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Bashar the Vampire-Slayer

Tuesday, August 20th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — pop messianism, Syria, 2013 ]

The caption for the Bashar al-Assad image reads:

Bashar the Wahhabi Slayer [ image ] Has killed more than 40,000 Wahhabi terrorists who came from all over the world to destroy Syria

and Phillip Smyth, who tweeted it, commented:

This photo has been uploaded onto many pro-#Assad & pro-Shia (in #Syria) militia pages. Note how dead are characterized


How the dead are characterized?

Why, as Wahhabi terrorists, explicitly — and implicitly as vampires.

FWIW, I’d argue (broad strokes) that “Wahhabi terrorists” is directed at the conscious mind, and “vampires” at the emotions.


The Sounds of Silence and Your Own Mind

Tuesday, November 27th, 2012

Scott Shipman had an excellent book review post An Unknown Future and a Doubtful Present: Writing the Victory Plan of 1941 — a review-lite and a few questions in which he discussed the intellectual seriousness and evolution of war planner   Major Albert C. Wedemeyer as a military officer and strategist:

….Wedemeyer was an honor graduate of the Command and General Staff College, and his performance earned him the opportunity to attended the Kriegsakademie, the German staff college. However, coupled with impressive academic preparations, Kirkpatrick writes that Wedemeyer’s curiosity exposed him to a “kaleidoscope” of ideas and methods. Kirkpatrick summed-up Wedemeyer: “Competence as a planner thus emerged as much from conscientious professional study as from formal military education…” Going on to say:

In common with many of his peers, much of Wedemeyer’s professional and intellectual education was less the product of military schooling than of personal initiative and experience in the interwar Army.

Wedemeyer’s intellectual development was purposeful and paid off. In Wedemeyer’s deep study of his profession he used the prescribed paths, but also explored on his own. How common is that today? 

As often happens, the discussion can take an unexpected turn in the comments section. Lexington Green weighed in with this:

Think about George Marshall in China, traveling around on horseback.  No cell phone, no email.  The man could actually think.  Or Eisenhower meeting with Fox Connor to talk about the books Connor had him read. Telephone calls were not even common.  The military might do well to have two days once a quarter of silent retreats, only emergency communication permitted, with literally no unnecessary conversation, for groups of officers and non-coms, with some assigned reading and some self-selected on the same theme, then an open discussion after dinner. It would cost virtually nothing and would be an intellectual and mental oasis, and some good ideas might come out of it.  Religious silent retreats which last a couple of days and are truly life-restoring. This would probably be useful as well.

That in turn provoked this response from Marshall:

My sense is that many of us live, work, and fraternize in a culture of crisis. Everything is urgent. One response is to just shut off the moment we get some downtime. TV, drinking, schlock fiction, immersion in pop culture, video games, blog reading are some of the ways I’ve coped. I grew out of those as timewasters as I realized that I no longer had time to shut off if I wanted to do something.

But I still live in a culture of crisis. Almost everybody around me “has no time”. It doesn’t really matter what is being proposed, the sense of urgency kills all ambition toward progress. Defending myself and my space form this is a daily challenge – and some days I lose.

I’m visiting family this week on a long-scheduled “vacation” that has been interrupted by my office several times already, but always with the promise, “just this thing, Marshall, we don’t want to take you away from your family”. And these are the people I choose as my allies!

The culture of crisis doesn’t believe in people’s choices. It says that time will only be wasted, so we have to keep our people busy. After all, see how they spend their “free” time? Dissolute wastrels the lot of them. And then the culture of crisis tells us that we need to recharge by shutting off our minds. You need to vege out, man, you’re stressed; turn on the TV and have a beer, mate. Or else fire up your e-mail and write six more. And, hey, sorry about your insomnia, but it lets you get a jump on the day, amirite? [….]

The discussion moved on, but I have been mulling upon this exchange ever since.

The first thing that came to mind is that what we mean by “silence” really isn’t silent, what is really meant is that there is an absence of human voice pulling at our limited capacity for attention. Cognitive load is probably a real, if variable, limit on human cognition and the nature of hyperconnected information society is that all too frequently we are -and feel – “overloaded”.

When human voices are absent the “background” environmental noise comes “forward” , natural (wind through trees, animals etc) or mechanical (various humms and clicks) that we unconsciously tune out as a matter of routine focusing on conversation or distracting hearsay, broadcasts and so on. The processing in the brain is significantly different depending on what kinds of sounds you are listening to, for example:

1. Listening to Music

2. Listening to Language

3. Listening to unpleasant sounds (nails on chalkboard etc.)

So eliminating human speech from your environment but not hearing (earplugs) itself allows other regions of your brain to become more active than usual, depending on whatever else you may be doing at the time (walking, chopping wood, smelling a flower, scanning the horizon and so on).  Your brain’s performance and how it varies when thinking under conditions of different combinations and levels of sensory stimuli – “crossmodal processing” – is not yet well understood as research is in early stages of investigation.

I will speculate here that what is important for enriching your thinking is that taking your brain out a linguistic-saturated environment (let’s include the “soundless noise” of intruding textual symbols as well from smartphones, iPads, laptops)  gives it an opportunity to operate differently for a time and establish new neuronal network patterns of activity. Various forms of meditation – which involves both silence and an intentional modulation of attention – also  alters normal  brain activity.

I will now go further out on a data-free analytical limb and hypothesize that making a practice of “silence” and/or meditation might improve your thinking by making moments of creative insight more likely. Studies on insight tend to show that as a cognitive event, insight  comes about as a kind of a “pulse” of activity and relaxation in the brain:

….Mark Jung-Beeman, a cognitive neuroscientist at Northwestern University, has spent the past fifteen years trying to figure out what happens inside the brain when people have an insight. Jung-Beeman became interested in the nature of insight in the early nineteen-nineties, while researching the right hemisphere of the brain. Mentions Jonathan Schooler. Jung-Beeman decided to compare word puzzles—or Compound Remote Associate Problems (C.R.A. Problems)—solved. He teamed up with John Kounios, a psychologist at Drexler University, and they combined fMRI and EEG (electroencephalography) testing to scan people’s brains while they solved the puzzles. The resulting studies, published in 2004 and 2006, found that people who solved puzzles with insight activated a specific subset of cortical areas. Although the answer seemed to appear out of nowhere, the mind was carefully preparing itself for the breakthrough. The suddenness of the insight is preceded by a burst of brain activity. A small fold of tissue on the surface of the right hemisphere, the anterior superior temporal gyrus (aSTG), becomes unusually active in the second before the insight. Once the brain is sufficiently focused on the problem, the cortex needs to relax, to seek out the more remote association in the right hemisphere that will provide the insight. As Kounios sees it, the insight process is an act of cognitive deliberation transformed by accidental, serendipitous connections. Mentions Joy Bhattacharya and Henri Poincaré. The brain area responsible for recognizing insight is the prefrontal cortex. Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at M.I.T., spent years studying the prefrontal cortex. He was eventually able to show that it wasn’t simply an aggregator of information, but rather it was more like a conductor, waving its baton and directing the players. In 2001, Miller and Princeton neuroscientist Jonathan Cohen published an influential paper laying out their theory of how the prefrontal cortex controls the rest of the brain. It remains unclear how simple cells recognize what the conscious mind cannot. An insight is just a fleeting glimpse of the brain’s huge store of unknown knowledge.

Another interesting data point to consider re: “silence” and insight is that the mental illness of schizophrenia, where delusions and other mental “noise” exists is significantly negatively correlated with insight.  Researchers are currently investigating if meditation can ease the symptoms of schizophrenia and other mental illnesses.

For myself, I find my best ideas come via insight when I am doing something primarily physical requiring steady but not all of my concentration and I am alone – working out, walking the dog, a household chore and so on. Relatively useful ideas can happen when I am reading or writing or debating (i.e. interacting with a text or a person), but they tend to be analytic and derivative, sort of an intellectual “tweaking” or “tinkering” but not ones that are fundamentally creative or synthesizing.

Lexington Green may be right – Silence is golden.



One bead for a rosary

Friday, June 22nd, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — one bead from NASA for the glass bead game as rosary ]

photo credit: Norman Kuring, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

Consider her sacred, treat her with care.


Conceptual blending

Monday, May 28th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — cross posted from Sembl — creativity as the blending of ideas ]

Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner‘s The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities gives us a fascinating look at the way the human mind weaves a world out of seemingly disparate elements — in a very similar manner to that in which the creative mind weaves an aha! out of seemingly disparate ideas. The book deals with the formation of perceptions as well as ideas, but it was a specifically conceptual blend that intrigued me the other day.

First, they note that when we use expressions like “I had reached the boiling point. I was fuming. He exploded.” we are making a metaphorical mapping in which “a heated container maps to an angry individual, heat maps to anger, smoke and steam (signs of heat) map to signs of anger, explosion maps to uncontrolled rage.” Then they add in the “folk theory of physiological effects of anger” including ” increased body heat, blood pressure, agitation, redness of face” – and thus we have a threefold scheme, in which physiology, emotions and the physics of heat are intricately cross-correlated, so that we can say without much thought “He was so mad I could see smoke coming out of his ears”.

Here Fauconnier and Turner describe the mechanics of this remarkable conceptual blending process – which can yield such a seemingly unremarkable phrase:

In addition to the metaphoric mapping between Heat and Emotions and the vital-relation connection between Emotions and Body, there is a third partial mapping between Heat and Body. In this mapping, steam as vapor that comes from a container connects to perspiration as liquid that comes from a container, the heat of a physical object connects to body heat, and the shaking of the container connects to the body’s trembling.

The three partial mappings set the stage for a conventional multiple blend in which the counterparts in the inputs are fused, yielding, for example, a single element that is heat, anger, and body heat and a different single element that is exploding, reaching extreme anger, and beginning to shake. Once we have this blend, we can run it to develop further emergent structure and we can recruit other information to the inputs to facilitate its development.


What interests me here is the phrase:

the inputs are fused, yielding, for example, a single element that is heat, anger, and body heat

and what it reminds me of is CS Lewis writing in The Allegory of Love:

It must always be remembered … that the various senses we take out of an ancient word by analysis existed in it as a unity.

Thus the King James Version of the Bible, John 3.8, reads:

The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.

In the Greek, the word here translated wind is pneuma, and the sentence accordingly means “the pneuma blows where it wills, and you hear its sound but can’t tell where it comes from or is going: and so it is with all those born of pneuma“…

Recalling Lewis’ remark about the “various senses we take out of an ancient word”, this in turn means simultaneously and without separation:

the wind blows where it wills, and you hear its sound but can’t tell where it comes from or is going: and so it is with all those born of wind…

the breath blows where it wills, and you hear its sound but can’t tell where it comes from or is going: and so it is with all those born of breath…


spirit blows where it wills, and you hear its sound but can’t tell where it comes from or is going: and so it is with all those born of spirit…

Take this a step further, realize that spirit can be defined as what inspires us, and we have:

inspiration blows where it wills, and you hear its sound but can’t tell where it comes from or is going: and so it is with all those born of inspiration…

Four meanings, all making good sense, and all present simultaneously and inseparably in the one gospel phrase…


Now consider that Fauconnier and Turner are speaking of how “three partial mappings set the stage for a conventional multiple blend in which the counterparts in the inputs are fused, yielding, for example, a single element that is heat, anger, and body heat” and compare it with Lewis’ “unity” from which we take out “the various senses” by “analysis”, as applied to the “ancient word” pneuma, with its meaning encompassing wind, breath, spirit… inspiration.

Are wind, breath and spirit or inspiration in fact three “primitives” that conceptual mapping in ancient Greek thought has brought together? What do we gain, and what do we lose if we view them this way?

And what do we lose, what do we gain if we view them as a single rich concept, now reduced to three or four separate — and separately less complexly interesting — ideas?


Nancy Fouts and the heart of the matter

Thursday, March 22nd, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — Nancy Fouts, sculpture, juxtaposition, essence of creativity, pocket universes, Arthur Koestler, Mark Turner ]

Nancy Fouts is an American artist based in London. I ran across her work a while ago thanks to Michael Weaver on Google+, and was immediately struck by the intensity of her images, each one of which seemed like a landmark from a larger geography, more precisely focused and dense with meaning than our own world usually appears to be.

First impression:

The first image I saw was of a snail on the straight edge of a razor blade (above, left) — an image out of the script of Apocalypse Now to be sure, but presented by Fouts in sharp detail and unadorned by any other context, visually, direct from eye to mind and heart.

This may be the image many people first see of her work — very, very striking, exquisite, terrifying if you allow it to be so, and yet as clear and simple, almost, as a single drop of water on a leaf.

Singer and song:

But it was this next image that conquered me:

The juxtaposition is impeccable: sewing machine, record on turntable – and the overlap between the two, the link, the vesica piscis between them, is the needle.

The music of Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi – particularly on harpsichord — has been disparagingly called “sewing-machine music”. If that phrase gave rise to this marvelous image, perhaps the slight can be forgiven.

The sewing-machine? It’s a Singer. And in what must surely be an ironic, gender-influenced choice coming to us from an artist so assured and exacting — the music that the needle draws from the groove of the record is, as you can tell from the record label, the music of His Master’s Voice.

Philosophical aside:

I have pointed before to this diagram from Mark Turner‘s The artful mind: cognitive science and the riddle of human creativity, based on those in Arthur Koestler‘s The Act of Creation (eg those on pp 35 and 37):


It shows the essence of the creative act — the “release of cognitive tension” that occurs when some form of analogy, similitude, overlap allows the mind to join conceptual clusters from two fields in a “creative leap”.

Nancy Fouts’ work doesn’t merely make use of such twinned field overlaps, it makes twinned fields with overlap the defining quality of her works.

She is aiming right at the heart of the creative process. And it shows.

Moving further afield:

In that earlier post of mine, I talked about Ada, Countess of Lovelace, and noted that her analogy between Charles Babbage‘s Analytical Engine and Jacquard‘s mechanical loom, famously expressed by her thus:

The Analytical Engine … weaves algebraic patterns, just as the Jacquard-loom weaves flowers and leaves.

was precisely the creative leap that led to the us of punched card systems in computation from Babbage to Watson…

I could give other examples. The Taniyama-Shimura conjecture which formed the basis of Andrew Wiles‘ proof of Fermat‘s Last Theorem, bridges two previously distinct branches of mathematics precisely by showing that for every elliptic curve, there is a related modular form

And no, I don’t understand the mathematics. But I understand the concept of twinned fields, and the power of their overlap.

Some favorite tropes:

Back, then, to Nancy Fouts:

One thing that interests me about her work is that she has a few simple “essences” that she returns to time and again: in this case, bees, forms that resemble honeycombs, and by implication, honey.

In my own work, making similar connections between what we might paradoxically call “kindred ideas in unrelated fields” — I might set Nancy’s honeybees across from the verse from the Upanishads [Brihadaranyaka, fifth Brahmana, 14] which says:

This Self is the honey of all beings, and all beings are the honey of this Self.

Another of Nancy’s tropes connects nature and music…

The piercing:

And thimbles, those miniature emblems of armor and protection, are another recurring theme:

Let’s take a look at that last image, of the thimble transpierced by a needle.

I believe it has a history — again, accessible via an associative leap. Here are three images of the “wounded healer” motif, two of them specifically images of the Inuit shaman who has harpooned himself — a motif which the anthropologist and zen roshi Joan Halifax writes “captures the essence of the shaman’s submission to a higher order of knowing”:

Armor, the defenses we have in place to protect our selves, and vulnerability, the ability to to allow our selves to be wounded, so that the “self” which is “the honey of all beings” may shine through us. The paradox of Selflessness and Self.

Koan and sacrament:

Among wounded healers, we might count the crucified Christ, his side pierced by the spear of a Roman soldier — and here I might suggest that Fouts contrasts (image below, left) the self-sacrifice at the heart of Christianity with the pugilistic approaches of some proponents of his message:

And the image of Christ (right) balancing on a high wire?

Again I’m reminded of the language of shamanism. The anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff studied the religious beliefs and practices of the Huichol or Wixaritari of the Mexican Sierra Madre Occidental, with Ramon Medina Silva, a mara’akame or shaman of the tribe.

In her book, Peyote Hunt: The Sacred Journey of the Huichol Indians, she describes a feat of balance that Ramon performed, which appeared to serve a “sacramental” function for his people – providing them with what Cranmer‘s Book of Common Prayer calls “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace”:

One afternoon Ramon led us to a steep barranca, cut by a rapid waterfall cascading perhaps a thousand feet over jagged, slippery rocks. At the edge of the fall Ramon removed his sandals and told us that this was a special place for shamans. We watched in astonishment as he proceeded to leap across the waterfall, from rock to rock, pausing frequently, his body bent forward, his arms spread out, his head thrown back, entirely birdlike, poised motionlessly on one foot. He disappeared, reemerged, leaped about, and finally achieved the other side. We outsiders were terrified and puzzled but none of the Huichols seemed at all worried. The wife of one of the older Huichol men indicated that her husband had started to become a mara’akame but had failed because he lacked balance.

It’s easy to read the description — but by no means as easy to keep one’s balance — something that Fouts’ image perhaps suggests more vividly than words easily can.

Richard de Mille describes the mara’akame‘s function in Huichol society as to “cross the great chasm separating the ordinary world from the otherworld beyond,” and suggests that Medina Silva’s feat of acrobatics on the barranca that day is to be understood as offering “a concrete demonstration in this world standing for spiritual balance in that world.”

Myerhoff herself was never entirely sure whether Medina Silva was “rehearsing his equilibrium,” or giving it “public ceremonial expression” that afternoon: it is clear, however, that for the Huichols, such feats of balance possess a resonance and meaning that extends beyond the “merely” physical.

Bringing the viewer into the picture

I may of course be projecting some of my own ideas onto Nancy Fouts’ work — and indeed, perhaps that’s the point.

She has some pretty fierce observations to make concerning matters religious — Christian, Buddhist and other — and I’ll leave those who are interested to make their own discoveries on her website. I don’t doubt there are places where her sympathies and my own overlap, and others where we differ.

Fouts speaks a direct and visceral language of images — and her juxtapositions, carefully chosen and choreographed as they are, provoke us to feel and think.

Thank you, Nancy.

No need to reach for the gun, fellas — but that’s art.


credits for images of Harpooned Shaman: Charlie Ugyuk (left); David Ruben (right).


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