Visions and Revisions

Maybe our lives are ‘half a dream’ as the old Irishman said,
But now the dream has slipped out of its muddy rut;
The broken code streaming silent and long,
The river away down a dark path —

And we, the listless ones, elder among the trees
Watch on, amused as these children make havoc:
A knowing look in the eye that speaks of life, of death;
The in-between that matters or not.

I came to the mountains seeking nothing but the sun,
The mystery of its stark beauty;
Against which even my own breath is confusion;
And now as I reach that stage of ascension

When the world’s colors begin to swerve,
Bringing me back to that steady gaze
I had so many years ago among stones and stars;
A secret world revealed, but not conveyed.

I still ponder the sun, moon, and stars;
Yet, I no longer question the children,
Only accept what is given before me,
The unanswerable sun and love.

—Steven Craig Hickman ©2017

Daily Thought: Gaming, Guild Wars, and Guild Wars Two

Screen Shot 11-18-17 at 06.17 PM

Garfang Zul my avatar Ranger in Guild Wars 2
decked out in his Ascended Gear

Of late to keep my mind active and alive after working hard on my family’s new home I’ve found it tough to read at night. Too physically exhausted. So instead I’ve gone back to one of those first love’s engendered by the new computer worlds: the MMO or Massively Multiplayer Online Game. Back in the 90’s (does even saying that show how far we’ve come, suddenly gaining a history, and losing the thrill and freshness of the web, computer, and it’s fascination?)…

Once upon a time when I had my first computer, a commodore… no, I want put you through that history, instead I’ll tell you about my first game (and not the platform gaming of Sony or Xbox) downloaded from the net (but not an MMO); Doom. It was clunky, dark, and strangely weird. But something about moving an avatar (we didn’t call chars or characters: Avatars, back then!) through a cave or tunnel system or building, etc. and suddenly coming on a progressively alien cast of monsters trying to kill one awakened something in the primal heart of my mind: the need to hunt and kill. Exasperating, isn’t it? Here I was in the midst of the clichéd “mid-life crisis”, somewhere in my mid-forty’s thrown into a world of make-believe sword (gun) and dungeons scenario. A man who prided himself of intelligence and hard work, etc., a guy who’d read through the gist of the now defunct Western Canon (Bloom!) in what used to be the humanist tradition of history, philosophy, poetry, literature, etc. blah, blaa, blaaaa…. and, boom a new world had opened up my eyes. Here was here was for the first time a new form of art awakening, a art that would combine the ancient forms of science and humanism: the online game would produce living worlds of mythic scope of heroes, legends, and… frankly, the combined efforts of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and you name you’re fav … into a world of action that visually stunned the mind and eyes with a mathematically based world of pixelated 3D life full of all those ancient adventures in weird, and fantastic realms of romance that in our staid late capitalist society we thought were dead and buried under two-hundred years of critical suspicion.

Sorry, friends, but the mind and soul of humanity loves fantasy, loves the world of cartoon superheroes and villains, sword and sorcery, and every other imaginable and impossible thought-form of Quest and Exploration one can imagine. And the online world’s of gaming has it all. Millions of men, women, and children (not just geeks!) play games such as WoW, Guild Wars, Eve Online, LOTRO (Lord of the Rings Online), Final Fantasy XIV, Rift, Aion, Tera, Secret World, Elder Scrolls, Wild Star… I could name a ton of them, but such sites as MMORPG (acronym embellished with the previous mentioned Massive-Multiplayer-Online Role Playing Game) list some of the best.

There’s something fascinating about entering into a strange world of imagination where one can play and build a character who is either like or unlike one’s everyday self and identity. There’s every variety of gaming style: some prefer PvE, PvP, WvW, and every variation under that guise. For me the first of these is what intrigues me: PvE or Player versus Environment. It’s a style of Quest Romance, a world that begins with a personal story scripted by various storytellers which guide you through a set of adventures to help you in your exploration of the game. Over the years the gaming industry through the power of improved programming (and, believe, me the sheer engineering power of intelligence and imagination – combining whole teams of architects, developers, artists, and, yes… computer geeks who build these worlds behind the scenes) have allowed a growing industry of thriving individuals who have gone from the early repetitive games of grinding through mob after mob of kill this or kill that with stick characters and bad screens and horrible dialogue with NPC’s (Non-Play Characters – in other words: engineered avatars for creatures like us to interact with).

I used to keep my love of this under lock and key, afraid of what people might think of me at work or how friends might feel about a man who on the outside appeared like everyone else in this capitalist society of drones… but, no more. I love gaming. And, yes, dear friends, it takes a certain amount of intelligence to master this strange art of the engineered.

I could probably write a book on my past twenty years in gaming. The Good, Bad, and Ugly of it. And, yes, there have been flops and games that went bust along the way. Companies over the years have tried many ways to gain a following, to pump up the hype and then fall due to poor design and even poorer public relations. It’s typical in this industry (as in all computer engineering!) for companies to push out a product that isn’t ready for prime time. Because the world of gaming is so competitive to gain customers it’s gone through many strategies and niche markets. One could write a complete Gaming Economics on just what makes a successful MMO. But one would probably fall short on this. For one thing there is the great East/West divide. What will work in Korea, China, and any number of overseas countries want work in a Western market. Why? The tastes and styles of gaming for the individual is just plain different. It’s this difference that makes on realize that there is a complete philosophical aspect to gaming that has yet to be openly tapped. One that could bring in the whole cultural index of mental modes of self, identity, and cultural interaction that has become a part of the underlying part of this industry. Companies trying to gain both markets have had to figure out the various mix of cultures and find an equitable balance in their approach. The amount of thought put into the storyline alone is humongous. I exaggerate not. Companies will hire writers to script novels for their games.

With my recent return to Guild Wars 2 I remember some of the various novels: find here: Ghosts of Ascalon, Sea of Sorrows, Edge of Destiny… Each giving the user the background story of the world one will find online. In both the original Guild Wars and the new Guild Wars 2 one lives in a realm of historical change. Half the fun of the game is taking one’s time to get into the storyline and work one’s way through the various romance quests and side quests. Some seasoned players seem to love the Player vs. Player, and World vs. World action so typically will forget the story and just grind their way to max level in most games. In Guild Wars one can have it anyway you want. By that I mean some players love tPvP and sPvP, team or single’s play against opponents in a tightly bound world of instance based fighting or Arenas. Others love the open spaces of World vs. World where larger Raid like parties roam with hundreds of other players into specialized zones with both difficult and changing environments with both hostile npc’s, players, and factions. While still others never deign to enter these realms of live-action player killing venues and instead roam the grand maps of unknown realms of exploration, dungeon crawling, and large raid realms of legendary scope. I love them all.

This game is so large it would take me ten or more long posts to do it justice in a review. For years I played the original version of Guild Wars which is old school development based on – what was at the time, new technology. What was interesting about the original game was the ability to script one’s own skill set. One was provided with a set of expanding helpers or avatars as a part of a team that helped you wander the various realms. What was unique with Guild Wars was that each realm had its own specific forms of offense and defensive capabilities, and the player would have to script whole new sets of strategies for one’s team to meet the harsh power of these impossible realms. Another feature of the original was it’s power to keep the player interested in continuing the game. It provided the standard version of the game (which was difficult enough), but then once one had maxed out and finished the first run through the game one was gifted with what they termed Hard Mode. Something that came out of CD games in playstation or Xbox with various Easy to Nightmare modes of play.

The new Guild Wars 2 is still in growing stages and developing the completed storylines and maps that will take years to build. That’s part of the fun in coming back: the world continuously changes and grows exuberant and massive with each return. I left GW2 back in 2015 (two years!). An eternity in gaming… Now that I’ve returned the game has so much new content and scenarios it will take me months to work through it all. Not only that it has changed to the point that my old masteries have grown with the game, and new one’s have opened up. By that I mean that the new skill system has added two advanced or elite modes of play to one’s original character progression. Along with my five avatars: Warrior, Thief, Elementalist, Ranger, Mesmer, and Engineer (yes, I’m a fanatic in playing various styles and skill sets!) comes the need to play each of them again to master all the new content.

Another feature that was not there when I played from 2012 to 2015 was mounted rides and flight. With the various expansions in the past two years (Heart of Thorns, and Path of Fire) came whole new skills and masteries. Right now I’m working through the Heart of Thorns which gives you the ability to fly or glide (as they term it). I remember my first experience of flight in NCsoft’s (same company that built Guild Wars) game, AION. Which unlike GW2 was a grinder ( a game one had to grind mobs forever to level, etc.). But they had an in-game flight system, one that one had to level up by grinding out certain plants etc. to produce alchemical fuel to skill up one’s ability fly longer and longer periods. In Guild Wars 2 one not only flies, but one goes through a pre-defined mastery of flight through plain old world questing and experience so that it doesn’t feel like a grind. It’s just a part of the game play progression.

I’ve probably bored you to tears… and I could ramble on for hours about the various parts of this game and a dozen others I’ve played over the past twenty years. Strange that… so young an industry, and yet it feels like it’s just now coming into its own. One imagines in some strange future where one will not only be playing an MMORPG, but one will like the movie Avatar inhabit (not literal bodies) but virtual bodies and actually “be there” in the VR world as if one existed in this mathematical construct as “reality”. The point of my quandaries about much of our current investment in superintelligence, robotics, transhuman life-extension, transmigration of mind to machinic existence etc. comes from this luring of so many millions into the gaming worlds of these MMO’s. It’s as if something deep within many humans has a need for escape from the mundane worlds of their actual lives. Most of our everyday life is filled with the harsh worlds of stupidity in economics, politics, war, climate change, disease, famine, etc. that humans used to escape into literature and play board games etc., got the sports bars, watch the boob tube for hours on end…. now they play in fantasy worlds that lure our desires and tap into our hearts and minds and pocket books… yes, like anything else these games are based on capitalist economics, and companies that are successful try various tactics to lure you into spending money either through monthly pay systems, or through in-game buying and selling of items for profit to get the latest goo gag and toys. Exploitation of humans by both companies and the players themselves is par for the course in this industry. Sadly it’s what keeps us hooked.

Take GW2… my main is and will always be a Ranger. A Char (a lion like character!) who sports Ascended gear and Legendary weapons. It took me years to master crafting the old fashioned way of grinding mats and the necessary luck to gain the appropriate items from dungeon crawling or the mystic fountain, etc. (that’s another story…). But I finally made all the things I needed for this character-avatar. And, believe me, it was tough going to do it. I have two Legendary bows: Kudzu and The Dreamer; as well as an Axe (Frost Fang) and Torch (Flames of War). The interesting take is that one had only two paths to such weapons in the past: one either did it the long way of making and grinding and luck; or, one spent a cash load of one’s hard earned money in buying gold from NCsoft to purchase the high-prices weapon from the in-game player based market). Things have changed. Oh, it’s still difficult to attain, but one can now do it through a mastery system (which of course entails much hard work and grinding and luck), but with a light at the end of the tunnel that offers a one time gift of the Legendary Weapon in a progression that is part of the storyline effort that includes the end-game Raids.

Of course all this entails the need to put the guild in Guild Wars to active status, which means participating in an online community of fellow travelers learning, playing, and actively participating in a Guild. Like anything else there are various types of guilds in GW2: soft or casual PvE guilds for first timers or beginners; more medium scale guilds with a motley crew of PvP, WvW, and PvE players; and, the hard-liner guilds of dedicated guildmates who grind out all content, raids, and player vs. everything. It’s usually up to one’s taste, time, and desire as to which one goes for. Currently I belong to my own solitary guild to grind up my new content. After a few months I’ll begin looking for a Raiding guild to slowly grind out legendary weapons  and legendary armor for my main and other secondary characters or supporting avatars-chars. My warrior is my main dungeon crawler, while my Elementalist (ele) and Mesmer (mes) are used for Open World WvW, and my Thief for sPvP/tPvP. Each has a different skill, weapon, and armor capabilities mastered for these various activities. There is no one suits all armor and weapon for each sort of activity. By that I mean one has sets of runes, accessories (i.e., rings, amulets, necklaces), sigils etc. that are added to one’s character for attributes of Power, Precision, Condition, Concentration, etc., that along with crafted food, tonics, and sharpening stones, etc. all add up to variations in one’s offensive and defensive capabilities.

One can now transfer items from char to char without having to go to one’s bank all the time. Certain items of Ascended or Legendary rank in armor or weapon are account wide items, while all else is soulbound to the specific character. As you can see there is a complexity of learning curve in MMO’s, and each one has it’s own unique way of adding in such accoutrements. In fact many of these games that are successful like GW2 and GW have their own Wiki’s with hundreds of pages devoted to all the various modes, behaviours, and strategies; along with certain sites like Duffy’s that give newcomer and oldster alike walkthrough’s for the more difficult aspects of the game (like in-game jumping puzzles! That’s right “jumping puzzles” are one of those in game PvE things that one can spend hour upon hour in frustration trying to overcome certain obstacles in a quest to gain a box of goodies at the end!).

Compared to twenty years ago MMO’s have come a very long way, and GW2 is probably gathered a crowd quite different from let’s say, WoW or Word of Warcraft. Deciding what fits your budget and player style is always a hard given. I’ve tried many of the major MMO’s like others falling and failing the hype. And there is only a few out of hundreds of MMO’s that have survived this process of building a customer / user base who would keep such companies profitable. Guild Wars 2 by NCsoft is just such a one. And, one will either love it or hate it. As in many things there are players that have come and gone. Some players like WoW because of the long hours in their dungeons with all the camaraderie that goes with it. Others like the looser appeal of variation that comes with GW and GW2 that allow both solitary and group participation with living world content. Living World opens the door to “events” that spawn at irregular and regular cycles throughout the maps allowing for people on a specific map / instance to participate and gain HP (hitpoints) and Loot (gifts from boxes of treasure) that would not otherwise be available. Plus it keeps the game alive and changing all the time with the unexpected event cropping up when you least expect it.

All in all I’m a die hard fan of such games and could continue spouting pros and cons to such gaming experience, but in the end it’s a personal choice and for me a way to relax when I don’t want to tax my brain with such deep imponderables as I do on this site for the most part. So there… I’m playing for a while and want be posting till I get my home done in the next few months. And the above speaks for itself… I’m on vacation from my pessimistic vision of our world. Call it an escape into fantasy. I call it a reprieve from the stupidity of our mundane life so full of heartache and pain and exploitation. Once in a while one needs rejuvenation and play: Viva homo ludens!!!

Sorry for the slow down on blog…


I know most people were used to me putting out a post a day for years, but now that I’m working on my own home interior putting walls (i.e., lumber, sheet-rock, mudding, speckle, primer, paint; electrical, plumbing, fans; cabinets, da da daaaa….) I’ve been a little tired to think about saying much more than a daily thought which seems to be turning into a weekly one of late. So for those who need a fix I apologize. Hopefully after the next few months is over I’ll be back in full mode, but I’ll admit that my leisure time seems more about family and friends and real life physical interaction at the moment. I’ll do my best to put of something worthwhile at least once a week from here on till I finish this never-ending (exaggeration?) project in self-house construction. lol 🙂

Daily Thought: Dark Sayings Among the Dead

Hard is it in the world, great whoredom, an axe age, a sword age, shields will be cloven, a wind age, a wolf age, ere the world sinks.

—Song of the Volüspa

Rereading various versions of the ancient Edda’s of the Norse cultures, both the poetic and the later prose works, one gets the same sense of chaos and apocalyptic cultures as ours. A sense that something has gone horribly wrong on this planet, that we are in the midst of a great whoredom: an age of false leaders, of rapine pillage of the rich upon the poor, and the daemonic unleashing of violence and madness, mayhem and dread in the lives of ordinary citizens. Even the media which once seemed to have some unifying message about our world is in disrepute. Yes, one has to agree with the oracle of that ancient world: our world’s shields, our defenses, are cloven; ours is a “wind age, a wolf age”.

If Capitalism is central to this dilemma, and capitalism is a mode of production, then what is it producing? A Void? Yes and no. In an age when the production of play money or a deficit economy in which as here in the U.S.A. the only thing being produced is an impossibility we seem to have entered the era of bankruptcy across the planet. Our government prints millions of dollars daily that has nothing to back it up but a literal void. Economists speak of us being in debt by eighteen trillion or so, but in fact one should add about a hundred trillion in undeclared debt that is the total wealth of America.

So what does any of this mean for the average citizen? One notices that the major retailers who have sold goods and services to the U.S. citizenry as mainstays sense the first industrial era unto its second revolution are for the most part all going under. We’ve seen of late Sears, Target, Dairy Queen, and thousands of other various types of businesses vanishing. Even now when one enters some of the supposed global giants such as Wal Mart the offerings in their stores have become depleted, generic, and skim. Commodities don’t matter in such an economy. Oh, sure one still has to clothe one’s family, build a home, ride in a car, etc. One travels, explores, lives one’s nothing life of normalcy as if everything will go on and on and on… but will it?

Where I live in Wyoming is on the edge of a vast volcanic time-bomb where – so they say, every sixty-five thousand years or so massive explosions producing not just one but a series of volcanoes that become a super-volcano happen like clockwork. And we are due… But such threats as this one more or less just pass over, try to forget and think through one’s narcissistic fantasy that no this cannot happen to me, I’m the exception. It’ll happen to those who will come later, much later… those others will suffer this horrendous affair, it can’t happen to me. It’s like the original soldier syndrome of the survivors of the various apocalypses of WWI, WWII, Korean, Viet Nam, Iraq 1, Iraq 2, Afghanistan, and all the other newer conflicts that seem to accumulate under the surface of our blind culture. We all love to pretend that such things happen to others as in the Syrian refugee crisis. We love to tell ourselves that it’s not my problem, I didn’t start this, I’m just one person what can I do to stop such atrocities? Who am I to stop my government from entering into conflicts? Hell I can’t even stop my government from robbing me blind and handing over my tax dollars to the rich sumbags on Wall Street. How am I supposed to change things?

Our political parties are a sham, fronts for various moneyed interests on both sides of the isle, neither Democrat or Republican parties give a shit one way or the other about the poor and down cast. Oh, sure, they both play a good blame game, blaming each other for the sad state of affairs and then they proceed to continue under the table passing laws to continue spending our money on war, corruption, and bullshit.

And, the Media, what a laugh… as if there were a difference between fake news and ideological spin? Everything is fake now. Why pretend otherwise? Even we are fakes, one and all. We do nothing at all, we try to do one thing: survive, continue, live out our little lives striving to exist in a fantasy of a dead middle-class existence ( I speak of the supposed silent majority of which, yes, I am one.). I sit here and type my little beef in this WordPress blog as if it mean anything, anything at all. Does it assuage my own guilt for having done so little in my own life to change things for the better? No. It’s a little too late for that. I’m as guilty of all this bullshit as you and you and that guy or girl over there, we’re all guilty of having turned a blind eye to the accumulating atrocity of this world system for far too long now. So where does that get us? Nowhere. Not even absolution. We’ll all get what we’ve asked for in the end, and it want be a pie-in-the-sky utopia, either. No, folks, we’re in-between times now, and everything is downhill from here.

I’ve noticed of late that Hollywood seems to be paying for its own sins, a sort of sex-pop apocalypse for all those male bastards who used their dominative power-over women for so long. That seems to be the new trend in the media, to attack singular rot-gut sex fiends to keep our minds off other more major issues like the economy idiot… But that is only half of it. Most Americans seem more enamored of lala land and fantasy comic opera like Thor: Ragnarok which raked in hundreds of millions, while the bleak outlook science fiction of Blade Runner or Suburbicon barely got out the door. So, yeah, most Americans don’t want to think about the bleak truth of their lives, they’d rather hide out in fantasy worlds of Marvel or DC comics where virtual gods seem in the offing to save our sorry asses from fake monstrosities rather than the truth of Banks and Wall Street piracy and theft.

Of late Zizek’s been maddeningly writing more and more of his endless books. In one of his recent he reminds of the dark vision of Mao who once spoke of nuclear annihilation this way:

Mao was wrong when he deployed his Olympian vision reducing human experience to a tiny unimportant detail: “The United States cannot annihilate the Chinese nation with its small stack of atom bombs. Even if the US atom bombs were so powerful that, when dropped on China, they would make a hole right through the earth, or even blow it up, that would hardly mean anything to the universe as a whole, though it might be a major event for the solar system.”1

For Zizek this blind indifference to the fate of humanity by Mao implies the notion of God pairing his fingernails in the back ground completely indifferent to the fate of planet earth: a post-Kantian God of the Transcendental Subject sitting there outside the holocaust of existence, a fictional god and fantasy of the exception – the one observer who will be left to see the utter destruction, etc.) As Zizek says, we should instead do something else:

In contrast to such a stance of cosmic indifference, we should act as if the entire universe was created as a background for the struggle of emancipation, in exactly the same way as, for Kant, God created the world in order to serve as the battleground for the ethical struggle of humanity—it is as if the fate of the entire universe is decided in our singular (and, from the global cosmic standpoint, marginal and insignificant) struggle.

But is this any better? What Zizek does here is reverse the issue, Christianizes it: this secular form of redemption by struggle, as if the universe were a dramatic system constructed to allow God to wage a fake war of Good vs. Evil in which humanity becomes the major actor – the old Adam and Eve ousted from the Garden only to be saved in the end through an impossible struggle till the One Man returns to save the day, even Jesus Christ (another comic superman?). The only difference in Zizek’s scenario is that Christ is left out of the secular redemption drama, and instead its the old class society the proletariat who becomes its own savior through ousting the bad old evil, Capitalism.

I’ve often wondered about this grand narrative of the Fall and Redemption of mankind that has in the past two hundred years become a part of the Marxian worldview, a sort of secularized version of that mythos – a guiding narrative and ethos. Marx himself bought into that old metaphysics of lack, as if humans were essentially flawed, as if they lacked something, that there was a void within that needed to be filled, something missing in our nature that needed redemption. But does it? Haven’t we used this old tale as a crutch for so long to explain and explain away our laziness, our inability to stand free, to be autonomous agents in a universe that has no comic saviors, no superheroes that are going to suddenly appear at the last moment like deus ex machinas to save the day? Are we alone or not?

If to be a pessimist is to be a realist, to look around at the universe seeking to overcome all those seemingly insurmountable biases that keep us tied up in illusion, delusion, and fantasy then, yes, I’m a pessimist. Knowing that we are blind, that our brain through eons of evolutionary struggle in a hostile environment has built up a set of useful tools to help us to survive and propagate our species but nothing else is to begin to know just how much else has been neglected. Most of outer and inner reality is a blank to us: we are victims of our own hereditary success. Consciousness of which we think too highly of is itself our major flaw, a part of our problem now rather than the answer to our needs. The Romantic heritage thought we needed to expand this consciousness, grow it larger with more data, more information, etc. which they thought would help us save ourselves. Once again that Fall and Redemption myth…

But no, consciousness isn’t really the answer, but the biggest problem we face as we enter the age of machinic intelligence and robotics. We seem bent on making clones of ourselves, mimicking our bodies and minds and projecting them into machines as if the old dreams of the Kabbalists of transmigration could be effected not between generations of flesh and blood humans but through some as yet unforeseen process of transference of our essence into the machine. The machine has now become the Savior who will redeem humankind from its earthly woes, etc. Another salvation myth…

Why do we want to live forever? Immortality? Could you imagine the coming boredom? Oh sure let us live in immortal machines and take our off-world voyages to the next stars through lightyears of travel. One could probably read through the complete library of Congress on one’s way to some distant star, or at least have the datafeeds of this global mind churning away in its hivemind world of infinite dreams. Machinic utopia? Is this our future? Or just another fantasy scenario of human aspiration to be elsewhere?

In the end we’re still here, and the accumulated problems of our planetary culture are not going away no matter how many fantasies we conjure up. We’re still living on a planet that seems about to take a dive into a literal Fall into the void of annihilation. And, this time, there will be no saviors comic book or otherwise to save our sorry asses unless we save ourselves from stupidity. Zizek looks for redemption among the multitudes in the Valley of Decision and the Great Event: “We thus need to subtly change the formula of the big revolutionary Event as the moment of final Judgment when, as Benjamin put it, even the past of the failed revolutionary attempts will be redeemed, the moment first clearly formulated in Joel 3:14: “Multitudes, multitudes, in the valley of decision! For the day of the Lord is near in the valley of decision.”

For me there is no revolutionary event in the offing, no redeemer arising out of the multitudes, no grand dramatic event of decisions in the valley of dry bones, only death and the speech of the dead speaking as the dead speak of false nostalgias and dreams of false messiahs; for in the Valley of Bones there is no redemption, only utter annihilation and the desecration of all human hopes and aspirations. Don’t expect history to redeem you, don’t expect the force of the impossible to forgive you, don’t expect the end to be quick or even peaceful. War, war alone seems our inevitable lot, victims not so much of our leader’s inaction as of our own inability to take leadership ourselves of our selves.


  1. Žižek, Slavoj. Incontinence of the Void (Kindle Locations 2840-2843). MIT Press. Kindle Edition.



Daily Thought: Tolkien’s Ring Trilogy as Pagan Myth

Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings as pagan myth:

I know as a child when I first read this work, before I became an adult and discovered the critics appraisal, or the fact of Tolkien’s personal religion that what struck me was a tendency toward that ancient sense of doom and fatalism which is the main theme within those ancient myths of the Norse, Germanic legends, Icelandic Sagas, and the in poetry and prose of the Welsh  lays, Scottish ballads, and Irish-Gaels’ tales.

Many of my generation growing up in the 50’s and 60’s came upon Tolkien through those early paperback days when books were cheap and the world of war and protest and civil rights were in the streets. Rebellion back then seemed more about love-in’s and rock concerts, traveling round the country to the next love-fest or march on this or that protest. Love and War seemed to play in-between strange bouts of magickal New Age and the very real world of the draft. Tolkien seemed to play to this strange amalgam of idealism and revolt against the staid gray world of our elders. Of course as we all know hippiedom turned yippie in the 70’s and the long-hairs went to work or wandered off into communes to play house and farm like a bunch of happy pagans. Of course most of that failed when people realized it was not utopia but a lot of hard work and grind. Needless to say the life of Hobbiton was not our life, and that was probably the problem many felt who sought the nostalgia of the past not realizing the truth of those times was a harsh ugly world full of slavery, work, and endless war among various tribes and clans century after century.

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The Fall of Alûmbrindor

As I began researching gritty SF/Fantasy of such writers and Glen Cook’s The Black Company, Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy, Mark Lawrence’s trilogy of Thorns, G.R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, and, even my friend R. Scott Bakker’s two trilogies which seem to be listed under this appellation of Grimdark Fantasy as well I became fascinated that like my involvement with noir fiction the subgenre of fantasy is part of a more amoral and nihilist worldview, more philosophical and speculative, and above all goes against the grain of the idealisms of the Inkling Christian mythos of redemption and salvation.

So of late I’ve been toying with moving from my current work into this subgenre. Why? It’s fun and my mind needs an opening into the darker corners of dark creativity which pulls together strains of anti-nostalgic and futuristic and post-apocalyptic regressions without doing this blatantly. In some ways I have always loved Jack Vance’s Dying Earth series of tales, and yet he too was lighthearted fluff which was fun to read as a kid and even as an adult but just never touched that dark core of my being like horror, gothic, and the ancient tales of the North.

So been piddling with an opening in a work tentatively bringing threads of sea warfare, quest themes, high and low aspects of a dying culture as it’s impacted by climate change and other unknown forces. Thinking of a far-flung future world during the long dark ages ahead, a recursion to strange mixtures of hybridity of genetic, robotic, and resurgent forms of monstrous life.

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Daily Thought: Memory, Technicity, and the Post-Human

Over thousands of years humans have come up with two solutions to growing a Mind: ancient indigenous peoples across the world naturalized memory, investing their cultural inheritance of sex and survival in memory niches in the external environment of animals, stars, and environment; while those others (philosophers, scientists, etc.) began to cut their memories out of natural things and invest them in abstract spaces of clay, papyrus, paper, silicon, quantum bits, etc.

The indigenous path to use two examples of memory and mind growing can be taken from the ancient Druids and the aborigines of Australia. The Druids as keepers of the tribal inheritance of the ancient Celts – a people who invaded Old Europe out of the Steppes beginning in about 4500BCE developed various natural techniques of memory using a Tree alphabet, along with rote learning of thousands of meters of poetry. The poets of this Celtic world went through a series of progressions from bard to Ollave depending on how many of these songs and cultural memory they could master and recite verbatim. All that died for the most part when Julius Caesar destroyed the Druids learning centers, the great groves where the people’s memory was passed on to new generations. Only fragmentary knowledge of this past remained in scattered seeds of traveling singers, but most of that past was lost forever.

The same process took place with the aboriginal peoples of Australia who developed songlines, which became externalized memory in the natural landscapes that wove the dreamtime (cultural memories and unconscious) of the tribe and melded it to migration and seasonal vectors in the environment. Watching recent National Geographic specials on this one realizes that much of this ancient culture (one that began some say 60,000 years ago!) has been lost due to cultural displacement of the aborigine over the past two hundred years or so from their ancient songlines.

Modern man on the other hand has taken an alternative path to abstraction: one in which the externalization of memory was divorced from the natural environment for a more compact physical manifestation: pictograms, icons, symbols, language – inscribed on various physical devices other than the brain itself (i.e., clay tablets, papyrus, paper, silicon, quantum bits….). This slow process of inversion in which modern humans divorced from the old environmental and tribal memory systems which internalized / externalized memory in brain/environment unto the modern abstract processes of reliance not on brain or environment, but rather on the brain/environment as externalized in computational devices external to the species has led to a strange dilemma in which humans have lost their minds as well as their connections to the cultural memory stored in environmental relations.

Much of the modern diseases of schizophrenizing processes are in fact this process of memory loss played out in artificial environments that surround humanity. In many ways humanity has lost its ability to think and reason as it did for much of its ancestral heritage in the natural world. It’s this predicament that is leading us into an absolute ‘crash space’ in our time.

Merlin Donald once spoke of the evolution and invention of the Mind as distinct evolutionary stages of episodic, mimetic, mythic, and symbolic-theoretic systems of memory. The modern era, if it can be reduced to any single dimension, is especially characterized by its obsession with symbols and their management. Breakthroughs in logic and mathematics enabled the invention of digital computers and have already changed human life. All forms of human representation, from our archaic episodic experiential base, through mimesis and speech, to our most recent visuographic skills, are now refinable and expandable by means of electronic devices. Our modern minds are thus hybridizations, highly plastic combinations of all the previous elements in human cognitive evolution, permuted, combined, and recombined. Now we are mythic, now we are theoretic, and now we harken back to the episodic roots of experience, examining and restructuring the actual episodic memories of events by means of cinematic magic. And at times we slip into the personae of our old narrative selves, pretending that nothing has changed. But everything has changed.1

The growth of the external memory system has now so far outpaced biological memory that it is no exaggeration to say that we are permanently wedded to our great invention, in a cognitive symbiosis unique in nature. External memory is the well of knowledge at which we draw sustenance, the driving force behind our ceaseless invention and change, the fount of inspiration in which succeeding generations find purpose and direction and into which we place our own hard-won cognitive treasures. As Donald states it,

The central point deriving from the history of the third transition, as it moved from visuographic invention to the management of external memory devices to the development and training of meta linguistic skill, is that it was not a given of human nature but rather a structure dependent upon both symbolic invention and technological hardware. The hardware may not have been biological, but from the viewpoint of a natural history of cognition this does not matter; the ultimate result was an evolutionary transition just as fundamental as those that preceded it. Once the devices of external memory were in place, and once the new cognitive architecture included an infinitely expandable, refinable external memory loop, the die was cast for the emergence of theoretic structures. A corollary must therefore be that no account of human thinking skill that ignores the symbiosis of biological and external memory can be considered satisfactory. Nor can any account be accepted that could not successfully account for the historical order in which symbolic invention unfolded. (Donald, pp. 356-357)

The point here is that humanity has been evolving into a post-human world for thousands of years without any knowledge of what it was doing. The point here is the question: is this a natural evolution into technological systems, a Cyborgization of the mind over time; or, was technicity already there at the beginning? Gilbert Simondon describes this:

… technicity is one of the two fundamental phases of the mode of existence of the whole constituted by man and the world. By phase, we mean not a temporal moment replaced by another, but an aspect that results from a splitting in two of being and in opposition to another aspect; this sense of the word phase is inspired by the notion of a phase ratio in physics; one cannot conceive of a phase except in relation to another or to several other phases; in a system of phases there is a relation of equilibrium and of reciprocal tensions; it is the actual system of all phases taken together that is the complete reality, not each phase in itself; a phase is only a phase in relation to others, from which it distinguishes itself in a manner that is totally independent of the notions of genus and species. The existence of a plurality of phases finally defines the reality of a neutral center of equilibrium in relation to which there is a phase shift. (The Genesis of Technicity )

As Andrés Vaccari states about Bernard Stiegler’s Technics and Time:

In the human sciences, culture and language have also been progressively engulfed by the universe of technics: the artificial realm of institutions, rituals, knowledges, symbol systems and practices that makes humans functional, speaking, meaning-making creatures; that is, what makes humans human. The essence of the human, it seems, is the technical; which is paradoxically the other of the human: the non-human, the manufactured, unnatural, artificial; the inhuman even.

This inhuman core of technicity at the heart of the human as technical being says that we may never have been human at all, that in fact maybe, just maybe we’ve been post-human all along. That the trajectory of our evolution was from organic to machinic system, and that is the very process of naturalizing the human Mind. The naturalization of consciousness turns out to be in becoming machine rather than in remaining in the cyclic death throes of the organic world.

Humans as organic machines may in the long term have been a bridge between the quantum technicity at the heart of the cosmos and the next step in evolutionary progression: the inorganic machinic forms of intelligence in the universe. Watching the Science Channel last night brought this home when various specialist scientists debated how humanity might eventually need to expand into the cosmos. Watching the various ways in which scientists conceive transporting organic humans across the vast distances of the universe to seed other planets was a telling lesson. The notion of cryogenics of either adult or embryo seemed the only solution. Both seemed ludicrous and prone to impossible technological feats of engineering to succeed. And, then it struck me: humans as organics were and will never expand into the cosmos, only their inventions – their inorganic children, the post-human tribe which seems to be emerging out of our strange and uncanny dreams in our century will ever expand into the cosmos. Intelligent machines, not organic humans.

If the human mind is a hybrid product as Donald suggests, interweaving a super-complex form of matter (the brain) with an invisible symbolic web (culture) to form a “distributed” cognitive network across both natural and artificial environments, then this hybrid mind, he argues, is our main evolutionary advantage, for it allowed humanity as a species to break free of the limitations of the mammalian brain and its tight coupling with the natural environment. If this is true then the forecast of those trends toward Cyborgization and eventual transcension of the organic altogether may not be science fiction in the century(ies?) to come, but rather part of the very naturalizing processes of technicity which has always already been there at the origin of the human. This disconnection of mammalian brain from the natural world, this long detour into abstraction and externalization of memory and culture has been neither an accident nor a mindless evolutionary process but a part of some wider impetus at the heart of the cosmos. Not some naïve telos in the Aristotelian sense, and not something that is part of some ever progressive movement to some final end, but rather an inherent part of the technicity at the inhuman core of the human itself.

  1. Donald, Merlin. Origins of the Modern Mind. Harvard University Press; Reprint edition (March 15, 1993) (Page 356).