Friday, May 28, 2021

Cold War Crosshatchery: where do UFOs come from, Dad?


The press at the moment is full of UFO stories. The Pentagon is about to come clean – to publish its files – encounters of the third kind are leaping off the pages of National Enquirer in your grocery store and become scientific, or sorta scientific, fact! We will have to deal with it, say certain members of our billionaire class. Who floating through a whole different atmosphere of money have long felt that they live on another, superior planet. 

Which brings me back to an old essay, written by Ian Hacking in 1998 and entitled, Canguilhem  among the cyborgs. I came across the essay in the Bush era and found it fascinating more for the fascinating sideline on cyborgs, voodoo, All in the Family and other topics than for what it says about Canguilhem, much as I respect that man.

Hacking makes the case for Canguilhem’s case for seeing tools and machines as organs, in the service of Canguilhem’s twist away from the dominant Cartesian paradigm. But he doing so, in a Shandian way, he seems to go off the tracks – or rather, he goes on a lot of interesting tracks that involve things like Voodoo, cyborgs and UFOs, Donna Haraway’s thesis that in the late twentieth century the line between machines and organisms have been irreparably blurred, and what kind of thing a man on a bicycle is (or a fish, to allude to the famous 70s feminist slogan, a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle) – is he a cyborg? Actually, if one goes back to the inventor of the word, he definitely is. Cyborg’s came out of space travel.

“The word cyborg was first used in print in the September 1960 issue of Astronautics. It came with the definition: for the exogenously extended organizational complex functioning as an integrated system unconsciously, we propose the name Cyborg (Clynes and Kline)

The name was made up by Manfred Clynes working with Nathan Kline. Kline was a distinguished psychiatrist, director of research at Rockland State Hospital in New York and teacher at Columbia University. His foret was psychopharmacology. Those who consult the Cyborg Handbook (Gray 1996) will learn that he won numerous awards, some internal to his profession ( the Adolph Meyer award) and some more public (a New York Newspaper Guild Page One award in Science). He was a good deal more colourful than that. He was Poap Doc Duvalier’s personal psychiatric consultant, and he also established clinics in Haiti. The favours were mutual: he had a fine private collection of Haitian, popularly known as Voodoo, preparations and herbals, with which he is said to have experimented freely. He was an advisor on psychological topics to Hollywood producer Norman Lear, so whatever psychology appears in Lear’s movies or TV scripts had Kline’s imprimatur. (this supplementary information is derived from telephone interviews with family members.”

Kline was quite the Cold War magus and eminence gris. Oh, spirit of Pynchon, be with me now!

“And yet there is another twist in this story that I cannot omit. It has a lot to do with the mind, though here one imagines that it is Kline speaking and not Clynes. It interest me because Rewriting the Soul (Hacking 1995) is, among other things, a very extensive study of multiple personality and dissociation. Kline was apparently stirring the dissociative soup way back in 1960

… hypnosis per se may prove to have a definite place in space travel, although there is much to be learned about the phenomena of dissociation, generalization of instructions, and abdication of executive control.

We are now working on a new preparation which may greatly enhance hypnotizability, so that pharmacological and hypnotic researches may be symbiotically combined.

Ross (1966) is a book [sic – I believe Hacking is referring to Colin Ross’ The Osiris Complex] written by a leader in the field of dissociative disorder suggesting that the epidemic of disturbed people having flashbacks of alien abduction into outer space is due to what he calls CIA experiments in hypnosis, drugs and mind control in the 1960s. The unhappy people with these memories are really recalling trance states induced by mad scientists in the employ of the United States Government. Most readers, including myself, take this as proof that Ross is himself a bit touched. But now I wonder, what was going on at Rockford State?””


The answer to the last question was canonically answered in the series, Stranger Things. Although mysteriously, season four keeps getting put back – THEY obviously don’t want you to know!

However, the point, the small point, is that surely this is a valuable trivial pursuit fact. The most popular comedy shows of the seventies received their psychological input from the inventor of the cyborg and a scientist deeply interested in mind control? Ho ho ho - I come from generation fucked. Now I know who did it!

But we have only covered one of the homonymous duo, doeppelgaengers sprung into the Cold War future by way of Freud and Philip Dick. To get back to our question about the bike for a second, the first cyborg devised by this duo was simply a rat, which had some kind of osmotic pump set to a feedback pattern that would pump chemicals into it, get some appropriate responding chemical cue and modify its injections. The point eventually, our Small ones (Kleins) (“At one time the elves are small enough to creep through key-holes, and a single potato is as much as one of them can carry; at another they resemble mankind, with whom they form alliances, and to whom they hire themselves as servants; while some are even said to be above the size of mortals, gigantic hags, in whose lap mortal women are mere infants” – Superstitions of the Highlands) thought, was to make man less robotlike – once in space, Hacking points out, an astronaut was to be as free in his capsule as the homunculus was in Descarte’s brain – freer! For the homunculus didn’t carry around a feedback rat.

The Cold War’s tentacles were everywhere, and our historians are blind to the cultural implications of that.


Monday, May 24, 2021

cold war skies



“What age was I? Six or seven, I think. I was stretched out in the shadow of some poplar trees contemplating a sky almost without clouds. I saw this sky teeter, and fall into the emptiness. This was my first impression of nothingness, all the  more vivid in that it succeeded that of a full and rich existence. Since then, I have sought to understand why one thing succeeded the other, and in consequence of an erroneous assumption common to those who search with their intelligence instead of their bodies and souls, I thought it was a question of what philosophers call the “problem of evil.” However, it was something deeper and more serious. I had before me not a failure but a lacuna. Everything, literally everything, threatened  to fall into this yawning hole.”

This is from Jean Grenier’s The Islands, a book of “fallen leaves”, brief poem-meditations, published in 1934. Grenier’s sky was the pre-World One sky, from 1906.  Its freight was birds, tree branches, clouds, the sun, the moon, the stars, bats. In other words, no human freight. It was the sky as a non-human scene. Hence, a divine scene – or a natural scene.

When I was  a kid, this sky was long past. My tenth year was, what, 1968? In my suburb, the back yards were dotted with swing sets, which, like the two car garage, were signs of middle class prosperity. Your kids didn’t have to play on the street corner and get into gangs – they had playthings in the yard itself, which was your Crusoe’s island, your claim on the main.

By the age of ten I was outgrowing swinging. But I still liked the ‘sky’ effect. You would kick until you achieved a certain level, then swing easily, face up to the sky, and let yourself fall into it. Fall, at least, into a trance of the sky. It did not disclose emptiness and the hint of the Dao to me, as it did to Grenier, but it did make me pleasingly dizzy.

I think it was that year that my elementary school friend showed me the book he was reading: Hiroshima, by John Hershey. I read a bit of it and it changed my sky.

It wasn’t that I didn’t know what airplanes did. How many world war movies and shows did I see on tv? In my memory, it seems like hundreds. And almost all of them had bombers in them. However, the viewpoint was definitely the bomber’s viewpoint, not the bombed. We weren’t bombed, here in the states. It was our blessing, our sign from God. We bombed. But the little bit I read about the victims of Hiroshima gave me, literally, nightmares. I liked the planes that contrailed across my sky. I liked the way the contrails spread out and disappeared. I never took them as a threat. But whether it was due to John Hershey’s book or whether I was putting two and two together in my little Cold War head, it suddenly struck me that maybe it was possible that the communists could actually bomb us. In which case I knew what would happen: our clothes would burn off, our skin would slither off our bones, we would troop to rivers to cool ourselves and those rivers would be boiling. This landscape was familiar to me: it was Hell. The place of weeping and gnashing of teeth.

The Cold War sky stuck with me for a long time, and then it faded. By the time Reagan was resurrecting the idea of “doable” nuclear war, I had not thought about missiles falling down upon us for some time. Rather, I thought of them as an engineering dodge, a way of paying billions to greedy corporations.  The Cold War sky didn’t really come back until 9/11, after the CW was over, and then the threat was not missiles or bombs falling from the sky, but the planes themselves. By this time, I had become a customer of the airlines myself. It was strange to think of that domestic beast, the increasingly uncomfortable jet (where each year corporate profits took a bit more of your legroom) as a predator. I wonder whether the children of that time saw some replica of the Cold War sky I saw when I was a kid? I’m pretty sure that has passed. 9/11 seems to signal, increasingly, an irrational crowd response, like the boom and bust in tulips in  17th century Amsterdam, than the moment that ‘CHANGED EVERYTHING”. But it did change the sky, literally, for a few days – restoring Jean Grenier’s pre-World War I sky for a moment.

Or a facsimile of that sky. The sky has been too humanized to ever show us, again, a pure nothingness. Its vertigo is attached to our political economy, and perhaps as climate change eats up our rivers and raises our ocean, to our end.




olivier blanchard and the free lunch: a comedy of errors

  The neolib economist Oliver Blanchard tweeted a very funny comedy bit, in which he played the part of “social democrat”. And he wrote: “As...