Archive for October, 2010

Florescent Rabbits? That’s So Ten Years Ago…

October 27, 2010

Anybody remember Alba, the GFP (Glowing Florescent Protein) bunny? Neither did I until about five minutes ago. I must have been really blitzed avoiding grad school that week…

Effort and Life

October 25, 2010

“Effort, we say, is what is valuable; but — and this is the paradox which besets us — it is valuable only if it is not valued. Just as when we make pleasure our end we find that nothing pleases, so if we make effort our aim we find that no effort satisfies. First and foremost we must desire things, both material and spiritual, and strive to obtain them; on reflection we may admit, and as philosophers we must insist, that it was not what we wanted that mattered, but the efforts made to get it; yet if such an admission were entertained for one moment in the heat of the struggle, it would blight our endeavors and take all the savour from our success. We must, in a word, be busy, not because busyness is a good, but because (and this is what we may not realize at the time) it is the condition of all other goods being added to us; so true it is that the only way to avoid being miserable is not to have leisure enough to know whether you are happy or not.”

C.E.M. Joad, The Future of Life: A Theory of Vitalism (London: G.P. Putnam, 1928), 167-8.

On Reading About Wilhelm Reich

October 23, 2010

It was a passage in Fury on Earth that struck me, where Myron Sharaf likens Reich’s approach to the traditions of “new journalism”, which I commonly associate with Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson. Reich was, at this point in Sharaf’s biography, in the midst of a massive worker’s demonstration, brutally put down by the Vienna police on 15 July 1927. There was, I thought, more of Thompson in Reich’s situation than Wolfe. But perhaps opinions differ.

Reading biographies is this kind of surreal experience, at once removed from the subject by the author’s choices. This second-hand reading of Reich is troubling to me. For I feel, having read and shuffled through his own notes and papers, that I know him better than this. Of course, Sharaf knew the man personally, and provides a perspective that should be seriously considered.

In Sharaf we find a very completed Reich. A sort of linear, mechanistic plot through Reich’s life that often misses the real feel of a lived existence. But it’s perhaps for all biographies to seem, at a certain limit, undead.

This recalls for me a more unfiltered account of Reich’s death. For to know of his passing in 1957 in a cell in Lewisberg Penitentiary in Philadelphia is one thing, to have seen the old typed and stamped autopsy report in his prison record is another. Archives provide this kind of liminal space between the living person and his or her many dead biographies. We can recall accounts, as with efforts by recent academics in Canadian literature, of authors being brought back from the dead to publish again. Another short story collection by L.M. Montgomery?

Biographies are in this sense constantly being re-written, re-imagined. But the limbo from which the images are drawn is often archival. New biographical tangents are always a possibility when an untapped archive is present. Consider, as a random example, the new re-envisioning of Philip K. Dick we will witness next year with the publication of his exegesis.

Of course, I have high hopes for my biographical re-imagining of Reich. Faced with the complete, authoritative approach taken by Sharaf, this might seem unrealistic. But in and among Sharaf’s vast and weighty biography are holes. It essentially never comes to be whole.

Missed in Sharaf is a unifying vision, a sense that in all of Reich’s diverse forays into psychoanalysis, politics, biology, philosophy, physics, medicine, weather control and even ufology there was a common thrust. If you will pardon the pun.

And this is where it gets fascinating. For perhaps there is no unity in the individual. Maybe the sense of a cohesive self, often eluding even the self concerned, is not that real. The ideal Platonic form of an individual life is something we desperately want to believe is true, but rarely is. Arguably, this is what defines a good biography — those that subscribe to an individual’s sense of cohesiveness are limited, those that explore the multi-dimensional and often contradictory elements of a life are just, well, better.

With Reich one can break things down easily. His life transformations are acute. From insider, a star student of Freud and at the center of 1920s Viennese intellectual life, to peripheral figure, banished from communist and psychiatric organizations and left to his own devices conducting research on bions in the Scandinavian hinterland (well, Oslo). This 1930s period also marks the real beginning of Reich’s sense of “outsiderness”. It’s here he starts to experience criticism, much of it in the mainstream Norwegian media, and in turn slowly develops a sense of being persecuted.

The real transformation in Reich comes in 1939, when he flees Europe and comes to America, a Jewish intellectual emigre like so many others. But Reich is different here again, for instead of finding a space to interact with a dynamic intellectual community in New York, he slowly moves away from the city, and on his ranch in northern Maine — Organon — tries to reproduce his idyllic rural upbringing in Galicia.

In the end, there is very little that’s idyllic about Reich’s later years. The research center at Organon becomes a kind of pastoral prison (perhaps, oddly, preparing him for his final days in actual prison), isolating him physically from the American scientific and intellectual world in the same way his ideas did mentally.

This is the crux. For Reich himself understood (or at least thought he understood) the connections and links between all his apparently divergent and bizarre theories. I’m more sure of this than anything. How else could he have continued to pursue them at the risk of not just collegial censor, but actual investigation on the part of a US government agency, the FDA? In Sharaf, there’s an attempt to keep a cohesive narrative going about Reich’s work and ideas, but it falls apart — it relies on chronology, structured around key events and turning points that, interestingly, are more responses to Reich than changes in his own approach.

It’s absurd to expect someone to understand the inner working of another mind. But similarities in character can help. In this respect, Sharaf is a poor biographer of Reich. Though they were in close contact for years, and Sharaf explores that personal relationship at the outset of the book, it’s clear he doesn’t have a modicum of Reich’s intense personal conviction and strength of character. This is the true Reich — not a fanatic, but a seriously self-deluded visionary. And yet what visionary isn’t self-deluded? How can you keep committed to a set of ideas and theories for so long in the face of stark outside criticism without being crazed and compulsive about them to begin with?

The title of Sharaf’s biography (Fury on Earth) reminds us that he understood, to a point, what deep unseen forces drove Reich. And he certainly provides, through material garnered from primary sources and extensive interviews, as complete a perspective on Reich as we currently have. But, for some reason, at least from my personal point of view, this still seems unsatisfactory.

Why? Well, there are ideas in Reich, I think, that can inform the deepest and most profound critiques of our current world. And, sadly, nothing in the supposed transformations of the last 50 years has changed this much. Many of those who followed, in their own particular way, in Reich’s footsteps, are still fringe. Even more tragically, those elements of Reich’s thought that have entered the mainstream of medicine and psychotherapy generally don’t acknowledge his influence. Reich’s cosmology, if you can call it that, is fundamentally antithetical to the world we live in. And in this respect, continuing to try to tease out new meaning from his fascinating life path is valuable.

Reich felt, along with Nietzsche, that “all the regulations of mankind are turned to the end that the intense sensation of life is lost in continual distraction.” It’s easy enough to argue this process has only been amplified in the ensuing years…

Like Wittgenstein, Reich felt we reach a point where the elements of life are no longer describable in words. In a world where everybody is clamoring for attention and trying to get a word in edgewise, this deep understanding is more valuable by the minute. There’s no better reason to continue to try and understand Reich’s life and work.

Myron R. Sharaf, Fury on Earth: A Biography of Wilhelm Reich (New York: St. Martin’s, 1983).

On the Bike

October 20, 2010

Maybe it’s because I’m reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and thinking about “quality”, but revelations about the big ideas in life are currently coming in the form of machine metaphors. My machine is a bicycle. My bike is my solace, my left arm, my drug. Since I’ve come back to Montreal I’ve hit the bike hard, rediscovering old routes, some deeply embedded in muscle memory. I’ve been riding maybe 30-40 Km/day, most days, weather permitting. That works out to ~ 200 Km/week. Not bad, all considered.

But something has been bugging me the whole time…The bike itself. I had it tuned up when I got here and, as in the past, asked if maybe the chain and cogs should be changed — I complained that they were slipping when I really started to pound the pedals out of the saddle, and the drivetrain felt soft. Like many mechanics before, this one suggested it needed a tune up and cleaning, and after that it was OK. But just OK. There was still slipping, still this sense of losing power with each pedal stroke. The amount of energy I put into a ride seemed disproportionate to my speed and distance. It was annoying.

The other day I got a flat…A bad one, a broken valve on the tube. I needed a new tube so decided to just bring the bike in. I asked this mechanic the same question…Should I change the cogs and chain? And, unlike everyone else before him, he thought about it, agreed and did exactly what I asked. He went into the back to find the parts, and they weren’t even that expensive. The whole deal cost less than a major tune-up.

And the result? Phenomenal. I feel physically down today, battling a chest cold, but the bike, the bike is beautiful. Fast — all the energy of each pedal stroke transferred perfectly. Even though I was sluggish, the bike wasn’t. A problem that had been bugging me for months, maybe even a year, was solved. No big deal. And it was solved the way I thought it would be all along…

I feel as if life is coming around to this too. Like the drivetrain is getting a refit — and power transfer to the proverbial pedals of existence is moving towards 100%. It’s amazing how these things happen. You can go forever just making minor repairs, or fiddling, and hope that makes the difference. But until you deal with the underlying issue there will always be slack and lag. Then, overnight, you spot the true crux of the problem. And here the emphasis is on you. You know better than any expert or mechanic what the problem is, since you “ride the bike” everyday. Sometimes you just need to insist on the validity of your own perspective, and fight for what, instinctively, you know is good for you.

When that all comes together it can be a beautiful thing, a smooth and effortless ride where all your energy is properly transferred to movement. Oddly, you find this dynamic space so often follows a sense of being totally sluggish or stuck.


Liveblogging From Amazing Randi

October 19, 2010

Well, not really, but close enough.

An unbelievably packed house in the Leacock Building this evening as people stood in the back of the large hall and even sat in the aisles for a chance to hear perhaps the world’s leading skeptic and pseudoscience investigator, James Randi. While Randi never defined pseudoscience, per se, he certainly brought to bear a number of examples of outright charlatanism he’s encountered in what’s been a long and star-studded career. The talk began with a media highlight reel of Randi’s more well-documented encounters with fraud. Interesting.

Like an old gnomish Charles Darwin, Randi came up to the lectern and started to talk into a hand-held microphone. He began with some discussion of fame and celebrity, sharing an anecdote about comparing the sizes of the asteroids that were named for him and Arthur C. Clarke (his is bigger). But he quickly switched the focus to his stock and trade — illusions and conjuring. He reminded us all how easy it was to deceive people, and perhaps more importantly, how easy it was to allow people to deceive themselves. He pulled the “microphone” down from his face and there was still the sound of his amplified voice — a trick! The microphone was actually a beard trimmer (which he could certainly have used…). His glasses? Just plain rims without lenses…

This was a perfect preamble to his main point. Magicians may deceive using a wide array of methods, but they’re always telling you when they are deceiving. Not so with pseudoscience. Like a zealous consumer advocate of the most critical sort, he discussed a wide range of products and ideas whose popularity was undeniable that were, for lack of a better term, so many bottles of snake oil. Perhaps most disturbing was the “bomb-dowser”, the ADE 561, that is currently being used in Iraq, at significant cost to various governments. The BBC had a piece earlier this year on how useless these devices actually are…

He followed this with an involved discussion of faith healers and other evangelical miracle workers, showing great footage from the old Tonight Show of a debunking attempt involving Reverend Peter Popoff. Randi showed how Popoff used techniques, like plying the audience for information before the show, that have been used in shady tent revivals forever, noting, sadly, that despite a wide audience for his revelations about Popoff and his ministry, the business is a greater success than ever…

One of his pet peeves is homeopathy. In going over the whole process of distillation involved in Hahnemann’s practice, one can’t help but agree with him (with the caveat that’s it’s not the process of homeopathy itself that’s interesting, but the theories around it and the belief people have in it…). Again, in making his final point about homeopathic remedies, now widespread in drugstores everywhere, Randi returned to the position of democratic skeptic — buyer beware. Ask questions and don’t be too easily led to believe anything. Be critical! He finished with another old spot from the Tonight Show where he performed “psychic surgery”, debunking elements of this practice, still quite popular in the Philippines. Here’s a similar video…Warning, it’s a bit bloody.

And there you have it! The Amazing Randy, fascinating man with a fascinating worldview. For those who would like to challenge it, Randi’s foundation has long offered a 1,000,000 dollar boon to anyone who can demonstrate proof of psychic phenomena or the validity of any psudoscientific idea. Whatever that means…

Amazing Randi at McGill

October 18, 2010

For local readers — James Randi, aka “The Amazing Randi”, skeptic extraordinaire, will be speaking at McGill University tomorrow evening as part of a symposium (The Lorne Trottier Public Science Symposium, even) entitled Confronting Pseudoscience: A Call to Action. Yours truly will be there, doubtless lurking in the shadows, asking himself, “shouldn’t we start with a symposium on defining pseudoscience?”

More likely to follow…

Ridley Scott Going Back to PKD

October 8, 2010

According to The Guardian (and re-blogged by io9), Ridley Scott will be putting together a BBC miniseries based of Philip K. Dick’s alternate history sci-fi novel about a triumphant Reich and axis, The Man in the High Castle. Scott’s direction was combined with a story taken from the PKD oeuvre (“Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”) in the classic Blade Runner. Will be interesting to see the results here…

The Sword

October 6, 2010

I don’t usually do rock criticism (it’s never been better than Lester Bangs…), but this odd find, Warp Riders by The Sword is just too deep into interstellar riff(t) space to pass up. The dudes at io9 describe them as “psychedelic heavy metal sci-fi” and that’s a good start. Shades of Ozzy, Heavy Metal (the movie), and strangely, old school “silver age” fantasy and sci-fi. The album cover is highly reminiscent of artists like Chris Foss. These guys are to Robert E. Howard (or, even, Michael Moorcock) what Darkest of the Hillside Thickets are to H.P. Lovecraft. Maybe it’s because this epic star spanning rock opera involves a dark figure known as the “Chronomancer”, but this stuff is just pure awesome. The power guitar of Black Sabbath with a few nice twists, these guys will get your mind spinning and your ears ringing before you can even think of making the jump to light speed.

For variety, I include another sample, ominously entitled Lawless Lands.

In a galactic melange of dark forces The Sword pushes classic rock, from A to Zeppelin, out beyond our known universe. And for that, they should be commended.

Thanks to the wacky wizards at io9.


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