Individualism and Isolation

“When an Indian child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and makes one Indian ramble with them, there is no persuading him ever to return. [But] when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoners young by the Indians, and lived a while among them, tho’ ransomed by their friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a short time they become disgusted with our manner of life, and the care and pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first good opportunity of escaping again into the woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them.”
~ Benjamin Franklin

“The Indians, their old masters, gave them their choice and, without requiring any consideration, told them that they had been long as free as themselves. They chose to remain, and the reasons they gave me would greatly surprise you: the most perfect freedom, the ease of living, the absence of those cares and corroding solicitudes which so often prevail with us… all these and many more motives which I have forgot made them prefer that life of which we entertain such dreadful opinions. It cannot be, therefore, so bad as we generally conceive it to be; there must be in their social bond something singularly captivating, and far superior to anything to be boasted of among us; for thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those Aborigines having from choice become Europeans! There must be something more congenial to our native dispositions than the fictitious society in which we live, or else why should children, and even grown persons, become in a short time so invincibly attached to it? There must be something very bewitching in their manners, something very indelible and marked by the very hands of nature. For, take a young Indian lad, give him the best education you possibly can, load him with your bounty, with presents, nay with riches, yet he will secretly long for his native woods, which you would imagine he must have long since forgot, and on the first opportunity he can possibly find, you will see him voluntarily leave behind all you have given him and return with inexpressible joy to lie on the mats of his fathers…

“Let us say what will of them, of their inferior organs, of their want of bread, etc., they are as stout and well made as the Europeans. Without temples, without priests, without kings and without laws, they are in many instances superior to us, and the proofs of what I advance are that they live without care, sleep without inquietude, take life as it comes, bearing all its asperities with unparalleled patience, and die without any kind of apprehension for what they have done or for what they expect to meet with hereafter. What system of philosophy can give us so many necessary qualifications for happiness? They most certainly are much more closely connected to nature than we are; they are her immediate children…”
~ J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur

Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic. Such societies, as the acronym goes, are WEIRD. But what exactly makes them weird?

This occurred to me because of reading Sebastian Junger’s Tribe. Much of what gets attributed to these WEIRD descriptors has been around for more than a half millennia, at least since the colonial imperialism began in Europe. From the moment Europeans settled in the Americas, a significant number of colonists were choosing to live among the natives because in many ways that lifestyle was a happier and healthier way of living with less stress and work, less poverty and inequality, not only lacking in arbitrary political power but also allowing far more personal freedom, especially for women.

Today, when we bother to think much about the problems we face, we mostly blame them on the side effects of modernity. But colonial imperialism began when Europe was still under the sway of of monarchies, state churches, and feudalism. There was nothing WEIRD about Western civilization at the time.

Those earlier Europeans hadn’t yet started to think of themselves in terms of a broad collective identity such as ‘Westerners’. They weren’t particularly well educated, not even the upper classes. Industrialization was centuries away. As for being rich, there was some wealth back then but it was limited to a few and even for those few it was rather unimpressive by modern standards. And Europeans back then were extremely anti-democratic.

Since European colonists were generally no more WEIRD than various native populations, we must look for other differences between them. Why did so many Europeans choose to live among the natives? Why did so many captured Europeans who were adopted into tribes refuse or resist being ‘saved’? And why did the colonial governments have to create laws and enforce harsh punishments in their having tried to stop people from ‘going native’?

European society, on both sides of the ocean, was severely oppressive and violent. That was particularly true in Virginia that was built on the labor of indentured servitude, at a time when most were worked to death before getting the opportunity for release from bondage. They had plenty of reason to seek the good life among the natives. But life was less than pleasant in the other colonies as well. A similar pattern repeated itself.

Thomas Morton went off with some men into the wilderness to start their own community where they commingled with the natives. This set an intolerable example that threatened Puritan social control and so the Puritans destroyed their community of the free. Roger Williams, a Puritan minister, took on the mission to convert the natives but found himself converted instead. He fled Puritan oppression because, as he put, the natives were more civilized than the colonists. Much later on, Thomas Paine living near some still free Indian tribes observed that their communities demonstrated greater freedom, self-governance, and natural rights than the colonies. He hoped Americans could take that lesson to heart. Other founders, from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, looked admiringly to the example of their Indian neighbors.

The point is that whatever is problematic about Western society has been that way for a long time. Modernity has worsened this condition of unhappiness and dysfunction. There is no doubt that becoming more WEIRD has made us ever more weird, but Westerners were plenty weird from early on before they became WEIRD. Maybe the turning point for the Western world was the loss of our own traditional cultures and tribal lifestyles, as the Roman model of authoritarianism spread across Europe and became dominant. We have yet to shake off these chains of the past and instead have forced them upon everyone else.

It is what some call the Wetiko, one of the most infectious and deadly of mind viruses. “The New World fell not to a sword but to a meme,” as Daniel Quinn stated it (Beyond Civilization, p. 50). But it is a mind virus that can only take hold after immunity is destroyed. As long as there were societies of the free, the contagion was contained because the sick could be healed. But the power of the contagion is that the rabidly infected feel an uncontrollable compulsion to attack and kill the uninfected, the very people who would offer healing. Then the remaining survivors become infected and spread it further. A plague of victimization until no one is left untouched, until there is nowhere else to escape. Once all alternatives are eliminated, once a demiurgic monoculture comes to power, we are trapped in what Philip K. Dick called the Black Iron Prison. Sickness becomes all we know.

The usefulness of taking note of contemporary WEIRD societies isn’t that WEIRDness is the disease but that it shows the full blown set of symptoms of the disease. But the onset of the symptoms comes long after the infection, like a slow-growing malignant tumor in the brain. Still, symptoms are important, specifically when there is a comparison to a healthy population. That is what the New World offered the European mind, a comparison. The earliest accounts of native societies in the Americas helped Europeans to diagnose their own disease and helped motivate them to begin looking for a cure, although the initial attempts were fumbling and inept. The first thing that some Europeans did was simply to imagine what a healthy community might look like. That is what Thomas More attempted to do six centuries ago with his book Utopia.

Maybe the key is that of social concerns. Utopian visions have always focused on the social aspect, typically describing how people would ideally live together in communities. That was also the focus of the founders when they sought out alternative possibilities of organizing society. The change with colonialism, as feudalism was breaking down, was loss of belonging, of community and kinship. Modern individualism began not as an ideal but as a side effect of social breakdown, a condition of isolation and disconnection forced upon entire populations rather than having been freely chosen. And it was traumatizing to the Western psyche, and still is traumatizing, as seen with the high rates of mental illnesses in WEIRD societies, especially in the hyper-individualistic United States. That began before the defining factors of the WEIRD took hold. It was that trauma that made the WEIRD possible.

The colonists, upon meeting natives, discovered what had been lost. And for many colonists, that loss had happened within living memory. The hunger for what was lost was undeniable. To have seen a traditional communities that still functioned would have been like taking a breath of fresh air after having spent months in the stench of a ship’s hull. Not only did these native communities demonstrate what was recently lost but also what had been lost so much earlier. As many Indian tribes had more democratic practices, so did many European tribes prior to feudalism. But colonists had spent their entire lives being told democracy was impossible, that personal freedom was dangerous or even sinful.

The difference today is that none of this is within living memory for most of us, specifically Americans, unless one was raised Amish or in some similar community. The closest a typical American comes to this experience is by joining the military during war time. That is one of the few opportunities for a modern equivalent to a tribe, at least within WEIRD societies. And maybe a large part of the trauma soldiers struggle with isn’t merely the physical violence of war but the psychological violence of returning to the state of alienation, the loss of a bond that was closer than that of their own families.

Sebastian Junger notes that veterans who return to strong social support experience low rates of long-term PTSD, similar to Johann Hari’s argument about addiction in Chasing the Scream and his argument about depression in Lost Connections. Trauma, depression, addiction, etc — these are consequences of or worsened by isolation. These responses are how humans cope under stressful and unnatural conditions.

* * *

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging
by Sebastian Junger
pp. 16-25

The question for Western society isn’t so much why tribal life might be so appealing—it seems obvious on the face of it—but why Western society is so unappealing. On a material level it is clearly more comfortable and protected from the hardships of the natural world. But as societies become more affluent they tend to require more, rather than less, time and commitment by the individual, and it’s possible that many people feel that affluence and safety simply aren’t a good trade for freedom. One study in the 1960s found that nomadic !Kung people of the Kalahari Desert needed to work as little as twelve hours a week in order to survive—roughly one-quarter the hours of the average urban executive at the time. “The ‘camp’ is an open aggregate of cooperating persons which changes in size and composition from day to day,” anthropologist Richard Lee noted with clear admiration in 1968. “The members move out each day to hunt and gather, and return in the evening to pool the collected foods in such a way that every person present receives an equitable share… Because of the strong emphasis on sharing, and the frequency of movement, surplus accumulation… is kept to a minimum.”

The Kalahari is one of the harshest environments in the world, and the !Kung were able to continue living a Stone-Age existence well into the 1970s precisely because no one else wanted to live there. The !Kung were so well adapted to their environment that during times of drought, nearby farmers and cattle herders abandoned their livelihoods to join them in the bush because foraging and hunting were a more reliable source of food. The relatively relaxed pace of !Kung life—even during times of adversity—challenged long-standing ideas that modern society created a surplus of leisure time. It created exactly the opposite: a desperate cycle of work, financial obligation, and more work. The !Kung had far fewer belongings than Westerners, but their lives were under much greater personal control. […]

First agriculture, and then industry, changed two fundamental things about the human experience. The accumulation of personal property allowed people to make more and more individualistic choices about their lives, and those choices unavoidably diminished group efforts toward a common good. And as society modernized, people found themselves able to live independently from any communal group. A person living in a modern city or a suburb can, for the first time in history, go through an entire day—or an entire life—mostly encountering complete strangers. They can be surrounded by others and yet feel deeply, dangerously alone.

The evidence that this is hard on us is overwhelming. Although happiness is notoriously subjective and difficult to measure, mental illness is not. Numerous cross-cultural studies have shown that modern society—despite its nearly miraculous advances in medicine, science, and technology—is afflicted with some of the highest rates of depression, schizophrenia, poor health, anxiety, and chronic loneliness in human history. As affluence and urbanization rise in a society, rates of depression and suicide tend to go up rather than down. Rather than buffering people from clinical depression, increased wealth in a society seems to foster it.

Suicide is difficult to study among unacculturated tribal peoples because the early explorers who first encountered them rarely conducted rigorous ethnographic research. That said, there is remarkably little evidence of depression-based suicide in tribal societies. Among the American Indians, for example, suicide was understood to apply in very narrow circumstances: in old age to avoid burdening the tribe, in the ritual paroxysms of grief following the death of a spouse, in a hopeless but heroic battle with an enemy, and in an attempt to avoid the agony of torture. Among tribes that were ravaged by smallpox, it was also understood that a person whose face had been hideously disfigured by lesions might kill themselves. According to The Ethics of Suicide: Historical Sources , early chroniclers of the American Indians couldn’t find any other examples of suicide that were rooted in psychological causes. Early sources report that the Bella Coola, the Ojibwa, the Montagnais, the Arapaho, the Plateau Yuma, the Southern Paiute, and the Zuni, among many others, experienced no suicide at all.

This stands in stark contrast to many modern societies, where the suicide rate is as high as 25 cases per 100,000 people. (In the United States, white middle-aged men currently have the highest rate at nearly 30 suicides per 100,000.) According to a global survey by the World Health Organization, people in wealthy countries suffer depression at as much as eight times the rate they do in poor countries, and people in countries with large income disparities—like the United States—run a much higher lifelong risk of developing severe mood disorders. A 2006 study comparing depression rates in Nigeria to depression rates in North America found that across the board, women in rural areas were less likely to get depressed than their urban counterparts. And urban North American women—the most affluent demographic of the study—were the most likely to experience depression.

The mechanism seems simple: poor people are forced to share their time and resources more than wealthy people are, and as a result they live in closer communities. Inter-reliant poverty comes with its own stresses—and certainly isn’t the American ideal—but it’s much closer to our evolutionary heritage than affluence. A wealthy person who has never had to rely on help and resources from his community is leading a privileged life that falls way outside more than a million years of human experience. Financial independence can lead to isolation, and isolation can put people at a greatly increased risk of depression and suicide. This might be a fair trade for a generally wealthier society—but a trade it is. […]

The alienating effects of wealth and modernity on the human experience start virtually at birth and never let up. Infants in hunter-gatherer societies are carried by their mothers as much as 90 percent of the time, which roughly corresponds to carrying rates among other primates. One can get an idea of how important this kind of touch is to primates from an infamous experiment conducted in the 1950s by a primatologist and psychologist named Harry Harlow. Baby rhesus monkeys were separated from their mothers and presented with the choice of two kinds of surrogates: a cuddly mother made out of terry cloth or an uninviting mother made out of wire mesh. The wire mesh mother, however, had a nipple that dispensed warm milk. The babies took their nourishment as quickly as possible and then rushed back to cling to the terry cloth mother, which had enough softness to provide the illusion of affection. Clearly, touch and closeness are vital to the health of baby primates—including humans.

In America during the 1970s, mothers maintained skin-to-skin contact with babies as little as 16 percent of the time, which is a level that traditional societies would probably consider a form of child abuse. Also unthinkable would be the modern practice of making young children sleep by themselves. In two American studies of middle-class families during the 1980s, 85 percent of young children slept alone in their own room—a figure that rose to 95 percent among families considered “well educated.” Northern European societies, including America, are the only ones in history to make very young children sleep alone in such numbers. The isolation is thought to make many children bond intensely with stuffed animals for reassurance. Only in Northern European societies do children go through the well-known developmental stage of bonding with stuffed animals; elsewhere, children get their sense of safety from the adults sleeping near them.

The point of making children sleep alone, according to Western psychologists, is to make them “self-soothing,” but that clearly runs contrary to our evolution. Humans are primates—we share 98 percent of our DNA with chimpanzees—and primates almost never leave infants unattended, because they would be extremely vulnerable to predators. Infants seem to know this instinctively, so being left alone in a dark room is terrifying to them. Compare the self-soothing approach to that of a traditional Mayan community in Guatemala: “Infants and children simply fall asleep when sleepy, do not wear specific sleep clothes or use traditional transitional objects, room share and cosleep with parents or siblings, and nurse on demand during the night.” Another study notes about Bali: “Babies are encouraged to acquire quickly the capacity to sleep under any circumstances, including situations of high stimulation, musical performances, and other noisy observances which reflect their more complete integration into adult social activities.”

As modern society reduced the role of community, it simultaneously elevated the role of authority. The two are uneasy companions, and as one goes up, the other tends to go down. In 2007, anthropologist Christopher Boehm published an analysis of 154 foraging societies that were deemed to be representative of our ancestral past, and one of their most common traits was the absence of major wealth disparities between individuals. Another was the absence of arbitrary authority. “Social life is politically egalitarian in that there is always a low tolerance by a group’s mature males for one of their number dominating, bossing, or denigrating the others,” Boehm observed. “The human conscience evolved in the Middle to Late Pleistocene as a result of… the hunting of large game. This required… cooperative band-level sharing of meat.”

Because tribal foragers are highly mobile and can easily shift between different communities, authority is almost impossible to impose on the unwilling. And even without that option, males who try to take control of the group—or of the food supply—are often countered by coalitions of other males. This is clearly an ancient and adaptive behavior that tends to keep groups together and equitably cared for. In his survey of ancestral-type societies, Boehm found that—in addition to murder and theft—one of the most commonly punished infractions was “failure to share.” Freeloading on the hard work of others and bullying were also high up on the list. Punishments included public ridicule, shunning, and, finally, “assassination of the culprit by the entire group.” […]

Most tribal and subsistence-level societies would inflict severe punishments on anyone who caused that kind of damage. Cowardice is another form of community betrayal, and most Indian tribes punished it with immediate death. (If that seems harsh, consider that the British military took “cowards” off the battlefield and executed them by firing squad as late as World War I.) It can be assumed that hunter-gatherers would treat their version of a welfare cheat or a dishonest banker as decisively as they would a coward. They may not kill him, but he would certainly be banished from the community. The fact that a group of people can cost American society several trillion dollars in losses—roughly one-quarter of that year’s gross domestic product—and not be tried for high crimes shows how completely de-tribalized the country has become.

Dishonest bankers and welfare or insurance cheats are the modern equivalent of tribe members who quietly steal more than their fair share of meat or other resources. That is very different from alpha males who bully others and openly steal resources. Among hunter-gatherers, bullying males are often faced down by coalitions of other senior males, but that rarely happens in modern society. For years, the United States Securities and Exchange Commission has been trying to force senior corporate executives to disclose the ratio of their pay to that of their median employees. During the 1960s, senior executives in America typically made around twenty dollars for every dollar earned by a rank-and-file worker. Since then, that figure has climbed to 300-to-1 among S&P 500 companies, and in some cases it goes far higher than that. The US Chamber of Commerce managed to block all attempts to force disclosure of corporate pay ratios until 2015, when a weakened version of the rule was finally passed by the SEC in a strict party-line vote of three Democrats in favor and two Republicans opposed.

In hunter-gatherer terms, these senior executives are claiming a disproportionate amount of food simply because they have the power to do so. A tribe like the !Kung would not permit that because it would represent a serious threat to group cohesion and survival, but that is not true for a wealthy country like the United States. There have been occasional demonstrations against economic disparity, like the Occupy Wall Street protest camp of 2011, but they were generally peaceful and ineffective. (The riots and demonstrations against racial discrimination that later took place in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, led to changes in part because they attained a level of violence that threatened the civil order.) A deep and enduring economic crisis like the Great Depression of the 1930s, or a natural disaster that kills tens of thousands of people, might change America’s fundamental calculus about economic justice. Until then, the American public will probably continue to refrain from broadly challenging both male and female corporate leaders who compensate themselves far in excess of their value to society.

That is ironic, because the political origins of the United States lay in confronting precisely this kind of resource seizure by people in power. King George III of England caused the English colonies in America to rebel by trying to tax them without allowing them a voice in government. In this sense, democratic revolutions are just a formalized version of the sort of group action that coalitions of senior males have used throughout the ages to confront greed and abuse. Thomas Paine, one of the principal architects of American democracy, wrote a formal denunciation of civilization in a tract called Agrarian Justice : “Whether… civilization has most promoted or most injured the general happiness of man is a question that may be strongly contested,” he wrote in 1795. “[Both] the most affluent and the most miserable of the human race are to be found in the countries that are called civilized.”

When Paine wrote his tract, Shawnee and Delaware warriors were still attacking settlements just a few hundred miles from downtown Philadelphia. They held scores of white captives, many of whom had been adopted into the tribe and had no desire to return to colonial society. There is no way to know the effect on Paine’s thought process of living next door to a communal Stone-Age society, but it might have been crucial. Paine acknowledged that these tribes lacked the advantages of the arts and science and manufacturing, and yet they lived in a society where personal poverty was unknown and the natural rights of man were actively promoted.

In that sense, Paine claimed, the American Indian should serve as a model for how to eradicate poverty and bring natural rights back into civilized life.

* * *

Dark Triad Domination
Urban Weirdness
Social Disorder, Mental Disorder
The Unimagined: Capitalism and Crappiness
It’s All Your Fault, You Fat Loser!
How Universal Is The Mind?
Bias About Bias
“Beyond that, there is only awe.”



Dark Triad Domination

It has been noted that some indigenous languages have words that can be interpreted as what, in English, is referred to as psychopathic, sociopathic, narcissistic, Machiavellian, etc. This is the region of the Dark Triad. One Inuit language has the word ‘kunlangeta‘, meaning “his mind knows what to do but he does not do it.” That could be thought of as describing a psychopath’s possession of cognitive empathy while lacking affective empathy. Or consider the Yoruba word ‘arankan‘ that “is applied to a person who always goes his own way regardless of others, who is uncooperative, full of malice, and bullheaded.”

These are tribal societies. Immense value is placed on kinship loyalty, culture of trust, community survival, collective well-being, and public good. Even though they aren’t oppressive authoritarian states, the modern Western notion of hyper-individualism wouldn’t make much sense within these close-knit groups. Sacrifice of individual freedom and rights is a given under such social conditions, since individuals are intimately related to one another and physically dependent upon one another. Actually, it wouldn’t likely be experienced as sacrifice at all since it would simply be the normal state of affairs, the shared reality within which they exist — their identity being social rather than individual.

This got me thinking about psychopathy and modern society. Research has found that, at least in some Western countries, the rate of psychopathy is not only high in prison populations but equally as high among the economic and political elite. My father left upper management in a major corporation because of how ruthless was the backstabbing, a win at all costs social Darwinism. This is what defines a country like the United States, as these social dominators are the most revered and emulated individuals. Psychopaths and such, instead of being eliminated or banished, are promoted and empowered.

What occurred to me is the difference for tribal societies is that hyper-individualism is seen not only as abnormal but dangerous and so intolerable. Maybe the heavy focus on individualism in the modern West inevitably leads to the psychopathological traits of the Dark Triad. As such, that would mean there is something severely abnormal and dysfunctional about Western societies (WEIRD – Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic). Psychopaths, in particular, are the ultimate individualists and so they will be the ultimate winners in an individualistic culture — their relentless confidence and ruthless competitiveness, their Machiavellian manipulations and persuasive charm supporting a narcissistic optimism and leading to success.

There are a couple of ways of looking at this. First off, there might be something about urbanization itself or a correlated factor that exacerbates mental illness. Studies have found, for example, an increase in psychosis across the recent generations of city-dwellers — precisely during the period of populations being further urbanized and concentrated. It reminds one of the study done on crowding large numbers of rats in a small contained cage until they turned anti-social, aggressive, and violent. If these rats were humans, we might describe this behavior in terms of psychopathy or sociopathy.

There is a second thing to consider, as discussed by Barbara Oakley in her book Evil Genes (pp. 265-6). About rural populations, she writes that, “Psychopathy is rare in those settings, notes psychologist David Cooke, who has studied psychopathy across cultures.” And she continues:

“But what about more urban environments? Cooke’s research has shown, surprisingly, that there are more psychopaths from Scotland prisons of England and Wales than there are in Scottish prisons. (Clearly, this is not to say that the Scottish are more given to psychopathy than anyone else.) Studies of migration records showed that many Scottish psychopaths had migrated to the more populated metropolitan areas of the south. Cooke hypothesized that, in the more crowded metropolitan areas, the psychopath could attack or steal with little danger that the victim would recognize or catch him. Additionally, the psychopath’s impulsivity and need for stimulation could also play a role in propelling the move to the dazzling delights of the big city — he would have no affection for family and friends to keep him tethered back home. Densely populated areas, apparently, are the equivalent for psychopaths of ponds and puddles for malarial mosquitoes.”

As Oakley’s book is on genetics, she goes in an unsurprising direction in pointing out how some violent individuals have been able to pass on their genetics to large numbers of descendants. The most famous example being Genghis Khan. She writes that (p. 268),

“These recent discoveries reinforce the findings of the anthropologist Laura Betzig. Her 1986 Despotism and Differential Reproduction provides a cornucopia of evidence documenting the increased capacity of those with more power — and frequently, Machiavellian tendencies — to have offspring. […] As Machiavellian researcher Richard Christie and his colleague Florence Geis aptly note: “[H]igh population density and highly competitive environments have been found to increase the use of antisocial and Machiavellian strategies, and my in fact foster the ability of those who possess those strategies to reproduce.” […] Beltzig’s ultimte point is not that the corrupt attain power but that those corrupted individuals who achieved power in preindustrial agricultural societies had far more opportunity to reproduce, generally through polygyny, and pass on their genes. In fact, the more Machiavellian, that is, despotic, a man might be, the more polygynous he tended to be — grabbing and keeping for himself as many beautiful women as he could. Some researchers have posited that envy is itself a useful, possibly geneticall linked trait, “serving a key role in survival, motivating achievement, serving the conscience of self and other, and alerting us to inequities that, if fueled, can lead to esclaated violence.” Thus, genese related to envy — not to mention other more problematic temperaments — might have gradually found increased prevalence in such environments.”

That kind of genetic hypothesis is highly speculative, to say the least. Their could be some truth value in them, if one wanted to give the benefit of the doubt, but we have no direct evidence that such is the case. At present, these speculations are yet more just-so stories and they will remain so until we can better control confounding factors in order to directly ascertain causal factors. Anyway, genetic determinism in this simplistic sense is largely moot at this point, as the science is moving on into new understandings. Besides being unhelpful, such speculations are unnecessary. We already have plenty of social science research that proves changing environmental conditions alters social behavior — besides what I’ve already mentioned, there is such examples as the fascinating rat park research. There is no debate to be had about the immense influence of external influences, such as factors of socioeconomic class and high inequality: Power Causes Brain Damage by Justin Renteria, How Wealth Reduces Compassion by Daisy Grewal, Got Money? Then You Might Lack Compassion by Jeffrey Kluger, Why the Rich Don’t Give to Charity by Ken Stern, Rich People Literally See the World Differently by Drake Baer, The rich really DO ignore the poor by Cheyenne Macdonald, Propagandopoly: Monopoly as an Ideological Tool by Naomi Russo, A ‘Rigged’ Game Of Monopoly Reveals How Feeling Wealthy Changes Our Behavior [TED VIDEO] by Planetsave, etc.

Knowing the causes is important. But knowing the consequences is just as important. No matter what increases Dark Triad behaviors, they can have widespread and long-lasting repurcussions, maybe even permanently altering entire societies in how they function. Following her speculations, Oakley gets down to the nitty gritty (p. 270):

“Questions we might reasonably ask are — has the percentage of Machiavellians and other more problematic personality types increased in the human population, or in certain human populations, since the advent of agriculture? And if the answer is yes, does the increase in these less savory types change a group’s culture? In other words, is there a tipping point of Machiavellian and emote control behavior that can subtly or not so subtly affect the way the members of a society interact? Certainly a high expectation of meeting a “cheater,” for example, would profoundly impact the trust that appears to form the grease of modern democratic societies and might make the development of democratic processes in certain areas more difficult. Crudely put, an increase in successfully sinister types from 2 percent, say, to 4 percent of a population would double the pool of Machiavellians vying for power. And it is the people in power who set the emotional tone, perhaps through mirroring and emotional contagion, for their followers and those around them. As Judith Rich Harris points out, higher-status members of a group are looked at more, which means they have more influence on how a person becomes socialized.”

The key factor in much of this seems to be concentration. Simply concentrating populations, humans or rats, leads to social problems related to mental health issues. On top of that, there is the troubling concern of what kind of people are being concentrated and where they are being concentrated — psychopaths being concentrated not only in big cities and prisons but worse still in positions of wealth and power, authority and influence. We live in a society that creates the conditions for the Dark Triad to increase and flourish. This is how the success of those born psychopaths encourages others to follow their example in developing into sociopaths, which in turn makes the Dark Triad mindset into a dominant ethos within mainstream culture.

The main thing on my mind is individualism. It’s been on my mind a lot lately, such as in terms of the bundle theory of the mind and the separate individual, connected to my long term interest in community and the social nature of humans. In relation to individualism, there is the millennia-old cultural divide between Germanic ‘freedom‘ and Roman ‘liberty‘. But because Anglo-American society mixed up the two, this became incorrectly framed by Isaiah Berlin in terms of positive and negative. In Contemporary Political Theory, J. C. Johari writes that (p. 266), “Despite this all, it may be commented that though Berlin advances the argument that the two aspects of liberty cannot be so distinguished in practical terms, one may differ from him and come to hold that his ultimate preference is for the defence of the negative view of liberty. Hence, he obviously belongs to the category of Mill and Hayek.”  He states this “is evident from his emphatic affirmation” in the following assertion by Berlin:

“The fundamental sense of freedom is freedom from chains, from imprisonment, from enslavement by others. The rest is extension of this sense or else metaphor. To strive to be free is to seek to remove obstacles; to struggle for personal freedom is to seek to curb interference, exploitation, enslavement by men whose ends are theirs, not one’s own. Freedom, at least in its political sense, is coterminous with the absence of bullying or domination.”

Berlin makes a common mistake here. Liberty was defined by not being a slave in a slave-based society, which is what existed in the Roman Empire. But that isn’t freedom, an entirely different term with an etymology related to ‘friend’ and with a meaning that indicated membership in an autonomous community — such freedom meant not being under the oppression of a slave-based society (e.g., German tribes remaining independent of the Roman Empire). Liberty, not freedom, was determined by one’s individual status of lacking oppression in an oppressive social order. This is why liberty has a negative connotation for it is what you lack, rather than what you possess. A homeless man starving alone on the street with no friend in the world to help him and no community to support him, such a man has liberty but not freedom. He is ‘free’ to do what he wants under those oppressive conditions and constraints, as no one is physically detaining him.

This notion of liberty has had a purchase on the American mind because of the history of racial and socioeconomic oppression. After the Civil War, blacks had negative liberty in no longer being slaves but they definitely did not have positive freedom through access to resources and opportunities, instead being shackled by systemic and institutional racism that maintained their exploited status as a permanent underclass — along with slavery overtly continuing in other forms through false criminal charges leading to prison labor, such that the criminal charges justified blaming the individual for their own lack of freedom which maintained the outward perception of negative liberty. Other populations such as Native Americans faced a similar dilemma. But is one actually free when the chains holding one down are invisible but still all too real? If liberty is an abstraction detached from lived experience and real world results, of what value is such liberty? The nature of negative liberty has always had a superficial and illusory quality about it in how it is maintained through public narrative. Unlike freedom, liberty as a social construct is highly effective as a tool for social control and oppression.

This point is made by another critic of Berlin’s perspective. “It is hard for me to see that Berlin is consistent on this point,” writes L. H. Crocker (Positive Liberty, p. 69). “Surely not all alterable human failures to open doors are cases of bullying. After all, it is often through neglect that opportunities fail to be created for the disadvantaged. It is initially more plausible that all failures to open doors are the result of domination in some sense or another.” I can’t help but think that Dark Triad individuals would feel right at home in a culture of liberty where individuals have the ‘freedom’ to oppress and be oppressed. Embodying this sick mentality, Margaret Thatcher once gave perfect voice to the sociopathic worldview — speaking of the victims of disadvantage and desperation, she claimed that, “They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society.” That is to say, there is no freedom.

The question, then, is whether or not we want freedom. A society is only free to the degree that as a society freedom is demanded. To deny society itself is an attempt to deny the very basis of freedom, but that is just a trick of rhetoric. A free people know their own freedom by acting freely, even if that means fighting the oppressors who seek to deny that freedom. Thatcher intentionally conflated society and government, something never heard in the clear-eyed wisdom of a revolutionary social democrat like Thomas Paine“Society in every state is a blessing, but government, even in its best stage, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one.” These words expressed the values of negative liberty as made perfect sense for someone living in an empire built on colonialism, corporatism, and slavery. But the same words gave hint to a cultural memory of Germanic positive freedom. It wasn’t a principled libertarian hatred of governance, rather the principled radical protest against a sociopathic social order. As Paine made clear, this unhappy situation wasn’t the natural state of humanity, neither inevitable nor desirable, much less tolerable.

The Inuits would find a way for psychopaths to ‘accidentally’ fall off the ice, never to trouble the community again. As for the American revolutionaries, they preferred more overt methods, from tar and feathering to armed revolt. So, now to regain our freedom as a people, what recourse do we have in abolishing the present Dark Triad domination?

* * *

Here are some pieces on individualism and community, as contrasted between far different societies. These involve issues of mental health (from depression to addiction), and social problems (from authoritarianism to capitalist realism) — as well as other topics, including carnival and revolution.

Self, Other, & World

Retrieving the Lost Worlds of the Past:
The Case for an Ontological Turn
by Greg Anderson

“[…] This ontological individualism would have been scarcely intelligible to, say, the inhabitants of precolonial Bali or Hawai’i, where the divine king or chief, the visible incarnation of the god Lono, was “the condition of possibility of the community,” and thus “encompasse[d] the people in his own person, as a projection of his own being,” such that his subjects were all “particular instances of the chief’s existence.” 12 It would have been barely imaginable, for that matter, in the world of medieval Europe, where conventional wisdom proverbially figured sovereign and subjects as the head and limbs of a single, primordial “body politic” or corpus mysticum. 13 And the idea of a natural, presocial individual would be wholly confounding to, say, traditional Hindus and the Hagen people of Papua New Guinea, who objectify all persons as permeable, partible “dividuals” or “social microcosms,” as provisional embodiments of all the actions, gifts, and accomplishments of others that have made their lives possible.1

“We alone in the modern capitalist west, it seems, regard individuality as the true, primordial estate of the human person. We alone believe that humans are always already unitary, integrated selves, all born with a natural, presocial disposition to pursue a rationally calculated self-interest and act competitively upon our no less natural, no less presocial rights to life, liberty, and private property. We alone are thus inclined to see forms of sociality, like relations of kinship, nationality, ritual, class, and so forth, as somehow contingent, exogenous phenomena, not as essential constituents of our very subjectivity, of who or what we really are as beings. And we alone believe that social being exists to serve individual being, rather than the other way round. Because we alone imagine that individual humans are free-standing units in the first place, “unsocially sociable” beings who ontologically precede whatever “society” our self-interest prompts us to form at any given time.”

What Kinship Is-And Is Not
by Marshall Sahlins, p. 2

“In brief, the idea of kinship in question is “mutuality of being”: people who are intrinsic to one another’s existence— thus “mutual person(s),” “life itself,” “intersubjective belonging,” “transbodily being,” and the like. I argue that “mutuality of being” will cover the variety of ethnographically documented ways that kinship is locally constituted, whether by procreation, social construction, or some combination of these. Moreover, it will apply equally to interpersonal kinship relations, whether “consanguineal” or “affinal,” as well as to group arrangements of descent. Finally, “mutuality of being” will logically motivate certain otherwise enigmatic effects of kinship bonds— of the kind often called “mystical”— whereby what one person does or suffers also happens to others. Like the biblical sins of the father that descend on the sons, where being is mutual, there experience is more than individual.”

Music and Dance on the Mind

We aren’t as different from ancient humanity as it might seem. Our societies have changed drastically, suppressing old urges and potentialities. Yet the same basic human nature still lurks within us, hidden in the underbrush along the well trod paths of the mind. The hive mind is what the human species naturally falls back upon, from millennia of collective habit. The problem we face is we’ve lost the ability to express well our natural predisposition toward group-mindedness, too easily getting locked into groupthink, a tendency easily manipulated.

Considering this, we have good reason to be wary, not knowing what we could tap into. We don’t understand our own minds and so we naively underestimate the power of humanity’s social nature. With the right conditions, hiving is easy to elicit but hard to control or shut down. The danger is that the more we idolize individuality the more prone we become to what is so far beyond the individual. It is the glare of hyper-individualism that casts the shadow of authoritarianism.

Pacifiers, Individualism & Enculturation

I’ve often thought that individualism, in particular hyper-individualism, isn’t the natural state of human nature. By this, I mean that it isn’t how human nature manifested for the hundreds of thosands of years prior to modern Western civilization. Julian Jaynes theorizes that, even in early Western civilization, humans didn’t have a clear sense of separate individuality. He points out that in the earliest literature humans were all the time hearing voices outside of themselves (giving them advice, telling them what to do, making declarations, chastising them, etc), maybe not unlike in the way we hear a voice in our head.

We moderns have internalized those external voices of collective culture. This seems normal to us. This is not just about pacifiers. It’s about technology in general. The most profound technology ever invented was written text (along with the binding of books and the printing press). All the time I see my little niece absorbed in a book, even though she can’t yet read. Like pacifiers, books are tools of enculturation that help create the individual self. Instead of mommy’s nipple, the baby soothes themselves. Instead of voices in the world, the child becomes focused on text. In both cases, it is a process of internalizing.

All modern civilization is built on this process of individualization. I don’t know if it is overall good or bad. I’m sure much of our destructive tendencies are caused by the relationship between individualization and objectification. Nature as a living world that could speak to us has become mere matter without mind or soul. So, the cost of this process has been high… but then again, the innovative creativeness has exploded as this individualizing process has increasingly taken hold in recent centuries.

“illusion of a completed, unitary self”

The Voices Within: The History and Science of How We Talk to Ourselves
by Charles Fernyhough, Kindle Locations 3337-3342

“And we are all fragmented. There is no unitary self. We are all in pieces, struggling to create the illusion of a coherent “me” from moment to moment. We are all more or less dissociated. Our selves are constantly constructed and reconstructed in ways that often work well, but often break down. Stuff happens, and the center cannot hold. Some of us have more fragmentation going on, because of those things that have happened; those people face a tougher challenge of pulling it all together. But no one ever slots in the last piece and makes it whole. As human beings, we seem to want that illusion of a completed, unitary self, but getting there is hard work. And anyway, we never get there.”

Delirium of Hyper-Individualism

Individualism is a strange thing. For anyone who has spent much time meditating, it’s obvious that there is no there there. It slips through one’s grasp like an ancient philosopher trying to study aether. The individual self is the modernization of the soul. Like the ghost in the machine and the god in the gaps, it is a theological belief defined by its absence in the world. It’s a social construct, a statement that is easily misunderstood.

In modern society, individualism has been raised up to an entire ideological worldview. It is all-encompassing, having infiltrated nearly every aspect of our social lives and become internalized as a cognitive frame. Traditional societies didn’t have this obsession with an idealized self as isolated and autonomous. Go back far enough and the records seem to show societies that didn’t even have a concept, much less an experience, of individuality.

Yet for all its dominance, the ideology of individualism is superficial. It doesn’t explain much of our social order and personal behavior. We don’t act as if we actually believe in it. It’s a convenient fiction that we so easily disregard when inconvenient, as if it isn’t all that important after all. In our most direct experience, individuality simply makes no sense. We are social creatures through and through. We don’t know how to be anything else, no matter what stories we tell ourselves.

The ultimate value of this individualistic ideology is, ironically, as social control and social justification.

It’s All Your Fault, You Fat Loser!

Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative?
By Mark Fisher, pp. 18-20

“[…] In what follows, I want to stress two other aporias in capitalist realism, which are not yet politicized to anything like the same degree. The first is mental health. Mental health, in fact, is a paradigm case of how capitalist realism operates. Capitalist realism insists on treating mental health as if it were a natural fact, like weather (but, then again, weather is no longer a natural fact so much as a political-economic effect). In the 1960s and 1970s, radical theory and politics (Laing, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, etc.) coalesced around extreme mental conditions such as schizophrenia, arguing, for instance, that madness was not a natural, but a political, category. But what is needed now is a politicization of much more common disorders. Indeed, it is their very commonness which is the issue: in Britain, depression is now the condition that is most treated by the NHS . In his book The Selfish Capitalist, Oliver James has convincingly posited a correlation between rising rates of mental distress and the neoliberal mode of capitalism practiced in countries like Britain, the USA and Australia. In line with James’s claims, I want to argue that it is necessary to reframe the growing problem of stress (and distress) in capitalist societies. Instead of treating it as incumbent on individuals to resolve their own psychological distress, instead, that is, of accepting the vast privatization of stress that has taken place over the last thirty years, we need to ask: how has it become acceptable that so many people, and especially so many young people, are ill? The ‘mental health plague’ in capitalist societies would suggest that, instead of being the only social system that works, capitalism is inherently dysfunctional, and that the cost of it appearing to work is very high.”

There is always an individual to blame. It sucks to be an individual these days, I tell ya. I should know because I’m one of those faulty miserable individuals. I’ve been one my whole life. If it weren’t for all of us pathetic and depraved individuals, capitalism would be utopia. I beat myself up all the time for failing the great dream of capitalism. Maybe I need to buy more stuff.

“The other phenomenon I want to highlight is bureaucracy. In making their case against socialism, neoliberal ideologues often excoriated the top-down bureaucracy which supposedly led to institutional sclerosis and inefficiency in command economies. With the triumph of neoliberalism, bureaucracy was supposed to have been made obsolete; a relic of an unlamented Stalinist past. Yet this is at odds with the experiences of most people working and living in late capitalism, for whom bureaucracy remains very much a part of everyday life. Instead of disappearing, bureaucracy has changed its form; and this new, decentralized, form has allowed it to proliferate. The persistence of bureaucracy in late capitalism does not in itself indicate that capitalism does not work – rather, what it suggests is that the way in which capitalism does actually work is very different from the picture presented by capitalist realism.”

Neoliberalism: Dream & Reality

[…] in the book Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher (p. 20):

“[…] But incoherence at the level of what Brown calls ‘political rationality’ does nothing to prevent symbiosis at the level of political subjectivity, and, although they proceeded from very different guiding assumptions, Brown argues that neoliberalism and neoconservatism worked together to undermine the public sphere and democracy, producing a governed citizen who looks to find solutions in products, not political processes. As Brown claims,

“the choosing subject and the governed subject are far from opposites … Frankfurt school intellectuals and, before them, Plato theorized the open compatibility between individual choice and political domination, and depicted democratic subjects who are available to political tyranny or authoritarianism precisely because they are absorbed in a province of choice and need-satisfaction that they mistake for freedom.”

“Extrapolating a little from Brown’s arguments, we might hypothesize that what held the bizarre synthesis of neoconservatism and neoliberalism together was their shared objects of abomination: the so called Nanny State and its dependents. Despite evincing an anti-statist rhetoric, neoliberalism is in practice not opposed to the state per se – as the bank bail-outs of 2008 demonstrated – but rather to particular uses of state funds; meanwhile, neoconservatism’s strong state was confined to military and police functions, and defined itself against a welfare state held to undermine individual moral responsibility.”

[…] what Robin describes touches upon my recent post about the morality-punishment link. As I pointed out, the world of Star Trek: Next Generation imagines the possibility of a social order that serves humans, instead of the other way around. I concluded that, “Liberals seek to promote freedom, not just freedom to act but freedom from being punished for acting freely. Without punishment, though, the conservative sees the world lose all meaning and society to lose all order.” The neoliberal vision subordinates the individual to the moral order. The purpose of forcing the individual into a permanent state of anxiety and fear is to preoccupy their minds and their time, to redirect all the resources of the individual back into the system itself. The emphasis on the individual isn’t because individualism is important as a central ideal but because the individual is the weak point that must be carefully managed. Also, focusing on the individual deflects our gaze from the structure and its attendant problems.

This brings me to how this relates to corporations in neoliberalism (Fisher, pp. 69-70):

“For this reason, it is a mistake to rush to impose the individual ethical responsibility that the corporate structure deflects. This is the temptation of the ethical which, as Žižek has argued, the capitalist system is using in order to protect itself in the wake of the credit crisis – the blame will be put on supposedly pathological individuals, those ‘abusing the system’, rather than on the system itself. But the evasion is actually a two step procedure – since structure will often be invoked (either implicitly or openly) precisely at the point when there is the possibility of individuals who belong to the corporate structure being punished. At this point, suddenly, the causes of abuse or atrocity are so systemic, so diffuse, that no individual can be held responsible. This was what happened with the Hillsborough football disaster, the Jean Charles De Menezes farce and so many other cases. But this impasse – it is only individuals that can be held ethically responsible for actions, and yet the cause of these abuses and errors is corporate, systemic – is not only a dissimulation: it precisely indicates what is lacking in capitalism. What agencies are capable of regulating and controlling impersonal structures? How is it possible to chastise a corporate structure? Yes, corporations can legally be treated as individuals – but the problem is that corporations, whilst certainly entities, are not like individual humans, and any analogy between punishing corporations and punishing individuals will therefore necessarily be poor. And it is not as if corporations are the deep-level agents behind everything; they are themselves constrained by/ expressions of the ultimate cause-that-is-not-a-subject: Capital.”

Sleepwalking Through Our Dreams

The modern self is not normal, by historical and evolutionary standards. Extremely unnatural and unhealthy conditions have developed, our minds having correspondingly grown malformed like the binding of feet. Our hyper-individuality is built on disconnection and, in place of human connection, we take on various addictions, not just to drugs and alcohol but also to work, consumerism, entertainment, social media, and on and on. The more we cling to an unchanging sense of bounded self, the more burdened we become trying to hold it all together, hunched over with the load we carry on our shoulders. We are possessed by the identities we possess.

This addiction angle interests me. Our addiction is the result of our isolated selves. Yet even as our addiction attempts to fill emptiness, to reach out beyond ourselves toward something, anything, a compulsive relationship devoid of the human, we isolate ourselves further. As Johann Hari explained in Chasing the Scream (Kindle Locations 3521-3544):

There were three questions I had never understood. Why did the drug war begin when it did, in the early twentieth century? Why were people so receptive to Harry Anslinger’s message? And once it was clear that it was having the opposite effect to the one that was intended— that it was increasing addiction and supercharging crime— why was it intensified, rather than abandoned?

I think Bruce Alexander’s breakthrough may hold the answer.

“Human beings only become addicted when they cannot find anything better to live for and when they desperately need to fill the emptiness that threatens to destroy them,” Bruce explained in a lecture in London31 in 2011. “The need to fill an inner void is not limited to people who become drug addicts, but afflicts the vast majority of people of the late modern era, to a greater or lesser degree.”

A sense of dislocation has been spreading through our societies like a bone cancer throughout the twentieth century. We all feel it: we have become richer, but less connected to one another. Countless studies prove this is more than a hunch, but here’s just one: the average number of close friends a person has has been steadily falling. We are increasingly alone, so we are increasingly addicted. “We’re talking about learning to live with the modern age,” Bruce believes. The modern world has many incredible benefits, but it also brings with it a source of deep stress that is unique: dislocation. “Being atomized and fragmented and all on [your] own— that’s no part of human evolution and it’s no part of the evolution of any society,” he told me.

And then there is another kicker. At the same time that our bonds with one another have been withering, we are told— incessantly, all day, every day, by a vast advertising-shopping machine— to invest our hopes and dreams in a very different direction: buying and consuming objects. Gabor tells me: “The whole economy is based around appealing to and heightening every false need and desire, for the purpose of selling products. So people are always trying to find satisfaction and fulfillment in products.” This is a key reason why, he says, “we live in a highly addicted society.” We have separated from one another and turned instead to things for happiness— but things can only ever offer us the thinnest of satisfactions.

This is where the drug war comes in. These processes began in the early twentieth century— and the drug war followed soon after. The drug war wasn’t just driven, then, by a race panic. It was driven by an addiction panic— and it had a real cause. But the cause wasn’t a growth in drugs. It was a growth in dislocation.

The drug war began when it did because we were afraid of our own addictive impulses, rising all around us because we were so alone. So, like an evangelical preacher who rages against gays because he is afraid of his own desire to have sex with men, are we raging against addicts because we are afraid of our own growing vulnerability to addiction?

In The Secret Life of Puppets, Victoria Nelson makes some useful observations of reading addiction, specifically in terms of formulaic genres. She discusses Sigmund Freud’s repetition compulsion and Lenore Terr’s post-traumatic games. She sees genre reading as a ritual-like enactment that can’t lead to resolution, and so the addictive behavior becomes entrenched. This would apply to many other forms of entertainment and consumption. And it fits into Derrick Jensen’s discussion of abuse, trauma, and the victimization cycle.

I would broaden her argument in another way. People have feared the written text ever since it was invented. In the 18th century, there took hold a moral panic about reading addiction in general and that was before any fiction genres had developed (Frank Furedi, The Media’s First Moral Panic). The written word is unchanging and so creates the conditions for repetition compulsion. Every time a text is read, it is the exact same text.

That is far different from oral societies. And it is quite telling that oral societies have a much more fluid sense of self. The Piraha, for example, don’t cling to their sense of self nor that of others. When a Piraha individual is possessed by a spirit or meets a spirit who gives them a new name, the self that was there is no longer there. When asked where is that person, the Piraha will say that he or she isn’t there, even if the same body of the individual is standing right there in front of them. They also don’t have a storytelling tradition or concern for the past.

Another thing that the Piraha apparently lack is mental illness, specifically depression along with suicidal tendencies. According to Barbara Ehrenreich from Dancing in the Streets, there wasn’t much written about depression even in the Western world until the suppression of religious and public festivities, such as Carnival. One of the most important aspects of Carnival and similar festivities was the masking, shifting, and reversal of social identities. Along with this, there was the losing of individuality within the group. And during the Middle Ages, an amazing number of days in the year were dedicated to communal celebrations. The ending of this era coincided with numerous societal changes, including the increase of literacy with the spread of the movable type printing press.

Another thing happened with suppression of festivities. Local community began to break down as power became centralized in far off places and the classes became divided, which Ehrenreich details. The aristocracy used to be inseparable from their feudal roles and this meant participating in local festivities where, as part of the celebration, a king might wrestle with a blacksmith. As the divides between people grew into vast chasms, the social identities held and social roles played became hardened into place. This went along with a growing inequality of wealth and power. And as research has shown, wherever there is inequality also there is found high rates of social problems and mental health issues.

It’s maybe unsurprising that what followed from this was colonial imperialism and a racialized social order, class conflict and revolution. A society formed that was simultaneously rigid in certain ways and destabilized in others. The individuals became increasingly atomized and isolated. With the loss of kinship and community, the cheap replacement we got is identity politics. The natural human bonds are lost or constrained. Social relations are narrowed down. Correspondingly, our imaginations are hobbled and we can’t envision society being any other way. Most tragic, we forget that human society used to be far different, a collective amnesia forcing us into a collective trance. Our entire sense of reality is held in the vice grip of historical moment we find ourselves in.

Social Conditions of an Individual’s Condition

A wide variety of research and data is pointing to a basic conclusion. Environmental conditions (physical, social, political, and economic) are of penultimate importance. So, why do we treat as sick individuals those who suffer the consequences of the externalized costs of society?

Here is the sticking point. Systemic and collective problems in some ways are the easiest to deal with. The problems, once understood, are essentially simple and their solutions tend to be straightforward. Even so, the very largeness of these problems make them hard for us to confront. We want someone to blame. But who do we blame when the entire society is dysfunctional?

If we recognize the problems as symptoms, we are forced to acknowledge our collective agency and shared fate. For those who understand this, they are up against countervailing forces that maintain the status quo. Even if a psychiatrist realizes that their patient is experiencing the symptoms of larger social issues, how is that psychiatrist supposed to help the patient? Who is going to diagnose the entire society and demand it seek rehabilitation?

Winter Season and Holiday Spirit

With this revelry and reversal follows, along with licentiousness and transgression, drunkenness and bawdiness, fun and games, song and dance, feasting and festival. It is a time for celebration of this year’s harvest and blessing of next year’s harvest. Bounty and community. Death and rebirth. The old year must be brought to a close and the new year welcomed. This is the period when gods, ancestors, spirits, and demons must be solicited, honored, appeased, or driven out. The noise of song, gunfire, and such serves many purposes.

In the heart of winter, some of the most important religious events took place. This includes Christmas, of course, but also the various celebrations around the same time. A particular winter festival season that began on All Hallows Eve (i.e., Halloween) ended with the Twelfth Night. This included carnival-like revelry and a Lord of Misrule. There was also the tradition of going house to house, of singing and pranks, of demanding treats/gifts and threats if they weren’t forthcoming. It was a time of community and sharing, and those who didn’t willingly participate might be punished. Winter, a harsh time of need, was when the group took precedence. […]

I’m also reminded of the Santa Claus as St. Nick. This invokes an image of jollity and generosity. And this connects to wintertime as period of community needs and interdependence, of sharing and gifting, of hospitality and kindness. This includes enforcement of social norms which easily could transform into the challenging of social norms.

It’s maybe in this context we should think of the masked vigilantes participating in the Boston Tea Party. Like carnival, there had developed a tradition of politics out-of-doors, often occurring on the town commons. And on those town commons, large trees became identified as liberty trees — under which people gathered, upon which notices were nailed, and sometimes where effigies were hung. This was an old tradition that originated in Northern Europe, where a tree was the center of a community, the place of law-giving and community decision-making. In Europe, the commons had become the place of festivals and celebrations, such as carnival. And so the commons came to be the site of revolutionary fervor as well.

The most famous Liberty Tree was a great elm near the Boston common. It was there that many consider the birth of the American Revolution, as it was the site of early acts of defiance. This is where the Sons of Liberty met, organized, and protested. This would eventually lead to that even greater act of defiance on Saturnalia eve, the Boston Tea Party. One of the participants in the Boston Tea Party and later in the Revolutionary War, Samuel Sprague, is buried in the Boston Common.

There is something many don’t understand about the American Revolution. It wasn’t so much a fight against oppression in general and certainly not about mere taxation in particular. What angered those Bostonians and many other colonists was that they had become accustomed to community-centered self-governance and this was being challenged. The tea tax wasn’t just an imposition of imperial power but also colonial corporatism. The East India Company was not acting as a moral member of the community, in its taking advantage by monopolizing trade. Winter had long been the time of year when bad actors in the community would be punished. Selfishness was not to be tolerated.

Those Boston Tea Partiers were simply teaching a lesson about the Christmas spirit. And in the festival tradition, they chose the guise of Native Americans which to their minds would have symbolized freedom and an inversion of power. What revolution meant to them was a demand for return of what was taken from them, making the world right again. It was revelry with a purpose.

* * *

As addiction is key, below is some other stuff in terms of individualism and social problems, mental health and abnormal psychology. It seems that high rates of addiction are caused by the same and/or related factors involved in depression, anxiety, dark triad, etc. It’s a pattern of dysfunction found most strongly in WEIRD societies and increasingly in other developed societies, such as seen in Japan as the traditional social order breaks down (e.g., increasing number of elderly Japanese dying alone and forgotten). This pattern is seen clearly in the weirdest of WEIRD, such as with sociopathic organizations like Amazon which I bet has high prevalence of addiction among employees.

Drug addiction makes possible human adaptation to inhuman conditions. It’s part of a victimization cycle that allows victimizers to not only take power but to enforce the very conditions of victimization. The first step is isolating the victim by creating a fractured society of dislocation, disconnection, and division. Psychopaths rule by imposing a sociopathic social order, a sociopathic economic and political system. This is the environment in which the dark triad flourishes and, in coping with the horror of it, so many turn to addiction to numb the pain and distress, anxiety and fear. Addiction is the ‘normal’ state of existence under the isolated individualism of social Darwinism and late stage capitalism.

Addiction is the expression of disconnection, the embodiment of isolation. Without these anti-social conditions, the dark triad could never take hold and dominate all of society.

“The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection.”
~ Johann Harri

“We are all so much together, but we are all dying of loneliness.”
~ Albert Schweitzer

The New Individualism
by Anthony Elliott and Charles Lemert
pp. 117-118

Giddens tells us that reflexivity, powered by processes of globalization, stands closest to autonomy. In a world in which tradition has more thoroughly been swept away than ever before, contingency appears unavoidable. And with contingency comes the potential to remake the world and negotiate lifestyle options — about who to be, how to act, whom to love and how to live together. The promised autonomy of reflexivity is, however, also a problem, since choice necessarily brings with it ambivalence, doubt and uncertainty. There is no way out of this paradox, though of the various, necessarily unsuccessful, attempts people make to avoid the dilemmas of reflexivity Giddens identifies ‘addiction’ as being of key importance to the present age. As he writes:

Once institutional reflexivity reaches into virtually all parts of everyday social life, almost any pattern or habit can become an addiction. The idea of addiction makes little sense in a traditional culture, where it is normal to do today what one did yesterday . . . Addictions, then, are a negative index of the degree to which the reflexive project of the self moves to the centre-stage in late modernity.

Reflexivity’s promise of freedom carries with it the burden of continual choice and deals with all the complexities of emotional life. ‘Every addiction’, writes Giddens, ‘is a defensive reaction, and an escape, a recognition of lack of autonomy that casts a shadow over the competence of the self.’

How Individualism Undermines Our Health Care
from Shared Justice

Addictions Originate in Unhappiness—and Compassion Could Be the Cure
by Gabor Maté

Dislocation Theory of Addiction
by Bruce K. Alexander

Addiction, Environmental Crisis, and Global Capitalism
by Bruce K. Alexander

Healing Addiction Through Community: A Much Longer Road Than it Seems?
by Bruce K. Alexander

What Lab experiments Can Tell Us About The Cause And Cure For Addiction
by Mark

#7 Theory of Dislocation
by Ross Banister

‘The globalisation of addiction’ by Bruce Alexander
review by Mike Jay

The cost of the loneliness epidemic
from Broccoli & Brains

The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is Not What You Think
by Johann Hari

The Politics of Loneliness
by Michael Bader

America’s deadly epidemic of loneliness
by Michael Bader

Addiction and Modernity: A Comment on a Global Theory of Addiction
by Robert Granfield

The Addicted Narcissist: How Substance Addiction Contributes to Pathological Narcissism With Implications for Treatment
by Kim Laurence

Urban Weirdness

In a summary of a study from this year, it was concluded that “young city-dwellers also have 40% more chance of suffering from psychosis (hearing voices, paranoia or becoming schizophrenic in adulthood) is perhaps is less common knowledge.” The authors in the paper claim to have controlled for “a range of potential confounders including family SES, family psychiatric history, maternal psychosis, adolescent substance problems, and neighborhood-level deprivation.”

These are intriguing results, assuming that the study was successful in controlling the confounding factors and so assuming they were making a genuine comparison. Some of the features they noted for the effected urban populations were adverse neighborhood conditions and community breakdown, but I’d point out that these are increasingly found in rural areas. For example, if they further focused in on the hardest hit areas of rural Appalachia, would they find the same results? Is this really a difference between urban and rural areas? If so, that requires explaining, maybe beyond what the authors articulated.

Some of that might be caused by physical factors in urban environments.

Lead toxicity, for example, is worse in cities these days (although a century ago it was actually worse in rural areas because of heavy use of lead paint for barns). Lead toxicity has major impacts on neurocognitive development and mental illness. Also, keeping pets indoors is more common in cities. And where cats are kept as house pets, there are higher rates of toxoplasmosis which is another causal factor that alters the brain and leads to mental health issues.

Neither lead toxicity nor toxoplasmosis was mentioned in the paper. Those are two obvious confounders apparently not having been considered. That could be problematic, although not necessarily undermining the general pattern.

Other factors might have to do with crime or rather the criminal system.

There are actually lower violent crime rates in urban areas, both big and small cities, as compared to rural areas (the rural South is even worse). But it is true that specific urban communities and neighborhoods would have more crime and violence, meaning greater levels of victimization. Beyond crime itself, a major difference is that there are greater levels of policing in cities, which means more police targeting of particular populations (specifically minorities and the poor) and so more police harassment and brutality for the victimized populations. Many poor inner cities can feel like occupied territories, far from optimal conditions for normal psychological development.

Furthermore, there are more video cameras, public and private, watching the citizenry’s every move. Cities are artificial environments, highly ordered in constraining and controlling human behavior, with more walls than open spaces. In tending toward inequality and segregation, cities create divided populations that have separate life experiences. This undermines a culture of trust and makes it difficult to maintain community-based social capital. It’s understandable that all of this combined might make one feel paranoid or simply stressed and anxious. But we should be careful about our conclusions, since cities in more equal and well functioning social democracies might be far different than cities in a country like the United States.

Besides, there might be more going on than these external issues of urban environments.

Urban populations are larger and more concentrated than ever before. Maybe there are psychological changes that happen to populations under these conditions, as urbanization increases. Being in near constant close proximity to so many people has to have major impacts on human development and behavior. And this might go far beyond issues of stress alone.

This could relate to Julian Jaynes’ theory of bicameralism, as he argued that people hearing voices became more common with the emergence of the first city-states. Urban environments are atypical for the conditions under which human evolution occurred. It shouldn’t be surprising that abnormal conditions would lead to abnormal results, whatever are the specifics involved.

So, maybe it should be expected that “mental health deterioration” would follow. If the bicameral mind actually did once exist in the ancient world, I’m sure the first urban dwellers initially experienced it as negative and threatening. Any major societal change takes many generations (or centuries) to be fully assimilated, normalized, and stabilized within the social order.

But humans are so adaptable that almost anything can eventually be integrated into a culture. Recent research has shown how highly atypical is our WEIRD society (western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) and yet to us it is perfectly normal. Maybe these neurocognitive changes from increased urbanization are simply our WEIRD society being pushed ever further down the path its on. The WEIRD might get ever more weird.

A new mentality could be developing, for good or ill. If our society survives the transition, something radically different would emerge. As has been noted by others, revolutions of the mind always precede revolutions of society. Before the earthquake, the tectonic plates must shift. The younger generations are standing on the faultline and, in being hit by urbanization the hardest, they will experience it like no one else. But as it goes on, none of us will escape the consequences. We better hope for a new mentality.

“News from the guinea pig grapevine suggests that whatever it is, we won’t know until it’s way too late, you see? You see that we’re all canaries in the coal mine on this one?”
~ Barris, A Scanner Darkly

* * *

Cumulative Effects of Neighborhood Social Adversity and Personal Crime Victimization on Adolescent Psychotic Experiences
by Joanne Newbury, Louise Arseneault, Avshalom Caspi, Terrie E. Moffitt1, Candice L. Odgers, & Helen L. Fishe

Does urbanicity shift the population expression of psychosis?
by Janneke Spauwen, Lydia Krabbendam, Roselind Lieb, Hans-Ulrich Wittchen, & Jim van Os

Schizophrenia and Urbanicity: A Major Environmental Influence—Conditional on Genetic Risk
by Lydia Krabbendam & Jim van Os

Brain Structure Correlates of Urban Upbringing, an Environmental Risk Factor for Schizophrenia
Leila Haddad, Axel Schäfer, Fabian Streit, Florian Lederbogen, Oliver Grimm, Stefan Wüst, by Michael Deuschle, Peter Kirsch, Heike Tost, & Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg

City living and urban upbringing affect neural social stress processing in humans
by Florian Lederbogen, Peter Kirsch, Leila Haddad, Fabian Streit, Heike Tost, Philipp Schuch, Stefan Wüst, Jens C. Pruessner, Marcella Rietschel, Michael Deuschle & Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg


Human Nature: Categories & Biases

There is something compelling about seemingly opposing views. There is Mythos vs Logos, Apollonian vs Dionysian, Fox vs Hedgehog, Socratic vs the Sophistic, Platonic vs Aristotelian, Spinoza vs Locke, Paine vs Burke, Jung vs Freud, nature vs nurture, biology vs culture, determinism vs free will, parenting style vs peer influence, etc.

And these perceived divisions overlap in various ways, a long developing history of ideas, worldviews, and thinkers. It’s a dance. One side will take the lead and then the other. The two sides will take different forms, the dividing lines shifting.

In more recent decades, we’ve come to more often think in terms of political ideologies. The greatest of them all is liberal vs conservative. But since World War II, there has been a growing obsession with authoritarianism and anti-authoritarianism. And there is the newer area of social dominance orientation (SDO). Some prefer focusing on progressive vs reactionary as more fundamental, as it relates to the history of the revolutionary and counterrevolutionary.

With the advent of social science and neuroscience, we’ve increasingly put all of this in new frames. Always popular, there is left and right brain hemispheres, along with more specific brain anatomy (e.g., conservatives on average have a larger amygdala). Then there is the personality research: Myers-Briggs, trait theory, boundary types, etc — of those three, trait theory being the most widely used.

Part of it is that humans simply like to categorize. It’s how we attempt to make sense of the world. And there is nothing that preoccupies human curiosity more than humanity itself, our shared inheritance of human ideas and human nature. For as long as humans have been writing and probably longer, there have been categorizations to slot humans into.

My focus has most often been toward personality, along with social science more generally. What also interests me is that one’s approach to such issues also comes in different varieties. With that in mind, I wanted to briefly compare two books. Both give voice to two sides of my own thinking. The first I’ll discuss is The Liberal’s Guide to Conservatives by J. Scott Wagner. And the second is A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind by Robert Burton.

Wagner’s book is the kind of overview I wish I’d had earlier last decade. But a book like this gets easier to write as time goes on. Many points of confusion have been further clarified, if not always resolved, by more recent research. Then again, often this has just made us more clear about what exactly is our confusion.

What is useful about a book like this is that it helps show what we do know at the moment. Or simply what we think we know, until further research is done to confirm or disconfirm present theories. But at least some of it allows a fair amount of certainty that we are looking at significant patterns in the data.

It’s a straightforward analysis with a simple purpose. The author is on the political left and he wants to help those who share his biases to understand those on the political right who have different biases. A noble endeavor, as always. He covers a lot of territory and it is impressive. I won’t even attempt to summarize it all. I’m already broadly familiar with the material, as this area of study involves models and theories that have been researched for a long time.

What most stood out to me was his discussion of authoritarianism and social dominance orientation (SDO). For some reason, that seems like more important than all the rest. Those taken together represent the monkey wrench thrown into the gears of the human mind. I was amused when Wagner opined that,

Unlike all that subtlety around “social conformity-autonomy” and authoritarianism, the SDO test is straightforward: not to put too fine a point on it, but to me, the questions measure how much of a jerk you are. (Kindle Locations 3765-3767)

He holds no love for SDOs. And for good reason. Combine the worst aspects from the liberal elite of the classical liberal variety as found in a class-based pseudo-meritocracy. Remove any trace of liberal-minded tolerance, empathy, kindness, and compassion. And then wrap this all up with in-group domination. Serve with a mild sauce of near sociopathy.

Worse part of it is that SDOs are disproportionately found among those with wealth and power, authority and privilege. These people are found among the ruling elite for the simple reason that they want to be a ruling elite. Unless society stops them from dominating, they will dominate. It’s their nature, like the scorpion that stings the frog carrying him across the river. The scorpion can’t help itself.

All of that is important info. I do wish more people would read books like these. There is no way for the public, conservative and liberal alike, to come together in defense against threats to the public good when they don’t understand or often even clearly see those threats.

Anyway, Wagner’s book offers a systematizing approach, with a more practical emphasis that offers useful insight. He shows what differentiates people and what those demarcations signify. He offers various explanations and categorizations, models and theories. You could even take professional tests that will show your results on the various scales discussed, in order to see where you fit in the scheme of personality traits and ideological predispositions. Reading his book will help you understand why conflicts are common and communication difficult. But he doesn’t leave it at that, as he shares personal examples and helpful advice.

Now for the other approach, more contrarian in nature. This is exemplified by the other book I’ve been reading, the one by Robert Burton (who I quoted in a recent post). As Wagner brings info together, Burton dissects it into its complicated messy details (Daniel Everett has a similar purpose). Yet Burton also is seeking to be of use, in promoting clear thinking and a better scientific understanding. His is a challenge not just to the public but also to scientific researchers.

Rather than promising answers to age-old questions about the mind, it is my goal to challenge the underlying assumptions that drive these questions. In the end, this is a book questioning the nature of the questions about the mind that we seem compelled to ask yet are scientifically unable to answer. (p. 7)

Others like Wagner show the answers so far found for the questions we ask. Burton’s motive is quite the opposite, to question those answers. This is in the hope of improving both questions and answers.

Here is what I consider the core insight from Burton’s analysis (p. 105-7):

“Heinrich’s team showed the illusion to members of sixteen different social groups including fourteen from small-scale societies such as native African tribes. To see how strong the illusion was in each of these groups, they determined how much longer the “shorter” line needed to be for the observer to conclude that the two lines were equal. (You can test yourself at this website— By measuring the amount of lengthening necessary for the illusion to disappear, they were able to chart differences between various societies. At the far end of the spectrum— those requiring the greatest degree of lengthening in order to perceive the two lines as equal (20 percent lengthening)— were American college undergraduates, followed by the South African European sample from Johannesburg. At the other end of the spectrum were members of a Kalahari Desert tribe, the San foragers. For the San tribe members, the lines looked equal; no line adjustment was necessary, as they experienced no sense of illusion. The authors’ conclusion: “This work suggests that even a process as apparently basic as visual perception can show substantial variation across populations. If visual perception can vary, what kind of psychological processes can we be sure will not vary?” 14

“Challenging the entire field of psychology, Heinrich and colleagues have come to some profoundly disquieting conclusions. Lifelong members of societies that are Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic (the authors coined the acronym WEIRD) reacted differently from others in experiment after experiment involving measures of fairness, antisocial punishment, and cooperation, as well as when responding to visual illusions and questions of individualism and conformity. “The fact that WEIRD people are the outliers in so many key domains of the behavioral sciences may render them one of the worst subpopulations one could study for generalizing about Homo sapiens.” The researchers found that 96 percent of behavioral science experiment subjects are from Western industrialized countries, even though those countries have just 12 percent of the world’s population, and that 68 percent of all subjects are Americans.

“Jonathan Haidt, University of Virginia psychologist and prepublication reviewer of the article, has said that Heinrich’s study “confirms something that many researchers knew all along but didn’t want to admit or acknowledge because its implications are so troublesome.” 15 Heinrich feels that either many behavioral psychology studies have to be redone on a far wider range of cultural groups— a daunting proposition— or they must be understood to offer insight only into the minds of rich, educated Westerners.

“Results of a scientific study that offer universal claims about human nature should be independent of location, cultural factors, and any outside influences. Indeed, one of the prerequisites of such a study would be to test the physical principles under a variety of situations and circumstances. And yet, much of what we know or believe we know about human behavior has been extrapolated from the study of a small subsection of the world’s population known to have different perceptions in such disparate domains as fairness, moral choice, even what we think about sharing. 16 If we look beyond the usual accusations and justifications— from the ease of inexpensively studying undergraduates to career-augmenting shortcuts— we are back at the recurrent problem of a unique self-contained mind dictating how it should study itself.”

I don’t feel much need to add to that. The implications of it are profound. This possibly throws everything up in the air. We might be forced to change what we think we know. I will point out Jonathan Haidt being quoted in that passage. Like many other social scientists, Haidt’s own research has been limited in scope, something that has been pointed out before (by me and others). But at least those like Haidt are acknowledging the problem and putting some effort into remedying it.

These are exciting times. There is the inevitable result that, as we come to know more, we come to realize how little we know and how limited is what we know (or think we know). We become more circumspect in our knowledge.

Still, that doesn’t lessen the significance of what we’ve so far learned. Even with the WEIRD bias disallowing generalization about a universal human nature, the research done remains relevant to showing the psychological patterns and social dynamics in WEIRD societies. So, for us modern Westerners, the social science is as applicable as it ever was. But what it shows is that there is nothing inevitable about human nature, as what has been shown is that there is immense potential for diverse expressions of our shared humanity.

If you combine these two books, you will have greater understanding than either alone. They can be seen as opposing views, but at a deeper level they share a common purpose, that of gaining better insight into ourselves and others.

Quentin S. Crisp: Fiction Writer and Blogger

Quentin S. Crisp: Fiction Writer and Blogger

Posted on Dec 23rd, 2008 by Marmalade : Gaia Child Marmalade
A favorite writer of mine is Quentin S. Crisp.  He is a fiction writer, but I admit I haven’t read much of his fiction.  He is moreso a favorite writer of my friend.  I primarily know him through his blog writings and I will say he is my favorite blogger.  He shares many of my interests and views.  I think he was raised by a psychotherapist or something.  Maybe that is the reason that, despite his occasional cynicism, he has a very accepting and easygoing attitude about life.  He is often designated as a horror writer, but does’t like that designation.  He is more just a weird write with dark streak.

I like how he is usually very reserved and humble about his opinions.  He has written that he doesn’t take his opinions as ultimate truths but simply what makes sense to him in the given moment.  I like what he says here(this is from the comments section of one of his blogs):

Actually, I feel like adding that, although I used the word ‘pessimistic’ at one point, I don’t really think of myself as pessimistic. I know some people do, because they’ve told me. But for me to call myself that would suggest I had some preformed pessimistic bent to which I wished to shape any conclusion. I don’t. I actually have a sense of enormous potential within existence, which seems, rather tiresomely, to be thwarted again and again by human stupidity, my own included. Some people have tried to find the way out of this trap but it tends to turn to the way back in, because as soon as they call themselves ‘right’ and start preaching about it, it all goes wrong. I suppose that’s why I prefer to be wrong from the start, to be a ‘lost cause’ and to write fiction rather than philosophy.

Access_public Access: Public 3 Comments Print Post this!views (82)  

Marmalade : Gaia Explorer

37 minutes later

Marmalade said

Its funny how similar he is to me. He admires Ligotti and Burroughs, two very dark and cynical writers. But he also reads writers like Tolle.

Marmalade : Gaia Explorer

about 2 hours later

Marmalade said

Its true, though, that I’m much less reluctant to philosophize than he is. I don’t find that I ve to assume I’m entirely right before stating my opinions. Even so, I get what he means about the difference between fiction as compared to philosophy, but some writers even let their ideology rule their fiction.

Marmalade : Gaia Explorer

3 days later

Marmalade said

I have a comment that I’ll put here because it more or less relates. Crisp and Ligotti are of that common variety of great varieties that are mostly unknown. I’m not surewhat that says about ourculture, but it doesn’t seem to be uncommon for great artists to die poor.

Fortunately, Philip K. Dick escaped this fate near the end of his life. Crisp and Ligotti may yet escape this fate also. They’ve both been stuck in the small press world where actually some of the best writers get published and where many writers get their start.

Anyways, I mentioned Ligotti because he is another horror (or weird to be more exact) writer. Crisp admires Ligotti as many writers do. And if any dark weirdwriter could make it out of small press horror and getsomewhere near the mainstream (even if only the genre mainstream),I’d be willing to bet onLigotti.

It seems he may be have gotten a toe in. I was at the bookstore and noticed an anthology which was I believe titled The New Weird edited by Vandermeer. Vandermeer is a major force in the cross-genre field sometimes called Slipstream amongst other things. It makes sense that Ligotti is included. Horror writers have too long been stuck in their very small genre, and too many writers get labelled as horror never to escape. Crisp and Ligotti write stories that go beyond traditional horror even if horror might describe the general mood of many of their stories.

I likea lotof the writers that get into these new anthologies. I prefer stories that don’t easily fit into genre conventions which simply means that the authors are attempting to push the limits of imagination. I’ll have to blog about this later on.

“But in this dark world where he now dwelt…”

I’m in the process of reading again The Culture of Make Believe by Derrick Jensen.  In a recent discussion with Quentin S. Crisp, I was mentioning how Derrick Jensen is more depressing than even Thomas Ligotti. 

The more I think about it, though, their two views do seem to resonate to a degree.  Jensen is an environmentalist and writes about environmentalism.  Ligotti, although not an environmentalist as far as I know, relies heavily on the Zappfe’s philosophy and Zappfe was an environmentalist who inspired the beginnings of deep ecology.

There is one other similarity between the two.  Both take suffering very seriously which I appreciate, but there is a limitation to this.  I don’t know how else to explain this limitation other than to use an example.  Here is a scene from A Scanner Darkly (the video is from the movie and the quote is from the novel):

“There had been a time, once, when he had not lived like this… In former days Bob Arctor had run his affairs differently; there had been a wife much like other wives, two small daughters, a stable household that got swept and cleaned and emptied out daily, the dead newspapers not even opened carried from the front walk to the garbage pail, or even, sometimes, read. But then one day, while lifting out an electric corn popper from under the sink, Arctor had hit his head on the corner of a kitchen cabinet directly above him. The pain, the cut in his scalp, so unexpected and undeserved, had for some reason cleared away the cobwebs. It flashed on him instantly that he didn’t hate the kitchen cabinet; he hated his wife, his two daughters, his whole house, the back yard with its power mower, the garbage, the radiant heating system, the front yard, the fence, the whole fucking place and everyone in it. He wanted a divorce; he wanted to split. And so he had, very soon. And entered, by degrees, a new and somber life, lacking all of that.

“Probably he should have regretted his decision. He had not. That life had been one without excitement, with no adventure. It had been too safe.  All the elements that made it up were right there before his eyes, and nothing new could ever be expected. It was like, he had once thought, a little plastic boat that would sail on forever, without incident, until it finally sank, which would be a secret relief to all.

But in this dark world where he now dwelt, ugly things and surprising things and once in a long while a tiny wondrous thing spilled out at him constantly; he could count on nothing.

 ~ Philip K. Dick, A Scanner Darkly (the book)

The last sentence is particularly what I had in mind as being a contrast to that of Jensen and Ligotti.  I’ve written before comparing Ligotti with PKD(Burroughs, PKD, and Ligotti, PKD Trumps Harpur and Ligotti).  There are certain similarities: both are mainly fiction writers who also wrote extensively about philosophical ideas, both willing to look unflinchingly at the sources of human suffering.  But the difference is that PKD expresses an endless sense of curiosity, wonder, awe (see: PKD, ACIM, and Burroughs, PKD on God as Infinity).

I just love the way he describes this sense of reality: “ugly things and surprising things and once in a long while a tiny wondrous thing spilled out at him constantly…”  That is beautiful.  It’s this kind of verbal expression that inspires my desire to write.

I’ve had many experiences that have touched me deeply, and they’re always at the back of my mind.  Even though I’ve rarely written about them, I strongly desire to write about them.  There are several things that hold me back.  First, they’re experiences that are a bit on the uncommon side.  Second, I don’t feel capable of of fully describing them in words, of capturing that actual in-the-moment experience.

Let me just mention some of them briefly so that you’ll have an idea of what I speak of:

  • Dream – In general, dreams are perplexing to write about.  One particular dream was of a theatre where spirits would come and go, but when the spirits were present the theatre transformed into a vast desert landscape.  The experience of it was profound and mysterious.  More than any other, this dream has always stuck with me.
  • Psychedlic – I experimented with drugs in my 20s.  I only did mushrooms once, but they really blew me away.  I felt the whole world alive, breathing in unison, and the field was shimmering like that scene from Gladiator.  Concepts such as ‘animism’ or panentheism are just interesting philosophies until you experience them.
  • Spiritual – In some ways, the most haunting experiences I’ve had happened while fully awake and when no drugs were involved.  There was a period of my life where depression, spiritual practice, and a broken heart all came together.  At the bottom of this suffering, I came across a truly incomprehensible experience of life, almost a vision.  It was a unified sense of the world that was both absolutely full and utterly empty.  My response to it was at times a sense of loneliness but it was an intimate loneliness that transcended my individuality.  It was a presence that wasn’t my presence.  It just was whatever it was.

Any of those experiences are probably meaningless to anyone who hasn’t had similar experiences.  Of course, they are far from meaningless to me.  Each individual experience is meaningful to me in that they’ve all influenced me.  I can even now viscerally remember these experiences.  More importantly, these experiences together are meaningful because they remind me of my sense of wonder.  The world is a truly strange place.

The animistic visions I’ve had particularly give me a sense of wonder on a daily basis.  I can to some degree shift my perception into an animistic mode.  I can put my mind into that sense of anticipation where the whole world feels like it’s on the verge of becoming something entirely else. 

This animistic sensibility combines both PKD’s gnostic revelation and the shamanistic worldview.  Much of PKD’s writing conveys a sense of paranoia.  I think this modern sense of paranoia is essentially the same thing as the premodern shamanistic view of the natural world.  The suffering of life is more than mere biological horror, more than mere existential angst.  The darkness isn’t empty.  There are things out there unseen that aren’t human.  The world is alive with intelligences.  The seeming empty spaces have substance.  We aren’t separate from the world.  Our skin doesn’t protect us from invasion.  Most of that which exists is indifferent to humans, but some things may take interest.  When we look out at the world, the world looks back.

We modern humans bumble our way through the world oblivious to all that surrounds us.  The police protect us.  Various public and private institutions make sure our daily lives run smoothly.  We generally don’t think about any of it… until something goes wrong.  The indigenous person lived differently than this.  A tribal person depended on themselves and others in their tribe to take care of everything.  If you’re walking through the wilderness, you have to pay attention in order to remain alive.  The possibility of death is all around one.  Death is a much more common event for hunter-gatherers.  When someone is injured or becomes sick, there is no emergency room.

This seems rather scary to a modern person.  However, to the indigenous person, this is simply the way one lives.  If your life had always been that way, it would feel completely normal.  You simply know the world around you.  Being aware would be a completely natural state of mind.  All of the world can be read for the person who knows the signs.  Just by listening to the calls of birds you can know precisely where the tiger is, and you simply make sure you’re not in that same place.

The problem is that I’m not an indigenous person and I’m definitely no shaman.  I at times can see something beyond normal perception, but I don’t know how to read the signs.  If you go by polls, most people have experienced something weird in their lifetime.  The weird is all around us all of the time.  We just rarely think about it.  And when we do notice it, we usually try to forget about it as quickly as possible.

Yes, Jensen is correct about how humans victimize one another, is correct about how civilization is destroying all life on earth.  And, yes, Ligotti is correct about how humans are paralyzed by suffering, is correct that all of human culture arose as a distraction from this primal horror.  Yes, yes, yes.  Even so, there is something beyond all of that.

Recommendations for your Mind and Imagination

Do you need to blow out the dust and cobwebs from your mind?  Here are my recommendations (in no particular order):

Robert Anton Wilson – He is the penultimate countercultural writer.  He knew how to make conspiracies fun.  The Illuminatus! Trilogy was entertaining fiction that covers a lot of the same material he writes about in his nonfiction.  If you just want his ideas straight, then a good book would be Prometheus Rising.  I personally think the world would be a better (or at least more interesting) place if everyone read some RAW.

Terence McKenna – In the area of psychedelics, he is my favorite writer.  But his mind is wideranging which covers similar topics as Robert Anton Wilson.  I started with True Hallucinations, but any of his writings are quite enjoyable.  For the sake of variety, The Archaic Revival is a good collection of essays and interviews.  I have a book that has these two published together which is quite nice.  I’d also recommend listening to recordings of him speaking because his enthusiasm is contagious.

John Keel – A truly weird writer in the Fortean tradition.  The first book of his I read was the The Mothman Prophecies which is a good introduction to his ideas, but for his full weirdness read The Eighth Tower.  By the way, the movie based on the first book was decent entertainment (and I do recommend it as worthy attempt at portraying difficult material), but a lot of the weirdness got left out.

Patrick Harpur – Read Daimonic Reality.  Not quite as all-out weird, but still helpful in shifting your view on reality.  It’s probably the best all-around introduction to help you grasp the wide spectrum of the strange and the paranormal.

Jacques Vallee – A scientist with a very respectable intellect who doesn’t let his evenhandedness get in the way of his appreciation of the oddness that is the human being.  He is well known fo his Passport to Magonia where he discussed the connection of UFOs with folklore, mythology, religion and non-ordinary experiences, but there is no need to seek out that out-of-print book.  He reworked at least some of the material in his more recent book Dimensions: A Casebook of Alien Contact

George P. Hansen – I’ve read The Trickster and the Paranormal which I highly recommend.  However, it’s no casual read.  He packs in a lot of info that you probably won’t see connected together by any other author.  If you can read this book and not feel a little uncertain about objective reality, then I’ll be impressed.

Victoria Nelson – Her book The Secret Life of Puppets was an inspiration to me.  She gave me new appreciation for some authors I was already familiar with and made me aware of some works I’d never heard of.  I found it very enjoyable the way she connected certain strains of Western thought, popular culture and weird fiction.  It’s a very accessible book of very deep ideas.

Eric G. Wilson – His writing is directly in line with Victoria Nelson, but with more emphasis on philosophy and religion.  Both authors look at the underbelly of Western thought.  I find his mix of ideas appealing, and I like how he keeps his focus on what it means to be human.  I first read his The Melancholy Android, but his Secret Cinema might be a better intro to his thinking.  Neither are massive tomes, but he packs a lot in.

William S. Burroughs – He is best known for his fiction, but I’m going to recommend some of his other writings instead.  One book that offers an interesting glimpse of an interesting mind is The Cat Inside.  It’s partly autobiographical and partly musings about life.  Another one that I really enjoyed is My Education: A Book of Dreams.  Burroughs had a rare mind.  He is one of those writers who I can sense the actual person behind the words.  If you really want to get the sense of Burroughs, then you have to listen to his recordings.  He read many excerpts from his works and he did some interviews, but what I love is simply the sound of his voice.  Once his voice is firmly implanted in your brain, then read some of his books.  A very odd and entertaining adaptation was made of Burroughs’ Naked Lunch by David Cronenberg, but actually it’s also an adaptation of Burroughs’ life and writing in general.  I really liked Cronenberg’s loose adaptation and he has done a number of enjoyable weird movies worth watching such as eXistenZ.

Philip K. Dick – He is another writer who I have the sense of knowing as a person because his writing was often autobiographical.  He didn’t travel widely as Burroughs had, but his mind certainly travelled widely.  I’ve enjoyed all of the fiction I’ve read by him.  One of his more interesting novels might be Valis which is the first in his Valis Trilogy.  However, to really appreciate his fiction it’s necessary to read some of his nonfiction.  I’d suggest reading either In Pursuit of Valis: Selections from the Exegesis or The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick: Selected Literary and Philosophical Writings.  Even if you’re not someone who normally likes theology and philosophy, PKD’s odd take on them might amuse you.  It’s hard to find non-fiction writings any weirder than what he has to offer.  If you want to read some writings about PKD, there is a lot of good stuff out there (for instance, those who’ve written about him include some writers I’ve mentioned above: Terence McKenna, Victoria Nelson, and Eric G. Nelson).  My favorite book about him is Pink Beams of Light from the God in the Gutter: The Science-Fictional Religion of Philip K. Dick by Gabriel Mckee.  Mckee provides some useful context by which to understand PKD’s philosophizing.  Also, my favorite movie adaptations are Blade Runner and A Scanner Darkly.  I really love the latter done by Richard Linklater who also made Waking Life which is an even stranger film.  Some people didn’t like the rotoscoping technique of Linklater’s adaptation, but personally I thought he captured PKD like no other movie.  A Scanner Darkly is one of those stories that is so mindblowing in it’s depressing darkness that I was glad it’s balanced with a playful attitude and the actors in the film captured well that playfulness.

Franz Kafka – Now, this guy is a writer who can always lift my mind out of mundane normality.  His fiction is required reading and personally I’d recommend his short stories, but if you’ve already read some of his fiction then I’d recommend the Blue Octavo Notebooks.  These notebooks were different than his diaries and they contain some very interesting musings and fictional snippets.  By the way, I’d recommend Jeremy Irons‘ simply titled movie Kafka and Orson WellesThe Trial.

Douglas Adams – I figured I should include this author simply because he has a very weird imagination that is endlessly humorous.  He throws out a lot of odd ideas and manages to tell an enjoyable story at the same time.  If you feel like you’re taking life too seriously, any of his fiction would be a good antidote.  His most popular work is his Hitchhiker Trilogy, but I think I might’ve enjoyed even more his novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.

Barry Yourgrau – His stories are just outright goofy but in a good way.  The only book I’ve read by him is A Man Jumps Out of an Airplane and so that is the one I’d recommend.  He has also written children’s stories, and he has done some spoken word which can be found online (check out The Sadness of Sex on Youtube which is just the first part of a larger work). 

Thomas Wiloch – I just like his imagination and the fantastic images he creates can be quite striking at times.  I suppose one could think of him as a darker version of Yourgrau.  I have read some of his stories from different collections, but the only book of his that I own is Screaming In Code which has some nice pictures in it.  I don’t know which would be his best book, but if you just want a taste of his writing you can find some of his stories online.

Neil Gaiman – His Sandman series is some of the best graphic novels around.  They’re strange stories with high quality artwork.  He manages to create some very distinctively intriguing characters and places them in equally intriguing worlds.  I won’t vouch for all of Gaiman’s work, but I’ve enjoyed all of the graphic novels I’ve read by him.   A good graphic novel is always nice when you’re trying to escape from reality.  Gaiman has also been involved in films and shows either in writing the scripts or in having his work adapted.  I’ll mention only two notable examples.  He wrote the story for Dave McKean‘s move MirrorMask (and they’ve worked together before in graphic novels).  McKean has a surreal visual imagination that goes well with Gaiman’s writing.  His story Coraline (which I’ve never read) was made into a delightful animated stop-motion 3-D film.  It was actually a bit freaky considering its target audience would seem to be young kids.

Alan Moore –  He has done a lot in the field of graphic novels and I’ve only read a small portion of it.  I started with his Promethea which I absolutely loved.  It’s an imaginative work about imagination.  Moore has also done some darker stuff which is also good such as Watchmen (a decent movie adaptation was made of it, but it’s seems surprisingly difficult to do justice to a graphic novel in the constraints of Hollywood).  What I like about his imagination is that it has some intelligence to it.  I like seeing interesting ideas placed in a visually stunning medium.

Grant Morrison – I first read his Doom Patrol which is truly bizarre.  I’ve since read some of The Invisibles and The Filth.  Both of those are equally bizarre.  If you like weird, this as weird as you can get and still tell a good story.

Bill Willingham – I include him for reasons of basic amusement.  Like Gaiman, Willingham draws on folklore in his Fables series.  Otherwise, they’re very different in style.  His Fables series tell the stories of the fairytale characters we’re all familiar with but mixes them together with an overarching plot.  It’s just fun to read.

Harlan Ellison – He was friends with Philip K. Dick for a time.  He isn’t as well known as PKD, but Ellison was also one of the early innovators who helped popularize the field of weird fiction.  He is a very prolific writer and I certainly haven’t read all or even most of his work, but what I have read I’ve enjoyed.  Even though he doesn’t quite have the philosophical depth of PKD, he does have a strange imagination.  There was an interesting graphic novel adaptation of his work called Dream Corridor.  It’s uneven in the quality of different adaptors, but overall his stories translate well to a visual medium.  Another very interesting collection is Mind Fields: The Art of Jacek Yerka, the Fiction of Harlan Ellison.  The art in that book is truly surreal and Ellison wrote his stories as direct inspirations of each picture.  It’s been a while since I read the stories in that collection, but the pictures have stuck in my mind.

Thomas Ligotti – Something about Harlan Ellison’s work reminds me of Ligotti.  I’m sure I like Ligotti better, but I don’t think they’re really comparable.  Ellison is dark and Ligotti is even darker.  However, by saying he is even darker I don’t mean grotesque or violent.  It’s dark in a more subtle sense.  Many consider Ligotti to be the best or at least most weird writer in horror fiction.  A good collection of his stories is Teatro Grottesco, but maybe the reason Ellison made me think of Ligotti is because the latter also has a graphic novel adaptation of his work (i.e., Nightmare Factory).  I should mention that some serious Ligotti fans dislike the adaptations.  I understand that much of the enjoyment of Ligotti’s work comes from his mastery of language, but still some of the artwork in the adaptations is truly compelling.  His story The Frolic was made into a very good film.  Although I’m not sure that Ligotti’s writing will blow out the dust or cobwebs from your mind, his stories probably will do something to your mind.

 Matthew Rossi – I own his Things That Never Were: fantasies, lunacies & entertaining lies.  As far as I know, this is his only published book, but I’d hope he would continue writing.  I don’t know the type of person that this book would appeal to.  It isn’t exactly either fiction or nonfiction.  It’s just intelligent silliness.  Obviously, he is someone who has accumulated lots of useless information in his head and so decided to try to put it together in such a way that it made it somewhat plausible.  He mixes up history, mythology, religion, genre fiction, conspiracy theories and pseudo-science.  As Paul Di Filippo says in the Introduction: “Rossi’s several incompatible mindchildren aren’t fighting. they’re violently screwing, and out of this brain-intercourse is going to arise an unpredictable hybrid of startling portent.”  Also, if you like Rossi’s writing, you might enjoy Myths for the Modern Age: Philip Jose Farmer’s Wold Newton Universe by Win Scott Eckert.

Some collections that are required reading:

I Saw Esau: The Schoolchild’s Pocket Book
Edited by Iona & Peter Opie
Illustrated by Maurice Sendak
This is a well-chosen collection of songs and rhymes that children have repeated for many generations.  I was only familiar with some of them probably because the editors collected these 50 years ago in British schools, but I enjoyed many of them that were new to me.  These songs and rhymes are just pure silliness, and Sendak’s pictures are almost on every page.
Greasy Grimy Gopher Guts: the subversive folklore of childhood
By Josepha Sherman & T.K.F. Weisskopf
This is a great find.  I recognized many of the songs and rhymes.  This is the unedited version of your childhood.  A nice thing about it is that the collectors provide multiple versions which demonstrates the innovativeness of children.  Some people might be surprised by the dark perversity of the child’s mind, but I can’t say I was surprised.
Grimm’s Fairy Tales
By Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm
If you haven’t ever read any of these, you should.  And if you haven’t read them in a long while, then you should read them again.  I really love these stories.  There are many different versions and I don’t know which is the best.  I’d probably go with the Jack Zipes edition.  I didn’t read these as a kid and I doubt many parents these days would read them to their children.  Some of them are fairly dark, but that is part of what makes them amusing.  The Grimm brothers supposedly had even cleaned these stories up a bit when they realized that their target audience might actually be children.  I would love to see the original versions, but I don’t know if there is such a collection.  Anyways, the Grimm’s versions are enjoyable.  I personally find something immensely appealing in the simplicity of a fairy tale.  Many fairy tales (especially in their earliest unpolished form) have a dream-like quality about them.  The only modern fiction that comes close are prose poems or flash fiction.

I’ve already mentioned some movies above.  Here are some other movies that just amuse me or in some cases help free my imagination and inspire a sense of wonder (I’ll only list my top favorites, but you can find all of my favorites on my About page):

Monty Python – Pretty much anything by them is amusing.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show – I enjoy this movie in the same way I enjoy Monty Python.  Inane weirdness and silly songs and dance.

Army of Darkness – This is one of the best cult classic horror camp movies ever made.  I’m a fan of Bruce Campbell’s brand of humor.  If you’ve already seen this movie and enjoyed it, then I’d recommend Cemetery Man.

Waking Life – Strange ideas presented in a strange style.  This was Richard Linklater’s first use of rotoscoping which he later used in A Scanner Darkly (which I also highly recommend).

The Nines – It’s hard for me to judge this movie for it is strange to the extreme and yet certainly not weird simply for the sake of weird.  It’s an amazing movie, but it probably requires watching it more than once.

Donnie Darko – Another movie that really makes you ponder reality.  There is some very startling imagery in this movie that sticks in my mind.

Dancer in the Dark – I realize this is a movie people either love or hate.  I admit it’s a bit difficult to get into at first, and of course not everyone appreciates Bjork’s singing.  However, there is no movie like it.  After a while, I was completely pulled into the world of the protagonist and I thought it a very fascinating world.  It shows how imagination helps someone survive even the bleakest of situations.  So, if you like despairingly depressing movies where the characters break out into song and dance, then this is for you.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – This also was a movie I had a hard time getting into the first time I watched it, but it’s grown on me.  This movie literally takes you into the mind of the protagonist.  It’s both funny and sad, something like life itself but with more entertainment value.

The Truman Show – This is one of the best Philip K. Dick movies ever made that wasn’t specifically based on a Philip K. Dick story.  All I can say is I hope I’m not trapped in a reality tv show.  That would be truly sad, especially for those watching.

Dark City – This is an even darker and more fantastically weird version of The Truman Show.  Being trapped in a reality tv show might not be such a bad fate afterall.  It’s an awesome movie and the visuals are just amazing.  By the way, it’s somewhat similar to the Matrix Trilogy, but Dark City was made first.

What Dreams May Come – This is a more positive view of the imagination, but it has plenty of dark to it as well.  Even if you discredit it for the romantic optimism, I hope you can appreciate some of the stunning visual scenes.  This is the only movie I’ve ever watched that made the afterlife seem compellingly real.  For certain, the Hell that is presented feels much more convincing than the Christian version.

The Fountain – This is one of my all-time favorites, but I can understand why others might not like it.  Similar to What Dreams May Come, it plays with ideals of romantic love but it stays away from sentimental superficialities.  It’s a very convoluted movie which some have complained about.  However, if you’re like me and have some ability to understand complexity, then it shouldn’t bother you.  There is some very intelligent use of visual language that helps hold the narratives together.

Altered States – This was a very original take on the scientist that goes too far, but in this case he nearly falls off the edge of reality.  Psychedelics and monkey-men, sex and religious imagery… what isn’t there to like?

Return to Oz – If you liked the original The Wizard of Oz movie (or maybe even if you didn’t), then you should see this.  It’s Oz transformed.  I’ll just say that, upon her return, Dorothy isn’t greeted by singing Munchkins.

If you don’t have the time to read a book or watch a movie and need some quick amusement or mind-expanding edification, then here are some websites for you.

The Church of the SubGenius

Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster

The Landover Baptist Church

The Onion


Principia Discordia

fUSION Anomaly

The Deoxyribonucleic Hyperdimension


TV Tropes

Thomas Ligotti Online