Monday, November 15, 2010

Shit happens

I can't remember whether it was two or three decades ago that I saw my first "Shit Happens" T-shirt. There are many variations of the list, but they're all about the various religious views of why shit happens. There are numerous listings on the web. I haven't checked to see which is the most complete. This one, from the infamous journal Maledicta (Volume 12, 1996), claims to be complete:

The Complete "Shit Happens" List

Some of these are quite funny. Note, thought, that the first one listed here is also the first one you will see on all the T-shirts, namely: "Taoism: Shit happens." And seriously, that's all there really is.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Tribute to Indian Atheists- Part II

Here it is. Most of these names are new to me. I recognize Ambedkar, Rushdie, A. Roy, and B. Singh.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Jazz Avant-Garde, Mysticism & Society revisited

Revisiting my experiences of the 1970s (the '70s being the key to all mysteries) through the prism of the 1990s and thereafter prompted my attempt at an analytical approach that would explain the historical need, appeal, and limitations of the mysticism endemic to the most advanced black jazz musicians of the 1960s, an approach that would differ from the orientation of the burgeoning scholarship surrounding them. A few scholars of these musicians (e.g. of John Coltrane, Sun Ra, Anthony Braxton) appreciated my endeavors, which aimed at something different from their own invaluable work. Historically, it has been necessary first to vindicate and document black cultural achievements and place them into the mainstream of intellectual life. This is an ongoing process. Yet Americans cannot follow Europeans in simply preserving cultural artifacts as museum pieces that never change while time, society, and sensibility move on, either in positive or negative directions (or both simultaneously). (The Wynton Marsalis gambit of excising the avant-garde from legitimate jazz tradition was reflected in Ken Burns' falsification of the history of jazz in the '60s and '70s, which speaks volumes about the nature of popular culture and class stratification today.) But also, the more we think about what has changed, what we lost that we couldn't save, and what we have outgrown, once the task of vindication has been accomplished, we have to evaluate where we're at now, in the process of blindly feeling our way into the future.

Recent musings about Sun Ra have diverted my attention to an old project of mine:

The Jazz Avant-Garde, Mysticism & Society: Meaning, Method & the Young Hegelians (2002, 2004)

I have noted that one of the most striking things about some of these avant-garde jazz composers/musicians is the individualism that characterizes their construction of belief systems or esoteric/mystical conceptions. Coltrane graduated from traditional Christianity in North Carolina to eclecticism in Philadelphia, studying everything, professing tolerance of a multiplicity of paths, while developing no original system of thought. Sun Ra concocted out of his sources an Afrocentric cosmo-mythology combining an interest in ancient Egypt with interplanetary travel. Sun Ra was from Birmingham, Alabama, so it is understandable why only taking up residence on the planet Saturn could get him far enough away from the South. Anthony Braxton comes out of Chicago, constructing an original esoteric system more mathematical and abstract. There must be a way of analyzing this historical trajectory in a fashion different from both uncritical boosterism and from an overall historically and sociologically impoverished atheist/humanist movement.

I concluded the ruminations collected herein with two generalizations—the moral of the story, if you will (pardon the fancy language):
(a) Oppositional mystical/metaphysical positions are anticipations of developments to come, formulated at a time and staking out a territory before they can be concretely realized in society and developed in theoretical form. In Hegelian fashion, that which is needed but cannot become concrete must live as abstraction.

(b) When the historical moment is due for the sublation of mystical/metaphysical abstractions into scientific/cultural form, and this fails to happen, then a regression takes place, and the dark side of mysticism—intimately connected with fascism—comes out into the light, the concealed weaknesses of a cultural strategy become manifest, and the cultural strategy goes bankrupt.

"Bankrupt" is the key word for today. Neither a return to the 1950s, perpetuation of navel-gazing avant-garde noodle-doodle, nor indulgence in the pole-dancing bullshit many of you take for music today, will do. But there is something missing in thought as well as in culture, and for that neither nostalgia nor presentism will do. Our work of mourning involves living in a state of tension between present and past, and figuring out how to survive a future that is rapidly being stolen from us.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Where are the atheist women? (2)

One of the strongest reactions against the Ms Magazine blogger who doubted the prominence of women in the atheist movement was Jennifer McCreight's intervention:

Does the media really care where the atheist women are?, November 1, 2010.

If you want to know where the atheist women were and are, see her list:

A large list of awesome female atheists
by Jen McCreight, Blag Hag blog, January 3, 2010.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Where are the atheist women?

This asinine article garnered some harsh responses:

Will “New Atheism” Make Room For Women? by Monica Shores, Ms. Magazine Blog, November 1, 2010

It was an accusatory article about the alleged domination of the (new) atheism by old white men.

Here is what I wrote on Facebook in response to a news feed:
This article is quite dishonest. We can start with the fact that it was the press, not the atheist movement itself, that coined the bogus concept "new atheist" and chose the "four horsemen" as the stars. Who invites these people on talk shows and writes about them in the press? Who stopped the media from featuring Ali more and giving Jacoby more than a column on the Washington Post web site? As for the atheist/humanist movement itself, it too is held hostage to celebrity culture in order to pay the bills. There are far more intellectually astute people of any race or gender behind the scenes than people likely to become superstars. And were one to look at the history of the freethought movement, women were never the meek and passive individuals they are made out to be here. As for the ideological notions most prominent in the movement, there's a lot worse than Hitchens' cracks about women, and they are driven--sociobiology is a prime example--by an ideology more profoundly rooted than sexism. How small and shallow. Incidentally, I recall a number of feminists who invested a fair amount of energy defaming Edwards & Obama because they thought getting a white woman in the White House really mattered. This is the shallow ideological level at which this country operates.
Various published responses more directly assaulted the misstatements of this article. This one appeared on the Ms blog itself:

Where Are All The Atheist Women? Right Here by Jen McCreight, Ms. Magazine blog, November 3, 2010

Stalking the Mystic Bourgeoisie

Here's an interesting reading guide on

So you'd like to ... protect yourself from the Mystic Bourgeoisie, a guide by Christopher Locke

Locke claims to be working on a book with the working title Mystic Bourgeoisie: Numinous Lunacy & the Sanctimonious Narcissism of the New Age. Here's a tidbit from his rant:
"Far more expensive, however, is the widespread attitude that this kind of 'mysticism' is a harmless, even socially beneficent 'lifestyle option.' As it was in the past, it's actually the 'spiritual' underbelly of political fascism—and it's bearing down on the present like a fast freight."

Invented Knowledge: False History, Fake Science and Pseudo-religions

Invented Knowledge: False History, Fake Science and Pseudo-religions by Ronald H. Fritze (London: Reaktion Books, 2009)

See the author's web site, linked above. Here is the publisher's description:
Invented Knowledge is an exploration of the murky world of fake science and pseudo-history: fields that generally rely on lost continents, ancient super-civilizations, conspiratorial cover-ups, preternaturally daring and undocumented discoveries, and even vast Satan-inspired plots to offer an alternative version of the past.

At once lively and authoritative, Ronald H. Fritze illuminates the phenomenon of false history by telling the story of a select group of pseudo-historical ideas. He explores legends such as the lost continent of Atlantis, and the original settlement of the Americas by a European people, who established a glorious civilization only to be supplanted by the invading ‘Red Indian’, and whose only remains are the many mounds scattered across the eastern United States. He also discusses the beliefs of more recent religious groups, such as the Nation of Islam and Christian Identity. Fritze shows that in spite of, or perhaps because of, the strongest rejections of mainstream historians, and the lack of scientific evidence, some of these ideas have proved very durable, and gained widespread acceptance in the public mind. Such ideas can also be deadly – the Nazis, for example, believed in a false version of European history in which the German people were a superior race destined to conquer the world.

With many diverting examples of spurious narrative, artificial chronology and ersatz theory, Invented Knowledge also unravels the disputes and debates surrounding controversial books such as 1421: The Year China Discovered America, Black Athena, The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail and The Da Vinci Code.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Lloyd L. Brown: the complete interview

Some time ago I posted an excerpt from a 1996 interview with black Communist and novelist Lloyd L. Brown (1913-2003). The excerpt concerned Brown's perspective on black religiosity. The full interview can now be found on my web site:

Lloyd L. Brown Talks to Mary Helen Washington: Writing the Collective Narrative (Route One Interview)

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Martin Gardner, mathematical games, & me

In my obit for Martin Gardner, I mentioned my teenage devotion to his Mathematical Games column in Scientific American, which I discovered in 1967 after picking up a copy of the magazine in my local drugstore. In his June 1968 column he proposed a problem concerning Baker's Solitaire, and followed up with readers' solutions in subsequent issues. My name appeared with several others in the September 1968 issue, but as these acknowledgments were not included when the column was anthologized in Mathematical Magic Show: More Puzzles, Games, Diversions, Illusions and Other Mathematical Sleight-of-Mind from Scientific American in 1977, I reproduce said acknowledgment here:

Mathematical Games: Counting Systems and the Relationship between Numbers and the Real World” by Martin Gardner [Excerpt including acknowledgments for solutions to Baker's Solitaire problem]

Other than winning medals or certificates for scholastic achievement and spelling bees, this was one of my first of many trivial claims to fame. I think I once got a letter published in Superman comics when I was a kid. And I once sent a purportedly clever letter with photos to Mad Magazine, but that was a bust. Anyway, this was my sole interaction with Martin Gardner, now preserved for the ages.

See also this section of my games web guide:

Homage to Martin Gardner (October 21, 1914 – May 22, 2010)
Mathematical Games Web Links