Sunday, October 2, 2016

on the planetarization of consciousness, fandom (part 1)

My perverse insistence on burning only Satya Sai Baba nag champa incense periodically brings me through the door of New Age tchotchke shops, where I'll sometimes, just for kicks, browse the bookshelves in the back, trying to muffle my condescending and pompous giggling at the selection of titles like Reincarnate Yourself Thin, Crystal Healing Something Something Quantum Physics, and Deepak Chopra's Buzzwords Put Together Randomly in Sentences. But during my most recent visit to the local metaphysical swag shop, it was probably my ongoing preoccupation with Marshall McLuhan and his concept of the electronic global village/tribe that prompted me to reach for Dane Rudhyar's The Planetarization of Consciousness (1970), and the praise from Henry Miller printed on the back cover certainly had a hand in nudging me towards the front counter with the book in tow.

I'm not sure what I was expecting from Rudhyar, and that was part of his allure—sometimes it does the dour materialist good to hear out the exultant spiritualist, if only to argue with him in the margins of his book. And overall I found Planetarization an edifying and even inspiring read, though I take issue with many of Rudhyar's propositions on general principles. But for all his New Age babble about "soul fields," "Pleorma-consciousness," "cyclosmic existence," and the occasional suggestion that aliens have shown or will show humanity the way, Rudhyar frequently puts forth statements I can't but underline in enthusiastic agreement:
In the Western World, particularly in the United States, we feel very proud of living in a democracy in which every man is theoretically free and responsible ... But no one seems to tell us what these freedoms are FOR. What should one work for? What should one perform any social activity for? ....

Marketplace democracy sees the free individual as a competitive entity, indeed as an aggressive ego whose purpose in living is to dominate others——and often to trick them——in order to accumulate wealth, power, possessions. The purpose of society is to produce more and more goods, even if if means forcing people by all means, fair or foul, to consume often far more than they need or even want, thus becoming ever more enslaved to their appetites and their craving for physical comfort——and more dependent on psychoanalysis or psychiatry. ....

Democracy, parliamentarianism, majority rule and free enterprise——these really mean nothing definite and nothing concrete unless one specifies (1) the character of the human units in such a quantitative system of social organization, (2) the quality of the relationship between these units, and (3) the human, spiritual and metaphysical purpose, and the expected results, of the social system.
My suspicion that The Planetarization of Consciousness would serve as a metaphysical supplement to McLuhan's soothsaying was verified in several places, and along several lines. As Rudhyar sees it, the next stage in humanity's development must be a synthesis between the tribally oriented thesis and the subsequent individualistic, urbanistic antithesis—which a prognostication that must have been inspired, if not at least in part by McLuhan, then certainly by the fecundity of New Age ideas and pop communitarianism in the youth culture of the late 1960s. Like McLuhan, Rudhyar observes that any new formations of tribalism will be fundamentally different from the archaic (read: pre-literate, pre-electronic) tribal modality:
[T]he youths' protest against a society operating in terms of values of the antithesis phase of human evolution tend to take the form of a return to the thesis phase. That is why they so often speak of their groups as 'tribes.' However, these groups are basically different in spirit from real archaic tribes because the boys and girls who form them are very intent on acting on an individual basis——on "doing my thing," as they say. The youth of today does not yet realize, exceptions notwithstanding, what it would mean to live in terms of a total, conscious and deliberate dedication to a greater whole which would not be social in the modern sense but instead planetary in its total dedication to the wholeness of Man. No one has been able to give them a vision of such a future condition of human living and what it implies.
Hmm. In the margins I jotted down "cf. Matt Taibbi." I'm pretty sure I had his 2011 piece "How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the OWS Protests" in mind:
There was a lot of snickering in media circles, even by me, when I heard the protesters talking about how Liberty Square was offering a model for a new society, with free food and health care and so on. Obviously, a bunch of kids taking donations and giving away free food is not a long-term model for a new economic system.

But now, I get it. People want to go someplace for at least five minutes where no one is trying to bleed you or sell you something. It may not be a real model for anything, but it's at least a place where people are free to dream of some other way for human beings to get along, beyond auctioned "democracy," tyrannical commerce and the bottom line.

We're a nation that was built on a thousand different utopian ideas, from the Shakers to the Mormons to New Harmony, Indiana. It was possible, once, for communities to experiment with everything from free love to an end to private property. But nowadays even the palest federalism is swiftly crushed. If your state tries to place tariffs on companies doing business with some notorious human-rights-violator state——like Massachusetts did, when it sought to bar state contracts to firms doing business with Myanmar——the decision will be overturned by some distant global bureaucracy like the WTO. Even if 40 million Californians vote tomorrow to allow themselves to smoke a joint, the federal government will never permit it. And the economy is run almost entirely by an unaccountable oligarchy in Lower Manhattan that absolutely will not sanction any innovations in banking or debt forgiveness or anything else that might lessen its predatory influence. ....
I think I understand now that this is what the Occupy movement is all about. It's about dropping out, if only for a moment, and trying something new, the same way that the civil rights movement of the 1960s strived to create a "beloved community" free of racial segregation.
But we're getting off course here.

Occupy Wall Street, Day 13

The millenarian thrust of Planetarization is Rudhyar's conviction that the New Age is forthcoming, and will take the form of a singular global culture of peace, prosperity, and enlightenment—and Rudhyar is more than a little cautiously optimistic is his belief that the modern instruments of spiritual desertification may have a part in tilling the soil for an unprecedented efflorescence of the human condition:
Under the pressures of catastrophes and wars, and even more perhaps of economic conditions and compulsory readjustments of human relationships at home and at work, many human beings, feeling their lives empty of meaning, happiness and inspiration, tend to find solace, support and security in the old symbols of the social, religious and cultural past of their society, or of other seemingly more attractive cultures. At the same time, the extraordinary strides of our modern technology has aroused in us all new material needs and desires for comfort; and this arousal is methodically intensified by industry and science which always need greater expansion and new horizons to conquer, unable as they are to stop their ever-accelerating momentum.

Materialistic or even artificial as these new human needs may appear, they nevertheless inevitably operate in the direction of the planetarization of human existence inasmuch as they serve the process of deculturization. It may seem unfortunate that they most often destroy or subtly disintegrate man's allegiance to the old concepts of the Good, the True and the Beautiful, but out of the chaos and spiritual emptiness of the greater part of modern living, new values and more inclusive, less provincialistic forms of interpersonal relationships are gradually taking shape. These values and new modes of relationship must become focalized, vivified, dramatized by new symbols if they are to have the power to move the minds and stir the emotions of leaders as well as human masses everywhere.
The lines I've boldfaced had me scratching my imaginary beard for some time.

Rudhyar cannily brings up a consequence of global capitalism that can't but arouse chagrin and gnashing of teeth in the intellectually honest leftist: it has probably made the world a more peaceful place, insofar as Thomas Friedman's Dell Theory of Conflict Prevention holds. (Friedman: "The Dell Theory stipulates: No two countries that are both part of a major global supply chain, like Dell’s, will ever fight a war against each other as long as they are both part of the same global supply chain.”) The kraken of multinational commerce has its tentacles coiled around most of the planet, and to its credit, it appears to be doing a pretty good job pinioning nation-states that might otherwise come to blows. (Not that Friedman's theory is absolute and airtight—as World War I demonstrated a century ago—but any sensible actor should know better than to shit in his own wallet, and the players in transnational commerce are nothing if not good at acting in their own interest.) By the same token, the international sameness, the gradual diminishing of local variety effectuated by globalization (the provenance of idiosyncrasy is isolation, and virtually nobody is isolated anymore) does mean that the world is becoming less foreign to everyone, because everywhere looks like everywhere else. And we may all come from different places and have different perspectives on things—but if we can agree on the crisp, refreshing taste of Coca-Cola (available in 200+ countries), the crisp, refreshing taste of Starbucks Coffee (available in 62 countries), and the crisp, refreshing taste of the Sony PlayStation 4 (available in 100+ countries), how different can we really be and why shouldn't we get along?

Mass production is as old as the printing press; the pistons of industrialized manufacture began firing during the nineteenth century. Consumerism as we recognize it today—wherein the streams of culture and commerce are crossed to explosive effect—is a product of the twentieth century. It was from this fireworks show of market creation and penetration that the spectacle of mass entertainment came blazing into the world. It's entirely probable that a future contingent of historians will point to Entertainment as the postwar era's most significant interpolation to the human equation; it certainly rivals the development of the internet in terms of importance, and the world wide web and mass entertainment are too mutually enmeshed to be considered independently.

Sociology grad students looking for a hot topic for their thesis need look no further than the novel phenomenon of the online community: a type of group made historically distinct by is (relative) indifference to the factors that have traditionally delineated group membership, namely location, nationality, ethnicity, religion, political ideology, and so on. Of course there are exceptions—a white supremacy blog won't be so welcoming to commentators of color, and a male should probably tread carefully on a radical feminism blog—but from my (admittedly limited) perspective, these sorts of online communities don't constitute the largest or most common hubs of community activity.

Any diminution of restrictions on group membership denudes a group's very basis for association. An archaic tribe to whom common ancestors, myths, and taboos are irrelevant is no tribe. A nation without a common homeland, heroes, and language isn't much of a nation. Likewise, the online community requires a symbolic emulsifier, and the totem around which it most frequently congregates is the glorious golden calf of Entertainment—TV shows, video games, recorded music, movies, comic books, fantasy novels, and spectator sports, powerful global industries all.

Over the last fifty years, the consumption of mass media entertainment was transfigured from a private indulgence to a veritable way of life, which, thanks to digital communication, has assumed a substantial communal dimension, whose evolution we can trace by following the progress from the Star Trek convention to the X-Files message board to Tumblr.

An iPhone case one can buy if one wishes.

Given the proliferation of the internet and the concurrent increase in the visibility of the fan community, it's easy to make the mistake of assuming that the existence of the latter was predicated on the former. This isn't the case at all: if you were scrupulous in clicking those links, you might have read that a 1974 Star Trek convention brought something like 21,000 fans to its doors, and none of them had ever heard the whistling and hissing of a modem. But the radical transformation of fandom catalyzed by the internet is analogous to the influence of agriculture on human society. The once-scattered pockets of activity have massed and organized themselves as teeming virtual poleis. The fan no longer exists in a vacuum. The Star Wars aficionado who prefers to surround himself with likeminded people who know the names of all the background extra bounty hunters in The Empire Strikes Back was once pretty much out of luck unless he happened to live in a major city and was prepared put in some legwork. Now all he needs to do is whip out his smartphone, hop onto any of the Star Wars subreddits he has bookmarked, and jam in his earbuds to drown out unwanted audio stimuli from boorish Star Wars nonfans in his vicinity.

While we're on the subject: mass entertainment isn't the only viable basis for an online community, but it is very likely the most viable, for the same reason we can expect there will be more occupied barstools than church pews on a given night in a given North American city. Entertainment is, above all, easy—that's why we spend so much of our leisure time basking in its glow, and it stands to reason that the online communities towards which people gravitate will be centered around the things they do and think about most.

The word "ideology" is usually reserved for political or religious convictions, but fandom in its contemporary form must qualify as such: it is a definite assertion of what one person or group of persons believes to matter in life, and it carries its own priorities, values, and exclusions. 

An excerpt from sociologist Mark Duffett's Understanding Fandom: An Introduction to the Study of Media Fan Culture clarifies how communication between fans magnifies the role an entertainment property plays in the life of the individual and as a basis for association:
Fans often view texts in groups in order to multiply their pleasures. According to Henry Jenkins, 'For most fans, meaning-production is not a solitary and private process but rather a social and public one' (1992, 75). Group reception allows people to discuss their shared object, to explore it together, to turn its reception into a celebratory social event and in that sense to experimentally affirm that it matters. ...

By shifting reception from a private to a public practice, fans can also develop other pleasures. Watching television allows them to talk, which in turn facilitates more watching (58). The process of mulling over the text opens up new interpretations and opportunities for consensus. It enables people to understand what they see or hear through novel frames of reference and sets in train a productive multiplication of perspectives. They may start to understand their favourite character, author or performer in new and more intimate ways, or to recognize the depth of the text on new levels. As fans do this, their ongoing debates create new interpretations. Sometimes this process can take the form of gossip. Fan gossip gives people things to talk about that do not directly affect their lives (83): by exploring and critiquing the actions of others, gossip allows people to discuss their own experiences, self-disclose, create social ties, build common ground, reinforce norms and share expertise (84).
Duffett also describes the aspects of fan culture that most commonly prompt observers (such as myself) to invoke McLuhan and the theory of mass-media retribalization: 
Many fans characterize their entry into fandom as a move from cultural and social isolation——whether as rogue readers, women in patriarchy or gay men in heteronormative culture——into more active communality with kindred spirits (Jenkins 2006, 41).

Since fan networks are communities of common interest they offer people a sense of belonging (Jenkins 1992, 23). Speaking about her first visit to a Doctor Who fan convention, Tara O'Shea (2010, 99) explained, 'The thing that struck me immediately on walking through the lobby doors of the hotel was the intense sense of 'community'. Lynne Thomas had a similar experience:

I had found my tribe. These were my people. For the first time in my adult life, I felt as though I belonged. In a fandom for that show that, in 2000, wasn't currently on the air. Upon reflection, this seems to fit; I'm a professional rare books librarian, after all... (Thomas 2010, 83)
Fans describe conventions as utopian spaces: welcoming, tolerant, accepting, multicultural and enlightened (see Nye 2010, 105). ...

A common term used to describe the sense of welcome and strength of common bonds within the fan community is to refer to it as 'family'. ... The notion of family signifies the role of the fan community as a close-knit network of people who look after each other on the basis of shared interest and values, taking each other's fandom as a vouchsafe. As a community, fans operate a 'moral economy' in which consensus can be leveraged to legitimate, protect or promote particular positions (Jenkins 2006, 55). Indeed, the way that these 'families' share certain rituals and moral values has its own important range of functions. One is simply to bond people. ... [C]ollective fandom operates by affiliating its members with joint rituals and mutual evaluations (see Jenkins 2008, 81). Cavicchi has explained how fans are also bonded by shared discourses and practices of storytelling...
This all sounds familiar to me.

Back when I played video games on the regular, I spent a great deal of time on several gaming forums, some very small, some moderately large. Each of them was composed of a diverse userbase—men, women, Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists, pagans, straight people, gay people, trans people, white people, black people, brown people, yellow people, conservatives, liberals—all were represented. Though some of the communities (particularly the larger ones) could be cliquey and hierarchical, and none were absolutely free of contention, a participant really could feel as though they were among their own people. Relationships between members were often encouraging and cordial, and a collectivist ethos prevailed: I can remember illustrators drawing up avatars and sigs for other members pro bono, folks proofing other members' writing and offering feedback, Japanese-speakers scanning and translating materials for interested readers, website owners uploading hard-to-find files and making them available to other members via FTP, and so on. For many members, the boards weren't just places to gab about video games and associated media: the community could be an emotional lifeline and a source of personal validation. I still keep track of several old friends and acquaintances from the boards; many are still logging in, and even the ones who have moved on still enjoy correspondent (and even meatspace) relationships with current and former members.

The only gaming board I'm still on—strictly as a lurker—is the King of Fighters XIV thread on SRK. (I'm sort of like the former smoker who deliberately stands downwind of people lighting up.) The scene is nothing if not cosmopolitan: a group of fans from various countries conversing in English about a Japanese video game whose bastions of popularity are in China, Korea, and Latin America. Skimming it now, I see it as a small but not insignificant of what Rudhyar means about consumer technology's capacity to move people towards the direction of a global society: without the internet, these conversations would be impossible. And without a global entertainment industry, what would we all have to discuss?

oh, andy.

But: we'd be remiss to ignore Rudhyar's caveat about the source of these entertainments: they are an outgrowth of materialism, the institutionalized greed of industry, and the crassness and mendacity of commercialism. A community whose idol is one of the hydra heads of the entertainment-industrial complex affirms and supports the complex, and the power structures it sustains.

For example: Batman. The Caped Crusader might entertain, inspire, and bring people together as a symbol of justice, determination, and human excellence. He might be an Achilles and a King Arthur of contemporary myth. But Batman® is also a paid salesman for 7-Eleven fountain drinks, McDonald's Happy Meals, and Wal Mart T-shirts, and is implicated in those industries and their interests. Likewise, Overwatch might be a virtuosic piece of software in every regard; its producers probably deserve all the plaudits they've earned for their attention to diversity in developing the characters; the game might be the axis of a burgeoning fan community; but Overwatch exists for one purpose and one purpose alone: to facilitate a turgid return on capital for Activision Blizzard and its shareholders.

I say all this as somebody who consumes corporate-owned mass media on the regular; I condemn nobody for enjoying it. It's as mixed a blessing as any other product of the industrial (read: capitalist) revolution: inexpensive consumer goods are the obverse of low wages; climate change is the shadow of mobility and convenience; the ennui and urbanistic isolation we stave off by consuming electronic entertainment and participating in communities dedicated to it are byproducts of the same social arrangements that made digital technology and its proliferation possible. Not to be a total bummer, but mass entertainment and its totems are so many structures of a living edifice that presupposes inequality and has an existential interest in preserving it; that has just as much reason to wish for the majority of people to be dull, bored, unfulfilled, and estranged; that distorts its subjects into compartmentalized semi-people; that was predicated on the assumption of inexhaustible natural resources and goes on operating as though infinite growth were actually possible.

Rudhyar's belief that this contradictory subsurface drift within consumer culture will aid in laying the groundwork for an enlightened, coherent global society reminds me of a passage in Capital Volume I where Marx predicts that the industrial capitalist's mechanical ordering of human labor would, in the long run, mass a revolutionary army against himself:
Along with the constantly diminishing number of the magnates of capital, who usurp and monopolize all advantages of this process of transformation, grows the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation; but with this too grows the revolt of the working-class, a class always increasing in numbers, and disciplined, united, organized by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself. The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production, which has sprung up and flourished along with, and under it. Centralization of the means of production and socialization of labor at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument.
This, well, obviously hasn't happened, and for a profusion of reasons. For one thing, Marx failed to predict the general rise of wages in the latter decades of the nineteenth century, and certainly failed to predict the deconcentration of wealth following two world wars, which led directly to the establishment of a healthy middle class. (See Piketty.) The improvement of conditions under capitalism negated conditions favorable to a revolt against it (well, at least in the West), though the foundational defects of the system have yet to be resolved. In other words, the gains made by labor by the end of the nineteenth century and the postwar hobbling of capital probably helped to ensure capitalism's continued dominion through the twentieth century and into the twenty-first by easing popular pressure against its institutions and their primary beneficiaries. Capitalism has shown itself to be more durable and adaptable than Karl could have imagined.

I fear the same can be said for the power of the symbols and heroes of consumer entertainment to elevate and unify people. The total landscape of our world is inclined such that people slide apart. We live alone, we lock our doors, we avoid our neighbors, we treat the majority of people with whom we interact in our daily lives as representatives of abstract institutions, our relationships are mediated through transactions and devices, and, as Donald Trump has recently reminded us, the surest road to material success is to screw each other over. All of these are consequences of capitalism. From the turbulence of the marketplace has bubbled up mass entertainment, a new kind of object around which people can unite in a spirit of fictive kinship—but while this does countervail the social current on a surficial level, it does nothing to influence the deeper currents. (In fact, it probably goes a long way towards conciliating people to the status quo.) As long as these communities are dependent on and feeding resources to transnational commercialism, they can only palliate the problems of postindustrial anomie and carbon.

Still: the emergence of transnational, non-exclusivist communities through and in spite of the atomizing processes of global capitalism is not something to be written off. Systemic social change more often begins at the bottom than the top, spreading and accruing like upwards-scaling fractal cells. Something may come of these new sects. But as to the question inspired by an existence where one is born to live, strive, and die in the marketplace—what is this for? what are we living for?—fandom's unspoken answer is: Entertainment. Is that really enough?

That isn't a rhetorical question. I don't know the answer and would like to.


  1. How about a corollary — are we living to entertain each other?

    That seems a lot better.

    1. It does. Thank you.

      It reminds me of that line from Ginsberg I'm always citing:

      Well, while I am here I'll do the work—
      and what's the Work?
      To ease the pain of living.
      Everything else, drunken

    2. I've always interpreted it to mean "to ease the pain of living [for others]" in light of Ginsberg's vocation. I'd be inconsolably disappointed if that wasn't his intention.

  2. As to whether Entertainment is enough, consider the Viking afterlife.

    Virtuous warriors who died in battle were carried by the Valkyries to Valhalla, where their existence consisted of eating and drinking, poetry and song, feats of strength and the occasional battle to the death (after which the loser would be resurrected). In short, it was a life of perpetual consequence-free Entertainment, unsurprisingly so because the people who envisioned it had precious little of that in their real lives. (Subsistence agriculture in Sweden during the Little Ice Age -- imagine!)

    So at least one people (with whom it was unwise to argue) thought that Entertainment would be plenty. Were they right? I say no. Everyone needs to do something hard every now and then. Your soul gets sick if you don't. Most people understand this on an unconscious level, and already act accordingly. You may not like what they choose to do [1] but they do it.

    So I think your question is moot. We'll never know whether Entertainment is enough because normal people instinctively place themselves in situations that are more than that. If we wanted an answer we would first have to find a way to stop them.

    [1] I freely stipulate that the world could be made a much better place if any basically good-hearted person were empowered to make suggestions in this regard.

    1. Anything a person does "instinctively" can be overridden or blocked by environmental conditions.

      I agree people need to feel as though they're being challenged or doing something significant in order to be happy. But Entertainment is getting better at providing synthetic substitutes. (Achievement aspartame?) People go with what they know, and what they know is by habit.

      I feel like I see a lot of soul-sickness around town, to the extent that so many people seem completely devoid of emotion or passion until you mention Netflix's Marvel shows or Game of Thrones or retro games.

      But maybe that's just because they/we have no other basis for relating to each other.

      And maybe we were in such a hurry to take the struggle out of human life that we didn't stop to consider the void we'd be leaving in its place.