Thursday, October 22, 2015

Il Cornicello e Il Malocchio

I haven't talked about my ancestry very much in these pages so far, but I'm half-Italian, half-Irish, a pretty common combination where I come from and a pair of ethnicities rich in both real and perceived myth and folklore. The Irish side, well, I wouldn't know where to begin there. But the Italian side, that's a little different. On the Irish side, I feel like people tend to consciously mythologize the occult, the supernatural, and the otherworldly, to narrativize and preserve it. But on the Italian side, all that folklore beats under the surface, unseen and unspoken of. It's just self-evident. You do things, you have rituals, and they just are. Remember when Fredo says a Hail Mary in Godfather II while he's fishing to get the fish to bite? It's that kind of thing. It's real folk belief and it's relatively unchanged since my ancestors came over to America 100 years ago.

The last few weeks, since my own podcast launched on iTunes, I've been attentively following the New & Noteworthy page of the TV and Film section of the iTunes store, for, well, obvious reasons. One of my favorite new podcasts I've found this way is "The Goodfellas Minute." I mean, that movie for me is one of the immortals, and this podcast, hosted by guys who grew up in and around the neighborhoods depicted in the movie, has been a real treat. They provide a lot of the cultural and historic and even geographical detail behind what's happening in the movie, along with a healthy respect for sausages and peppers, gangster shirt collars, and the lore of the Mafia (which does not exist, of course).

In today's episode, the guys mention how Paulie (Paul Sorvino) is wearing a gold chain with a cornicello pendant in the scene with the sit-down with Henry and restaurateur Sonny Bunz. So yeah, the cornicello and the evil eye. Let's talk about those.


First of all, while I grew up half-Italian and half-Irish, the neighborhood I grew up in was overwhelmingly Italian. I also spent a lot of my childhood traveling back to East Boston to my Italian grandparents' three-decker for Saturday gravy and cutlets. (And please. Let's not start a sauce vs. gravy argument here, okay? Henry Hill says gravy and sauce interchangeably when he's making meatballs while coked out of his mind, and that's good enough for me.)

Anyway, to get back to the cornicello, everywhere, and I mean everywhere, was the cornicello in East Boston and in Revere. I actually didn't see it a lot on neck chains but in houses, on keychains, and especially on rear view mirrors? Yes. I think dashboard saints had lost their vogue in the 70s and 80s and the cornicello, with its totemistic, male power* was the perfect car accessory, way more badass than fuzzy dice.

So why do you wear the cornicello? You wear it as an apotropaic ward against the evil eye.


Now, while I might not have understood the occult underpinnings of those weird little coral horns as a kid, I knew about the evil eye. Let's backtrack again, this time back to my own neighborhood. Our next-door neighbor was an Italian widow. And while she was apparently immensely wealthy, she spent most of her time in a shawl and hood, walking around the neighborhood, collecting cans and bottles. So of course the kids (and I have to be honest, even some of the adults) in the neighborhood characterized her as a witch.

There's a power in widowhood in Italian culture, right? Again, think back to the flashback portion of Godfather II, to Sicily, where Vito's mother, left widowed and childless (except for poor dumb Vito) by vendettas, attempts to take revenge on Don Ciccio? Yeah, badass. She's got nothing left to lose. And so the folk belief around the neighborhood was that you did not want to mess with our neighbor while she was walking her grocery cart around the neighborhood, because she knew how to put the evil eye on you.

Did I really believe it? Well, I don't know if I ever did because I was too young to fully understand this story while I was young, and too old to believe such nonsense by the time I was a teenager. I was in high school when she died, hit by a car while walking her cart near one of the most dangerous rotaries in my hometown, so the neighborhood legend went, and her presence still hangs over the house next door to this day. But to pick the evil eye out of all the things that this powerful, widowed woman could do to you... it's meaningful.

* The flip side of "wearing the horns" in Italian tradition, of course, is being cuckolded, and not only can the hand signal for giving the horns be a ward against evil eye but it can also signify you know the person you're pointing at has been cuckolded. So, you know, basically watch where you point that thing.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Five things I learned from The Marvelous Clouds: Toward an Philosophy of Elemental Media by John Durham Peters


1. This isn't the first book I've reviewed with an elemental theme; Electric Eden, about the 1960s and 1970s British folk revival also used the classical elements as an organizing principle. In Peters' case in The Marvelous Clouds, though, the element represents a medium and a study of the medium itself is the topic at hand. And the topics that Peters explores are a delightful, thrilling panoply of subjects: the modern reader will have a fairly one-dimensional view of the concept of media, but Peters starts at the root: a medium is something between two points. And from that basic supposition, he spins out a set of examinations of water, fire, air, and earth (well, really text) as media and what they tell us about the human condition. Peters recognizes a heavy debt to Marshall McLuhan and the other media theorists of the 1960s, and Peters definitely has that free-wheeling, free-associating feel of late-career McLuhan. One feels that Peters saying, "One reads McLuhan for sparks, not scholarship" is almost an apologia, but there's plenty of strong scholarship in The Marvelous Clouds.

2. I was first attracted to the book because of its Water chapter, which looks at the intelligence of cetaceans and how they deal with being an intelligence in the medium of the seas. It's an old saw, going back to the moment where humanity realized that whales and dolphins could join humanity as an intelligent species on Earth: if there was an alien species right on the world you call home, separated from you by a vast gulf, how would you recognize them? I suppose it's to humanity's credit that we eventually managed to recognize that the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence begins at home. It's no coincidence that John C. Lilly, probably the 20th century's most famous cetacean researcher, was part of SETI, and that Lilly dubbed these early ET researchers "the Order of the Dolphin." Peters looks at the history of man's interaction with cetaceans, right back to the ancient Greeks, who venerated them as holy to Apollo. Humanity's recognition of the dolphin's playfulness and sexual licentiousness (again, by human standards) is woven into these ancient myth-echoes. The deep dive (oops, pun) into what the unique physiology and circumstances of cetacean life has meant for the societies these beings have created is the kind of discussion that will dislodge your brain from an anthropocentric point of view and jostle it a little, which is a refreshing and honestly a little unsettling an experience.

3. The Fire chapter, though, was even more of a mindblower. The idea that the discovery of fire by humans began a relationship of humans to fire as a medium... it makes sense, doesn't it? In the last several thousand years of humanity's harnessing of captured solar energy in the form of fuels like wood, coal, and eventually oil, we have used our fire to write across the Earth in destructive ways. One intriguing theory Peters presents is that we have lost our respect for the power of fire by successively, over the years since the Industrial Revolution, hiding it and its immediate visual impact further and further away from our senses, first as steam engines, then as internal combustion engines, and finally in the 20th century world as electricity, in each iteration further and further from the hypnotic flame and smoke of the actual fire behind it all. The fire used to be a tangible, visible thing, at the center of a home, as a hearth. Now it is Vestal fire, according to Peters's source Stephen Pyne, in the secret occult meaning of the word. Also there is a litany of ways in which fire allowed humans to become literate; the caves of prehistoric cave paintings could only be seen by torchlight, the fact that ash has long been an ingredient in ink (and even is buried in the etymology of the word in English; "ink" comes from the same Greek root as "encaustic" and "holocaust"), and as far as the fire and light of visual media like heliographs, telegraphs, film, television, and modern computer screens.

4. The chapters on Sky reiterate a lot of things I already knew about how humans have used another form of media, the night sky, throughout history to create patterns, measurements of time, calendars. But even in this chapter I found a lot of thought-provoking implications. Peters intimates that the priesthoods which emerged in ancient societies go hand-in-hand with the apophenic tendencies of those who gazed into the skies. Making patterns out of random dots leads inexorably to making up stories and myths about the world around you. It's a powerful suggestion as to the roots of religion and how it relates to politics and conspiracy (as I may have briefly mentioned in Monday's post, it seems that the occult and espionage always seem to move in a path of collision). I honestly would have appreciated more material on the regimentation of time and how it's changed throughout history depending on our technology and culture, but there is a great digression about how much weather forecasting changed our world and is almost entirely indebted to the invention of the telegraph, which allowed for weather to be visualized and tracked across time and space in the analysis-, time-, and space-obsessed 19th century. Also another idle thought bubbles up about the use of human breath in the calls to prayer of Judaism (the shofar) and Islam (the voice) versus the clinical distance and technological ringing of bells in Christianity. Oh, also how clouds in 19th century painting no longer hold angels or God, they're just... clouds and that means that God is dying in the West. Sorry I keep zipping from idea to idea but again, the book is just filled with brief digressions like this that act like Zen koans and just slap you out of your worldview.

5. Peters finishes with a look at the history of text, books, the Internet, and eventually Google's outsized role in our modern media-consuming lives. Peters comes not to bury Google but to almost deify it; its role as the nearly-single arbiter of the world's library echoes other efforts throughout history to categorize and organize learning, but works on a level more complete and vast and universal than either the Library of Alexandria or Jorge Luis Borges could ever imagine. Merging with this feared omniscience is the idea that Google's algorithms are a simulation of the computer scientist's long-held dream/nightmare: the spectre of artificial intelligence. Google's ability to understand context as well as index and retrieve is the key. When you are finished with The Marvelous Clouds, you're going to come out looking at the things around you in a completely new and different way, and that is probably the strongest endorsement I can give it.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Five things I learned from reading America II by Richard Louv


1. I found this beauty at Cellar Stories Books in Providence while I was down there in August for NecronomiCon; this book has nothing to do with H.P. Lovecraft but everything to do with stuff I groove on: retrotech and historical accounts of the social impact of technology. I mean, just look at that cover. America II, published in 1983, is a look at the newly emerging living situations of Americans in the early 1980s as new technologies (telecommuting in its earliest forms) and housing arrangements (condos, neighborhood associations) came about in the early Reagan years. Richard Louv started this book while reporting for a San Diego newspaper; if there is any city that exemplifies his putative America II, it is the new gleaming Sun Belt Reagan-era military mecca of San Diego. America II is novel, full of previously-unseen and untried ways of doing things. Well then, what, you may ask, is America I? Louv tells us:
America I is made up of all those steel workers and middle managers so bewildered by a society that, more each day, does not seem to need them. America I is once-vibrant big cities, big labor unions, auto workers, public swimming pools, railroads, New Deal politics, and the freestanding single-family home... America I is all those people left behind outside the gates (Louv xi-xii).
Those of you who have been listening to my podcast will note these are the hobby horses that our esteemed Mercator Lucis and I have been working through in our look at a sitcom from this crucial Carter-Reagan period. While there is a powerful sense of nostalgia in this and other statements of Louv's for America I, he notes the irony that many of the Americans who are pioneering America II are just as nostalgic for the peace and harmony and concord of their own homogenous upbringings, a powerful need for safety in the aftermath of the upheaval of the 1960s, which again is a topic I've been super interested in lately.

2. "If Americanism is a religion, then nostalgia is its liturgy." With this statement, Louv explores further the idea of America II using the technology of the future to recreate a (relatively unreal) past. Baby Boomers starting families in the late 70s and early 80s sought to recreate a suburban environment that did not exist anymore. The Happy Days era they idealized was gone forever. Merging with this nostalgia-fueled urge for safety were the panoply of "lifestyle choices" offered by the "Me Decade" of the 1970s. Countercultural impulses were rehabilitated into the mainstream through connecting media like the personal computer revolution, which was bubbling under the surface in America II's 1983. Louv was prophetic to see this revolution this early having an impact on how people live, work, and shop. The people who would've been suburbanites in the 1950s could now turn to exurbs, self-sufficient communities distant from major metropolitan centers. Is it merely white flight? Well, that is certainly a significant component of this exodus away from the cities and out to the wide open spaces of the Sun Belt. But Louv goes a step further, asking not only what will these new "urban villages" look like, but what will happen to the old cities? While his predictions handwaved the prominence of gentrification in the next two decades, he did foresee the long death of industrial city centers.

3. Louv sees the tendency for the privileged to bunker down into an increasingly privatized landscape: gated communities with private security forces, major metropolitan areas (like Houston) which dispensed with most public services and relied on a single economic sector to propel its growth, sprawling metroplexes dominated by the automobile and air conditioning, two technologies that allowed for settlement of the Sun Belt. Decentralizing technologies allowed for human communities to not only sprawl, but disconnect from any social commons. The neighborhood associations which have become the butt of jokes about fascist lawn standards (memorably parodied a decade or so later in a classic X-Files episode) are seen here as ways for the anxious settlers of, in Louv's words, "capitalist communes" to "control thy neighbor." The urban counterpart of the neighborhood association, the condominium, also places sometimes-onerous restrictions on the inhabitants. The dream of the single-family suburban home, Louv tells us repeatedly, is dead in 1983. Louv also examines rural re-settlers of the "L.L. Bean" variety; wealthy liberal city dwellers seeking to rediscover their WASP ancestry in the small woodland towns of New England.

4. The chapter titled "The Company as Cult" looks at the all-in-one corporate campuses of Silicon Valley, which in the early '80s were pioneering some of the work practices that we would find common today in the Facebooks and Googles of the world (on-the-job lifestyle perks, flex hours) combined with the zaibatsu practices that were in vogue as the tech sector was finding itself in conflict and eventually concord with Japanese ways of doing business. Nowhere in either corporate "cult," Louv notes, is there a place for unions to protect workers' interests. On the flipside of this new corporate overlordship, individualistic (and libertarian) entrepreneurs are working from home, taking advantage of the proto-virtual technologies we take for granted today. But again, the ability to uproot and work for oneself needs a hefty helping of savings and investment more often than not borne of privilege and previously-established financial advantage.

5. Overall, it's startling how many trends Louv was able to see percolating in the American landscape of living and working in 1983; so many of his observations are essentially issues of inequality, corporate control, and substandard living environments that we can see have reached critical mass more than three decades later. Issues of infrastructure for dispersed populations are already evident in the America II of 1983; one could argue not a single politician (with the exception of the first two years of Obama's first term, and that was termed more a stimulus than a comprehensive infrastructure plan) since Reagan has comprehensively addressed these worries. Louv asserts that the mobility, both geographic and occupational, of Americans in this new era will require support from the federal government to help people retrain and relocate if necessary. Such warnings weren't heeded, and America I definitely did get left behind, while America II grew, cancer-like, across the landscape.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Five things I learned from reading Joshua Cutchin's A Trojan Feast: The Food and Drink Offerings of Aliens, Faeries, and Sasquatch


1. Y'all already know that I like faeries. Y'all also know that I love UFOs. I'm fairly agnostic on sasquatches; I leave that side of the Weirdness street to our esteemed Depraedator. So when I heard tell of this book and was provided with a copy from that very same member of our masthead (thanks Chris), I was pretty much wholly onboard. Joshua Cutchin's purpose in writing this book is to look at reports of interactions with otherworldly beings that revolve around food. You have to already be onboard with Jacques Vallée's ultraterrestrial hypothesis from Passport to Magonia; there's very little daylight between faeries and aliens in this book from the get-go. His inclusion of sasquatches/Yetis/Bigfoots/wild hairy men seems to be the fly in the ointment (this play on words will be very funny later) until you start reading about all the Bigfoot abductees who have been fed by the creature, and you begin to see the common threads linking all these stories. Cutchin owes a lot to both Vallée and to Charles Fort; his work is solidly in the "collect a bunch of folkloric evidence and connect the dots" vein. While Fort himself rarely created theories to link all the weird happenings he collected and rather just took on flights of possibility on what our nature is on Earth (dumping ground? zoo? specimens on a cosmic microscope slide?), Cutchin does link his evidence to an overarching theory, which I will cover in number 5 below.

2. The uncanny nature of an otherworldly visitation, whether faerie or UFO, usually takes on a dream-like quality both during and afterwards. But the sheer number of stories where a human is invited to partake of some strange foodstuff while in the care of the ultraterrestrials (my blanket term for these beings so as to avoid typing "faerie/alien/sasquatch" over and over) is striking. Most people at least passing familiar with faerie lore will remember the dictate that a human should eat no food while in their company, no matter how much the beings insist on accepting faerie "hospitality." Whether this is due to the faeries not being able to make human food and instead enchant leaves or worms or even frogs with a "glamor," or whether their food is better rejected because it will cause a metamorphosis within the human or anchor them to the faerie lands, faerie food is never a simple case of nourishment. It is always something that it is not. At the same time, rejecting faerie hospitality will sometimes incur their wrath. So you're pretty much screwed either way. The UFOs that have appeared since 1947 have had their own share of food-offering tales, but in these cases more often the food is a liquid, or an injection, or even a pill, and it is most often force-fed to the abductee, fitting in neatly with the high-tech abduction paradigm of most UFO encounters of the third kind. Sasquatches (here we're speaking of a variety of North American native myths involving wild, hairy, man-like beasts), while lacking in modern recorded encounters, do have some common myth threads of "wild spirits offering food to a lone wanderer" usually in the form of roots or salmon that ends up being a glamor covering tree bark.

3. Cutchin sorts his stories by the type of food offered by the ultraterrestrial. Mixing stories of alien, faerie, and sasquatch lore, he sees that most stories involve ingestion of a liquid. The liquid, while initially appearing sweet in scent and taste, soon becomes bitter. Most "missing time" or amnesiac encounters, especially with UFOs, seem to involve this liquid knocking out the abductee and robbing them of their memories. While the liquids often seem to be "space-age" elixirs in color and flavor, sometimes abductees are offered a liquid that appears to be milk. Even members of the I AM Activity believed that the Comte de Saint-Germain offered them "a peculiar creamy fluid" on the slopes of Mount Shasta. Fruits and fruit juices also occur in alien and faerie encounters, with the metaphor of seeds holding their symbolic, quasi-Biblical potency in spiritually-themed UFO interactions. Milks, creamy fluids, and fruits all hold a potent sexual symbolism as well, which Cutchin discusses (alien and faerie encounters very often have a sexual dimension to them, not always consensually, which dovetails with the forcefeeding-and-amnesia motif). Sexual encounters with aliens also often feature the aliens smearing an ointment on the abductee to prepare them; fairy and sasquatch encounters also feature ointments, more often smeared on the eyes. Bread, as the staff of life, also appears frequently, especially in the Russian post-Soviet period (the early 1990s), where memories of older famine awoke cultural echoes of Baba Yaga and her associations with both feast and famine. Cutchin finds the specific foodstuffs that are most frequently seen in ultraterrestrial encounters interesting, because they seem to correspond perfectly to the Sattvic diet in Hinduism: dairy, fruits, and grains. The Sattvic diet is the highest and most refined of the three dietary gunas. Cutchin asks if the clairvoyant and sensitive nature of abductees can be attributed to their subsequent adoption of a Sattvic diet.

4. Diet providing the entry into a heightened state of awareness also evokes the entheogenic impulse in human spiritual traditions. It's no surprise that DMT trips have produced the same experience as alien contact; shamans globally have used fly agaric and ayahuasca to reach out to alien spirits. Ayahuasca encounters have produced visions in some experiencers that replicate the food offering motif seen in all the above stories. The purgative quality of the ayahuasca experience (literally; the ayahuasca beverage frequently acts as an emetic) and its bitter taste (sweet turns to bitter, just like entity liquids) is part of the ritual; it clears the stomach, heart, and soul. Ayahuasca ritualists often prescribe a light, Sattvic-style diet prior to the ingestion of the entheogen to make for an easier transition. Cutchin asks the question: are these entities products of the experience or one and the same with the liquids they offer? Is this a communion in the truest sense of the word? A South African healer spoke in an interview in the late '90s about having consumed the flesh of a Grey alien; this flesh produced an Ebola-like reaction with hemorrhaging and fits of uncontrollable laughter that lasted for days.

5. Cutchin concludes his study with the essentialness of food to the human experience; it is indeed one of the universal human experiences to eat and drink. In addition, food symbolism and the sense of taste provides strong connections to memory; given the ultraterrestrials' ability to manipulate memory, it makes sense they would use food and eating as "screen memories." Cutchin tells the story of a purported encounter where the human witnesses, a family, were led to believe they were eating in an ordinary diner but after many years, this memory fell away revealing memories of diminutive beings in silvery uniforms and the diner became a UFO. After this, Cutchin prepares his hypothesis, saying "there are no conclusions to be made [with respect to entity food encounters], only connections":
Extraterrestrial, spiritual, or interdimensional intelligences which exist in other realms can interact with human beings by altering chemical compounds (e.g. DMT) in that brain, leading to altered states of consciousness. In order to facilitate these changes in neural chemistry, these entities often draw upon the human race's rich symbolism of food and drink, offering "food mirages" which elicit a change in consciousness in the observer. These simulacra are directly projected into the mind, an extension of the entity itself ("eating the god"), and are used to initiate, strengthen, sustain, or – most commonly – end an encounter (Cutchin 183-4).
The idea of the human brain's ability to produce microscopic amounts of DMT internally producing alien encounters is a popular one; it ties in with instances of sleep paralysis and memory scrambling that seem to be common to alien encounters.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Five things I learned from reading Militant Modernism by Owen Hatherley


1. Owen Hatherley is, above all, an architecture critic; his writings can be seen regularly in the Guardian. His bailiwick is looking at the British built environment from a left-wing point of view, although he recently wrote a book about Soviet architecture. His love of the Socialist/Modernist/Brutalist structures of the 1950s and 1960s in Britain and his hatred of 1980s-and-beyond "Blairite mall architecture" and low-cost individual housing in Britain is well-known and idiosyncratic to the point of distraction. Nowhere in his Guardian writings, his excellent if discursive A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain (which I've also read) or any of his other online writings does he mount a convincing defense of why it is better for good Socialist human beings to live in 20-story apartment blocks and not tiny bungalows. He just seems to think Brutalist architecture looks really cool. Which it does! But as to assertions that Brutalist architecture is efficient or effective as a living or working space... I have evidence to the contrary.* Regardless, Hatherley is a keen observer of the built environment and as such I was excited to read his first book, Militant Modernism from 2008, and surprised to find it's not all about Modernist architecture! It's also about Modernist social organization, Modernist sex politics, and Modernist art and theatre. Which makes me think maybe Hatherley should expand his horizons, because while he's acutely able to look at architecture, he actually writes interestingly and convincingly about culture, society, and politics from a Modernist-Leftist perspective.

2. Militant Modernism consists of four chapters, which makes my remaining "four things I learned" really convenient. In his introduction and first chapter, Hatherley debuts his early apologia for Modernist architecture, expertly explicating all the arguments against living in tower blocks (the working class liked their old pre-war tenements, which, after reading Alan Moore on the subject, I can tell you is definitely true). Hatherley laments a future that never was, an experiment he says that was never properly tried. He eviscerates new homes with all the mod-cons, private living, living designed for commuters, and so forth. But then the first chapter takes a sudden shift into talking about the Industrial Revolution, going back to a century before the Modernist movement, and here Hatherley is working on solid ground, looking at the mechanization that Marx and Engels (and many successors over the next three to four generations) feared and how it took away Britons' long-standing connection with the land. Urban living changed the psyche of a large proportion of the populace, turning them into cogs of production. An excursion into Vorticism is fascinating if only for its brevity; again, Hatherley ventures down a side-alley I desperately want to explore more of. A Clockwork Orange (book and film, released at bookends to the Brutalist decade) is cited as the turning point that made people think of the tower blocks as homes of roving, ultraviolent gangs, just as Hatherley quietly points out that the bleakness of the tower blocks gave us great art, like the cold sexiness of Northern English postpunk (Pulp, Cabaret Voltaire, the Human League, Ultravox). I shrug, knowing from reading Simon Reynolds' Rip It Up and Start Again that most of these bands were solidly middle-class, living in suburban gardens and not urban tower blocks.

3. In chapter two we look at the Soviet avant-garde's place in Modernism, their space-travel fantasies (again, very briefly and intriguingly drawn and just as soon retreated from by Hatherley) and fantasies of social organization, which worked themselves out in the pre-purge architecture of the 1920s and early 1930s Soviet Union. This is a very small window for Soviet architects with non-politically orthodox views under Stalinism to work in. In 1933, most Socialist German architects fled Hitler's Germany, and ran straight into a Soviet Union racked by Stalin's purges and collectivization. But as usual, Hatherley cites a barely-glimpsed alternate future, where Soviet groups like ASNOVA (and their publication ASNOVA News), designed and even sometimes built internationally-recognized Modernist masterpieces on a par with the Bauhaus. In the mid-1920s, truly autonomous and self-contained Socialist living quarters were built, meant to embody the Soviet way of byt, or domestic life. K-Type apartments featured the elements of more traditional family life, including rooms for children, while in F-Type apartment blocks, all social elements, including child-rearing and meals, would be performed utterly collectively and communally. It wasn't just the workers who got the high-rise block treatment; apparatchiks and bureaucrats lived in 1920s versions of later British postwar luxury high-rises, explicitly recalling J.G. Ballard's High Rise with the architect living in the penthouse.

4. Chapter three is about "sexpol," and the psychological impact of Modernist living on traditional ways of courting and expressing sexuality. Much space is given over to the fascinating psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich, known best in the West for his fringe explorations of "orgone energy" and cloudbusting. But in the 1920s and early 1930s, he was investigating the socio-sexual impact of communal living and the Communist revolution in the Soviet Union. There is a thread in 20th-century Modernist/Socialist thinking of asserting the rights of sexual freedom, which ran counter to totalitarian efforts to control the worker and place workers in family units. As mentioned in the earlier chapter, communal living led to communal sexual arrangements, where every apartment was potentially a "bachelor flat," and everyone in the commune a potential sexual partner. With no families and the community raising the children, paternity would indeed become a forgotten legal fiction. Hatherley then goes on to examine the politics of the body under Modernist Socialism, remarkably similar to the Nazi ideas of fitness for the good of race and nation, but with a throbbing eros beneath the surface that the cold Aryan lines of fitness culture of Germany did not possess. And then we look at the arena in which the eroticism of Socialist living could not be suppressed, probably due to the nature of the medium: cinema, and its relentless sexualizing gaze. We are invited to look at early film examples of Socialist sex as antecedents to Yugoslav director Dušan Makavejev's series of films celebrating the earlier ideals of Socialist and Reichian sexpol with the help of the West's contemporaneous sexual revolution. Makavejev's 1971 fiction/documentary anthology WR - Mysteries of the Organism makes the Reich connection explicit with an examination of Reich's followers left in the United States after his arrest, disgrace, and death in the 1950s.

5. The final chapter of Militant Modernism moves from film to theatre, and the promise of a Brechtian Modernist theater. We're very far from architecture now, but here Hatherley shows the keenest eye of all. Brecht presents the mass pop appeal that Hatherley wishes Modernist architecture has. The idea of being able to disrupt capitalism with its own cultural artifacts was of course later examined by the Situationists, but Brecht offered that opportunity 40 years and a world war before the abortive revolutions of 1968. The shift from post-World War I joie de vivre to 1930s (literal) Depression is as evident here on the German stage as it was in Soviet architecture and social organizational theory in Chapter 2. In the 1930s, fascist dictators were using the radio and film to communicate directly to the masses; Brecht and Walter Benjamin hoped to give the Left a key to these media with treatises on radio and film. Brecht directed an explicitly political fiction-documentary film (much like Makavejev 40 years later, Brecht here plays with form and genre as well as the familiar Brechtian alienation of mixing the "real" and fictional) called Kuhle Wampe. The censorship of this film in the dying days of the Weimar Republic sounded the death knell for a constructivist, activist Socialist film in Mitteleuropa until after Hitler had been defeated.

*As someone who works in the Harvard University Science Center and saw what it looks like after a particularly daunting rainstorm (here's a hint: Harvard's allocation for rain buckets for the Science Center must be about 10% of the Harvard Corporation's budget), 1960s Brutalist architecture is not and has never been particularly livable or workable.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Five things I learned from reading Jacques Vallée's Messengers of Deception: UFO Contacts and Cults


1. Jacques Vallée, famed Ufologist (and model for Francois Truffaut's character in Close Encounters of the Third Kind) spent most of the latter half of the 1970s researching human organizations who had fallen under the spell of saucers from outer space. We would today call them '70s UFO cults. But Vallée, himself a believer in UFOs (though not perhaps necessarily the extraterrestrial hypothesis) from the time of his own UFO experience in his adolescence, very cannily spends the 250-plus pages of Messengers of Deception averring that perhaps the UFO cults are not really out there because of sightings of weird lights in the sky, but instead because of the social and cultural dislocation that occurred in the aftermath of the upheavals of the 1960s in the West. This, I think, is a very incisive piece of observation and it's inevitable that the majority of Messengers of Deception takes this tack, even when investigating what seem like very homely mysteries like one-person UFO cults and cattle mutilations.

2. Moreover, Vallée recognizes that the governmental and military authorities, who often themselves have been baffled by the UFO phenomenon, are actively using organizations like UFO cults (as well as UFO support groups, individual UFO researchers, and other occult groups) to muddy the waters when it comes to investigations into UFOs. Vallée cites the sincerity of these believers which turns them into "useful idiots" for the machinations of those in the intelligence community. Vallée's contact within the U.S. intelligence services, a "Major Murphy" (most of the promiment individuals Vallée consults with in the book are pseudonymous, and they include scientists, researchers, and prominent academics who have had UFO experiences), says that UFO cults and organizations in the West are riddled with moles and agents for various Western governments. And the converse is true on the other side of the Iron Curtain; that the Soviets in the late '70s are concerned about UFO stories spreading within their populace as evidence of provocateurs "flirting with superstitions and religious impulses indirectly manipulated by the Pentagon." Vallée is again very canny to see no discernible difference between the higher powers of UFOs and the higher powers that espio-occult groups have been seeking to contact "since the days of Dr. John Dee and Jacques Casanova." The political, military, intelligence, and scientific connections of individuals like Aleister Crowley, Guy Ballard/William Dudley Pelley, Jack Parsons and of course L. Ron Hubbard are examined. Espionage and the occult, both seen as worlds full of secrets not vouchsafed to the uninitiated, go hand and hand and always have.

3. The mid-to-late '70s were also the beginning of the cattle mutilation phenomenon. The origins of this phenomenon in the Western part of the United States bolsters Vallée's government provocateur theory; the ranchers who were the victims of this outbreak of unexplained cattle deaths and mutilations were (and still are) politically quite suspicious of government and specifically world government. There is a reason the cattle mutilation phenomenon was subsequently subsumed in the 1990s "UN black helicopter" conspiracy theory. The isolation, both geographically, socially, and politically, of Western ranchers is a fertile ground for starting conspiracy theories. Moreover, hitting the ranchers in their pocketbooks with a horrific, occult-tinged offensive of cattle mutilation, is a solid psy-op the type of which would not be out of place in Vietnam a few years earlier. Very interestingly, Vallée cites a report by the U.S. attorney in Minneapolis about "Intelligence information regarding occult activities throughout the United States" that blames animal (and human!) mutilations on "motorcycle clubs" and "Satanic cults," including the testimony of a ex-con who swore that a Hell's Angel in prison told him about a secret organization known as "the Occult" who were behind a wave of human sacrifice and were going to assassinate liberal politicians and entertainers. I will leave it to the reader to connect the dots between this Minnesota-based Satanic panic and the later, more famous one in the 1980s.


4. But let's get to the real juicy part of this book: Vallée's look at the myriad lone kooks and UFO cults of the period. It's impossible not to immediately be taken by Vallée's visit with HIM, the cult also known as Human Individual Metamorphosis. HIM was thick on the ground of university towns in the mid-'70s, recruiting young impressionable members to their group. Vallée's descriptions of "The Two" who led the cult and their constant references to a "level above human" will be chillingly familiar to those of you out there who, like me, in the early days of the web, pored through the Heaven's Gate cult web site in the aftermath of their mass suicide in 1997. While to many of us in 1997, the Heaven's Gate suicide seemingly came out of nowhere, in the mid-to-late-'70s, Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles' group was apparently infamous enough for its recruitment tactics that Vallée could say, "The group led by 'the Two' has now become so notorious that I need not spend more time with them; many articles have been published about them, revealing much about their intentions and methods." In France, Vallée meets the Order of Melchizedek, a group with a much more old-school occult tinge to its beliefs and praxis. Technocrats and millionaires like "Mr. T" and "Mr. X" in California talk about how alien contact could mean technological advances and freedom from the petroleum industry and mainstream scientists; and of course the Raelians, who exist even today and have been immortalized in pop culture and literature in their 40-plus year history, offer free love and immortality through cloning thanks to the "Elohim."

5. Vallée's thesis at the end of the book embraces the earth-bound reason for the explosion of UFO cults that I cited in 1 and 2 above. His "six social consequences" of UFO enthusiasm include the fact that UFO belief creates distrust in scientific authority, takes authority for humanity out of the hands of humanity in general (by theories like the "ancient astronaut" theory), promotes the concept of one-world government and world peace in the Manichean era of the Cold War, replaces conservative moribund earth-bound mainstream religions, and at the same time primes the credulous for spiritual answers to materialistic questions, and finally edges human beings toward essentialist, racist, and even totalitarian systems by idealizing the Saucer People as an elevated, superior race. Quite a mish-mash of social consequences, and a few of them definitely seem to contradict each other implicitly (although all seem solidly on the side of taking free will out of the hands of followers), but the idea of the 1970s being a liminal time where the opportunity for radical changes in human political and spiritual organization was wide-open... that's something I can get behind.

This is a fantastic book; a time capsule in some ways, but also the best kind of social observation, one with immediate application to any time period it's read in.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Five by Five


Next week, I'm going to return to my book review series, "Five Things I Learned From..." to give you a sense of the stuff I've been reading the past year or so. Here's my tentative schedule:
  • Monday: Five Things I Learned From Messengers of Deception: UFO Contacts and Cults, by Jacques Vallée
  • Tuesday: Five Things I Learned From Militant Modernism, by Owen Hatherley
  • Wednesday: Five Things I Learned from A Trojan Feast: The Food and Drink Offerings of Aliens, Faeries, and Sasquatch, by Joshua Cutchin
  • Thursday: Five Things I Learned from America II, by Richard Louv
  • Friday: Five Things I Learned from The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media, by John Durham Peters
I could probably do another couple of these weeks of five book reviews over the next few months. Somehow I have read a lot of stuff for pleasure in the past year since quitting my stressful full-time corporate job; I offer no proof of causation or correlation here, but feel free to come to your own conclusions.

Thanks to all the folks who purchased me some of these books as gifts for my big 4-0 or otherwise.