Thursday, November 9, 2017

The Strangeness of Normality: Alan Moore on Art and Magic

If there’s a single principle that philosophers should live by in their pursuit of ultimate truth, it’s that the natural world uncovered by science maximizes irony to humiliate us, which suggests that the ultimate truth hides in plain sight. If the truth of how we should live and should fundamentally conceive of the world were hard to find, there would be no shame in ignorance. Only if the philosophical truth were obvious, at least in retrospect, requiring just a shift in mindset to appreciate what had been there all along would we be embarrassed to have missed the truth or to have passed it by in our preference for distractions. Humiliation is the surest sign of someone’s cognitive awakening, which means there are no arrogant philosophers. Pride and confidence thrive on ignorance, because nature is indifferent to us so that the most probable outcome is a gulf between reality and the truth as we’re capable of intuiting it. Our intuitions lead us astray because we evolved not to understand reality, but to survive in a harrowing struggle for resources. The profound truth has always been there right in front of us, but we’re fixated on playing an altogether different game and so we blind ourselves.

The first irony, then, is that the more ingenious we are in our search for philosophical truth, the further we distance ourselves from it, because the philosophical upshot of living in a natural universe is likely obvious in hindsight. The second irony is that once the truth is seen, the answer becomes almost useless, because to understand the meaning of life is to think of ourselves as the inhuman cosmos would and thus to disassociate from our intuitions and preferences, to turn our nose up at all the carrots obtainable by our evolved thought patterns. To understand the truth is to stand under and thus apart from human nature, in which case we become self-alienated; the wake of that alienation is persistent humility.

Alan Moore on Art and Magic

What is this profound truth? Part of the truth, as I attempt to comprehend it, is captured by Alan Moore’s intriguing view that art and magic are identical. In an online interview, Moore the graphic novelist says (with my emphasis):
consciousness, preceded by language, preceded by representation (and thus art) were all phenomena arising at around the same momentous juncture of human development and that all of these would be perceived as magic, an umbrella term encompassing the radical new concepts born of our discovery of our new, inner world. This allows us to offer a definition of magic as a ‘purposeful engagement with the phenomena and possibilities of consciousness’. We then go on to argue that originally, all of human thought and culture was subsumed within the magic worldview, with the advent of urban society and the rise of specialised professionals gradually stripping magic of its social functions.
So Moore is saying that magic was taken for granted at the dawn of human self-awareness, sometime in the Upper Paleolithic, around 80,000-50,000 BP when subject was only first being distinguished from object. At that time, everything was perceived as magical, just as it is for children in any era, because we were only first trying out our cognitive ability to put everything in conceptual boxes, before this ability had become routine and we’d grown disenchanted with ourselves due to the dominator’s boredom. Consciousness was sublime but so was everything else because all we perceived were things from our point of view which we could alter at will, if only by shifting physical positions or altering our mood or intentionally modifying the outer world itself. That is, we perceived the world through the filter of our most naïve intuitions and feelings. That was the mythopoeic era, when we hadn’t yet become alienated from nature because we hadn’t learned enough to specialize in this or that fragment of human knowledge, when the world was encountered as an undivided whole in which we felt we belonged. That was the world of subjectobject, as analogous to spacetime. Magic then was the exploration of consciousness which included an exploration of the outer world, because we’d projected the inner onto the outer.

In another interview, Moore says,
Actually, art and magic are pretty much synonymous. I would imagine that this all goes back to the phenomenon of representation, when, in our primordial past, some genius or other actually flirted upon the winning formula of “This means that.” Whether “this” was a voice or “that” was a mark upon a dry wall or “that” was a guttural sound, it was that moment of representation. That actually transformed us from what we were into what we would be. It gave us the possibility, all of a sudden, of language. And when you have language, you can describe pictorially or verbally the strange and mystifying world that you see around you, and it’s probably not long before you also realize that, hey, you can just make stuff up. The central art of enchantment is weaving a web of words around somebody. And we would’ve noticed very early on that the words we are listening to alter our consciousness, and using the way they can transform it, take it to places we’ve never dreamed of, places that don’t exist.

Mental representations were magical not because they had a supernatural origin, but because they enabled the exploration of consciousness, and consciousness seemed sublime because of its newness and its preciousness. Consciousness was the field in which we could appreciate everything not so much for what things are objectively, but for what we could make of them in our imagination or by technological modifications. Language, the assigning of names, was a source of immense power as we could efficiently represent a situation in a mental model and simulate our interactions without endangering ourselves by immediate contact, so that we could select our best response. The occultist’s talk of magical language, as in the casting of spells, is only science-fictional, meaning that this notion exaggerates what is plainly factual, as opposed to indulging in fantasy. We each carry a book of spells in our memory and in our ability to think with concepts made precise by language. The magician’s spell-book, then, is only a symbol of the human mind. To cast a spell was only ever to modify consciousness with mental representations, since that modification included our ability to transform our experience of objective reality by learning the most efficient techniques for engaging with natural processes. In the primordial land of subjectobject, making what we might now call objective changes in the world was experienced as a subjective, social interaction.

Moore goes on to say,
When that enchantment is the creation of gods and the creation of mythology, or the kind in the practice of magic, what I believe one is essentially doing is creating metafictions. It’s creating fictions that are so complex and so self-referential that for all practical intents and purposes they almost seem to be alive. That would be one of my definitions of what a god might be. It is a concept that has become so complex, sophisticated, and so self-referential that it appears to be aware of itself. We can’t say that it definitely is aware of itself, but then again we can’t really say that about even our fellow human beings…[And] to some degree, ontologically, the creation of a metaphysical being actually is that metaphysical being. If gods and entities are conceptual creatures, which I believe they are self-evidently, then the concept of a god is a god. An image of a god is the god—a little closer to hand.
Again, in childlike, mythopoeic experience, the stories we tell had “objective reality,” because the world was perceived as a continuum of subjectobject. A stream of consciousness was a series of thoughts or feelings, which amounted to the self, and a second-order story about how the self came to be or how it ought to behave was as fictional or subjective as the self in the first place. Consciousness was everywhere, because there was no way out of experiencing the world through language and through the attempt to understand things by working with our mental abilities. The greatest stories were the myths or metanarratives that mattered the most to us. These were the myths of gods whom we fantasized would deliver us to paradise in the hereafter, a fantasy that might have been suggested by altered, psychedelic states of consciousness. These indispensible myths become self-aware perhaps in the sense that they’re self-referential and self-justifying, which is to say they’re faith-based. As Derrida might have said, there was no god outside the text, but neither is there a self beyond consciousness and its acquired ability to create its contents just by thinking and feeling itself into mental being. Powerful metafictions become as intersubjectively real as any self that exists only from one mental representation to the next. It wasn’t God, then, who created himself, but we who created our higher, personal (as opposed to biological) selves when we became self-aware and experimented with our control over our mental states.

What has all this to do with art? In his article, “Fossil Angels,” Moore says that while “art” resists hard-edged definitions, “Art’s only aim can be to lucidly express the human mind and heart and soul in all their countless variations, thus to further human culture’s artful understanding of the universe and of itself, its growth towards the light. Art’s method is whatever can be even distantly imagined.” Thus, everything we do or produce is art in this wide sense, as long as our purpose is to express ourselves rather than to achieve some definite goal. To take a contemporary example, mainstream movies driven by a corporate committee and produced solely or mainly for the sake of maximizing profit, rather than being directed by a singular, loftier vision wouldn’t count as art unless the movie included accidental creativity on the part of the actors, set designers, or other participants. In any case, the early experimentation with the human mind which led to the earliest eruption of culture around 35,000 BCE in Europe and 60,000 BP in Australia was artistic in Moore’s wide sense, since the cultural expressions weren’t necessary for survival.   

As to the value of art, Moore goes on to say in that article, that
Art’s power is immediate and irrefutable, immense. It shifts the consciousness, noticeably, of both the artist and her audience. It can change men’s lives and thence change history, society itself. It can inspire us unto wonders or else horrors. It can offer supple, young, expanding minds new spaces to inhabit or can offer comfort to the dying. It can make you fall in love, or cut some idol’s reputation into ribbons at a glance and leave them maimed before their worshippers, dead to posterity. It conjures Goya devils and Rosetti angels into visible appearance. It is both the bane and most beloved tool of tyrants. It transforms the world which we inhabit, changes how we see the universe, or those about us, or ourselves. What has been claimed of sorcery that art has not already undeniably achieved? It’s led a billion into light and slain a billion more. If the accretion of occult ability and power is our objective, we could have no more productive, potent means or medium than art whereby this is to be accomplished.
And as to why many societies currently need more art and magic, Moore writes,
With its nonce-case religions and their jaw-droppingly demented fundamentalists, with its bedroom-farce royalties, and with its demagogues more casually shameless in their vile ambitions than they’ve been in living memory, society at present, whether in the east or west, would seem to lack a spiritual and moral centre, would indeed appear to lack even the flimsiest pretence at such a thing. The science which sustains society, increasingly, at its most far-flung quantum edges finds it must resort to terminology from the kabbala or from Sufi literature to adequately state what it now knows about our cosmic origins. In all its many areas and compartments, all its scattered fields, the world would seem to be practically crying out for the numinous to come and rescue it from this berserk material culture that has all but eaten it entire and shat it through a colander…We could allow our art to spread its holy psychedelic scarab wings across society once more, perhaps in doing so allow some light or grace to fall upon that pained, benighted organism. We could be made afresh in our fresh undergrowth, stand reinvented at a true dawn of our Craft within a morning world, our paint still wet, just-hatched and gummy-eyed in Eden. Newborn in Creation.
Enlightenment and the Aesthetic Perspective

What, then, is the profound, humbling truth about us and our place in nature? For Moore, it’s that we’ve lost our way because we’ve forgotten the magical aspect of human art. This includes the magic of forming concepts and mental models, of assigning names and categories to map the world, and using that knowledge to transform the environment. As the Romantic poets pointed out, science-centered culture encourages us to forget our capacity for mythopoeic ecstasy, because science’s purpose is to demystify and disenchant nature, which it has largely succeeding in doing. The resulting dystopia would be a stale, artless society in which the mass-produced, fraudulent propaganda of large corporations is mistaken for good-faith creative expressions. (This was largely the point of Alan Moore’s graphic novel V for Vendetta, and it’s the reason he shuns the movie adaptations of his comics.)

This interpretation of art’s equivalence to magic adds to our secret, existential history and meets at least one condition for being a profound truth, since in hindsight that interpretation is obvious. Moore’s point hides in plain sight both historically and individually, because our prehistoric kind exulted in cultural creativity made possible by the human brain’s capacity for higher-order thought, and we each still emerge from a period of childhood ecstasy. The magic of creativity is obvious because we experience it directly, both collectively and personally, and then tragically we forget this kind of experience as we historically and individually “mature.” Our situation is thus like that of the characters in the science fiction movie Cube. They’re trapped in a chamber which turns out to be only one room in an enormous Rubik’s cube-like structure, and they attempt to escape by fleeing from one chamber to the next, dodging deadly traps along the way. Unbeknownst to the characters, the unknown forces which kidnapped and imprisoned them grant them the ironic favour of placing them initially in the one chamber that would allow them to exit the cube if only they had the faith to stay put instead of exploring out of fear or the attempt to dominate each other. Likewise, we were born into Edenic paradise, psychologically speaking, but grew out of that childlike phase so that by this point many “people” resemble robots or zombies more than laughing gods or ecstatic artists.    

Is the point that we should recover a sense of wonder, since that would enable us to become magicians in the sense of having superpowers? Not exactly, since the magic in question is only a state of mind. However, having second-order or meta-mental states is a superpower as far as the rest of the animal kingdom is concerned. Each species has its superpowerful traits which enable it to live as no other kind can, but not every species can dominate the planet by affecting it at the geological level. So my point isn’t that we have the capacity for magical powers in any exoteric sense; rather, we should regain the perspective that allows us to perceive human normality as fully magical, to recognize that what are popularly mistaken for magical powers in fiction are essentially everyday realities which we take too much for granted, deadening our sense of wonder and losing our creativity. So-called magic tricks, such as card tricks, mentalism, or disappearing acts are usually intended to remind the audience that mundane reality is already strange and sublime, in that it should be interpreted as such from an enlightened viewpoint. That’s the purpose of professional magic, to elevate our perspective so that we experience the world aesthetically, as childlike artists marveling at each detail.

The most important magic trick is thus to alter our consciousness at will, which amounts to something like the Stoic ability to be content or at least spiritually elevated under any circumstance. This self-mastery has both ethical and aesthetic aspects, because the higher self which controls the animal impulses consists only of commitment to a series of meta-thoughts which form especially in periods of introversion and cognitive experimentation. The tranquility of a monk, athlete, or warrior is sometimes explained in terms of an experiential “groove” which opens up after much practice. But this tranquility isn’t universal unless it’s fed by philosophical understanding of all possible situations, as it might be in the monk’s case. The aesthetic perspective facilitates that understanding, by acting as a buffer between the interpreter and the situation. The buffer is created by a mental act of detachment or renunciation: the interpreter stops caring personally about what’s happening and enters an aesthetic mode of appreciation, treating the situation as art, as something first and foremost created by something or someone. Those who create themselves instead of being molded by others’ expectations have an advantage in generating the aesthetic buffer needed to pull off the greatest magic trick of self-directing the quality of consciousness.

Again, as human persons, we all artistically create ourselves to some extent, but we’re taught to interpret that triumph as a mere necessity for social interaction. We must civilize ourselves, forming something like the Freudian superego, the fear of social authorities and laws. If we lose sight of the existential stakes, we become the clay rather than the sculptor, and we behave as functionaries rather than creators. We who might be godlike creators are reduced to being objects created by the unenlightened mob. Modern philosophers from Descartes and Kant to John Stuart Mill and Nietzsche praised freedom of thought because they assumed that once we abandoned the worn-out Christian culture, which had already become a monstrous hypocrisy by the time “Christianity” became the official religion of the Roman Empire, we would be at liberty to develop our mind as we saw fit. Mill said we should be free to pursue even our idiosyncratic interests as long as we don’t interfere with anyone else’s equal right to do so, and Nietzsche expected the rise of a higher type of person who would have the courage to create new values in the face of the demise of God-centered culture. That liberty wasn’t just the means, but the primary goal: to be radically free was to have the godlike experience of self-mastery.

But the plan of rational enlightenment didn’t unfold as expected, because the economic aspect of freedom (capitalism) overtook all other dimensions of Western life, and so only the upper class that consolidates its wealth by exploiting the lower classes can afford the luxury of catering to its whims. To be sure, few if any wealthy individuals in a capitalistic society master themselves in an ethically meritorious way, since the very wealth that enables them to realize their dreams corrupts them in the process, just as the selfishness required for economic competition coarsens the soul and rewards sociopathy above all other personality types. Far from having even time enough to pursue our hobbies, the majority in the middle or lower classes must occupy assigned cultural roles to fit in at work or in our private life. We’ve lost sight of the esoteric or occult purpose of personal liberty.   

In my view, Alan Moore’s interpretation of art and magic has a metaphysical dimension, since personal creativity should be seen in the context of nature’s pantheistic grandeur. Nature expresses no mind in its dimensional, stellar, and terrestrial evolutions, but natural creations are no less sublime for that reason. The meaning of human life in nature, then, is that we’re doomed to be creative gods in the shell of a monstrous, mindless, self-creating cosmic deity that not only creates all things including us, but undermines our achievements by outdoing them by many orders of magnitude. If a mind isn’t needed to create a universe, whence the glory of human consciousness and of our comparatively paltry creations? There’s an escalation of detachment that hurls us out of childhood innocence and wonder, into adult diversions, and finally perhaps into a state of existential or spiritual enlightenment. This latter state should promote an aesthetic perspective which prevents the self from being objectified, from falling into others’ degrading schemes, and which enables the self to appreciate the strangeness of normality. Art and magic are one, because creativity is everywhere and most of it is godless and thus monstrous in its inexplicable relentlessness. This aesthetic perspective in which the world appears magical and weird is the sort of treasure which we should be willing to kill for, because it was freely available in prehistory and in our childhood phase and we voluntarily leave it behind. This is because we succumb to the businessperson’s administrative and materialistic mindset, known now as neoliberalism, just as this mindset has captured the humanities departments in American colleges and universities. That which is ironic has the chance of being profound, and our forgetting that we’re all initially enlightened meets the former qualification.

Does this mean that mass cultural infantilization is a blessing in disguise, that we should abandon all adult responsibilities and live as carefree ignoramuses? No, children aren’t enlightened, because they know next to nothing. They inevitably perceive the world as new and outlandish, and so in that respect their experience must resemble a sovereign god’s, but far from being humbled by the existential importance of that gift, children are closer to being animals than gods in their selfishness. Enlightenment or noble individuation is much more tragic than reversion to a state of childlike ignorance and innocence. Our existential task is to nurture an appreciation for wonder while simultaneously enduring the onslaught of science-centered knowledge which threatens to demystify all of nature. The key to resolving the paradox is to identify art and magic, and specifically to build up the aesthetic sort of personal detachment which reveals the divine creativity of all things.

2 comments:

  1. If a mind isn’t needed to create a universe,
    ...........then it is nothing to be embarassed by

    whence the glory of human consciousness and of our comparatively paltry creations?
    we rose from a mindless primordial swamp and achieved great things

    i think you can look at it positively rather than negatively
    but

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    1. I agree that the emergence of mind from lifeless matter and physical reactions can be looked at positively, but it can also be viewed from a standpoint beyond good and evil, as Nietzsche might have said. In that case, we can reach for a combination of ecstasy and terror. We're both free to create ourselves and alienated from nature, from our monstrous "god." These might be some existential implications of pantheism, of a mythic construe of philosophical naturalism.

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