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On Magic: Jane’s and the Jesuits

Saturday, March 22nd, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- a brief note on my own bi-focal vision, with appreciation to Marina Warner ]


I was just reading Marina Warner‘s recent essay On Magic — and protective magic in particular — and was struck by the phrase:

Calligraphic blazons act as icons, gems are incised with prayers to release their talismanic powers, phylacteries hold tightly wound documents written all over with blessings and invocations…

Calligraphic blazons?

My oh my! Only a click away, IHS, the “global information company” that brings us IHS Jane’s Intelligence Review, was tweeting me something or other and naturally, their avatar showed up (above, upper panel) on my screen, then in my eyes (etc), and finally (after a couple milliseconds?) in what Coleridge called the “hooks and eyes” of memory… where they hooked up very nicely indeed with the logo of the Society of Jesus (above, lower panel).

Jane’s and the Jesuits. I mean, they’re both in the security business, right? The Jesuits want to protect us from sin, heresy, and other matters which will make life hot for us in the next world, while Jane’s wants to protect us from VBIEDs, CBRN weapons and other such things — widely considered more pressing — which might make life hot for us in this one.


Let’s skip the Jesuits and the seculars for a moment, and turn to Judaism and Islam. Marina writes:

Kabbalistic beliefs share common ground in this love of letters as potent, active powers in themselves: “Every word an angel, every letter an angel, and the spaces between them” was a tenet of the mystical Isaac Luria in Prague. According to analogous Muslim practices involving inscription, the right words work even when they’re hidden, indecipherable, or have disappeared altogether: they need only to have made contact, for their presence lingers in the substances where they were once inscribed, transferred by means of the magic operation of writing.

That last is, as cultural anthropologists know, a homeopathic concept — compare this, from the US (NIH) National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine backgrounder:

The alternative medical system of homeopathy was developed in Germany at the end of the 18th century. Supporters of homeopathy point to two unconventional theories: “like cures like”—the notion that a disease can be cured by a substance that produces similar symptoms in healthy people; and “law of minimum dose”—the notion that the lower the dose of the medication, the greater its effectiveness. Many homeopathic remedies are so diluted that no molecules of the original substance remain.

The thing is, there are two worldviews at work here, and Marina very nicely finesses the pair of them when, discussing the “talismanically protective clothes” in a Paris exhibit of “Ottoman princes’ wardrobes from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries”, she says:

Looked at from one angle, the Turkish practice was rankly superstitious, a fabulous, extreme, and crazy example of human fantasy in the doomed quest for mastery of natural forces. But looked at from another angle, the attempt to activate blessing and security through acts of writing rather than simple speech acts, and then by wearing the texts on one’s body, shows us a new dimension of word power and communicates an extraordinary degree of trust in the active literate imagination.

Superstitious, fabulous and crazy in enlightened scientific terms, yes — and yet seen from another angle, an extraordinary degree of trust in the active literate imagination…

John Donne opts for both, compressing two worlds into a mere four words:

At the round earths imagin’d corners, blow
Your trumpets, Angells…


Okay and Amen.

I’d now like to broaden the subject from word to world, and to deepen it from magic to sacrament.

In my next, I’ll draw on Tara Isabella Burton‘s suggestion: Study Theology, Even If You Don’t Believe in God — and Dana Gioia‘s piece, The Catholic Writer Today. Onwards.


Creativity and Ennui

Friday, August 16th, 2013

[Mark Safranski a.k.a. "zen"]

Creativity is a subject that has  interested me, going back to the days long, long ago when I was an art student. Creativity is only mildly correlated with IQ, but like “intelligence”, the deeper you delve into the study of  creativity and creative thinking the more “creativity” looks like a multifaceted, multidimensional and diverse set of capacities, habits and circumstances than it does a single, universal, characteristic or ability.

Creativity has been studied from a neuroscientific, psychological, evolutionary,  behavioral, economic and social perspective but what of creativity”s opposite?  What about Ennui?

From a cognitive perspective, the two may be flip sides of the same coin, note the correlation between highly   creative  people and incidence of depression. It may also be a sign of overuse of certain brain functions, like adrenal exhaustion from an excess of physical and mental stress over a long period of time. Creativity, being in “the flow” is intoxicating but it usually involves peak exertion which accumulates weariness. Exemplary performance in one area can also come at the expense of penalties in another area.

Or perhaps ennui is the natural, cyclical ebb and flow between generative conceptual fertility and barrenness, the brain preparing itself for the next creative “surge” to come?

When are you creative and when are you not?


E.O. Wilson on the Evolutionary Origin of Creativity and Art

Thursday, April 4th, 2013

E.O. Wilson 

Last summer, eminent sociobiologist E.O. Wilson published an article in Harvard Magazine:

On the Origins of the Arts 

….By using this power in addition to examine human history, we can gain insights into the origin and nature of aesthetic judgment. For example, neurobiological monitoring, in particular measurements of the damping of alpha waves during perceptions of abstract designs, have shown that the brain is most aroused by patterns in which there is about a 20 percent redundancy of elements or, put roughly, the amount of complexity found in a simple maze, or two turns of a logarithmic spiral, or an asymmetric cross. It may be coincidence (although I think not) that about the same degree of complexity is shared by a great deal of the art in friezes, grillwork, colophons, logographs, and flag designs. It crops up again in the glyphs of the ancient Middle East and Mesoamerica, as well in the pictographs and letters of modern Asian languages. The same level of complexity characterizes part of what is considered attractive in primitive art and modern abstract art and design. The source of the principle may be that this amount of complexity is the most that the brain can process in a single glance, in the same way that seven is the highest number of objects that can be counted at a single glance. When a picture is more complex, the eye grasps its content by the eye’s saccade or consciously reflective travel from one sector to the next. A quality of great art is its ability to guide attention from one of its parts to another in a manner that pleases, informs, and provokes

This is fascinating.  My first question would be how we could determine if the pattern of degree of complexity is the result of cognitive structural limits (a cap on our thinking) or if it represents a sufficient visual sensory catalyst in terms of numbers of elements to cause an excitory response (neurons firing, release of dopamine, acetylcholine etc. ) and a subsequent feedback loop. Great art, or just sometimes interesting designs exhibiting novelty can hold us with a mysterious, absorbing fascination

Later, Wilson writes:

….If ever there was a reason for bringing the humanities and science closer together, it is the need to understand the true nature of the human sensory world, as contrasted with that seen by the rest of life. But there is another, even more important reason to move toward consilience among the great branches of learning. Substantial evidence now exists that human social behavior arose genetically by multilevel evolution. If this interpretation is correct, and a growing number of evolutionary biologists and anthropologists believe it is, we can expect a continuing conflict between components of behavior favored by individual selection and those favored by group selection. Selection at the individual level tends to create competitiveness and selfish behavior among group members—in status, mating, and the securing of resources. In opposition, selection between groups tends to create selfless behavior, expressed in
greater generosity and altruism, which in turn promote stronger cohesion and strength of the group as a whole 

Very interesting.

First, while I am in no way qualified to argue evolution with E.O. Wilson, I am dimly aware that some biological scientists might be apt to take issue with Wilson’s primacy of multilevel evolution. As a matter of common sense, it seems likely to me that biological systems might have a point where they experience emergent evolutionary effects – the system itself has to be able to adapt to the larger environmental context – how do we know what level of “multilevel” will be the significant driver of natural selection and under what conditions? Or does one level have a rough sort of “hegemony” over the evolutionary process with the rest as “tweaking” influences? Or is there more randomness here than process?

That part is way beyond my ken and readers are welcome to weigh in here.

The second part, given Wilson’s assumptions are more graspable. Creativity often is a matter of individual insights becoming elaborated and exploited, but also has strong collaborative and social aspects. That kind of cooperation may not even be purposeful or ends-driven by both parties, it may simply be behaviors that incidentally  help create an environment or social space where creative innovation becomes more likely to flourish – such as the advent of writing and the spread of literacy giving birth to a literary cultural explosion of ideas and invention – and battles over credit and more tangible rewards.

Need to ponder this some more.


New Books

Monday, March 11th, 2013


Out of our Minds: Learning to be Creative by Sir Ken Robinson 

Wild Bill Donovan by Douglas Waller  

I am about half finished with the first book by creativity in education guru Sir Ken Robinson, who also has a new book out called, The Element. Technically, I have been reading a large volume of books, articles and research regarding creativity and creative thinking lately for a project, but most of those are academic in nature while Robinson is writing for mainstream audiences. I may or may not review it here, but it is clearly argued and Robinson is an effective popularizer.

The biography of Wild Bill Donovan is timely. If the idiosyncratic and at times improvisational OSS, staffed by gifted amateurs, eccentric adventurers and white-shoe, unapologetically elite WASPS, was something that would be impossible to exist in today’s rancid political climate, there are elements in that legacy that are in short supply in today’s modern and highly technological IC.

Ironically, many of the pioneers in creativity research that developed that field within cognitve psychology in America were themselves disproportionately veterans of the OSS.


New Book: The Violent Image by Neville Bolt

Friday, December 14th, 2012

The Violent Image by Neville Bolt 

Columbia University Press just sent me a review copy of The Violent Image, by Dr. Neville Bolt of King’s College vaunted War Studies Department.  Initially, I was amused by the colorful book jacket, but flipping through, it belies a very weighty, heavily footnoted, academic exploration of the iterative relationship between propagandistic imagery and insurgency. Even a casual perusal indicates that The Violent Image is a book many readers of ZP will  like to  get their hands on.

From the jacket:

….Neville Bolt investigates how today’s revolutionaries have rejuvenated the nineteenth century “ptopaganda of the deed” so that terrorism no longer simply goads states into overreacting, thereby losing legitimacy. Instead the deed has become a tool to highlight the underlying grievances of communities

A small sampling of some of the section titles:

Strategic Communications:the State
Strategic Communications: the Insurgent
Networks in Real and Virtual Worlds
Images as Weapons
POTD as Insurgent Concept of Operations
Anonymity and Leaderless Revolutions
The Arab Uprisings and Liberation Technology
POTD as Metaphor

Endnotes run slightly over 90 pages and the bibliography tips the scales at 50, for those interested in such things.

Looking forward to reading this and seeing how Bolt presents his case.


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