Friday, December 30, 2011

Lennon & NK-Presley's Greatest Hits

A week of smirking at the North Korean cult on full funereal display is coming to an end. Elvis has left the building in style, his smiling bouffant gaze atop an armored 1974 Lincoln rolling the powdered streets of Pyongyang. The videos of the mourning citizens are pretty intense—powerful evidence of an authentic "God is dead" sentiment among at least some of the people.

The Team America gag isn't so funny when you see those people on their knees bawling in the snow. That state casts a spectacular spell over its population.

North Korea is the last sideshow freak of the geopolitical carnival. Watching the twenty-something son try to exude charismatic leadership, you have to wonder if the show will go on without its master carny. More broadly, here at the end of a year of fallen autocrats, one can't help but think that species—the eccentric dictator leading a cult of personality—is endangered as network culture replaces kings with the leaderless multitude.

But network culture produces its own personality cults, as the past three months proved with the mass media deification of Steve Jobs. Even as we celebrate the use of 21st century social networks to topple tyrants long thought permanent, we worship the Prometheus who gave us the glowing screen that allows us to participate in the network. His unsmiling face is everywhere, in that black and white photo adorning the well-timed official biography, the John Lennon of techno-capitalism.

Even Jobs' Wikipedia entry reeks of this taint, with a creation story of elusive parentage and mystical journeys to the East. Chandu returns with the magic of the yogis, and manages to lock its power inside his lucent white devices. How will the iPhone designers fare as the semiotics of divinity wisp away like cremains in the breeze? Will He be reborn in some even more powerful form, like Gandalf?

Ask Muammar Q: the late medievalism of the militarized nation state maintaining power a personality cult seems unsustainable in the emergent era of network-enabled participatory democracy. But the American business corporation is a different animal than the Westphalian sovereign, an even more primitive emulation of the warlord-controlled band. The personality of the CEO dominates the culture of all corporations; less often does it infiltrate the culture through the corporation's products and brand. The wailing Apple Store walls suggest that will change, as Capital figures out the power of putting wizard-priests in charge instead of warlords —the sorts of messianic, wonder-seeking personalities that seem to thrive in periods of great instability and change like the one into which we have recently entered.

Imagine the Steve Jobs of biotechnology—the one that gives us new organs that enhance our lives in ways we cannot now imagine. (He might even be more Yoko than John.) That is the model for the personality cult of the century to come. Maybe if we look for him, like the scouts that find the new baby lama, we can see him coming. And remember the koan.

If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Winter's master key

If The New York Times had the comics section it needs (and really could do something cool with, mixing new indie strips, Wednesday Comics, and great vintage stuff), this downer of an article about how politics prevents us from even trying to really understand what's going on with our overtaxed climate would be counterweighted by Mark Trail's placid meditation on mistletoe and holly.

In the future, when network culture makes me my own newspaper every day (as it kind of already does), the Mark Trail lightness that follows the climate change depression will be annotated with a deeper reading. Perhaps with the unabridged edition of The Golden Bough, James George Frazer's thirteen volume compilation of the deep magical practices of human cultures that leads to a revelatory analysis of why it was mistletoe—the fruiting plant of northern woods that does not go dormant in winter—that killed Balder. "[M]istletoe acts as a master-key as well as a lightning-conductor; for it is said to open all locks." From Chapter 65, "Balder and the Mistletoe":

Now, considering the primitive character and remarkable similarity of the fire-festivals observed by all the branches of the Aryan race in Europe, we may infer that these festivals form part of the common stock of religious observances which the various peoples carried with them in their wanderings from their old home. But, if I am right, an essential feature of those primitive fire-festivals was the burning of a man who represented the tree-spirit. In view, then, of the place occupied by the oak in the religion of the Aryans, the presumption is that the tree so represented at the fire-festivals must originally have been the oak. So far as the Celts and Lithuanians are concerned, this conclusion will perhaps hardly be contested. But both for them and for the Germans it is confirmed by a remarkable piece of religious conservatism. The most primitive method known to man of producing fire is by rubbing two pieces of wood against each other till they ignite; and we have seen that this method is still used in Europe for kindling sacred fires such as the need-fire, and that most probably it was formerly resorted to at all the fire-festivals under discussion. Now it is sometimes required that the need-fire, or other sacred fire, should be made by the friction of a particular kind of wood; and when the kind of wood is prescribed, whether among Celts, Germans, or Slavs, that wood appears to be generally the oak. But if the sacred fire was regularly kindled by the friction of oak-wood, we may infer that originally the fire was also fed with the same material. In point of fact, it appears that the perpetual fire of Vesta at Rome was fed with oak-wood, and that oak-wood was the fuel consumed in the perpetual fire which burned under the sacred oak at the great Lithuanian sanctuary of Romove. Further, that oak-wood was formerly the fuel burned in the midsummer fires may perhaps be inferred from the custom, said to be still observed by peasants in many mountain districts of Germany, of making up the cottage fire on Midsummer Day with a heavy block of oak-wood. The block is so arranged that it smoulders slowly and is not finally reduced to charcoal till the expiry of a year. Then upon next Midsummer Day the charred embers of the old log are removed to make room for the new one, and are mixed with the seed-corn or scattered about the garden. This is believed to guard the food cooked on the hearth from witchcraft, to preserve the luck of the house, to promote the growth of the crops, and to keep them from blight and vermin. Thus the custom is almost exactly parallel to that of the Yule-log, which in parts of Germany, France, England, Serbia, and other Slavonic lands was commonly of oak-wood. The general conclusion is, that at those periodic or occasional ceremonies the ancient Aryans both kindled and fed the fire with the sacred oak-wood.

But if at these solemn rites the fire was regularly made of oakwood, it follows that any man who was burned in it as a personification of the tree-spirit could have represented no tree but the oak. The sacred oak was thus burned in duplicate; the wood of the tree was consumed in the fire, and along with it was consumed a living man as a personification of the oak-spirit. The conclusion thus drawn for the European Aryans in general is confirmed in its special application to the Scandinavians by the relation in which amongst them the mistletoe appears to have stood to the burning of the victim in the midsummer fire. We have seen that among Scandinavians it has been customary to gather the mistletoe at midsummer. But so far as appears on the face of this custom, there is nothing to connect it with the midsummer fires in which human victims or effigies of them were burned. Even if the fire, as seems probable, was originally always made with oak-wood, why should it have been necessary to pull the mistletoe? The last link between the midsummer customs of gathering the mistletoe and lighting the bonfires is supplied by Balder’s myth, which can hardly be disjoined from the customs in question. The myth suggests that a vital connexion may once have been believed to subsist between the mistletoe and the human representative of the oak who was burned in the fire. According to the myth, Balder could be killed by nothing in heaven or earth except the mistletoe; and so long as the mistletoe remained on the oak, he was not only immortal but invulnerable. Now, if we suppose that Balder was the oak, the origin of the myth becomes intelligible. The mistletoe was viewed as the seat of life of the oak, and so long as it was uninjured nothing could kill or even wound the oak. The conception of the mistletoe as the seat of life of the oak would naturally be suggested to primitive people by the observation that while the oak is deciduous, the mistletoe which grows on it is evergreen. In winter the sight of its fresh foliage among the bare branches must have been hailed by the worshippers of the tree as a sign that the divine life which had ceased to animate the branches yet survived in the mistletoe, as the heart of a sleeper still beats when his body is motionless. Hence when the god had to be killed—when the sacred tree had to be burnt—it was necessary to begin by breaking off the mistletoe. For so long as the mistletoe remained intact, the oak (so people might think) was invulnerable; all the blows of their knives and axes would glance harmless from its surface. But once tear from the oak its sacred heart—the mistletoe—and the tree nodded to its fall. And when in later times the spirit of the oak came to be represented by a living man, it was logically necessary to suppose that, like the tree he personated, he could neither be killed nor wounded so long as the mistletoe remained uninjured. The pulling of the mistletoe was thus at once the signal and the cause of his death.

When you admire the mistletoe, know that it is a symbol of the externalized soul. And when you think of mistletoe's connection to sacrifice, consider it as a symbol of our human ability to kill undying nature. And hope the rebirth doesn't have to wait to happen until after we're all gone.

Full text of The Golden Bough here.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Who votes in Super-Cannes?

In J.G. Ballard's 2001 novel Super-Cannes, the bourgeois residents of a corporate gated community in the south of France develop their own outlaw therapy to exercise their animal natures: ties off, truncheons in hand, they set out on night prowls of the city looking for immigrants to beat.

When I read the novel in 2002, I found the premise somewhat implausible. Perhaps because the protagonists, mostly manicured pan-European technocrats (from the good old days of the "New Economy") who I imagined all looking like Michel Foucault with an M.B.A., seemed so intrinsically modern, socialized to the point of metro-emasculation.

That was before Europe started falling apart, and the slacker sovereignty of the South collided with the post-Panzer dictates of Merkozy.

Thursday night the French Senate voted 173-166, after an inflammatory debate, to give foreigners the right to vote in local elections. An exceptionally progressive move from the same legislature that a year earlier adopted the "Act prohibiting concealment of the face in public space"—and one likely to provoke tribal responses even stronger than those articulated during the debate.

The French debates about whether people who would like to wear burqas to the polls should be able to vote for mayor are part of a pattern visible all over the world (or at least the West) of cultural struggles to come to terms with the long slow death of national sovereignty. It includes things as ridiculous as the Oklahoma referendum to ban Shariah law and things as serious as the current debates on whether Sarkel can employ the current crisis to persuade weaker European countries to bargain away enough of their sovereignty in new treaty negotiations that both creditor and debtor nations can be governed under a common monetary and fiscal policy mandate from Brussels.

It's so easy to accept the inevitability of world government in the techno-utopian future, when we have magically solved the problem of all resource constraints. When you tell people it involves being governed in part by the tribal other of today, the response is feral, primitively territorial. It's insight, not accident, that underlies the persistent idea in science fictional utopias that healthy world governments only occur after planet-scorching wars and subsequent dark ages.

The post-Westphalian age is emerging before our eyes, geopolitical cousin of network culture, manifesting itself in both failed states and imminent super-states, like the EU and the NAFTA zone. Capital, and the need to rationally manage limited resources, will continue to compel the march towards the elimination of economic borders. But the idea of national identity will fight it every step of the way.

As Eric Hobsbawm has effectively argued, the idea of nationality is largely a fiction preceded by—and created by—the state. The current languages of the European nations did not really exist until the current states were created. And in the age of network culture ascendant, the imagined community (and linguistic coherency) of the nation state will have increasingly powerful competition in the form of the plethora of virtual communities more authentically tailored to each individual. But that doesn't mean the idea of national identity, a variation of the socially constructed concept of race, will die easily.

Demographics will compel a reversal of current immigration hysteria. In twenty years or so, declining population growth rates in Europe and North America, combined with ever-longer-living populations of old people, will have us all competing to attract younger immigrants from the South and the East to fuel the dynamism of our societies. As borders blur, will that ultimate socially constructed national identity—the idea of the American—persist?