REPOST: Consciousness, Complexity and Catastrophe (The Hermeneutics of Risky Business)


Arthur Rackham’s illustration to Poe’s “Descent Into the Maelstrom.”


Repost Preface: Here We Go Again…

Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “A Descent Into the Maelstrom” is a classic tale of the horror(s) which can result from trading too close to the abyss of the gods, that wilderness of nature we foolishly and arrogantly think we can master with our tools.

The story is told by a man who became an old man after “six hours of deadly terror” inside the Maelstrom, a vast whirlpool off the coast of Norway made even more monstrous by a sudden hurricane. The narrator had been a fisherman who plied the waters off the Maelstrom with his brother because business was good there: “… we made it a matter of desperate speculation—-the risk of life standing instead of labour, and courage answering for capital.”

The result was a descent into the Maelstrom, the huge whirling mouth of Hell, each round bringing the fisherman and his brother closer and closer to doom. With a riveting fasincation the fisherman observes the horror of their descent:

“…Round and round we swept –not with any uniform movement –but in dizzying swings and jerks, that sent us sometimes only a few hundred feet –sometimes nearly the complete circuit of the whirl. Our progress downward, at each revolution, was slow, but very perceptible.

“Looking about me upon the wide waste of liquid ebony on which we were thus borne, I perceived that our boat was not the only object in the embrace of the whirl. Both above and below us were visible fragments of vessels, large masses of building timber and trunks of trees, with many smaller articles, such as pieces of house furniture, broken boxes, barrels and staves. I have already described the unnatural curiosity which had taken the place of my original terrors. It appeared to grow upon me as I drew nearer and nearer to my dreadful doom. I now began to watch, with a strange interest, the numerous things that floated in our company. I must have been delirious –for I even sought amusement in speculating upon the relative velocities of their several descents toward the foam below. ‘This fir tree,’ I found myself at one time saying, ‘will certainly be the next thing that takes the awful plunge and disappears,’ –and then I was disappointed to find that the wreck of a Dutch merchant ship overtook it and went down before. …”



Although written in what is now a distant century, the story perfectly describes the vortex of events unfolding in Japan and is an apt metaphor for the wider mess we’re in as the result of technology leading civilization into dark and darker territory.

Just catch the latest news: The American Nuclear Regulatory Commission has recommended that Americans should stay at least 50 miles away from the earthquake-and-tsunami-stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan. That’s 40 miles further than the margin of safety set by the Japanese government, and suggests that the situation there is a lot worse than anyone officially has been saying.

Government confusion – if not outright equivocation — has always been the case since a 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck off the northeast coast of Japan on March 11, causing a tsunami which belted 1,300 miles of Japanese coastline with waves up to 33 feet high and traveling ten miles inland, killing some 10,000 with an equal number still missing (presumably washed out to sea) and destroying 100,000 buildings.

Such a combination punch is horrifying enough, but the crisis entered a new, even more harrowing dimension when it was reported that four of six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Power Station had been badly damaged and were headed south.

News from the Fukushima plant has been a daily ride down a maelstrom with things going from bad to worse almost daily. 200,000 residents in the area were evacuated as workers tried what seemed in vain a baker’s dozen attempts to mitigate the threat of meltdown. Buildings housing the reactors exploded, sea water was poured in, by helicopter and water cannon after the normal vents failed. All the while was the Plume of radiation coming up mixed with steam, rising into the atmosphere and spreading – not a real threat to human safety, the Japanese government warned, but always of a great and greater threat. (The plume reached California on Saturday – not in any concentration enough to worry residents, the authorities said).


Godzilla vs. Fukushima Reactor Number Three.


Every day, another round, deeper down the well of sinking water. We learned that the greatest danger is not from a meltdown of the reactor core is not as great as in the amount of potential radiation that could be released by some 10,000 spent fuel rods still at the plant. (the Japanese government has been slow to develop a policy on safe off-site storage).

Now the government has announced finding higher than normal levels of radiation in spinach and milk at farms 90 miles away from the stricken plant, confirming that the crisis is affecting the nation’s food supply.

There’s hope – authorities said yesterday that power had been restored to two of the reactors — a key step in restoring cooling functions – and that temperatures were stable in the spent-fuel tanks for all six reactors. But it’s a dicey hope, with all involved quite aware how any number of fuckups sent by Fate – an explosion here, a collapse there – could still send the whole thing raveling down to the bottom of the whorl.

So the news remains riveting, with images from the Fukushima reactor having the same sort of dreadful fascination drawing us in as the images from last spring of the uncapped Deepwater Horizon well, spewing all that seemingly unstoppable oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

And what’s scariest here is that such disaster is not only possible here — The NRC also last week cited 14 critical problems  (“near-misses,” in their own language) at various nuclear power plants in the U.S. last year – the harrowing events and consequences of Fukushima could easily happen here with a large-scale natural event (California’s El Diablo Canyon plant sits close to four earthquake faults). The Commission added in its report last week that it was “utterly unrealistic” to expect current U.S. standards for nuclear safety to fare any better in the event of a disaster on the scale of Japan’s.

With oil supplies imperiled by unrest in a dozen Middle Eastern countries (another unfolding flower of badness in the news, with U.S. cruisers firing Tomahawk missiles at Libyan air defense installations in the first stage of a U.N.-sanctioned multi-nation assault of Gadhafi’s reign of terror), the need for alternative sources of energy including nuclear power never seems higher. But as the crisis in Japan reveals, that alternative is just as fraught with danger, perhaps worse.

So just what the Jesus Hail Mary arewegonnado?

Back in January I posted an insearch examining the fast-spreading phenomenon in advanced societies of large-scale disasters and looming  catastrophes cultured by our growing techonolgical complexity. The effect of global warming, the result of fossil fuel emissions, snowballs. There was Deepwater Horizon. There was the meltdown of the financial system in 2008 due to instruments which no one foresaw the dread implications of until real estate peaked and then began to tank. There were the Challenger and Columbia shuttle explosions? There exists the threat of a suitcase nuke carried by some terrorist into one of our cities. There is the potential havoc of a communications white-out due to cyber-terrorism.

All of these swarming bugaboos root down into the single issue of complexity: our technology is now smart enough to create vast systems but far too short-sighted and stupid to effectively manage it complexity when Nature introduces—as She always can—Her free radicals into the works.

My original post is more mythological than technological, for I do believe that the problems we create in the world are the result of problems of consciousness, the analysis of which can be tellingly described by the myths. Our tools for cracking nature have greatly evolved, but our desire to wield and master those tools haven’t changed a whit in six thousand years. If there is work that I can do to amplify that background—small work indeed, compared to the needs we globally face—then at least the post bears repeating.

There is a certain urgency to the task. History is fast-repeating in Japan, and everyone is keeping a wary eye on the San Andreas fault in California, the last corner of the Rim of Fire to not see a major earthquake in the past two years. Silicon Valley is no place to be when the resultant wall of water comes storm-trooping in.

Rim of Fire, walls of the Maelstrom: how do we get out? In Poe’s tale, the narrator survives by jumping ship to ride a barrel which he observed had better ballast in the madness of the whorl. It was a low-tech solution, moving forward by stepping back. Ishmael on Queequeg’s floating coffin, the first singer Arion ferried to shore on the back of a dolphin: these are mythic solutions to the shipwreck of technology.

Ride along with me: perhaps we’ll find a shore.





The Hermaneutics of Risky Business

originally posted Jan. 13, 2011


Charlie Chaplin in “Modern Times.”

Note: This essay began Monday, Dec. 26, 2010 on the wings of a cold front barrellng through Central Florida with far worser boreals afflicting the North, and rounded to an end (of sorts) on January 13, 2011 with the next cold front barreling through and the North, again,  getting suckerpunched with ice and snow.)

It’s blowing hard and cold again outside this morning, the third bout of three-nights-of-freezing-temps to hit Florida this December – a record.  Sensitive citrus and vegetable crops have taken an icy shellacking. Disney tourists are glum. The Christmas tree at Lake Eola in downtown Orlando blew over in a wind gust yesterday. I gave up on trying to protect our withered pinwheel jasmines in the garden, already wilted from two previous freezes (I’ll lop it down to the stump and it will grow back.) Our heat pumps lamely keep temps up to 60 in the house at this hour. As I write with a blanket in my lap I have two cats also curled there – awkward, but desperate times call for desperate measures.

I’m sure most of you are laughing at my thin-skinned bitching, especially as a monster snowstorm dumps up two feet up the Northeastern seaboard with 60-mph wind gusts, putting a major post-holiday travel and shopping. (Monday morning back-to-workers faced a miserably long and hazardous commute.)


Commuter hell in New York City, December 27, 2010.

This area is about as ill-prepared for such wintry visitations as it is for hurricanes, a much more probable event but similarly unthinkable in their magnitude. We here live in balmier averages, with cold only an occasional visitor. Or did: last winter was the coldest (or, in some areas, the second-coldest) ever in Central Florida for number of sub-zero nights and an average astronomical winter (89 days from winter solstice to spring equinox) temperature.  Crop damage was extensive and ornamental landscaping for less chilly climes was vastly killed off. Chilly waters in the Gulf of Mexico led to record-breaking kills of sea turtles, manatees and fish.  (Records which held for only a few months when the Deepwater Horizon spill did the deed with oil.)

Simply, our infrastructure is poorly equipped for 30- or 100-year events–especially when they come calling two years in a row. Monday’s high temperature in Orlando of 50 beat the all-time low-high by some six degrees.

Back in 2004, Florida was hit by four major hurricanes, another hundred-year event which left the area peppered with blue-tarped roofs, a major mauling of southern oaks, and a 200 percent rise in property insurance premiums since. Florida is especially vulnerable to these catastrophes (especially hurricanes), with mega-development over the past 30 all within 50 miles of some coast).

No one, it seems, prepares for the statistically improbable, the catastrophically impossible. Sketchy plans are made for 100-year events which have a 1 percent chance of happening on any given year of a century’s span, have only a 64% chance of happening any time during that century; and yet, it seems that 100-year-events happen every year: Hurricane Katrina, was the hurricane the Gulf Coast had averted for too long, and the flooding of New Orleans was an accident waiting to happen with an aging system of drainage canal levees which breeched in 50 places when the storm surge arrived—the worst engineering disaster in U.S. history.  Cedar Rapids, Iowa and Nashville, Tennessee were both inundated by floods recently. (My father’s boyhood home in Cedar Rapids was completely covered and then torn down during cleanup efforts.)


Four hurricanes struck Florida in 2004; Cedar Rapids suffered a 1000-year flood in 2008.


Gods of wind and cold are more potent than our designs: That’s the paradigm behind the futility of building warm enough spaces behind strong enough walls.  I remember a state geologist once said that there’s no fooling Mother Nature when you try to build something durable on a shifting barrier island; the ocean always gets Her way.

Global warming—the product of our fossil-fuel-burning civilization—has a lot to do with shifting weather patterns, including record-breaking heat and cold and storms. The 2000’s were the hottest decade on record, with major droughts in some areas and increasing inundation in others. Scientists are growing alarmed at the rate of glacial melt in the Greenland, now occurring at rate that will probably subsume much of South Florida by 2050.

Of course, the cry to these things is not so much why a god would allow such misery to happen—those cries largely faded , if you agree with Julian Jaynes, with the collapse of the bicameral mind roughly at the close of  the Bronze Age as the loud voice of god faded in function as agrarian civilizations (like Mesopotamia) were routed by unrest and invasion. What emerged was Man Thinking – a level of consciousness which emerged as a response to the bicameral collapse which allowed for the development of a conceiving, conniving, innovating, problem-solving brain no longer dependent upon the gods for direction. Now we cry, how could we let these things happen—though we really mean They, all of  those smart-asses whose solutions have created much bigger problems than any we have seen before.

Look at the disaster registry due to human innovation – war toys from Gatlin guns to mustard gas, nukes and Agent Orange cluster bombs; nuclear meltdowns at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island; the space shuttle explosions; massive floods subsuming Cedar Rapids and Nashville (largely due to floodplain engineering designed to work efficiently with probable fluctiations in water levels but disastrously with the extreme); the financial industry collapse in 2008; the Exxon Valdez oil spill and Deepwater Horizon; the threat of cyber warfare:  all of these misery-inducing events are the result of human invention. And as our solutions pile to such a dizzy height, toppling is frequent and commonplace.

We live in an ever-risky world whose great risk is largely due to our attempts to ameliorate risk. How can this be? In a famous 1996 New Yorker essay, Malcolm Gladwell asserted that catastrophic system failures, as evidenced by the Challenger space shuttle explosion in 1986, are the result of risk-containment systems which build up to a level of complexity where a simple train of small glitches can trigger a catastrophic breakdown.


The explosion of the Challenger Space shuttle in 1984 and Deepwater Horizon in 2010 showed the dangers of risk-aversion culture.

Risk-containment systems are built into complex machinery; however, these systems are the judgment call of a particular culture based on prior experience that may not be wide enough in scope. At NASA, where it was believed that space flight was inherently risky, its operating procedures sifted risk between the acceptable (marginal) and threatening (things which could reasonably happen in the normal course of events).

O-rings had been identified as a potential risk for several years, but they were deemed an acceptable one. No one knew how much cold could affect the efficiency of those rings until Challenger launched on a January morning of record cold. Frozen rings caused a stream of flame to ignite one of Challenger’s external fuel tanks and the entire vehicle exploded in system failure.  The United States’ space program, the most expensive and advanced in the world, showed it vulnerable ass to all in those snaky plumes of smoke descending into the cold blue Atlantic that sunny morning in January.

(I was working at the Orlando Sentinel newspaper at the time; we’d gone up on the roof to watch the launch 50 miles away, and when the we saw a straight trajectory of flame turn into a haphazard confusion of smoke plumes, everyone dashed down through a maze of pressroom hallways and stairwells back into the main building and to Editorial to watch the endless loop of explosion footage on TVs mounted in there.)

Following the explosion, the country did what the usual disaster response of massively wringing our collective hands, looking for smoking guns, someone to blame. The Challenger salvage operation was largest-scale event of its kind, going on for months as pieces of wreckage were dredged up from the Atlantic. (Much of it refused salvage; twenty-five years after the disasters, pieces of Challenger still routinely wash up on the shores of Brevard County beaches). A Presidential Commission was named and assigned the task of making meaning out of the incomplete jigsaw of wreckage. The culprit in the superstructure was named—those damned O-rings—yet the Commission could not find fault in the infrastructure of procedure. No one was fired or sued. The O-rings were addressed and launch procedures changed to restrict them during times of extreme cold: but the invulnerable image of the U.S. space program was forever destroyed, entering us into a riskier, more dangerous present.

Nearly 20 years after Challenger, heat tiles fell off the external tank of the space shuttle Columbia when it launched from Cape Canaveral in February 2003, striking the leading edge of the shuttle’s left wing and damaging the shuttles thermal protection system.  Heat tiles had been observed falling off previous shuttles, but since it hadn’t affected those shuttle flights, their falling off was considered an acceptable risk. But this time, falling tiles had done damage at a crucial locus of the re-entry process, and as Columbia began its return descent, the damaged area allowed hot gases to enter the internal wing structure, causing a rapid breakup of the entire vehicle. Remains mechanical and human fell in a rain over a swath from Texas to Arkansas, and the blame game was on again.


The risky business of space flight was revealed in 2003 from a totally different direction when heat tiles fell off the external fuel tank during liftoff and did fatal structural damage to the shuttle’s left wing.

The space shuttle program represents one of the greatest technological achievements in human history, yet it also is a primee example of  how complex systems cannot be managed with risk-aversion cultures developed in less complex times.

Our technology has outgrown our conceptions of it; we’re playing with fires we know too little about. The company which built Deepwater Horizon had built and placed a thousand deep-water rigs around in the Gulf and was sure in its purpose, but deepwater drilling – something we began only as more available sources of oil have been depleted and reliance on foreign oil became so dicey –- is inherently risky, delving into an environment we know too little about. There was a very real chance that the blown core of the Deepwater drill would be prove unblockable, flooding the entire Gulf with oil. That didn’t happen, but we were exposed to knowledge that offshore oil drilling is a much riskier business than we had ever imagined.

In the same essay, Gladwell pointed out that risk-aversion systems often set up catastrophe by the very assurance they provide. He cited a study of the use of anti-lock braking systems in a fleet of taxicabs in Munich. For three years they were secretly compared with another group of cabs which didn’t have the antilock brakes, and the results were startling: the cabs that had the antilock brakes had a much higher accident rate. Why? The perceived security offered by the antilock brakes made cabbies much more inferior drivers. Trusting their better brakes, they drove faster, made sharper turns, showed poorer lane discipline, tailgated and braked harder. Drivers did not use the antilock brakes to drive safer; it only gave them the incentive to drive more hazardously, trusting their antilock brakes to save them if they got into trouble. “As economists would say,” Gladwell writes, “they ‘consumed’ the risk reduction, they didn’t save it.”

Something about this reminds me of the complex financial tools put into place by the big investment houses in the late 2000s to mine profits they had never seen before. These tools included subprime mortgage lending, mortgage-backed securities, collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps; all hinged on an ever-ballooning housing market which, when it topped off in early 2008, caused the tools to work in reverse and nearly bankrupted the entire world. Obviously greed was a culprit – isn’t it always, when you look at the massive oil spills or other disasters where profit had greater leverage than safety? Yet there is also the sense that, as a species, we have become smart enough to wring treasure from heights and depths, wringing power and profits from wind and wave and upwellings of oil and market activity, but we are not smart enough to efficiently manage our machinery. Ragnarok — the Apocalypse of the Gods — has become, in the post-bicameral human consciousness – An Ooopsie of the Odds, precipitated by everything we think we know too well.


Many have seen parallels with this notion with the scene in Disney’s Fantasia where Mickey Mouse acts out Goethe’s poem “The Sorceror’s Apprentice,” set to the symphonic poem of Paul Dukas. Mickey is the apprentice of an old sorceror; as the old man is leaving his workshop, he gives Mickey chores to perform. Tired of fetching water by pail, Mickey enchants a broom to do the work for him — using magic he is not yet fully trained in. The floor is soon awash with water, and the apprentice realizes that he cannot stop the broom because he does not know how. He tries to split the broom in two with an axe, but each of the pieces becomes a new broom and takes up a pail and continues fetching water, now at twice the speed.



When all seems lost, the old sorcerer returns, quickly breaks the spell and saves the day. The poem finishes with the old sorcerer’s statement that powerful spirits should only be called by the master himself.

In the take of many on where civilization is today, we are the Apprentice playing with fire. We know enough about processes to set them in motion, but since our motives are selfish, self-aggrandizing or simply self-comforting, we can’t see the big picture and abuse “spirits” which take on a life of their own.

There’s something also to be said about being smart enough to create a complex system—playing God with the spirits of nature—but failing to be smart enough how to shut the system down when it fails. Catastrophe on the order of Challenger or Deepwater Horizon or the financial system is the result of complex systems becoming gnarly beyond our ken and ability to untangle, Google invoking googol-plex morass of knowns, obliterating all hope of knowledge.

Well, to err is human, but to fuck up is divine—at least, error on a grand scale is archetypal in our makeup. Adam and Eve had were under strict instructions not to eat of the tree of knowledge, but Satan had only to wave a juicy apple under Eve’s eyes and the chain of disobedience known as original sin was hammered into our psyche, religious conscience whispering that one bad move and its fire in this life and brimstone in the next.

A traditional Finnish folktale says that our error is rooted in faulty, or insufficient knowledge. (Maybe the sin of Eden was in eating too few of those apples.) It goes like this: There were two brothers, one rich and one poor. One Christmas the rich brother gave the other a ham, on condition that he should go to Pōrgu. On his way, the poor brother encountered a member of the wee folk who told him that ham was a rarity in the Otherword, but he must not sell it for money, but only for what was behind the door, which proved to be a wishing-mill. The rich brother bought it for a high price from the poor brother and set it to grind herrings and milk-soup; but he was soon forced to give his brother another great sum to induce him to take it back, and to save him and his wife, and indeed the whole village, from being overwhelmed by the torrents of herrings and soup. Afterwards it was sold to a sea-captain, who set it to grind salt, and it ground on till the ship sank, and it now lies at the bottom of the sea, grinding salt for ever. According to the folktale, that’s how the sea became salty.

The unmentioned truth is that the fairies withheld the precious knowledge of how to stop the endless productions of the wishing mill. Maybe the poor man forgot to ask in the ambrosial funk of finally getting all of his wishes met. I’m sure no blacksmith forging bronze for the first time considered the number of throats which would be slit by its superior strength and sharpness.

* * *


Harold Lloyd in “Safety Last”

Complexity and chaos are challenges in which traditional mind – the “culture” which surrounds any given group of like interests and purpose—is fooled by what it thinks it knows best. The wisdom of the ancients sometimes an eerie similarity to quantum physics, but the equations are only surficially similar. The assurance of accumulated wisdom is blind to the nakedness of fresh truth: we’ll never quite “connect the dots” if the process is secretly guarded by a sacred trust in ossified beliefs. – The belief, for example, that all dots must connect, the universe being a product of divine design.

Fooled by what our knowledge teaches us to look for. Bush Administration officials failed to see the threat of Al-Quaeda because they thought the threat was from the intercontinental ballistic missiles of the Cold War. The high-tech, big money Star Wars defense system was aimed at the enemy we thought we knew; and with our eyes fixed on the sky for rockets, no one saw the threat of men boarding transcontinental passenger jets armed with box-cutters. We’re still panicking over the threat of weapons of mass destruction – nukes stashed in suitcases and shipping containers – when the enemy is hacking away at us in a death-by-a-thousand-cuts strategy, using the much smaller threat of shoe and underwear and printer-toner bombs to bankrupt the airline industry.

Even the notion of “connecting the dots” is an old-school approach to the problem of complexity, since the dots aren’t comprehensible in linear patterns any more. String theory posits a universe of many overlayered, interconnected and discrete universes existing simultaneously, a sort of 3-D chess game brokered by a mad God, or none at all.

What sort of mind can engage this nuttiness and avert the primrose path of risk aversion? I suggest three discretely related paradigms:

  • First, I agree with Wallace Stevens that you have to have a mind of a snowman to comprehend winter: the nakedness of things as they are requires a nakedness where the data is seen without applying one’s inherited or accumulated webs of meaning. In approaching this theme, I’ve floundered in the myths, searching in vain for a motif that isn’t styled by an archetype. The gods all arrived to defeat Chaos—always the defeat of Tiamat or the Delphian serpent, battling the Titans to a fall, establishing a rule of law which was absolute. Those gods – and their laws – are gone, and their archetypal styles only mask the problem in manias of light and might warped every whichway.  Poetry and beauty, elegance and eloquence may produce an aura of meaning, but none of that will prevent the power grid which keeps the East Coast lit and warm from failing. Meaning blinds us to randomness: the dots work because they’re disconnected, or rather, their disconnectedness creates the wholly unforeseen pattern.
  • Second, commonsensical reasoning can’t help, either. Truths which have long been accepted do not necessarily age well into the present. The power grids are built on electromechanical assumptions which work efficiently on one scale, but the larger they become and burdensome to manage, the less those assumptions matter. The nature of electromechanics changes as new layers of complexity are introduced: process become more important than system: the cognition of it has to be figured out from the inside of the works. Our brains should be capable of that, what with their trillions of connections firing at will across multiple networks. Know thyself, the Delphic oracle said – but it may have meant not self-knowledge but knowledge of the self-works, how consciousness arises out of a billion-fold mash of unconscious waves of data.
  • Third, the process of this cognition must work widely, embracing all of the inputs, especially the denigrated ones. As Jung has pointed out, wholeness arises out of the union of the opposites: I and Thou must somehow mate in the middle of the matrix. If system failure is my fear, then I must also engage the fact of system failure, make it a part of my thought, so that chaos becomes a nutrient and dynamo of thought. We learn that most of space is composed not of what  we see but the darkness we can’t, and that the universe is woven by forces which are unnamable, by laws which are beyond human thought. Science can’t unlock those mysteries with tools designed for springing locks; the Unknowable simply is, and thrives outside of our mental constructs of time and space.

* * *



What could it mean to perceive cosmos with a certain resistance to the pitfalls of reason? That’s where the rejected bicamerality of mind – the old-school notions of the gods – can help. If the gods are inscrutable, then to know cosmos is to know without knowing, embracing what simply is. Left and right hemishpheres of the mind – the opposed locii of reasoning and language, science and God – can be paired into an engine which rejects and accepts meaning at the same time, just the way the complex universe is knowable and not.

Perhaps. Such evolution of thought – of thinking – may be the necessary evolutionary response to the failure of consciousness to deal with the present moment, the way bicameral mind failed to deal with the death of the gods. I believe we’re in a dark ages of sorts, trapped in dead-ending paradigms, searching every which way to erect a cognitive structure equal to the realities and challenges we now exist in.

Always there is the threat of falling back into the old traps. To become fundamentalists and literalists of mind, hugging old-school paradigms because we haven’t the fortitude to foray out as far as the task requires. We may blow ourselves up before we figure it out. Or this tiny blue dot of an experiment in mental life gets destroyed by an alien race making room for a hyperspace bypass.

Julian Jaynes contended that consciousness was a late invention in mind, the product of the development of an interior world which identified itself as I as opposed to You, the outside world. It developed a sense of narrative – of coming-to-being and creating a world over time. It replaced the gods in all decision making and eventually made the individual a complete cosmos. Consciousness made possible the sort of godlike manipulation of nature which employed fire, developed agriculture, and became the industrious tool-maker and –employer of modern science.

Consciousness got us into the complexities of the present, and it is challenged to out-think itself, to know how to refute its processes in the name of shutting down the handmill when salt overbrims the prow of the ship. It evolved from a more primary mode of mind (which Jaynes called bicameral, with “the gods” residing in the right hemisphere, uttering the edicts and commands for every stressful situation); it should be able to evolve into a greater, more capable knowledge, translateral in its ability to think and dream at the same time, to create and conceive systems with a  little blue man at its core, flipping the  switch  off at exactly the right moment before catastrophe floods through.

That’s what fascinates me, these days: is there evidence of consciousness finding a way through itself, without falling back into the lost certainties of fundamentalism or the other way into the gulf of its own, overconfident knowledge. To have a mind of winter which knows best what it can’t, a partnership between I and Thou where a faith is at work building a new expression enginned for the next moment’s truth, embracing and rejecting  the past in the same gesture.

So my net is cast out there, searching for new fusions of latter and former fissions:

  • One example might be the current debate over a social-psychiatric science journal publishing a research on evidence of the ability foresee future events using extra-sensory perceptional apparatus heretofore rejected by the scientific community. It was carefully peer-reviewed for rigor of procedure and validity of results, but its publication has sparked an enormous outcry from the scientific community, beleaguered as it is by a vast mainstream of anti-rational and anti-scientific thought which asserts the primacy of belief over reason. Does such publication weaken the field, the unacceptable tide leaking into the embattled realm of accepted method? Is science sinking into the mud? Or is a lid unknowingly being lifted on an evolved, forward-backward science where light and dark are becoming meshed in a new method where the unknowable (or unprovable) doctors the watchworks and calibrates the tools of analysis with a random twist of abyss?
  • Another fusion shows how civilization explodes from its “errors,” the unintended use of a technology become its gold standard. The Internet was first devised in the late 1950s as a component of our military defenses, linking computers at the Pentagon, Cheyenne Mountain (where radars scan the heavens for military threats) and Strategic Air Command headquarters. It was developed further by universities as a means of researchers sharing information in the 1970s. But when it when it was put to commercial use in the 1990s, it big-banged into something which took over modern life with a pervasiveness parallel to the introduction of agriculture at the end of the Paleolithic.

What wonderful cognition brought this leap into the hyperrealities of cyberspace possible? Look low: Sex, the unassailable instinct, was the devil who handed us this apple. Granting world-wide access to the Swedish Bikini Team’s locker room, the Internet exploded, led on the vanguard of sex. Sex it the Internet’s primary source of interest and commerce. YouTube was originally a dating site, where you could view short vids of prospective partners; Facebook was used by Harvard nerds to compare notes on female undergraduates. Without sex, there wouldn’t be online banking, smartphones, cloud computing, social media, Wikipedia or Wikileaks. (Unassailable for his massive leaks of U.S. diplomatic and military cables, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange was nabbed by police for his rubber-less indiscretions with two women in Sweden.) Numerous industries which have been decimated by the Internet’s transmission of free content are being forced to transform into a wholly new business model or die. (Many are dying, but some are finding foundation on water, thriving in virtual clouds, having no brick-and-mortar reality. Apple’s market cap is the fourth largest, and its not for its hardware – innovative though it is – but its ability to capture the imagination with hardware vastly pregnant with possibility.



Sometimes it’s a matter of turning a tool the other way around, realizing the supreme use of it in the opposite direction. Take the tale of Apollo and Marysas. Marysas was a musically gifted satyr who believed so much in his talent at the flute that he challenged the god Apollo to a battle of the instruments, on the condition that the winner could do as he pleased with the vanquished. The Muses collected to judge the outcome. Apollo played the cithara – a lyre or ur-guitar – and Marsyas held his own against the god for beautiful strains until the god began singing. Another version has it that Apollo turned his lute upside down and played the same tune, something which Marysas couldn’t do with a flute.) Either way, that added element – beauty plus, or beauty upside down and backward – resulted in unanimous decision by the Muses in Apollo’s favor, and as a result Marsyas was hung upside down and flayed alive.

Marysas has been seen by some as representative of the older nature religions (he is associated with the cult of Cybele, who crucified her mortal lover Attis by hanging him upside down on a cypress tree), with Apollo representative of the Hellenic mind which sourced there and then superceded it with superior insight and calibration of mind. If so, then Apollo’s victory in the contest suggests that civilization advances not by logical progression but the odd wily banana peel, ass-ending the old with a twist of the new.


Marsyas and Apollo. Vase painting, ca 360-340 BC.

Statues of Marysas found their way into the public squares of many ancient cities (Horace, Juvenal and Martial all reference the one in Rome), perhaps with mutual nods to Bacchantic license as well as a reminder of the ends of challenging authority. The duple readings perhaps give the tale its enduring, endearing place in the imagination. Nature has its flute, mind its lute; there is a tale of nymph-glades and skin-flutes, and another of overreaching, ambition become humiliation. And it’s possible to read the myth the other way, from the perspective of the god, offering healing corrective in the rawest way possible, suggesting that power comes not from ambition but through sacrifice, that the surrender is the only eternal escape from finitude, our mortal condition.

(For more on the tale, click here. You dowse your own conclusions.)

Such perambling to and fro the length of a myth, one way and then another, reading it from many perspectives, provides its rewards in depth. It’s like retrieving a dream by grabbing its fleeing tail; the last detail, the only one remembered upon waking is loosed in the imagination and the dream returns entire, or maybe the single remembered motion becomes a trope-a-rope by which one descends (or ascends) to discover a new firmament, a fresh expression. I think of the Outer World arrangement of the I Ching hexagrams, aligned according to their natural occurrence; the Inner World arrangement is revealed when you  twist the cycle a notch, revealing Lake and Mountain, Arousing Thunder and the seasons of the soul, like the outer world but  never exactly, florid and exuberant with a symbolic expression freed from its outer semblance.

There is a wonderful myth-metaphor for this hermeneutic work in the figure of Hermes, god of boundaries and roads, animal husbandry and athletic contests, diplomacy and persuasion, music and cunning (commerce), playful thought and a running imagination. Hermes was around a long time before Apollo, sort of a phallic-shaman-satyr whose presence was often marked by a pile of stones called herms. You knew where one territory ended and another begin by a herm. Early commerce was usually undertaken at these boundary-markers, with the trading partners never meeting, the seller leaving the goods at the herm and the buyer later picking them up from it.


Detail of Hermes from a painting of Zeus dispatching the messenger gods Iris and Hermes. It is probably an illustration of a scene described in the Iliad. Hermes is shown holding a kerykeion (herald’s wand) and wearing winged boots, a petasos and chlamys (traveller’s cap and cloak). From a vase dated ca. 480-470 BC.

Bringing Hermes into the Hellenic age, the Homeric Hymn to Hermes has him, as a child, stealing the sacred cattle of Apollo, concealing the cattle’s tracks  by putting boots on their hooves and hiding them in a cave except for two which he sacrifices to Zeus. Outside the cave Hermes finds a tortoise and kills it, cleaning out the insides and fashioning the first musical instrument, a lyre, making strings from the cattle he’d sacrificed. Apollo tracks down the thief using “divine science” and confronts the infant god. When he hears Hermes play the lyre he is so entranced that he asks for the musical instrument in return for the cattle. Later, Hermes fashions the first pipe while tending his flock of cattle, and Apollo becomes entranced also of that music, and teaches Hermes how to prophesy in return for the flute. Later Zeus makes Hermes the herald and messenger of the gods.

What is fascinating to me is that this god predates the Hellenic pantheon and yet has a mind which leaps ahead of it. In his essay “The Liminality of Hermes and the Meaning of Hermaneutics,” Richard E. Palmer puts it this way:

“By a playful thinking that is more persuasive than the rigor of science,” Heidegger tells us, the Greek words for interpreting and interpretation – hermeneuein, hermeneia – can be traced back to the god Hermes … As a god of sudden magic and mystery and sudden good luck, Hermes is the god of sudden interpretive insights that come from an ability to approach daytime reality with liminal freedom.

Apollo picked up his skill at music from rustic infant Hermes – bartered his sacred cows and the art of divination for it – and, as we saw with Marsyas, learned how to win a contest by a bit of Hermetic knavery, exceeding the boundaries of divine science by playing the Muses’ lyre upside down. Brilliant indeed; the Hellenic age was one of clarifying a god’s boundaries through the arts. As They became clear, we became conscious; the arrival of the Olympians as the new ruling class of gods, bound no longer to the fixed laws of birth, life, and death on earth but free to gambol and gambit from the heavens was a projection of what was happening inside the classical Greek mind. Liminal freedom meant finding divine presence everywhere one looked. There is a freshness and vitality in the poems and dramas, sculpture and pottery of the Hellenic age: everywhere the artist looked, a new world was seen in the old, lit from within a mind now capable of mental play with the possibilities.

In our age, where the light of Apollo burns so brightly as to almost obliterate the night sky, Apollonian certainties have rigored into a science and technology which has created systems so complex that they are blind to their own growing shadow, a shadow which I read as the monkeywrench in the complex works of civilization. The tools of the scientific mind are fast outpacing our ability to manage, much less comprehend them.

And in the shadow of our risky business, Hermes is found, dancing with mad mullet-eyed-drunk Dionysos, the anti-rational half-brother of Apollo. The alternatives to Apollonian complexity – that ever-aggrandizing science with its ever-speeding-toward-careening-technology – are thinking our way through from the playful borderland of Hermes or descending into an anti-rational chaos.

Take the current gridlock in Congress, where partisans so convinced of their correctness are dragging the country closer toward the borders of civil war. Such heated angst inflicts its violence upon a culture, much as it grows out of a violent, armed-to-the-teeth society; and minds which have yet to find a stable center whirl out of the vortex spraying insensate invective and bullets where they careen. Congress wrings its hands mouthing platitudes about civility for a day, then resumes its heated embattled fray, avoiding any sort of gun-control legislation while Republicans fight to tear down President Obama’s health care initiative, which would put more troubled youth within the radar early enough.

It’s not surprising that studies indicate a rise in the percentage of manic-depressives in our population; the network consciousness of social media may flooding impressionable minds way with way too much sex and thugs  and rock n roll. The white noise of online 24-7 may be all but eradicating the sort of individual thinking which establishes a self and constructs safe boundaries between the imagined and the real. (The problem may also root in the culture of pharmacology, a complex system whose inherent risk is that its palliatives may also serve as infectious agents.)

Hermes’ style of thinking – playful, conniving, unwilling to play by rigid rational rules though arising from them – may be the corrective for the ills of NASA and British Petroleum, Washington and Tuscon, Sarah Palin and Jared Loughner. Hermes rules the boundaries between things, and he allows fruitful commerce to happen there with a certain contempt for orthodox thinking. He avoids the risk of complexity by seeing through the system; as messenger of the gods he keeps on the border of their individual fixities with a fleet and fluid language (the tongues of sacrificed animals were offered to Hermes) capable of talking in every divine style. The rigor of any system lies in its adherence to a single culture; NASA culture can launch rockets, but its shadowy treatment of risk allows its rockets to blow up, too; Washington is ruled by Beltway manners which are increasingly unable to adequately rule. Hermeneutics help us to see what the captains of these problematic enterprises cannot, innovating not the tools but our ways of thinking about them. As god of roads, Hermes protects the traveler willing to cross borders, punishing those who refuse to help travelers who had lost their way. His staff is twined with the two antithetical branches (or snakes) of diplomacy and magic, brilliant thought and dark speech. Luck is Hermetic, accidental to the Apollonian mind yet something wholly other to Hermes, the ability to see what the eye can’t or won’t, thinking around (or under) thought to find the hidden treasure.

Hermes may rule the connective fiber that spans the fissure between left and right hemispheres of the brain, each hemisphere tending toward a certain heightened functioning, analytical in the left hemisphere (using linear reasoning) and more wholistic and inflected in the right (call it circular reasoning). Disciplined, routine behavior centers in the left brain; depression and negative thought is linked to the right brain, as is arousal, response to novel situations and self-reflection. It’s easy to see Apollo and Dionysos ruling from left and right sides of the brain; either alone would be a tyranny, but translateral functioning—the whole-brained approach—is enabled by Hermes.

Hermes keeps us keepin’ on. He’s the motive and motivator of the essay, which began with troubling realities and found a way to see through them and step around them on a precipice of air. (Good thing Hermes wears winged sandals.) Now if he could only help me find an ending; but I don’t think that’s his job. He’s simply got me thinking now of the next essay sufficiently so that I don’t care to linger here any longer. It is Hermes who has me put these words into stricken Marsyas’s mouth: “Alas, the way I thought it was is not the way it is at all!”

Those are the same words uttered by St. Oran after his face was unearthed from the grave where he was buried alive to appease the angry former god of Iona when St. Columba came there to found his abbey in 563 AD. Columba wished to look on the face of his friend one last time, and got a mouthful of Otherworld dirt instead. The early centuries of Irish Christianity were a vibrant confluence of old and new; the magnificent manuscripts of Kells and Lindisfarne were richly illustrated testaments to God’s presence, the former oral culture going into the foundations of the new written one. Orthodoxy eventually arrived, killing the vibrant spirit of adventure; but for a time the written word was the frontier West, open, wild, and free. The Internet has some of that nature, as long as we don’t take it too seriously nor let it overtake our individual brains.

And when disaster strikes in the eternal watchworks – when complexity creates its own collapse – let us be reminded by Hermes that in every end there is a beginning, a new possibility. Deep in the maelstrom of the Second World War, T.S. Eliot would write his great poem-sequence Four Quartets. When all seemed lost, he found a way through and out, I believe, through the hermeneutics of a rational-poetic mind. Waving that caduceus, he sang,

..each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling, undisciplined squads of emotion.
And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate — but there is no competition —
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found again and again:  and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious.  But perhaps there is neither
Gain nor loss.  For us, there is only the trying.
The rest is not our business.

Or rather, it is Hermes’ business, deal-maker, dancer, venture-undertaker. We can navigate our way into the future by Hermes’ light, one which both connects with the divine as well as the dead (Hermes psychopompos ferries the souls of the dead to the Underworld). We simply do the best we can, rolling the dice, making our next gambit on the inarticulate, trying to find the words. Hermes doesn’t so much promise fortune as another fortunate foray.

As Eliot wrote elsewhere in Four Quartets, the following should be inscribed on the arch we pass under as we head out on the next open road:

Not fare well,
But fare forward, o voyagers.




Aftermath of blizzard in New York City, 1/12/2011.



Filed under Cognitive Science, Concsiousness, Consciousness, Culture, Folklore, Greek mythology, Life, Mind, Myth and Archetype, Mythology, Nature, Oran, Pyschology, The Future, The Sea

6 responses to “REPOST: Consciousness, Complexity and Catastrophe (The Hermeneutics of Risky Business)

  1. “It was a low-tech solution, moving forward by stepping back.” I think all of would do well to take several steps back or more.

    As an undergraduate student in an environmental geology class years ago, it was the first time I realized, with striking clarity, that much of my hometown was built on a floodplain. That hundreds of thousands of people were dumb (or ignorant?) enough to consider themselves smarter than the great green earth at large.

    I think we’re fooling ourselves. Still.

    • Brendan

      Thanks for reading, Ruth. I remember someone once saying that homo sapiens was a really lousy species to ordain for global mastery since us monster monkeys have no decent forethought: we never think far enough ahead to plan for our consequences. Like planning for 2050 when the lower half of Florida will be under water due to global warming.

  2. I’ve finished the newest piece of your post and will have to come back to read the repost. I do believe, unfortunately, that we will not learn. That we will push ourselves and the earth to calamity. We’re just a bunch of gnats that will consume until quaked out of our malaise, whether by catastrophic earthquakes, competing natural disasters, pandemic, food stocks failing or some other undeniable international plague that descends upon us. We’re not smart, we’re greedy. We’re apathetic. We’re lethargic. We’re short sighted. We won’t act until we absolutely have to and that will be when it is too late. We need a much smaller population and we need that population to have suffered before we’ll be willing to engage in the monumental changes that we must. I’m afraid this is the truth. What is happening in Japan is shocking and harrowingly desperate, and yet, and yet, we will not learn. We’ll spin when we can and turn a blind eye to the facts for the facts concerning nuclear energy have been available all along, we’ve just chosen poorly. Cataclysm first. Change, even then, reluctantly second. We’re shits.


  3. Brendan

    Thanks Erin — I think collectively we’re shittiest, a personal defect amped to full volume in the form of corporate and national interest. Yet it’s amazing, isn’t it, that between two people such atrocity and stupidity is far less in evidence. Oh it happens — ask any abused child or jilted lover — but the norm of the small, the local is much more sane. No wonder everyone wants us to think small, act small, live small. But the only way we could will that is to legislate it, and that’s not going to happen. Or let events — our consequences — do the right-sizing.

    Still, I like the mythopoetic of going dark. Black bulbs lighting the way ahead. Celebrate the verbs, fugetabout the nouns. Swim.

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