down, to create a balance in the ecosystem. Some spiders protect plants and are good for gardens. I'm sure we could think of a "reason" for poisonous spiders as well. What occurred to me about this is that we tend to think of things in terms of function. You get a college degree that is "useful", not something that will waste your time "navel-gazing". Everything is about "return on investment". What are you, as a citizen, contributing to society? Are you useful? What happens when you're not useful anymore? Once something--or someone--ceases to provide a function or service, they are discarded.

It seems clear to me that this is an outgrowth of a cultural myth/metaphor that compares man, and life, to a machine. This is a metaphor that's been around at least since the Industrial Revolution. In a corporate or factory environment, one is thought of as a "cog" in the wheel that drives the turbine. Many of our science fiction television programs and movies include the idea of androids or robots, we talk about artificial intelligence and its uses, and in our high-tech world there are talks of brain implants and other chips that previously would have been the domain of the crazy conspiracy theorist.

But let's talk about the crazy conspiracy guy for a second. Why is that such a common theme with those suffering with some variety of paranoid schizophrenic illness? Why not, say, goblins spying on them, or succubi draining them of their life, their thoughts? I would suggest it is because (as Jung suggests) the schizoid is in touch, maybe even lost, in the collective. And this notion of the human machine is deeply embedded in our modern collective psyche.

Another common notion that I've mentioned before is the zombie metaphor. We have a thing about zombies in movies and on television. Our zombies are somewhat believable in the sense that they are usually individuals infected with a virus that turns them into mindless undead devouring creatures.

So, what do zombies, androids, robots, and chip-implanted cyborg humans have in common? They act automatically, without real consciousness or thought. They just do what they do, whether "useful" or destructive (or both). I think the dominance of these metaphors has come out of our reaction to Descartes' famous "cogito ergo sum". When you say, "I think, therefore I am," consciousness is about, in the words of my current professor, "what's from the neck up." We have identified consciousness with the mind, which we associate with the brain. Modern neuroscience and neuropsychiatry works on the hypothesis that our consciousness is an epiphenomenon of the brain. The focus is always on motor functions, memory, and reason. Why? Because these are the "useful" things. There is some research into emotions, but these are seen more as an embarrassing byproduct.

In short--our whole scientific conception of life is that of a machine, or perhaps a zombie. We have been instilled with the belief that we are no more than (in Lewis Black's phrasing) "meat with eyes". If you go back to what I've said about life having to sustain itself through death, and feeding on itself, it's not hard to see how the zombie reflects the terror that we may be just mindless devouring sacks of flesh.

It is also reflected in our social attitudes. Those who have the most money, according to another cultural belief, work the hardest. The poor, the elderly, and disabled aren't "useful"--they are a burden on the system. Indeed, for all of the pro-life rhetoric, most pro-life politicians would put children in this category as well. They are a burden on the system, they require education and health care and food and shelter, and they can't provide these things for themselves. To be "meaningful" is to have money, and it is assumed that the monied are also the "productive". The monied are not necessarily productive; they are often just clever manipulators, or were born into having it. It's a case of Odysseus winning Achilles' armor over Ajax in the Iliad; Ajax believes Odysseus doesn't deserve it, because he is a manipulator rather than a real warrior in his eyes. But the very notion of manipulation doesn't work in a man/machine scheme--that requires a certain kind of intelligence not measured by motor skills, though perhaps by reason to a certain degree. So, we tend to think of those folks as "productive" or at least being reasonable enough to be successful in the system. (This only works if the manipulator has money--if they are poor and do this, they are cheaters who should be jailed immediately.)

This is the extreme absurdity of assuming that "meaning" has to do with "function". It is understandable that for a society to work, everyone needs to contribute. But we're not machines. Spirituality suggests that societies work best when everyone shares, and treats everyone else with equal respect. This is why "good works" are often foundational, even in churches that believe in predestination. The difference is the truly human one--if you respect someone else, if you have empathy and compassion for their situation, you are moved to help. If you are angry and going to strike someone, your sense of self-reflection and conscience makes you stop and think before you act. A machine does not do this. A machine just charges ahead mindlessly with whatever task they are programmed to do. Anything outside of that causes a malfunction.

We start to lose our humanity when we are too "driven" by ambition of any kind. That single-mindedness makes us forget others. I was floored when a good friend of mine, who had relentlessly pursued the same goal for years, suddenly stopped. Her whole manner was different--she was more relaxed, she could think clearly, she was concerned about those around her. Before that, she would charge right past someone speaking to her, totally unaware of their presence, because she was so lost in her own focus on the "goal". This happens a lot to people; probably all of us have been guilty of it at one time or another. Some crisis is usually what brings about the change, and hopefully the healing.

So, back to our spider. I don't know the meaning of a spider. The spider just "is", like everything else. Understanding the world is not about "how", it is not utilitarian. It is practical and useful to know "how"--science is important in this regard. But it does not corner the market on the truth of all existence. Knowing that the blue sky is caused by light refraction doesn't make the blue sky any less beautiful or mysterious. It doesn't make this whole lot any less mysterious. And that is the real role of myth and religion--to experience and negotiate the wonder of existence, both positive and negative.

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