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So: how does it feel at World’s End?

Saturday, March 21st, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — on conveying the experience of the eschatological — on the way to better understanding the allure of IS ]
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Beatus de Facunda. And the fifth Angel sounded the trumpet: and I saw a star fall from heaven upon the earth, and to him was given the key of the bottomless pit" -- Revelation 9.1-11

And the fifth Angel sounded the trumpet: and I saw a star fall from heaven upon the earth, and to him was given the key of the bottomless pit

**

WE ARE ENTERING PHASE TWO:

I think we’re entering Phase Two of our conversations about Islamist eschatology.

In Phase One, the task was to point out that apocalyptic scriptures and scriptural interpretations were a feature of Al-Qaida discourse, and specifically used in recruitment, and this phase was necessary because apocalyptic movements, in general, are all too easily dismissed by the secular mind until “too late” — think Aum Shinrikyo in Tokyo, the Branch Davidians in Waco, Heaven’s Gate in Rancho Santa Fe.

With GEN Dempsey declaring that IS holds an “apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision”, with Graeme Wood describing that vision in a breakthrough article in The Atlantic, with Jessica Stern and JM Berger making the same point forcefully in their ISIS: The State of Terror, and with Will McCants promising us a book specifically about the eschatological dimension of IS, that need may now have passed.

In my view, the salient points to be made in Phase Two are:

  • that the apocalyptic ideology of IS has strategic implications
  • that there’s a largely and unwisely ignored area of religious studies dealing specifically with eschatological violence, and
  • that the sense of living in eschatological time is viscerally different — I’ve termed it a “force multiplier”
  • In particular, IS strategy is likely to draw in part on the specifically eschatological last hundred pages in Abu Musab al-Suri‘s 1600-page Call to Global Islamic Resistance. As I noted in my review of Jean-Pierre Filiu’s Apocalypse in Islam, Filiu himself states there is “nothing in the least rhetorical about this exercise in apocalyptic exegesis. It is meant instead as a guide for action”. While Filiu devotes several pages to it, Jim Lacey ignores it completely in his A Terrorist’s Call to Global Jihad: Deciphering Abu Musab al-Suri’s Islamic Jihad Manifesto, commenting only, “Where appropriate, we have also removed most of the repetitive theological justifications undergirding these beliefs” — see my review of Lacey for the Air force Research Institute.

    I’ll deal with the religious studies literature on violent apocalyptic movements in a future post.

    This post is my first attempt at addressing the feeling engendered by being swept up in an “end times’ movement. I foresee this as my major upcoming area of interest and future contributions.

    **

    SUGGESTED CONTEXTS:

    There’s an extraordinary paragraph in Seduction of the Spirit by Harvey Cox, the prominent Harvard theologian, in which he tells us what the world’s next great encyclopedic work on religion might be like — using the analogy of Thomas AquinasSumma Theologica in a decidedly post-psychedelic age:

    Thus the next Summa might consist not of a thousand chapters but of a thousand alternative states of being, held together not by a glued binding but by the fact that all thousand are equally real.

    Imagine what kind of world it would be if instead of merely tolerating or studying them, one could actually be, temporarily at least, a Sioux brave seeing an ordeal vision, a neolithic hunter prostrate before the sacred fire, a Krishna lovingly ravishing a woodsful of goat girls, a sixteenth-century Carmelite nun caught up in ecstatic prayer, a prophet touched by flame to go release a captive people…

    Religious experience is as wide, and in fact as wild as that, and the lives and world views of a Black Elk, a Teresa of Avila, an incarnation of Vishnu and an Isaiah are as different as cultures can be, united only in the degree of their focus. Cox can list them, he can invite us to consider their experiences in turn, but he cannot entirely bring us into each of their lives. Between them and his readers is a distance not only of cultural imagination, but of conviction, of tremendous passion.

    **

    In Fiction as the Essence of War, George Vlachonikolis wrote on War on the Rocks recently:

    Coker reveals the struggle of many a veteran by asking: “how can someone who was there tell others what it was like? Especially if they can’t find a moral?” This is a thought that will resonate with anybody with a wartime experience. As for me, my 6 years in the Army has now all but been reduced to a handful of dinnerpartyfriendly anecdotes as a consequence of this plight.

    Stern & Berger, on page 2 of their book, ISIS: The State of Terrorism, write:

    It is difficult to properly convey the magnitude of the sadistic violence shown in these videos. Some featured multiple beheadings, men and women toether, with the later victims force to watch the irst die. In one video, the insurgents drove out into the streets of Iraq cities, pile out of the vehicle, and beheaded a prisoner in full view of pedestrians, capturing the whole thing on video and then driving ogg scot-free.

    Some things are just hard to explain in a way that viscerally grips the reader, engendering rich and deep understanding.

    The power of religion is one of them, and that’s true a fortiori of the power of its extreme form, that of those who are “semiotically aroused” — in Richard Landes‘ very useful term — by the power of an “end times” vision.

    **

    I have quoted the first paragraph of Tim Furnish‘s book, Holiest Wars, often enough already, and I’ll quote it again for shock value — I don’t think it’s the sort of analogy that can be “proven” or “refuted”, but it gives a visceral sense of the importance of identifying an Islamist jihadist apocalyptic movement as such, and understanding what that implies:

    Muslim messianic movements are to fundamentalist uprisings what nuclear weapons are to conventional ones: triggered by the same detonating agents, but far more powerful in scope and effect.

    And Richard Landes in Fatal Attraction: The Shared Antichrist of the Global Progressive Left and Jihad gives us a sense of how an apocalyptic undercurrent works:

    It is a great mistake to suppose that the only writers who matter are those whom the educated in their saner moments can take seriously. There exists a subterranean world where pathological fantasies disguised as ideas are churned out by crooks and halfeducated fanatics for the benefit of the ignorant and superstitious. There are times when this underworld emerges from the depths and suddenly fascinates, captures, and dominates multitudes of usually sane and responsible people, who thereupon take leave of sanity and responsibility. And it occasionally happens that this underworld becomes a political power and changes the course of history.

    **

    A FIRST APPROXIMATION:

    Let me take a first stab at indicating — by analogy — the level of passion involved:

    Cox writes of prophecy, Sylvia Plath of electroshock treatment. In her poem, The Hanging Man:

    By the roots of my hair some god got hold of me.
    I sizzled in his blue volts like a desert prophet.

    And her description of the same experience in her novel The Bell Jar is no less, perhaps even more powerful — note also the “end times” reference:

    I shut my eyes.

    There was a brief silence, like an indrawn breath.

    Then something bent down and took hold of me and shook me like the end of the world. Whee-ee-ee-ee-ee, it shrilled, through an air crackling with blue light, and with each flash a great jolt drubbed me till I thought my bones would break and the sap fly out of me like a split plant.

    Let me suggest to you:

    Many IS members feel they have been shaken “like the end of the world” and live and breathe in “an air crackling with blue light”.

    __________________________________________________________________________________________________________

    The illustration at the head of this post is one of many from The Beatus of Facundus, itself one of many brilliantly illustrated versions of Beatus of Liebana‘s commentary on Revelation. I was first exposed to Beatus by an article Umberto Eco wrote for FMR magazine. Eco also mentions the Beatus in Name of the Rose, and indeed wrote a most desirable book on the topic.

    Variations on the Blue Screen of Death

    Saturday, March 7th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — where would we be without our digital devices, minds & memories? ]
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    Two converging thoughts, the first from John Robb at Global Guerrillas:

    Over the weekend, ISIS threatened the life of Jack Dorsey, a co-founder and Chairman of Twitter. Why? Twitter, at the urging of the US government, has been shutting down the accounts of ISIS supporters for months. So, ISIS supporters responded by making a threat with a nifty graphic:

    IS warns Dorsey the Twitter CEO Robb GG

    We told you from the beginning it’s not your war, but you didn’t get it and kept closing our accounts on Twitter, but we always come back. But when our lions come and take your breath, you will never come back to life

    The CEO as an Objective of War

    Unfortunately for the suits in Silicon Valley, ISIS isn’t as much of a pushover as al Qaeda was. They have mass and
    momentum and they are smart enough to understand the role of the Internet in this struggle. Additionally, they have lots of experience coercing CEOs. They did it quite a bit of it during the war in Iraq (and it worked).

    Regardless, the targeted killing of a well known tech executive in sunny California by ISIS jihadis does appear impossible to imagine. Few places are more remote from each other, and not just geographically. Silicon Valley is a hyperconnected, financially mainlined zone striving for a tech nirvana. ISIS is a disconnected autonomous zone striving to return to the 7th Century. However, that’s probably a bad assumption. Charlie Hebdo showed the world that terrorism is evolving and corporate targeting on global scale is now on the agenda. This means an attack on a tech CEO isn’t just possible, but probable. Worse, once an attack on a senior tech executive happens, future threats will be instantly credible and highly coercive..

    If that occurs, we are going to find out very quickly that the corporation, and particularly tech companies, are particularly bad organizations for warfare. One reason is that they are too centralized. In particular, the institution of the CEO is a grave weakness (a systempunkt in global guerrilla lingo). The CEO’s centrality to the corporate network makes him/her a single point of failure for the entire organization. Another is that executives in most of the western world are very soft targets. Easy to find (Google and Google maps), easy to isolate, and easy to kill…

    **

    And the second from Marc Lindemann, When the Screens Go Dark: Rethinking Our Dependence on Digital Systems, from Small Wars Journal:

    In a threat environment where even the most useful digital system may be knocked out of the fight, there needs to be a back-to-basics approach that will enable units to continue to fight effectively in the absence of their digital systems and digital guidance from higher headquarters. Every commander should be able to shut off the TOC’s power, slipping the digital leash, and have confidence that his or her unit can continue to function. Junior leaders and staff sections should be able to anticipate the problems inherent in digital-system failure and know what to do without a major disruption in TOC operations. ADRP 6-0’s non-digital solutions – “establishing trust, creating shared understanding, or providing a clear intent using mission orders” – are significant. More significant, however, and more measurable is the degree of Soldiers’ basic proficiency in their warfighting tasks.

    Conclusion

    Although this paper does not and cannot advocate the abandonment of the U.S. Army’s existing digital systems, the U.S Army’s dependence on digital systems is very much on its leaders’ minds today. These systems have repeatedly demonstrated the potential to make the U.S. Army a much more efficient and lethal fighting force. Before his retirement, however, GEN Robert W. Cone, then Commanding General, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, gave digital systems an ultimatum: “Why do we want this piece of technology? If it does not dramatically improve training ef?ciency, we need the strength to walk away.” Right now, the military is poised to increase digital training requirements in pursuit of inter-service operations, multinational activities, and the expansion of the network to include all Soldiers and vehicles. Leaders at every level must understand their dependence on digital systems, successfully manage their units’ use of these systems, and promote decentralized initiative in support of clearly defined and mutually understood tactical goals. In the end, Soldiers must have tactical knowledge that transcends anything displayed on a computer monitor. Soldiers, not our digital systems, are what will win our future conflicts. When the screens go dark, the mission must go on.

    Well, the military details are way beyond me, though they presumably make sense to other SWJ and ZP readers — but the idea that the net, or large domains within it, may suddenly go dark (or blue, as the saying goes) is one that should give each one of us, dependent as we are on digital media for our communications and memories, considerable plause.

    **

    It was my friend Peter Rothman — currently editor of H+ Magazine — who wrote the now celebrated digital haiku a few years back:

    Windows NT crashed.
    I am the Blue Screen of Death.
    No one hears your screams

    In Brief: Azzam illustrates Levi-Strauss on Mythologiques

    Friday, March 6th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — the geometry of two miracle stories from Abdullah Azzam ]
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    SPEC DQ Azzam honey & vinegar

    These two tales are taken from Abdullah Azzam, Signs of ar-Rahman in the Jihad of Afghanistan.

    **

    Binary oppositions seem to be basic to the human thought process, and this simple, elegant observation has in turn given rise to a number of interesting philosopphical explorations, some of which are expressed perhaps most powerully in diagrams. I am thinking here of the medieval square of opposition — as in this diagram taken from Georg Reisch, Margarita Phylosophica tractans de omni genere scibili, Basel 1517:

    square_of_opposition SEMBL

    Algirdas Greimas developed his semiotic square from this medieval diagram —

    greimas_semiotic_square

    — and defines his square as the “visual representation of the logical articulation of any category”. In his “Towards a Theory of Modalities”, Greimas writes:

    the terms manifestation vs. immanence .. can be compared profitably with the categories surface vs. deep in linguistics, manifest vs. latent in psychoanalysis, phenomenal vs. noumenal in philosophy, etc.

    Then there’s Levi-Strauss and his triangle, essentially a variant on the same idea, applied by LS in his magnificent 4-volume Mythologiques to a wide range of myths — here’s the basic triangle for the first volume, The Raw and the Cooked:

    LS culinary_triangle

    **

    What Reisch, Greimas and Levi-Strauss are all doing lies in its own distinct area of “visual thinking” at the confluence of logic, algebra, geometry and conceptual graphs — the same area my own DoubleQuotes and the HipBone and Sembl games are found in.

    When people think about narrative — and it is or should be as hot a topic in strategy and counterterrorism as it is in myth, story-telling, film and their various related forms of criticism — they tend to think linearly, from beginning to end, noting the emotional expansions and contractions, the narrative shifts, the crescendos before the climax and its resolution.

    My own style of thinking leans more to the atemporal or synchronic, which in turn is closer to the logical-algebraic-geometric-graphical mode of visual expression. Thus, for me, the “myth of Narcissus” is not a story-line but a geometry, a narrative formulation of the concept of reflection, or “bouncing back”. To adapt the Levi-Strauss triangle to the Narcissus narrative, then, we have:

    Reflection triangle

    while the two Azzam miracle tales in my DoubleQuote at the top of this post give us:

    Azzam triangle

    This in turn can become a square if we allow the four coordinates to be wine (intoxicant, bad), water (sobriety, good), vinegar (sour, bad) and honey (sweet, good). We notice here that water (sobriety, good) is the fourth which hovers unmentioned over the twin tales, just as Jung argued the dogma of the Assumption of the Virgin into heaven was the “fourth” which “completed” — nb, this is from a psychological perspective — the celestial Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

    It remains for Jalaluddin Rumi to transcend the duality of the halal (sobriety) and the haram (intoxication) in his praise of his master, Shams of Tabriz:

    In Shams al-Din-i Tabrizi you will discover a heart which is at once intoxicated and very sober.

    **

    In what sense or senses are Azzam’s two tales two, and in what sense are they one and the same?

    Sources & suggested further readings include:

  • The Raw and the Cooked: Mythologiques, Volume 1
  • Anthropology for Beginners
  • Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences
  • The Dual and the Real
  • Semiotics for Beginners
  • Semiotics and Language
  • Visual Memory (handbags!)
  • Punctualization: Law and Greimas
  • Square of Opposition
  • Visualizing knowledge
  • Signs of Ar-Rahman
  • Mystical Poems of Rumi
  • PR Beckman tweets on bridges and analogy

    Sunday, January 25th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — cross-posted from Sembl — this post is for Cath Styles, who has been thinking bridges ]
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    Pooh bridge

    **

    My blog-friend PR Beckman, on a roll, has been tweeting Octavio Paz and Martin Esslin.

    I’ve taken Beckman’s tweets out of 140 characters and put them back into paragraphs, and given a little more context to some of them, but greatly though I admire Octavio Paz and much though I have puzzled over the Theater of the Absurd, I wouldn’t have run across these particular passages if I hadn’t found them in my Twitter feed today. Important.

    **

    Octavio Paz, Children of the Mire: Modern Poetry from Romanticism to the Avant-garde:

    Analogy is the science of correspondences. It is, however, a science which exists only by virtue of differences. Precisely because this is not that, it is possible to extend a bridge between this and that. The bridge does not do away with distance: it is an intermediary; neither does it eliminate difrerences: it establishes a relation between different terms. Analogy is the metaphor in which otherness dreams of itself as unity, and difference projects itself illusively as identity. By means of analogy the confused landscape of plurality becomes ordered and intelligible. Analogy is the operation nby means of which, thanks to the play of similarities, we accept differences. Analogy does not elimiate differences: it redeems them, it makes their existence tolerable.

    Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd, pp 419:

    the Theatre of the Absurd is concerned essentially with the evocation of concrete poetic images designed to communicate to the audience the sense of perplexity that their authors feel when confronted with the human condition

    and 428:

    The realization that thinking in poetic images has its validity side by side with conceptual thought and the insistence on a clear recognition of the function and possibilities of each mode does not amount to a return to irrationalism; on the contrary, it opens the way to a truly rational attitude.

    **

    Let me add a quote of my own choosing, this one from Winnie the Pooh:

    Sometimes, if you stand on the bottom rail of a bridge and lean over to watch the river slipping slowly away beneath you, you will suddenly know everything there is to be known.

    Illustration: Original, 1928 Illustration Of Pooh, Christopher Robin and Piglet Could Fetch Over $200K

    A metaphysical trigonometry

    Wednesday, January 21st, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — from [Inkling] Charles Williams via J’lem & Damascus to TS Eliot, iconology and the apophatic & cataphatic paths ]
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    The Second Coming: Orthodox icon and Turkish miniature

    The Second Coming: Orthodox icon and Turkish miniature

    **

    The phrase “metaphysical trigonometry” is from Charles Williams, friend of Tolkien and Lewis, and is drawn from the opening paragraph of his book, The Descent of the Dove: A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church.

    The beginning of Christendom, is, strictly, at a point out of time. A metphysical trigonometry finds it among the spiritual Secrets, at the meeting of two heavenward lines, one drawn from Bethany along the Ascent of the Messias, the other from Jerusalem against the Descent of the Paraclete. That measurement, the measurement of eternity in operation, of the bright cloud and the rushing wind, is, in effect, theology.

    **

    Williams mentions Bethany, the geographic lift-off point for the Ascension of Christ — but where is his Second Coming to be witnessed?

    Some Christian telecasters, literal-minded and consequently of the opinion that not only living eyes but even the eye of the camera will be able to capture the event, suggest the Mount of Olives:

    Thus Christian Broadcasters’ Cameras Trained on Mount of Olives to Capture Christ’s Return:

    Two of America’s biggest evangelical Christian broadcasters have stationed cameras on a hill overlooking Jerusalem, ready to cover the return of Jesus Christ from the Mount of Olives as predicted in the Bible, should any such event occur soon.

    Texas-based Daystar Television Network was first to install a 24/7 camera from its terrace overlooking the Mount of Olives, and now Costa Mesa-based Trinity Broadcasting Network has bought the building next door, allowing it the same opportunity. The Mount of Olives, a mountain ridge east of Jerusalem, is rooted both in Jewish and Christian traditions, and is where Jesus is said to have preached to his disciples and later ascended to heaven, according to Acts chapter one.

    **

    I am hoping one of the Latter-day Saint friends of this blog will have more to say on LDS expectation, but have found this reference to Missouri as the site of the New Jerusalem — not quite the same as the place of the Second Coming, but certainly related to some extent:

    Building of the New Jerusalem:

    Near the time of the coming of Jesus Christ, the faithful Saints will build a righteous city, a city of God, called the New Jerusalem. Jesus Christ Himself will rule there. (See 3 Nephi 21:23–25; Moses 7:62–64; Articles of Faith 1:10.) The Lord said the city will be built in the state of Missouri in the United States (see D&C 84:2–3).

    **

    And in Islam, Damascus, and specifically the Umayyad mosque is the place of expectation, following the hadith reported in Muhammad Ata Ur-Rahim, Jesus: Prophet of Islam:

    At that point, God will send the Messiah, son of Mary, and he will descend to the white minaret in the east of Damascus, wearing two garments dyed with saffron, placing his hands on the wings of two angels. When he lowers his head, beads of perspiration will fall from it, and when he raises his head, beads like pearls will scatter from it. Every disbeliever who smells his fragrance will die, and his breath will reach as far as he can see. He will search for the Dajjal until he finds him at the gate of Ludd (the biblical Lydda, now known as Lod), where he will kill him.

    **

    It has been argued that the thrust of Hinduism as of Buddhism is vertically upwards, towards transcendance of this world in moksha, liberation, whereas that of Christianity is downwards, towards immanence, in the Incarnation, indeed in what Henri Nouwen calls “downward mobility”.

    In reality, however, the god Vishnu descends into human form in his avatars Narsingh, Rama, Krishna, Kalki — to play lila within creation, while the yogi’s path leads upowards to moksha — and the Christ who descends into time and human circumstance is also the ascended and eternal Christ whose celestial marriage feast is celebrated in each Eucharist…

    In short, paths of both ascent and descent are to be found, as perhaps we might have learned from the story of Jacob’s Ladder (Genesis 28,12):

    and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.

    Or as TS Eliot puts it in Four Quartets, variously echoing Heraclitus, Dante, John of the Cross:

    And the way up is the way down, the way forward is the way back.

    and:

    Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there,
    To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
    You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
    In order to arrive at what you do not know
    You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
    In order to possess what you do not possess
    You must go by the way of dispossession.
    In order to arrive at what you are not
    You must go through the way in which you are not.
    And what you do not know is the only thing you know
    And what you own is what you do not own
    And where you are is where you are not.

    **

    Going a step further, Cleo McNelly Kearns writes:

    The way down is the way of asceticism and abstraction, while the way up is the way of erotic experience, metaphor and imagination. The negative way seeks, through a process of progressive elimination of the partial, to attain a posture of complete humility and self-erasure before the void; the positive way calls for escalating degrees of recognition and self-affirmation proceeding from like to like to a place commensurate with contemplation of the whole. Likewise, the negative way, or way down, seeks to move the consciousness beyond the body and its images, while the affirmative way, or way up, seeks to move it more deeply into them.

    The negative, apophatic way, avoids affirmative statements and images because they might be mistaken for idols and worshipped, while the affirmative, cataphatic way uses affirmations and images as icons and symbols through which the unseen may be glimpsed.

    And we’re into a whole new areea of discourse.


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