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Surrealism and surreal reality

Sunday, April 24th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — perception and plutonium ]

The sureralist master and master surrealist Salvador Dali here invokes optical illusion to illuminate the fickle nature of our perceptions of (non-surreal) reality:

As for reality itself, it has its own form of surreality — in this case, the dismal facts of plutonium stockpiles and their disposal, and their implications for politics (not to mention its conceivable / inconceivable continuation by other means).

All of which is unpleasant to conteplate, seldom discussed, and thus itself a form of perceptual illusion:

FWIW, I see a visual connection between these two images, although that may ba a personal quirk not shared by others. Again, a quirk of perception?



  • RFE / RL, As Putin Swipes At U.S. Over Plutonium Disposal, Nuclear Cooperation Takes A Hit
  • Cheryl Rofer at Nuclear Diner, Plutonium Disposal Difficulties
  • Sunday surprise: desert and triple canopy

    Monday, April 18th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — as a poet, i love the term “triple canopy” — okay? ]

    I was watching The Big Lebowski — a great film that’s all the better because it features a cameo of my old buddy Jimmie Dale Gilmore — and was caught off-guard when I saw this particular segment:

    desert vs triplem canopy big lebowski

    Once again, the arts — my side of the house, you might say — are bringing me intelligence of strategy — the main course here at Zenpundit, which creativity a close second — and I was pretty sure I’d read much the same thing somewhere in the last few days..

    A quick query on FaceBook revealed that I wasn’t making things up out of whole cloth. Stephanie Chenault and Laura Walker had seen it, too.

    And then Mark brought the whole thing back home, with this FaceBook post of his:

    Safransky canopy

    Very likely, that’s what we all saw..


    It’s still Sunday here, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised — so this can still be the Sunday surprise I meant it to be, even though you likely won’t see it till Monday.

    And mebbe in future we should simply refer to The Big Safranski as The Dude.

    Turchin on Human Sacrifice and Society

    Tuesday, April 12th, 2016

    [by Mark Safranski / “zen“]

    Last week I posted on Human Sacrifice and State-Building, which focused on research findings published in Nature regarding the role of human sacrifice in establishing hierarchical societies. My interest was primarily in the way the gory practices of ISIS today seem to mirror this dynamic from prehistoric, ancient and chiefdom societies. Bogfriend T. Greer helpfully alerted me to the fact that noted scholar and cultural evolutionist, Peter Turchin also blogged regarding this research and took a critical posture.  Turchin, also addressed human sacrifice to some degree in his latest book, Ultrasociety, which has been on my list to read for his take on the role of warfare but which I have yet to do.

    Turchin’s reasons for blogging this article are different from mine, so I suggest that you read him in full as I intend to comment only on selected excerpts:

    Is Human Sacrifice Functional at the Society Level?

    An article published this week by Nature is generating a lot of press. Using a sample of 93 Austronesian cultures Watts et al. explore the possible relationship between human sacrifice (HS) and the evolution of hierarchical societies. Specifically, they test the “social control” hypothesis, according to which human sacrifice legitimizes, and thus stabilizes political authority in stratified class societies.

    Their statistical analyses suggest that human sacrifice stabilizes mild (non-hereditary) forms of social stratification, and promotes a shift to strict (hereditary) forms of stratification. They conclude that “ritual killing helped humans transition from the small egalitarian groups of our ancestors to the large stratified societies we live in today.” In other words, while HS obviously creates winners (rulers and elites) and losers (sacrifice victims and, more generally, commoners), Watts et all argue that it is a functional feature—in the evolutionary sense of the word—at the level of whole societies, because it makes them more durable.

    There are two problems with this conclusion. First, Watts et al. do not test their hypothesis against an explicit theoretical alternative (which I will provide in a moment). Second, and more important, their data span a very narrow range of societies, omitting the great majority of complex societies—indeed all truly large-scale societies. Let’s take these two points in order.

    Turchin is correct that study focuses on Austronesian islanders in clan and tribal settings and that’s a pretty narrow of a base from which to extrapolate. OTOH, the pre-Cortez estimated population of the Aztec empire begins at five million on the low end. Estimates of the population of Carthage proper, range from 150,000 to 700,000. That’s sufficiently complex that the Mexica and Carthaginians each established sophisticated imperial polities and yet both societies remained extremely robust practitioners of human sacrifice at the time they were conquered and destroyed.

    Maybe a more useful approach than simply expanding the data set would be to ask why human sacrifice disappears earlier in some societies than in others or continues to be retained at high levels of complexity?

    An alternative theory on the rise of human sacrifice and other extreme forms of structural inequality is explained in my recent book Ultrasociety ….

    ….Briefly, my argument in Ultrasociety is that large and complex human societies evolved under the selection pressures of war. To win in military competition societies had to become large (so that they could bring a lot of warriors to battle) and to be organized hierarchically (because chains of command help to win battles). Unfortunately, hierarchical organization gave too much power to military leaders and their warrior retinues, who abused it (“power corrupts”). The result was that early centralized societies (chiefdoms and archaic states) were  hugely unequal. As I say in Ultrasociety, alpha males set themselves up as god-kings.

    Again, I have not read Ultrasociety, but the idea that war would be a major driver of human cultural evolution is one to which I’m inclined to be strongly sympathetic. I’m not familiar enough with Turchin to know if he means war is”the driver” or “a major driver among several” in the evolution of human society.

    Human sacrifice was perhaps instrumental for the god-kings and the nobles in keeping the lower orders down, as Watts et al. (and social control hypothesis) argue. But I disagree with them that it was functional in making early centralized societies more stable and durable. In fact, any inequality is corrosive of cooperation, and its extreme forms doubly so. Lack of cooperation between the rulers and ruled made early archaic states highly unstable, and liable to collapse as a result of internal rebellion or conquest by external enemies. Thus, according to this “God-Kings hypothesis,” HS was a dysfunctional side-effect of the early phases of the evolution of hierarchical societies. As warfare continued to push societies to ever larger sizes, extreme forms of structural inequality became an ever greater liability and were selected out. Simply put, societies that evolved less inegalitarian social norms and institutions won over and replaced archaic despotisms.

    The question here is if human sacrifice was primarily functional – as a cynically wielded political weapon of terror by elites – or if that solidification of hierarchical stratification was a long term byproduct of religious drivers. It also depends on what evidence you count as “human sacrifice”. In the upper Paleolithic period, burial practices involving grave goods shifted to include additional human remains along with the primary corpse. Whether these additional remains, likely slaves, concubines or prisoners slain in the burial ritual count as human sacrifices in the same sense as on Aztec or Sumerian altars tens of thousands of years later may be reasonably disputed. What is not disputed is that humans being killed by other humans not by random violence or war but purposefully for the larger needs of a community goes back to the earliest and most primitive reckoning of what we call “society” and endured in (ever diminishing) places even into the modern period.

    This also begs the question if burial sacrifices, public executions of prisoners and other ritualistic killings on other pretexts conducted by societies of all levels of complexity are fundamentally different in nature from human sacrifices or if they are all subsets of the same atavistic phenomena binding a group through shared participation in violence.

    ….The most complex society in their sample is Hawaii, which is not complex at all when looked in the global context. I am, right now, analyzing the Seshat Databank for social complexity (finally, we have the data! I will be reporting on our progress soon, and manuscripts are being prepared for publication). And Hawaii is way down on the scale of social complexity. Just to give one measure (out of >50 that I am analyzing), polity population. The social scale of Hawaiian chiefdoms measures in the 10,000s of population, at most 100,000 (and that achieved after the arrival of the Europeans). In Afroeurasia (the Old World), you don’t count as a megaempire unless you have tens of millions of subjects—that’s three orders of magnitude larger than Hawaii!

    Why is this important? Because it is only by tracing the trajectories of societies that go beyond the social scale seen in Austronesia that we can test the social control hypothesis against the God-Kings theory. If HS helps to stabilize hierarchical societies, it should do so for societies of thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions, tens of millions, and so on. So we should see it persist as societies grow in size.

    Well, human sacrifice persisted into the classical period of Greece and Rome, though becoming infrequent and eventually outlawed, though only during the last century of the Roman republic. That’s a significant level of complexity, Rome having become the dominant power in the Mediterranean world a century earlier. Certainly human sacrifice did not destabilize the Greeks and Romans, though the argument could be made that it did harm Sparta, if we count Spartan practices of infanticide for eugenic reasons as human sacrifice.

    What muddies the waters here is the prevalence of available substitutes for human sacrifice – usually animal sacrifice initially – that competed and co-existed with human sacrifice in many early societies for extremely long periods of time. Sometimes this readily available alternative was sufficient to eventually extinguish human sacrifice, as happened with the Romans but other times it was not, as with the Aztecs. The latter kept their maniacal pace of human sacrifice up to the end, sacrificing captured Spanish conquistadors and their horses to the bloody Sun god. Human sacrifice did not destabilize the Aztecs and it weakened their tributary vassals but the religious primacy they placed on human sacrifice and the need to capture prisoners in large numbers rather than kill them in battle hobbled the Aztec response to Spanish military assaults.

    Comments? Questions?

    Of blood and song

    Sunday, April 10th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — what carves memory? blood is spilled, song carries grief and anger across centuries ]

    One hundred years ago, Irish blood was spilled in the Easter Uprising of 1916, as Sinéad O’Connor & The Chieftains call us to remember in The Foggy Dew:

    As down the glen one Easter morn to a city fair rode I
    There armed lines of marching men in squadrons passed me by
    No pipe did hum no battle drum did sound it’s loud tattoo
    But the Angelus bell o’er the Liffey swell rang out through the foggy dew

    The bravest fell, and the Requiem bell rang mournfully and clear
    For those who died that Easter-tide in the spring of the year
    While the world did gaze in deep amaze at those fearless men but few
    Who bore the fight that freedom’s light might shine through the foggy dew

    While some may see in the Uprising a merely political fight, in song the religious element — Easter morn, the Angelus bell, the Requiem bell — add Catholic poignancy to memory.


    One hundred years.

    Memory can linger long past a hundred years, as we in our rush to be the first into the future may forget. Let the Chieftains again remind us, with O’Sullivan’s March:

    Donal Cam O’Sullivan Beare marched in 1602 — as Shakespeare was penning All’s Well That Ends Well and Othello?

    A doff of the cap is due here to blog-friend Pundita , who pointed me in the direction of this post with her own Don’t ask me why, because..:


    Ah, but Pundita also deerves a bow for her most recent post, Can the griots lead us home? — wherein she pointed me to a music of great joy, that of Oumou Sangaré:

    If you watch enough videos of Oumou singing (there must be a zillion of them posted to YouTube) you’ll see that in many of her performances she has a highly conversational way of singing. You feel as if she’s talking directly to you. Sometimes it’s as if she’s talking to you in the manner of a defense attorney making an argument to a judge; others as if she’s chatting about something over lunch with you.

    Here is a hunting song:

    Pundita notes:

    I think the ability to set up a very personal communication through song is the mark of a real griot, although after watching about 50 of her videos I think Oumou represents a tradition that I suspect goes back much earlier even than the griot clans — to a time when certain people in a tribe were interlocutors between humans and natural forces and helped settle disputes between members of tribes, and did so through the power of their voices to project a wide range of emotions.

    Mali, at a time of violent upheaval — yet such joy in dance and song:


    We have statistics for which nations suffer the most losses in war and terror, which export the most weapons, which nations invade, and which are invaded — but what of joy?

    Years ago, in a book that sank like a stone, I suggested the concept of a Subtle National Product. King Jigme Singye Wangchuck of Bhutan apparently beat me to it, when he declared in the 1970s:

    Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product.

    His Majesty came up with the idea first, I now see and gladly admit — but I still prefer my own pohrasing!

    Joy, it seems to me, isn;t easily quantified, although Bhutan does have an Index:

    Bhiutan Gross Natiuonal Happiness

    Here are some conparative stats across nations, ethnicities and faiths I’d be interested in:

  • deaths in warfare, civilian, irregular, and military
  • numbers of children pressed into war
  • numbers of those maimed, displaced and or grossly mentally disturbed by war
  • depth of grief, as meaaured in forms of keening and ululation
  • degree of exuberance, as found in music and dance, popular and professional
  • ritual solemnity and grandeur, on religious and state occasions
  • quantity of written poetry bought or borrowed from libraries
  • size of audiences for spoken poetry readings
  • number of poets (in particular) imprisoned for their writings
  • Qualitative equivalents of these values would also be of interest, though even harder to obtain and verify in any objective manner..

    Poems, 20-30 March 2016

    Friday, April 1st, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron ]

    As I’ve said on rare occasions before, Madhu, a wonderful friend of this blog, encouraged me some while back to post some of my poems here. I don’t do it often, and I hope you will at least tolerate it when I do.


    Staring at a gravestone

    Staring at a gravestone as though the dead might —
    contrary to science, in line with hope – break through death,
    through death writ in stone, to speak, loom
    grey under the sun like a hard silk ghost emerging
    from granite, half nowhere half here, speak
    out of beyond the thoughts of ever and one and no-one,
    chant, perhaps, in some dead tongue, language
    of the dead, of death, of one’s own family, intimate,

    vast and impersonal.. staring with hope, grief,
    a touch of rage perhaps, melded in incomprehension,
    listening without hearing, seeing, though
    dumb, by doubt and shroud clouded, deluded:
    and all this observed from that all-knowing other place, by
    the all-giving nothing to which galaxies are specks, lives speak.


    Of, by and for itself: the poem

    Let me write a poem that has music to it, that conjures
    images out of ink, that echoes into silence,
    let it flow from me as the mind waves in the wind,
    here and there, yet tethered, tethered, yet hither and yon,
    veering away from and towards rhymes, swaying
    itself, myself and the reader – your self, yourselves –
    my son was pillowing his head on a weight-bar
    a few minutes ago – drifting off topic and weaving

    back in, let me write in such a way you will wonder,
    will wander into wonder, whither wonder yonder hither,
    torn, and suddenly so, asunder – may the poem
    wrench me, wrench itself, wrench syntax, yourself, selves,
    in the sheer mind play of itself on self, in the sheer
    wind play, grass on grass, of itselves on our all selves..


    Unbreakable mirror
    There is such ghastly blood spurting at home and abroad
    I must get back to Pasadena, walk again down Marengo, take joy
    in the living shoots breaking up the concrete paving.
    There are such foolish beheadings, blood spurting, abroad
    I must close my eyelids like rose petals, discern petal from thorn.
    There is so much hatred spurting blood lost to kin flesh and blood
    in the passing down of abuse across generations here at home
    I must get to the pool in mind where breath moves, motion is still.

    I must get clear past understanding to peace, wherein the face
    of understanding is seen in the beloved face, mirror, love, lake:
    and what if yours is the divine face, and yourself at war, in grief,
    broken in broken marriage, fragmented by frag-grenade, lost
    in self-esteem high or low, in alcohol, lost in lust or unloved,
    if it should be your broken face i see, in the unbreakable mirror?


    On the Thursday before All and Everything

    How sad can that woman be, painted, whose son’s eyes
    know and convey that those creatures with bird wings and
    Botticelli features who once told her “Fear Not”
    arrived from a court or realm in which a higher octave
    of fear named awe is the only octave ever sung,
    came visiting a realm where the mother’s torn flesh
    is the only sacrifice sufficient for the birth of the young,

    how sad, seeing those eyes, can a woman be, her son next
    to crucifixion, next to resurrection, next to literary
    criticism, next to demythologization, next to indifference
    by all but Bach, El Greco, Hopkins, Grunewald, how
    lanced with grief can that mother be to see her son broken
    and spilled, bones and blood, flesh and spirit, wine
    and unleavened bread that is nonetheless risen, risen, risen?


    One frail voice in a whirlwind

    Okay I am joyed to overflowing that enough dust gathers
    and swirls here to formulate a momentary dervish,
    crying “for love’s sake, love” against the world’s maelstrom,
    one frail voice in a whirlwind, one small silence
    amidst such shouting, shooting, eardrum-piercing sound.
    I will love you before and after I am gone, I will echo
    love on the drumbeat of your heart, I will dance to Bach’s
    bacchanalian orgy of the divine love crucified, seated

    in lotus, absolute, incarnate, flexible to each soul’s need,
    tireless, fatigued unto death, l will dance my dust
    into full-throated voice for you, quiver or quaver my wings
    faster than birds hum, stretch like the night, warm
    your heart at my hearth, I am none and gone, I am here
    only to toll and tell you, you are beyond boundlessly dear.


    How best to crumple your face

    Aging offers no guarantee of the desired effect
    so clearly displayed in that photo of Jim Harrison — a poet
    I’m told, and now I’ve seen that image a poet
    I shall seek out and read – half blind, half drunk?
    Withered as an old oak stump? Gnarly? A grump?

    Attack through the voice, it strikes me, would be
    the fast, best strategy – dumbfound but not dumb down
    or out, soak voice in whiskies, wreathe it in smoke —
    sing it — above all, doubtless and doubting — SHOUT!!

    Zen it. Turn your head into the headwinds, face whatever
    sandblasts you back to your original face. You, I
    are forever baby-faced, mirror-faced, and wizened.
    How best to crumple your face? How dare you even ask?
    You think that life’s a whaddayacallit goddam task?



    Rough me up, chisel, throw me down, rampart, cliff,
    brine me in and dry me out, season me, in and out and about
    in all seasons, snow me under, bake, broil me, boil,
    blister, shell-shock, shake, shellac me, chain, drain on me,
    break, bust me, cake me in excremental blood, curse,
    catcall me, caterwaul, blame, shame me, if I protest, bluster,
    I am naked, spare, your slings and arrows wound me, you
    have nothing on me, I am but better for your battering, bruising.

    Brush me, wash, bathe, comb, coax me, clean me, I
    shall remain pliant to your pleasing, soap, soft soap, sponge
    me up and down, inside and within, I will respond
    in response, loathe me — but clothe me, rob me
    but robe me, foist your delusions on me, I am hoist
    on my own penis, pride, flagpole, priesthood, petard.


    Of Diotima and Beatrice

    Who spawned Diotima of Mantinea? For Socrates
    drank wisdom at her teats, Plato from Socrates, Aristotle
    from Plato, Alexander from Aristotle, so who
    was Diotima, what her thoughts, and who spawned
    the thoughts which taught her? I have asked Siri,
    I have interrogated Wolfram’s Alpha, have challenged
    Googles AI to fight Wittgenstein’s PI to the death —
    yet for me it suffices that she, Diotima was no he but a

    she, female, a woman. To say more would be to
    slather it on, mansplain, overtell, sell, hence overkill,
    to say less would leave Aristotle with the boys,
    and what could be worse? Think you on this: peace
    outshines war by far; Venus is brighter than Mars.
    Love’s gravity it is, spins hearts, the sun, all other stars.


    I was writing these over Holy Week, four of them on Maundy Thursday, and the most recent one came through yesterday. Jim Morrison’s death was the occasion for th poem in which he is named.

    Your comments are welcome.

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