Sunday, October 28, 2018

Astrological Monograph: The Fire Triplicity

One grouping of zodiacal signs – called the triplicities by astrologers – is organized thusly: fire for Aries, Leo and Sagittarius; water for Cancer, Scorpio and Pisces; air for Gemini, Libra and Aquarius; and earth for Taurus, Virgo and Capricorn. 

The triple aspect of the triplicity refers to the number of signs associated with a given element, a word used here in its anachronistic sense to represent the four basic constituents of the physical – and metaphysical – universe, rather than materials on the periodic table. 

An element assumes variable states when occupying different signs of a triplicity grouping. The fire of Aries, for example, can burn out of control, destroying forests and property, or it can be used to clear land of dead wood to make way for a new crop. 

The fire of Leo, in its turn, is literally and figuratively connected with the Sun, since - in the northern hemisphere, at least – the sign rules the height of the summer season. 

There is something to this association, for certain; however, it’s worth noting that while the Sun is dignified in Leo due to its natural placement, its exaltation in Aries; which is to say, the Sun’s potentiality to achieve its highest spiritual expression in the sign, implies a profound and transcendent fire symbology. 

This symbology might be informed by current scientific knowledge about the Sun, which shows how celestial energy is the result of titanic forces of gravity and pressure acting on millions of nuclear explosions in a star’s core. 

The symbology might be developed with the concept that Earth orbits the Sun in a Goldilocks Zone – a region hospitable to life as we know it – as opposed to more problematic vectors of other planets. It serves as a reminder that solar effects vary, depending on location. The energy output of a star, assumed in its totality, is uncontrollable, and what results of that output is difficult – maybe even impossible – for human minds to grasp entirely. 

The Sun shines on without prejudice or restraint, but its light falls differently, depending on whether one observes from Earth, Venus or Mars.         

Yet the Sun is essential for the existence of life on this planet generally, a fact that aligns well with Aries zodiacal position at the vernal equinox and the renewal of spring in the northern hemisphere. Light becomes surplus, and days get longer and warmer during the Season of the Ram.

Conceptualized in these ways, the Sun – as an expression of elemental fire - does seem to have more in common with Aries raw dynamism than Leo’s regal largesse.
Despite these arguments, the elemental fire related to Leo will remain associated primarily with the Sun because of its constancy – it rises everyday, whether we see it or not – than for its life-giving qualities. The fixity of the Leonine fire endures; rather than creating or destroying, it is life-sustaining. It is the fire one might use to cook a meal; an apt metaphor for this utilitarian elemental state.

In Sagittarius, the elemental fire becomes expansive and mutable, like lava; liquid fire. The bestial quality of the Centaur’s sign – represented by its animal half – is connected to the natural world, the material world, so the association with molten rock emitted from the Earth is well-founded. 

Another metaphor for this aspect of the fire triplicity could be elemental fire in its explosive or volatile expression, as both states are characteristic of the Sagittarian temperament.

Electricity, too, being a manifestation of elemental fire energy, might be considered aptly represented by Sagittarius, as the sign is ruled by Jupiter - a planet named after the chief sky god of Roman myth, and a deity who wielded lightning bolts in battle.  

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

On Conspiracies (Part One)

I have a dear friend with whom I discuss all sorts of subjects. The two of us are particularly adept at a kind of conversation that is loose and rambling. These qualities, in and of themselves, are not unique; most people could probably name one or two other individuals with whom they share such a rapport. 

One of the things that made our correspondence special though is the fact that we’ve known each other for over a quarter-century, and as such, we enjoy the kind of conversational shorthand that all long-time colleagues share. Also, he lives on the other side of the world now, in Asia, and so he brings those experiences to bear on our discourse, which widens the scope of its proliferation.

It was during one of these loose and rambling discussions that he and I found ourselves speaking the subject of conspiracy. Now, the two of us share many perspectives in common, so it came as something of a shock to find unsettling differences revealed during our discourse, and it led to a response, which is presented in the exposition I proffer here.

There can be no doubt that conspiracies exist - in nature and human society - and have, for as long as living beings have been able to breathe together (which is the original meaning of the word conspiracy, generated from the Latin conspirare: con-[together with] and spirare [breathe]).  

Even among our faunal cousins, sympathetic forces align to disrupt the status quo; a head chimpanzee is displaced by a rival who is aided by other like-minded chimps; or the alpha of a wolf pack is tore to bits by would-be usurpers, who then turn on each other until a new leader emerges. 

Could these coups be accomplished without secret alliances, albeit ones formed on an instinctual level of awareness, using means of communication other than language? That seems unlikely...  

But it is conspiracies of the human kind that are, by far, the most imaginative and complex. This is entirely in order, since the peculiar property of Homo sapiens’ sentience is to make abstract realities seem almost tangible to the senses, while remaining just beyond reach of them. 

These realities are not just intellectual abstractions, but emotional ones, too, and more often than not, a combination of both. They can be identified by everyday nomenclature, in the language of law, mathematics, politics, commerce, art, religion, science, and so on. 

Realities represented by language, and the artifacts they produce are the stuff of imagination and reason set to work in the world; the mythos and the logos. My philosophical antecedent called these realities ‘true world theories’, which is as good a signifier as any. Civilization itself, in fact, is built upon the intimation of these realities, which arose in the deep well of time like a flame, a-lighting the dark…  

Steering clear of metaphysics for now - and having established that human awareness has the aforementioned property of conferring reality to a given perspective - we can bring that knowledge to bear on the subject of conspiracy. 

Firstly though, for the purposes of this essay, let’s define conspiracy as the intent of a few individuals to control the majority of the population using coercion, deception, misinformation, disinformation and propaganda.

Secondly, we’ll acknowledge that conspiracy narratives are about power and keeping the mass population in the dark, prostrate to those who benefit from the conspiracy, whether that is banks, big pharma, government, elites, et al.

With these basic definitions in place, a metric can be contrived to measure a range of conspiracy theories, from the proven to the fantastical.

Of three broad categories that will exist within the spectrum of this metric, the first is comprised of conspiracy theories that have been shown to be factually, historically and scientifically verifiable by institutions and persons charged with guarding the gate, metaphorically speaking, between what is known and what is unknown.

I know what you’re going to say now, reader - what if the guardians themselves are conspiring to keep us in fetters, putting blinds over our eyes to conceal and dissemble what truth can be found in this world? “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” as a Roman poet once asked, only the context here isn’t marital fidelity, but fidelity to an idea of knowledge that is incorruptible.   

In this case, I must offer a conceit concerning the subjects classified in this first category:  it is because of legal, historical, academic and scientific rigor that the conspiracies listed have been shown to meet the definitions of conspiratorial intent described a moment ago: coercion, deception, misinformation, disinformation and propaganda. The evidence offered as proof in each conspiracy’s case is nigh irrefutable.

If measurements on the conspiracy spectrum are made horizontally (ie, along the x-axis), the first category occupies a range of degrees closest to x,y (fig.1).

Proximity of one category to another along the x-axis is an effort to demonstrate a progressive tendency towards more extreme, fatalistic and fantastical beliefs represented in the conspiracy spectrum.

The x-axis measures epistemological veracity and dissonance (or the tension between knowledge and belief). As integers increase along this axis, associated conspiracy theories become less verifiable.         

Cognitive dissonance (or if you prefer, psychological tension) experienced by a conspiracy theorist is measured along the y-axis (vertically). The rate of change here is represented by the rise of an upward concave parabola.  

Least affected by cognitive dissonance are conspiracy theories classed in the first category, called Demonstrable Conspiracies (DC)

Few people would contest these conspiracy theories. Some of the more well-known include the N.S.A surveillance program revealed by Edward Snowden, the Bush administration’s intent to mislead the United Nations about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the Iran-Contra affair, Watergate, among many others. 

Strategies employed by the tobacco and lead industries to hide the dangers of their products in the early and mid-20th century would also appear in this category (although this wasn’t always the case, as I'll explain in a moment). 

Many of the conspiracies in this category are nefarious, like Kristallnacht, or the Catholic Church’s cultural assimilation of indigenous people and suppression of priest sex abuse scandals; others are so famous they’re the stuff of legend - Socrates trial and execution, Jesus’ crucifixion and the assassination of Julius Caesar are good examples… 

The DC category acts a control for the rest of this imaginary metric, and the conspiracies listed here will be obvious to motivated, informed, and curious observers – like you and me. These are events that are recorded in history, studied by scholars, documented by legal precedent, affirmed by experimentation, validated by institutional analysis, and so on. 

As certain as one might be about anything in public life, the DC designation indicates conspiracies that have been shown to be, for all intents and purposes, factually and positively true (or, for equivalency’s sake, real), in an Aristotelian – that is to say, quantifiable - sense. 

It’s worth noting, however, that events listed in the DC category did not start out there; it is by a sort of psychological rigor and due the passage of time that conspiracies are exposed.  

Bias is limited, too, as more information about a conspiracy becomes available. Of the classifications represented on the spectrum, the DC category is the one most associated with what might be described as objective knowledge, if such a thing might be imagined to exist…  

Degrees along the x-axis of the metric represent a gradation which corresponds with the epistemological veracity and dissonance of a given conspiracy theory, as I mentioned earlier. Suffice it to say, the conspiracies listed along the far right of the DC category might be considered verging on demonstrability

These conspiracies include the influence of the American military industrial complex, domestically and abroad, and the oil industry’s campaign of disinformation related to effects of pollution in the atmosphere. 

Here also we can observe the institutional and societal structures underlying the systemic oppression of women and people of color in the West, which have been created to benefit a white male minority. 

Economic and financial collusion between the members of a small group of global corporations would be classed in this designation as well.    

The distinction between degrees in the DC category as a whole is the presence of overwhelming legal precedence, coupled with ongoing and intense institutional analysis, and the passage of time. Societal change over successive generations coincides with the collective public response to the conspiracies classed in this category. 

Widespread acknowledgement of the conspiracies listed here results in revolutions, and leads to the prosecution (and sometimes termination) of corrupt entities and agents. 

This fact highlights the most obvious and important aspect of the theories classed in the DC category: Society and its culture are transformed in fundamental ways by the unmasking of conspiracy - provided the conspiracy has affected the lives and-or the well-being of a critical mass of people in that society.  

There is, nevertheless, ongoing resistance to disrupting the status quo and revealing the extent to which people are manipulated from the highest levels of government and commerce. 

Yet even in this time, the male-centric power structures and patriarchal-enforced hierarchies are under siege on all sides. Appeals to traditional authorities are not completely ineffectual, but this is an era of profound existential doubt in the West – a time of fake news and false prophets – and the way ahead is unclear, even, I think, to the most prescient among us.    

Overcoming pernicious doubt requires novel optimism, a spiritual disposition that is resilient in the face of life’s suffering, and not a denial of that suffering. If history provides a guide, political and economic hegemonies are impermanent; even with maintenance, they eventually falter, like a decrepit body, or an old machine. 

That’s why the passage of time is important, in relation to conspiracies involving civilization’s superstructure, its culture, economy and politics. For example, when oil companies fully transition to green energy production - some 20 years from now – it will be easier to acknowledge the corrupt veneer under which the industry operated for more than a century.

In short, conspiracy theories deposited in the DC category are verifiable. And if the conspirators haven’t been outed already – and punished - controlling the classified information they once attempted to suppress has lost value.

(End of Part One. Click here for Part Two)        

Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Last Jedi, Fantasy, and the Art of Defying Expectations

Emerging from a movie theatre on that Saturday in December 2017, I didn’t know what to think. The latest offering in the nine-part Star Wars saga – Chapter VIII: The Last Jedi (TLJ) - had been so different from what I’d expected that I was reluctant to form an opinion about the film. Instead, I sputtered to friends and family about how "I needed to see it again” or that full appreciation would take “a couple times through, to get the whole thing”.

Truth is, I didn’t really know if I liked the movie or not, but as an ardent Star Wars fan, I was compelled to examine my apprehension more closely. After all, I’m invested in the franchise, like millions of other people around the world; not with money, per se, but with devotion to this particular space fantasy.

I explored this devotion at length in a 2016 essay I wrote about The Force Awakens (TFA). In it, I looked back on my personal interest in a process called worldbuilding, an interest inspired in my youth by both George Lucas - the creator of Star Wars – and J.R.R. Tolkien, academic and author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, as well as by role-playing games and comic books.

Worldbuilding is premised on the idea that an imagined story and setting might be so complete, it could be said to have a reality of its own. Though worldbuilding can be thought of as metaphor and/or allegory for our shared human experience on Earth, the imagined setting actually comprises a separate place, containing qualities of internal logic and consistency that encompasses and expands our everyday milieu.

"Enchantment" was the word that Tolkien used to describe the transcendent effect of fantasy that results from effective worldbuilding. I used criteria outlined in Tolkien's treatise, On Fairy Stories, to frame part of the argument in my piece on TFA; essentially, that the enchantment of the Original Trilogy (OT) was also present in the first film of the new Sequel Trilogy (ST).  

It’s worth revisiting Tolkien with regards to TLJ, as well, since he made a demarcation between  a fantasy of enchantment, and fantasy where a person might, for a short time, suspend disbelief.

Tolkien wrote, “Enchantment produces a Secondary World into which both designer and spectator can enter, to the satisfaction of their senses while they are inside,” while suspended disbelief was a substitute for “the genuine thing, a subterfuge we use when condescending to games or make-believe, or when trying (more or less willingly) to find what virtue we can in the work of an art that for us has failed.

Reflecting on TLJ with Tolkien’s conceits in mind, I was struck suddenly by what I think was the essence of my initial objection to the new film: that I was – upon first viewing - taken out of the fantasy too often; compelled to suspend disbelief - and so had become aware of that disbelief. And while this state of mind had immediate consequences for what I'd just seen in TLJ, I was also reminded of my fraught opinion on the Prequel Trilogy (PT).

I’ll explain what I mean by that statement, but there’s certainly no need to revisit all the difficult aspects of the PT. Most longtime fans have one or two moments (at least) in Chapters I-III that they feel are cringe-worthy, and I’m no different.

In some cases I’m willing to accept the shortcomings were, at least, partially the result of seeing the movies through an adult’s eyes, rather than a child’s. But that's not the whole picture. In my estimation, it wasn’t until after the first act of Revenge of the Sith (RotS) that viewers experience the sustained enchantment of the Secondary World described by Tolkien; to that point, and in the prior two PT films - The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones - moments of this sort were fleeting.

Almost certainly, the lore surrounding the origin of Darth Vader – which had been percolating in popular culture for decades – engaged the imagination of both 'designer and spectator' (to use another Tolkien-ism). From the moment that Palpatine reveals he is a Sith lord to Anakin, RotS takes on a mythic, nearly spiritual, dimension. 

Overall criticism notwithstanding, when it came to the PT, it wasn’t difficult for me to envision a galaxy in which the Jedi Order were the feared and respected "guardians of peace and justice" Obi-wan Kenobi described in A New Hope (ANH), the original Star Wars film. 

The notion, too, that there would be a science to explain the biological antecedent of the Force – midi-chlorians – seemed reasonable in the PT setting, so the introduction of these microscopic beings  deepened the fantasy for me.

Some viewers did not feel the same way, however; and in their opinion, the ineffable qualities of the Force were debased by such an explanation. For them, the materialist description of this “mystical energy field” was enough to take them out of the fantasy.

This phenomenon repeated itself again and again with the PT, whether as a consequence of iffy writing, poor chemistry between performers, Jar Jar Binks, etc., and those of us who had been fans since the OT were particularly vulnerable to having expectations dashed by the second trio of Star Wars films.

We should have known, though, that there was no going back home after George Lucas released the updated versions of the OT in the 1990s. His tinkering with the Cantina scene – the infamous Greedo-shoots-first debacle – became the ultimate symbol of being taken out of the fantasy that is Star Wars.

Part of the appeal of Han Solo’s character in the original theatre edit was that he is an amoral opportunist until Luke and Leia give him a cause in which to believe. He begins a scoundrel, yet he gains honor and a heart of gold, a metaphor that’s made explicit by the medal ceremony at the end of ANH.

That character arc doesn’t exist in Lucas’ revised version of ANH. Instead of gunning down Greedo in cold blood, we are shown that Han reacted defensively after the bounty hunter shoots first. Yet somehow, by portraying Han as reactionary, this one change redefines who he is, giving him a morality that the original character initially lacks, then gains, in the course of the film.

Deprived of this arc, Lucas’ revised Han is a tepid antihero, and less dangerous than the original theatre edit would have had us believe.

TLJ presented some viewers, myself among them, with a similar dilemma; in that we are to accept that the same Luke Skywalker who resists killing his father and succumbing to the Dark Side of the Force in the OT, is the same Luke Skywalker who’s willing to murder his nephew (Ben Solo, or if you like, Kylo Ren) while the boy sleeps (albeit in a moment of weakness, and for a seemingly good reason).

The threat that Ben represents is, by no means, on the same scale as Vader, who kills a group of children in his first murderous act as a Sith lord. Ben, at the point when Luke considers ending him, has done nothing but be implicated in Supreme Leader Snoke’s machinations; as Vader, Anakin Skywalker presided over genocidal acts on a planetary scale.

The gulf between the two is wide, and if Luke was willing to show compassion to his father – who did so many awful things – he would be even more likely to show it in the case of his nephew, who wasn’t yet complicit in any crimes, right? Not so, it would seem!

While Luke’s characterization in this way was jarring enough, it was something else to see Leia Organa flying through the vacuum of space, unaided by anything but the Force.

For me, as a viewer, this moment demanded the greatest amount of suspended disbelief; not because I thought Leia incapable of such an act, but because I wasn’t shown that she had received any sort of Jedi training. Consequently, in my assessment, this entire sequence of events lacked the internal consistency required for effective worldbuilding. Again, I was taken out of the fantasy.

I don’t doubt that the extended universe of the Star Wars franchise – which I define as both Legends and Canon content streams, or the accumulated texts, games and television that supplement the Skywalker movies – has a lot to say about Leia’s education in the ways of the Force.

But as a self-proclaimed fundamentalist when it comes to Star Wars (see my essay on TFA), I believe the narrative must be comprehendible using only the contents of the nine-part saga exclusively. Leia’s sudden Force mastery challenges this conviction, since the only power she’s demonstrated to this point in the Star Wars films is a profound intuitive connection with the people she loves.

It is, perhaps, this moment – Leia’s use of the Force – that persuaded me to resist the urge to judge TLJ too quickly. When I watched the film again, it became clear to me that director Rian Johnson had intended to defy expectations with TLJ. There are, at least, two important reasons to take such an approach.

The first has been a subject of discussion for some time already; basically that TLJ brings the Star Wars franchise forward, making it fresh for a new generation of fans. Defying expectations, in this case, is a calculated business risk aimed at ensuring the Star Wars franchise’s profitability (and ubiquity) for the next 10-20 years. 

(For some viewers in the 40+ age range who were fans of the OT, Rogue One (R1) has become the standard for a modern Star Wars film. In fact, a case can be made that TLJ suffered some ill will from segments of the fan community because it wasn’t like R1, which was based in the familiar setting of the OT. In short, R1 met the expectations certain fans had for a Star Wars film by adhering to the established internal consistency of OT worldbuilding.)     

The other, less obvious reason to defy expectations at this point in the nine-part saga is to put audiences off certain pre-conceived notions about the final film. The untimely death of Snoke is a good example of one such notion, in that many viewers saw him as a Palpatine-type antagonist whose backstory would be instrumental to the ST’s ultimate resolution.

Now that Snoke is gone, and Kylo Ren has taken on the mantle of supreme leader, the direction of the ninth film is less certain.

A similar effect is achieved by Kylo ‘revealing’ Rey’s true parentage, that the girl was born to junk traders and sold into slavery for drinking money. This is intended to put to rest speculation about her genealogy, which has been a central mystery of the ST. Here, defying expectations feeds into Rey’s fears about herself, and puts the audience off the possibility that she is familially related to the saga’s central characters.

While this ‘revelation’ is very likely to prove a deception, Kylo clarifies and obscures Rey’s identity at the same time by telling her a believable story about her origins, which sets the stage for a final reckoning between the two characters in the saga’s last chapter.

And just what will be the nature of this final reckoning?

The fact that Leia still lives suggest she has a part yet to play in the drama, an outcome foreshadowed by Kylo’s decision not to kill her in TLJ. Some meaningful exchange between mother and son seems fated for the last film, as does validation of Rey’s parentage by an authority other than Kylo. Will these situations be connected?

Quite possibly, but as conjectures they must remain the subject of speculation. At least for now…

(Carrie Fisher’s deceased status is not a deterrent to her appearance in the saga’s final film, as R1 demonstrated. Audiences might find out about Leia’s demise in the opening crawl of Chapter IX, but it’s also possible that a combination of archival footage and CGI will be used to recreate her likeness, despite claims that have been made to the contrary.)   

TLJ may not be my favorite chapter of the Star Wars saga, but I remain enchanted by these films still; or at least willing to suspend disbelief long enough to see them through to completion.

If the franchise gets away from me after that, I don’t mind. Old testaments are invariably followed by new ones; titans are supplanted by gods; cable replaces dial-up – change is the way of things, and it is the way of the Force.

Like Yoda tells Luke as they watch the Jedi Temple burn in TLJ, “We are what they grow beyond”. That’s good advice, no matter what galaxy you’re from.