Review: KILL or be KILLED

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Kill or be Killed is a graphic novel that appeals and horrifies across a wide heirarchy of cognitive levels. At first glance, it is a visually dark and brooding thriller about vigilante justice. However, the story is so much more than that, especially in the context of the modern political climate; the protagonist is a lost and depressed graduate student  filled with harebrained monologues and literary references and ready to pay lipservice to cultural marxist, nihilist, and postmodern thought. I initially assumed this was just the author’s leftist voice leaking through as is often the case in contemporary American comics, but deep thematic movements that appeared around the protagonist’s psyche convinced me otherwise. The protagonist is a social justice warrior, steeped in red-and-black revolutionary imagery, but uses violence as a sort of redemptive ritual to stave off his own death through what is in the story a literal demon: his self loathing, ill will, and Nietzschean ressentiment. This is a very insightful and powerful indictment of the psychological state that breeds violence across Western Civilization through groups like Antifa, especially in universities. From where does this impulse emerge? Millenials find themselves in an overcrowded social heirarchy rife with intergenerational conflict for economic niches – and have as a class found themselves outmatched in a world of depleted resources and growing political tyranny. (Likewise, in Kill or be Killed, the protagonist is friendzoned by his lifelong love, the feminine force that represents the selective aspect of nature – very Jungian.) The position of the character reminds me of the social situation of mice in precollapse stages of Calhoun’s mouse utopia experiments – it’s wretched. In the late 19th century, Dostoyevsky noted this same spirit of nihilism and ressentiment brewing in Russia’s intellectual circles, which led the creation of one of the world’s most democidal regimes. For Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov the acting out of his murderous tendencies did not come without a cost, but for a millenial mouse in our utopia, what other options exist? The way that question is answered may define the course of innumerable lives even within the next decade.

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Review: Melodrama by Lorde

Lorde’s Melodrama deftly employs a fascinating palette of timbre and rhythm that weaves a whole-album listening experience with a degree of richness that is quite rare in any genre of pop music. Thoughtful rhythmic contrast between vocal and instrumental elements, each evolving, creates remarkable aural interest without heavy reliance on hooks – it’s fresh.

Thematically, Lorde goes well beyond the first-level thinking that dominates pop music – especially on the topic of codependency in relationships. A number of contemporary hits celebrate the emotional roller coaster of unhealthy relationships in a sort of self-immolating frenzy, but (as she previously has with songs like Team on Pure Heroine) Lorde addresses these issues with a more subtle and aware attitude that is very emotionally impactful and cathartic.

While the album does a achieve a whole-album listening experience, there are a few moments where the realities of the pop industry jar the listener; for instance, after the synths of Sober II fade away, the following would-be unplugged tone of the piano at the start of Writer in the Dark is baked with so much compression as to sound quite overpowering. While hits are a mainstay of pop, I question the aesthetic value or even possibility for something designed to stand completely alone without regard to external arrangement or composition; after all, doesn’t the expectation that an infinite train of disjointed stand-alone hits can serve as the energizing music of a society stem from a shallow, short-sighted worldview – an attempt to disregard the deeper natural essence of things, even concatenation? What energy is yielded from blindness and disregard?

Review: No Man’s Sky

Today’s video game industry has learned to stimulate addictive responses in players through the employment of cheap gathering mechanics and reinforcing “achievement” of things that really aren’t difficult: this is escapism for millions of people who lack agency and power in their real lives. Of course a game like No Man’s Sky – which at its core is about “letting go” – would be hated by those masses who don’t expect video games, but expect “holding on” simulators.

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The gods of consumerism would have all humans believe: “I am not fun. My toys are fun.” No Man’s Sky reverses this in both theming and gameplay, and creates a beautiful and unique experience of wandering. People have complained: “Why can’t we build? There’s no point to go back,” but are deaf to hundreds of in game interactions and text logs that explain an alternate view of reality.maxresdefault-1.jpg

How has the industry bent over for the masses who decry a creative indie game for failing to deliver “What they expect from a game.” Perhaps a strike is in order.

Analysis: Modern Jesus by Portugal. the Man

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Portugal. The Man, the rock band from Wasilla, Alaska, known for albums like The Satanic Satanist and Evil Friends, released the music video Modern Jesus on 7 August 2013. Complex and provocative in its tone, the film is assembled from seemingly mismatched candid footage from both cell phones and high definition cameras, capturing an American landscape in a manner that recalls Cormac McCarthy’s aesthetic: “We are come to a world within the world. In these interstitial wastes that the righteous see from car another life dreams.” Modern Jesus represents a commingling of Protestant culture with a particularly American flavor of antireligious egoism.

The music video opens with a graying man walking to in a rust belt city on a cloudy day while a younger man enters a church to sit contemplatively. An energetic synth riff and intricately arpeggiated acoustic guitar accompany the vocal welcome: “Come on in, Take a seat next to me, You know we got, We got what you need” (Rojas). The song swells with triumphant mellotron accompaniment to the hook: “Don’t pray for us, We don’t need no modern Jesus, To roll with us, The only rule we need is never, Giving up, The only faith we have is faith in us” (Rojas). The musical character recalls early prog rock or baroque rock like the Beatles’ White Album but incorporates rhythm and blues instrument timbres and percussion from groups like the Wu Tang Clan; this creates an notably transracial tone that is reflected in the video.

The initial contemplative scene in the church is interrupted by a twerk dance, known as carnality and irreverence, and the film proceeds to feature a candid cast of a wide variety of extremely memorable individuals – teenage punks, biplane pilots, a parade of Indian cowboys, rural southerners, a Wyoming cowboy, a Black crew, bayou dwellers, and a corpse-painted fight club – all engaged in equally memorable activities – training boxing, playing with and shooting assault weapons, performing ATV stunts, dancing to banjo, tending cattle during a blizzard, boating among cyprus, starting fires, and fighting.

Although the film may seem like a random assembly of footage, it was constructed with specific design intentions. The clips were filmed on a roadtrip by the director of everyday people who agreed with the song – that they don’t need a savior such as Jesus. An interview with the band reveals that the song is “a reminder real life is often more interesting than fiction — and that embarking on a creative journey without a plan can often lead to brilliantly unraveling realities” (Hua 1) The video’s composition itself speaks the themes presented in the lyrics.

The song addresses agency with the attitude of American egoism. The song ironically reminds us: “We know that we’re helpless, At least we always assume” but invokes imagery of autonomy and human empowerment – such as passersby saving people in crashed vehicles in a blizzard on I-80 – while lyrically rejecting Jesus, a symbol of savior, and thereby rejecting humanity’s need for salvation in general (Rojas). This theme is especially visible in the last lines of the chorus “The only faith we need is faith in us” (Rojas). While egoism has taken many forms in history, it has found a home with American Protestants, interpreting their Christianity through a bricolage lens of work-ethic mythology, American independance narratives, and hyper-rational philosophies like those of Ayn Rand. Any assertion of independence and self-empowerment in the American context will inevitably relate with this powerful Protestant cultural force.

Contrarily, the song presents objections to consumerism, modern medicine, and oil – in some ways cornerstones of 21st century America. “You don’t need sympathy, They got a pill for everything,” They sing in the a rainy and distressed urban landscape (Rojas).  While climbing on oil rigs and filming the fires that burn atop refineries, they reassure the disenfranchised dwellers of the rust-belt ruins: “You don’t need to feel blue, Cause we won’t sell you nothing, You can’t use” (Rojas). However, upon the word “use” the fight club begins smashing construction materials on and with each-other’s bodies. Dissatisfaction with consumerism and oil-economy is something of a group trait for young American atheists – smashing the modern products of this industry is a fitting activity in broader the trend.

While the video contains rebellious elements, its existence is influenced by the Protestant worldview that shapes much of American culture; it still talks in terms of prayer, heaven, and hell, as well as addressing existential concerns that may be seen as deriving from the Protestant worldview, and addresses concerns from these influences in a similar framework to atheist philosophers like Nietzsche and Camus. Well-stated in the anti-Western perspective of Vine Deloria, “Nietzsche foresaw that a tragic breakdown in both vision and values was occurring in the psyche of [Christians]. [He] attempted to solve the problem of decay inherent with the passage of time within the Western vision of the world.” In spite of Modern Jesus’ purported anti-religion, it exhibits these concerns about temporality that may emerge from Christian worldview: “We’re the ones who start little fires, Yet they burn out, But when they’re on the rise, They can’t help but shine” (Rojas).  Similarly, Modern Jesus approaches death anxiety by invoking imagery of oblivion rather than afterlife: “Just take that dark cloud, Ring it out to wash it down, And when the wave approaches, Take our ashes to the ocean” (Rojas). The song’s reference to having drinks at Heaven’s Gate, emphasizing religion as a suicide vehicle, is not unlike Camus’ understanding of religion as intellectual suicide to escape the fundamental challenges of existence.

Even when individuals do not ascribe to the mainstream cultural and religious framework of their time and place, they will often approach the concerns and questions of that framework in some way rather than reject the questions of the framework altogether. In this way, a song rejecting Jesus may be seen as maintaining a distinctly Protestant American perspective.

 

 

Citation:

McCarthy, C. (1979). Suttree. Random House.

Deloria, V. (1973). God is red. New York: Grosset & Dunlap.

Hua, V. (2013, August 14). Portugal. The Man – Modern Jesus Music Video (MV of the Week Interview w/ Zach Carothers). Retrieved May 06, 2016, from http://www.redefinemag.com/2013/portugal-the-man-modern-jesus-music-video-zach-carothers-band-interview/

Rojas, A. (2013, August 07). Portugal.The Man – Modern Jesus [Official Music Video]. from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q8e1sSNsf44

Satan for Schoolchildren?

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Earlier this year I wrote about the trend of Satanic activism in the public sphere in America. This month, the trend continues in Delta, Colorado, where materials like “The Satanic Children’s BIG BOOK of Activities” are being made available to the students.TST_BigBook_1024x1024.jpg

Why? Last December, students were given Gideon Bibles at a school assembly, and children who refused to take a copy were bullied by their peers and teachers. An attorney representing the Freedom from Religion Foundation wrote in a letter to the school district: “We do not think schools should be a battleground for religious ideas, but when schools allow the Gideons to prey on children, their message of eternal damnation for any who don’t believe in their god must be countered.” In light of a recent precedent that cost a Florida school district almost $100,000 and ended with the verdict that the school district had to distribute anti-Christian literature as well, the Delta school district collaborated to provide these books to avoid cost and humiliation.

According to a school district representative, the school will distribute whatever the Satanists and atheists request as long as it doesn’t promote “hostility or violence … [and isn’t] obscene or pornographic.” Concern on this issue indicates the widespread bias held against these groups, as it is unlikely a spokesperson would offer the same warning to a Christian distributor of literature.a3rX3sL.png

Other books made available to the students include “It’s Okay to Not Believe in God,” a book on separation of church and state, and a book outlining instances of rape and obscenity in the Bible – the school censored that one with stickers. Whatever the Freedom from Religion League may say, this looks like a battleground of religious ideas.

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Wherever religion is intersecting the public sphere, atheists and Satanists are happy to jump in with demonstrations and texts with critical tone ranging from tongue-in-cheek to outright offensive. Their tactics are potent: Delta school district is considering new by-laws to remove all religiously charged materials from the classroom.

The court decisions that drive this trend express American cultural compartmentalization of religion. Everywhere, religious people are preferring to withdraw their materials and beliefs from the public sphere to prevent the Satanists and atheists to act in those spaces as well. This type of resolution might seem best to Protestant culture, or might be the plan of the Satanists and atheists all along, but is it the best solution for learning and growing children in public schools, or for the public culture of the country as a whole?

Ram Dass: Samsara veiled by Nirvana

The book BE HERE NOW by Ram Dass both exemplifies the New Age movement’s appropriation of eastern spiritual practices into a western framework of thought, and implicitly illustrates that any embodiment of a religious practice is highly influenced by the pre-existing conditions of the practitioner.

At the time of writing BE HERE NOW Ram Dass divides his life into three stages: the social science stage, the psychedelic stage, and the yogi stage. Ram Dass was born as Richard Alpert in 1931, and became a Psychology Professor and Therapist at Harvard in 1961. “I wasn’t a genuine scholar, but I had gone through the whole academic trip. … But what all this boils down to is that I was really a very good game player” (Dass). Through some of his clients, Dass was introduced to community of hip young people, with hom he engaged in material, alcoholic, and sexual orgies as release from his neuroses. “I felt that the theories I was teaching in psychology didn’t make it, that the psychologists didn’t really have a grasp of the human condition, and that the theories I was teaching, which were the theories of achievement and anxiety and defense mechanisms and so on, weren’t getting to the crux of the matter” (Dass).

Dass became in involved with Aldous Huxley’s experimentation with the effects of psychedelic drugs such as psylocybin (synthetic mushrooms) and LSD on others and themselves. Among themselves and their test subjects they developed a theoretical hierarchy of drug experience, from common heightened perceptual sensitivity, to dissolution of self, to “pure” perception of the world as energy. After a cycle of “turning on” and “coming down” Dass became conditioned to the drugs to the point he’d take five to ten times the normal dose to get a high; he felt it was time to move on, and went to India.

Bringing LSD with him and sharing with the locals in India, Dass reported that an old Buddhist Lama said: “That gave me a little headache.” Another monk responded: “That was good, but not as good as meditation” (Dass). Impressed by the guru Maharaji who could take the same doses of LSD as Dass but feel no effect of the drug, Dass became enamored with the mental acuity and fortitude of eastern traditions. With a conversion experience out of his existential misery, he changed his name and briefly studied Maharaji’s Raja Yoga before returning to the west. “Since his most recent return to the west from India he has been floating about on an ocean of love… carried by the winds of desire of beings he can serve” (Dass). He wrote BE HERE NOW in 1971 about his spiritual experience he attributes to the guru.

The core book of BE HERE NOW, titled FROM BINDU TO OJAS adopts a graphical format of presentation. Pen drawings and non-linguistic symbols accompany freely laid out type, printed on unbleached brown paper. Although many readers’ first reaction is to dismiss this as crazy, this presentation carries the reader along an abstract spiritual path that is very effective at representing the subtleties of Dass beliefs and experience. Although the meandering journey that is the book may seem unintentional as it spirals from clarity of a few words on a page to confusion with words printed over words printed over drawings, the text intentionally foreshadows its own development in subtle ways that immediately become clear upon a second reading. Figures 1 and 2 show typical pages of the book.

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Figure 1: page 57                                                        Figure 2: page 37

BE HERE NOW illustrates that individuals influence the embodiment of whatever religion they ascribe to; in addition to the invocation of Buddhist imagery such as lotus flowers, the concatenation of being, or the sound of Om (which punctuates the end of every page) the text exhibits Christian thought about the kingdom of heaven, unconditional love,  and god of infinite power and compassion, and a preoccupation with Existential concerns such as death anxiety, The Allegory of the Cave, and emptiness of identity that plagued Dass in his earlier years. His monologue refers to Aldous Huxley’s “I am I” and Istigkeit (Is-ness) discussion from The Doors of Perception. He also follows the thinking of the beat generation, asserting: “What meditation is all about is to cool you all out” (Dass). Further equation of Rama as God, all women as the Veil of Maya and thereby Sansara, and invoking Herman Hesse’s German pseudo-Buddha, Siddhartha, to solidify his arguments further illustrates the scope of Dass’s conceptual conglomeration. The book extolls its own paradoxes that arise from this wide-reaching syncretism.

Although Dass adopts an countercultural attitude to Protestantism, the book contains myriad praise for Jesus as enlightened being: “Start to live in the Tao (the Way) Jesus said: I am the way! The way is the way is the way” (Dass p. 30) Although Dass may criticize mainstream Christianity, he adopts the contemporary view of therapeutic faith, and invokes Jesus as a therapeutic figure to deal with suffering, concluding the book with: “Do you think that when christ is lying there and they’re nailing the nails in he’s saying, ‘oh man, does that hurt!’? He’s probably looking at the guy who’s nailing him with absolute compassion he digs why the cat’s doing it. … You’re standing on a bridge watching yourself go by” (Dass p. 107)

An appendix of the book refers to itself as “Cook Book for Sacred Life,” but contains a series of short essays on life rather than literal recipes. Dass puts forth a theory for successful exercise, meditation, sleeping, diet, literal eating, sex, and interior design. This fits the trend in New Age literature that presents pseudoscientific guidelines for living based on theology or aesthetic principles. A second appendix titled “Books to Hang Out With” provides a list of further reading, including the Bhagavad Gita, the Holy Bible, and the Tao Te Ching.

The book bears a graph to clearly separate itself from the “profit motive.” Figure 3 shows the mark.

 

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Figure 3: Cost Distribution

Interesting to note, the numbers in the circle chart sum to 8.88 rather 1.00, 100%, or $15.15 (the book’s cost) Given the emphasis on numerology in New Age, this 8.88 likely correlates with 888, a transliteration of “Jesus” in Christian numerology. Additionally, the cost of the book, $15.15 (an odd increment for trade) may numerologically refer to John 15:15, which can be translated as: “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” This sentiment fits, as Dass chooses to name his movement the Hanuman Society. (In the Indian epic the Ramayana Hanuman is the loyal follower and friend-servant of the Hindu patriarchal figure Rama, an incarnation of Vishnu.) In BE HERE NOW, Rama was equated to God. Interestingly, Dass describes an overwhelming desire during his existential malaise to be a servant, that is, free from freedom; Dass found the role as servant-friend he desired in the God he understood through the lens of Indian spirituality. Currently, later in his life, Dass is seriously exploring Judaism to resolve his childhood dissatisfaction with himself, his family, and his culture.

His conversion experience represented in BE HERE NOW confirms that his religious writing is thematically influenced by his own development as a person. An individual’s preconceptions and needs take primacy in shaping whatever religious ideas they embody.

 

Citation:

Dass, Ram. (1978). BE HERE NOW. New York, NY: The Crown Publishing Group.

New Atheism Needs… the Dali Lama?

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This week His Holiness the 14th Dali Lama visited Madison, WI, a city that time again joyfully receives him. Hundreds gathered to watch him disembark his flight at MSN airport, and tens of thousands applied to a lottery to see the Lama speak at the University of Wisconsin. Although the Lama speaks of his struggle for Tibetan freedom, he also speaks about compassion, love, and peace – that is, morality.

Madison is famously liberal, racially white (meaning non-Tibetan), and widely atheistic (it is, after all, the seat of The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a humorous religion intended to lampoon Christianity.)highres_170246282.jpeg

Why does the Dali Lama hold such a dear place in the hearts of such a “non-religious” community?  A Madison blogger wrote on the topic: “Affluent folks who no longer have to worry about meeting life’s basic needs start to wonder what it’s all about. Their spiritual journey starts with the luxury of time and education to help them to think about it, and their inquiry tends to be less about community building and more about personal fulfillment and their own ‘journey.'” Although such people may have rejected Christianity, they still want morality and spirituality from a different source. For them, in the words of Nietzsche, although God is dead, the shadow of Buddha shall be cast upon the wall for centuries hence.

This appeal is what started the 14th Dali Lama’s ascent to stardom in the past few decades. Even for the more secular groups in which the Dali Lama’s fame first grew on the west coast, the mystery of eastern religion and perceived wisdom of a millennia-old tradition were important in reinforcing their already-held belief in such virtues as altruism; that the Dali Lama’s moral teachings are basically no different from the Christian moral substrate of his New Atheist American followers is partially the reason for his penetration in that cultural group’s authority void.

This trend can also be seen in the in-class viewing of Little Buddha, in which westerners, including an allegorically secular engineer, are introduced to the seemingly strange and mysterious Buddhism, only to learn it is not so different from their own culture, and then to embrace its teachings to some degree. In all times and religions (including non-religions) a token of similarity is the swiftest path to religious understanding, conversion, and syncretism.

http://isthmus.com/opinion/citizen-dave/the-dalai-lama-and-the-flying-spaghetti-monster/#sthash.mp67FOjJ.dpuf