Reality Sandwich Reviews, February 1, 2013
In this edition of Reality Sandwich reviews:
- The Hobbit
- The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?
- Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business
- Occupy This!
- Among Mediums: A Scientist's Quest for Answers
- The Imposter
Review by Jonathan Zap
I’ve tried reading some of the reviews, but really don’t follow the people who don’t like The Hobbit, which I found to be much better than expected. Perhaps these are the same imaginatively challenged folks who didn’t like the recent masterpiece, Cloud Atlas (<<click for my review).
Objections to the frame rate, however, are partly warranted. It was often a distraction that took me out of the story as I was forced to evaluate how it was affecting me. This would be an interesting subject for a neuroscientist, but my subjective impression is that it was making my brain work too hard, or harder than expected. The effect was stupendous in landscape flyovers where there were staggering amounts of visual detail to take in. Where the frame rate was much worse was in close ups and ensemble shots where it had the odd effect of causing me to feel like I was watching a live stage play. So the effect was extremely uneven, at times providing a high degree of welcome visual novelty and at other times throwing me into the uncanny valley of hyperrealism.
Perhaps people who didn’t like this movie are insufficiently appreciative or capable of feeling transported to another world. Any movie, (Avatar is the most spectacular example) that successfully conjures another world is worth seeing for me. John Carter 3D, for example, was bludgeoned by critics into oblivion, but I found it, despite some flaws, to be well worth the price of admission to experience another world. Most of us already know the basic outline of The Hobbit story. What I wanted most from this film was a high resolution return to Middle Earth and The Hobbit succeeded and often exceeded its LOR predecessors in providing that.
If it were technically possible, I would keep the increased frame rate for landscape flyover shots and lose it for most other things. Despite its flaws, however, the frame rate worked with what I liked best about The Hobbit. It was a chance to enter Middle Earth with greater detail, expanded scenes, less time compression and a more fleshed out feeling. I look forward to seeing it again soon, but next time I’m going for the 3D Imax version, that will probably be the best venue for the increased frame rate and spectacular visual richness.
Jonathan graduated with honors in philosophy and English from Ursinus College and has an MA in English from NYU. He is a photographer, author, teacher, paranormal researcher and philosopher who has written extensively on human evolution, contemporary mythology and many other subjects. A large collection of his writings and his popular online oracle can be found at zaporacle.com.
Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks
Review by Paul Devereux
Neurologist Oliver Sacks is probably best known for his The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1985) and Awakenings (1973/1990), made into the film in 1990 starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams. In Hallucinations, his latest offering, Sacks presents a thoroughgoing review of the often staggering visual and multi-sensory hallucinations associated with a wide range of conditions, including various types of blindness, especially Charles Bonnet Syndrome (1), sensory deprivation, migraine and epilepsy, sleep disorders such as narcolepsy and sleep paralysis, hypnogogia (visions on the edge of sleep), brain damage, Parkinson’s Disease and numerous others.
Sacks’ makes copious use of first-person descriptions from, variously, historical sources, his own patients, and, interestingly, himself. In his “Altered States” chapter, for example, he reveals that in his younger days he took a considerable number of psychoactive drugs – medical and recreational – sometimes in frightening combinations and quantities. One Sunday morning he had taken 20 Artane pills on advice they would give him quite a trip. Disappointingly, nothing seemed to be happening; a failed experiment, it seemed. Two friends dropped by as they often did on Sundays. He chatted with them and made them breakfast, asking how they wanted their eggs, but when he emerged from the kitchen, there was no one there. Real and solid in appearance, and interactive, the visitors had nevertheless been hallucinations. Over his long life, Sacks has had even more remarkable hallucinatory experiences which he describes in vivid detail.
Sacks tells how various medications used for treating a variety of diseases can cause some patients to have powerful hallucinations, including out-of-body experiences, doppelgangers (spectral doubles of oneself), and various types of “visitors." One such case involved Gertie C., an elderly patient suffering from Parkinson’s Disease. She had long experienced hallucinations, usually of a pleasantly bucolic nature, but when she started on L-dopa they took on a more amorous, sexual character. She had one hallucination, “a gentleman visitor from out of town”, that came to her faithfully around 8 o’clock each evening and stayed about 40 minutes. Even if readers feel they know what hallucinations are, they will find cases in this book that will make their jaws drop.
Hallucinations is a fascinating read and Sacks writes in a straightforward manner. But though he is kindly and humane, stressing that hallucinations do not equate with insanity, he has what I would call an ontological deficit. He is steadfastly reductionistic, and for him there is no room for anything like parapsychological explanations, though some of the cases he presents certainly seem amenable to such, as do other instances of a type Sacks does not mention, where multiple witnesses are involved or where an apparition is place-related and seen by various people at different times. There can be no doubt that all apparitions, all ghosts, are hallucinatory, in the sense that processes in the brain construct them and enable them to appear to a witness, but are they all necessarily pathological products? The enormously complex brain is all we have with which to apprehend reality, but we have not got the instruction book for the former nor have we by any means fully mapped the latter. To use a well-tried but useful metaphor, Sacks does at times sound like a TV engineer who explains all the people and scenes appearing on the screen solely in terms of the TV set’s electronics, ignoring the existence of distant studios, broadcasters and invisible signals. Might some hallucinations be neurologically clothed “signals” from elsewhere?
1. I provide a case study of this in “Eye Spirits: Visions of the Blind”, in D. Pinchbeck and K. Jordan (eds.), Exploring the Edge Realms of Consciousness. Berkeley: Evolver Editions. Also: http://www.realitysandwich.com/eye_spirits_visions_blind
Paul Devereux is Managing Editor of Time & Mind - The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness and Culture (www.bergjournals.com/timeandmind), a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, research associate of the Royal College of Art (see www.landscape-perception.com), co-director with Amanda Feilding of the Black Swan Project (a new, innovative psi research programme), and a senior research Fellow of International Consciousness Research Laboratories (www.icrl.org)
The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? by Jared Diamond (Viking)
Review by Hillary S. Webb
Every culture throughout the world represents a unique experiment in how to construct a human life. Jared Diamond’s latest book, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?, explores the subtitular question of what those of us living a WEIRD existence (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) might learn from pre-industrial, low-density tribes of small-scale farmers and hunter-gatherers. Using a variety of cross-cultural examples from his own fieldwork as well others, Diamond bounces back and forth between the values and practices of both societies, offering insights into how each compares in their strategies for daily living. Given the frequent over-romanticization and even Utopiaization of indigenous life by many Westerners today, Diamond’s book offers a refreshingly evenhanded and sober look. Loneliness is not a problem in traditional societies in which high value is placed on the support and integration of community members, but high infant mortality often is. Those traditional cultures that care for their elderly as living jewels are horrified at the Western world’s institutionalization of their elderly, while others practice various forms of community-sanctioned geriatric murder and/or suicide. Diamond urges that we should not throw out the baby with the bathwater by adopting a view of indigenous ways as a panacea for all the ills of modern life, but that we should instead carefully consider traditional life in all its good-bad permutations.
While remaining appropriately realistic, throughout most of the book Diamond comes across as quite admiring and respectful of the wisdom to be found within non-industrial societies. Given this, I was surprised and somewhat disappointed at what seemed to be a rather shallow analysis of indigenous spiritual beliefs, one that was more or less limited to a materialist-reductionist emphasis that all religious behaviors can be explained away through the lens of biological evolution, a position that felt quite dismissive and even insulting of the indigenous perspective. As Diamond is an evolutionary biologist, this should not have surprised me, but given my enthusiasm up to that point, I did feel the bubble burst a little. (That one of the book’s promotional blurbs was written by Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine, probably should have clued me in as well.)
In the end, whether one agrees or disagrees with each of his specific assessments, The World Until Yesterday is a much-needed work of critical thinking and an opportunity for anyone who wants to move beyond the New Age mystique of indigenous life. The ultimate message of Diamond’s book is an important one. To idealize the practices of small-scale societies in such a one-sided way is foolish. And, yet, to ignore the many essential lessons that we might learn from these cultural models about how to live a more highly functioning and happier life is even more so. Ultimately, Diamond believes that the WEIRD and the traditional can learn from each other in order to achieve the best of all possible worlds. And with this sentiment I heartily agree.
Hillary S. Webb, PhD, is the former Managing Editor of Anthropology of Consciousness, the peer-reviewed journal of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness. She received MA in Consciousness Studies from Goddard College in 2006 and a PhD in Psychology from Saybrook University in 2009. She is the author of numerous articles and three books exploring shamanic philosophy and practice.
Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business by John Mackey and Rajendra Sisodia (Harvard Business Review Press)
Review by Darrin Drda
Don’t be fooled by the cheerful yellow cover, by the New Age-y words in the title, or by the huge sign above the display that says “Revolutionize Capitalism.” Just take a look at the first endorsement on the first page, which reads, “Conscious Capitalism is a welcome explication and endorsement of the virtues of free-enterprise capitalism—properly comprehended, there is no more beneficial economic system…” and you’ll properly comprehend that the new screed by Whole Foods co-CEO John Mackey and co-author Raj Sisodia is about as revolutionary as a lazy Susan filled with fantastically overpriced GMO corn chips.
In the introduction, Mackey confesses that before cofounding Whole Foods Market in the late 80s, he had “drifted into progressivism,” grown his hair, and worked at a food co-op under the banner of “food for people, not profits.” He then experienced an “awakening” in which he discovered that capitalism was “fundamentally good and ethical.” His transformation was catalyzed, predictably, by the books of Milton Friedman, Ludwig von Mises, and other neoliberal prophets of profit who consider altruism immoral and dream of drowning government in the bathtub.
Revolutionizing capitalism would entail abolishing the Fed, overhauling the global banking system, prohibiting usury, strictly regulating Wall Street, and abandoning GDP and other metrics that demand endless and therefore destructive economic growth. At the very least, it would require ending the ability of corporations to externalize costs, i.e. pass them on to the public and the environment. Needless to say, Mackey doesn’t suggest any of these measures. Instead, he defies his more heartless heroes by advancing a kindler, gentler capitalism that embraces purpose, considers the wellbeing of employees, customers, and communities, and focuses on the “triple bottom line” of people, planet, and profits. Mackey’s nod to Gaia would be laudable if it weren’t so laughable, coming as it is from a climate change denier. For the record, Mackey also hates unions and Obamacare, likening them to herpes and fascism, respectively.
If Mackey is conscious of anything, it’s that capitalism is on the defensive these days; thus his attempt to “change the narrative” and inspire in his readers an epiphany akin to his own regarding the “heroic spirit of business.” In the first part of the book, he waxes prosaic about how capitalism has “transformed the face of the planet [much for the worse, unfortunately] and the complexion [interesting choice of words] of daily life for the vast majority of people.” In another example of organic cherry picking, Mackey hails the flourishing of democracy under globalization, ignoring the many instances in which democracy and capitalism have found themselves at bitter and often very deadly odds (see especially The Shock Doctrine for devastating details).
Towards the end of the book, Mackey attempts to counter the anticipated argument that his book is little more than a “lipstick on a pig.” I would contend that “conscious capitalism” is a much bigger and more dangerous oxymoron, more like a T-rex in a tutu who wants to kindly and gently destroy everything you’ve ever loved.
Don’t buy Mackey’s ruse. In fact, don’t buy anything at Whole Foods. Shop at your local farmer’s market and bank at your local credit union. It’s high time to starve the beast of modern capitalism, or at least deprive it of oxygen until it becomes as unconscious as its faithful servants.
Darrin Drda is an artist and author of The Four Global Truths: Awakening to the Peril and Promise of Our Times, published by the Evolver Editions imprint of North Atlantic Books. He is a Regular Contributor to Reality Sandwich.
Occupy This! By Judy Rebick (Penguin)
Review by Velcrow Ripper
Occupy This! is a compelling, insightful look at the inspiring phenomenon of 21st century revolution that is sweeping the globe. It connects the dots between the Arab Spring, the European Summer, the Occupy Movement, and beyond. Author Judy Rebick has her finger on the pulse of the times, and has been tracking the emerging social movements for decades, bringing a depth of wisdom to this profound analysis.
Her excitement for the new horizontal, direct democracy models of organizing shines through, as she captures the spirit of transformation that is at the heart of today’s movements. She sees them as an experiment of creative rebellion, an attempt to birth an alternative to the crushing weight of neo-liberal capitalism, moving beyond the narcissistic focus on the self, to a broader self - the community, which can expand to include all life. More than just a political movement, what we are experiencing, she argues, is nothing short of a full on cultural revolution.
Given the intertwining, multiple economic and ecological crises we are facing on the planet, this shift is not a luxury - it’s a necessity. This is a key, important book that takes the reader on a fascinating journey into this tightrope walking time of chaos and possibility, offering hope, inspiration and understanding. It’s an engaging read, short, sweet, and powerful, in the spirit of the political pamphlets of days gone by. I couldn’t put it down.
Velcrow Ripper is an award-winning filmmaker with dozens of films and videos under his belt, including Scared Sacred, winner of the 2005 Genie (Canadian Academy Award) for best feature documentary, and Special Jury Prize at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Among Mediums: A Scientist’s Quest for Answers by Julie Beischel, PhD (Windbridge Institute)
Review by Ryan Hurd
I met Dr. Beischel a few years back when we were both attending an academic conference. She presented some new findings about the quality of information that mediums report from the alleged dead (answer: very solid, statistically speaking). After the presentation, during Q&A, someone asked Dr. Beischel what did she think about these findings: did SHE believe mediums are communicating with the dead? Did SHE believe in life after death? Dr. Beischel kept a straight face and said something like, “I don't know what you want me to say. I’m a scientist. This is my data. How you interpret the results is up to you.” Bravo. Later, it struck me how scientists who work with so-called “paranormal phenomena” have to continuously answer questions like this, essentially being forced to blur the line between their work and their personal beliefs about the meaning of the universe. I suspect this is not the case with endocrinologists. Since then, despite myself, I’ve always wanted to take Dr. Beischel out for drink and, you know, find out what SHE really believes. This book is provides exactly that: a personal and professional exposé about her interest in mediumship and how she leveraged her quest for answers into the founding of a scientific laboratory dedicated to this topic and the human potential movement in general.
Besides being highly readable and funny (Beischel has a wickedly dark sense of humor), Among Mediums breaks down the results of the Windbridge Institute’s body of work while setting the record straight about popular misconceptions. In their lab, there are no dimly lit séances, no speaking in tongues, and no scary little girls having seizures while being possessed by old men with deep voices. All that stuff relates to trance mediums, which Beischel and her team at Windbridge Institute have nothing to do with. They work with clairvoyant mediums, who receive information much like psychics do.
Read this book: especially if you are skeptical about mediumship. Beischel’s studies are solidly constructed, double-blind, and involve both quantitative (statistical modeling) and qualitative (narrative approaches) research to explore many aspects of mediumship. While not proving or disproving the afterlife, Beischel presents a reasonable case for a phenomenon that we don’t currently understand, but could have some profound social applications if taken more seriously by the scientific community.
Ryan Hurd is an independent scholar, editor of DreamStudies.org, and board member of the International Association for the Study of Dreams.
Review by Adam Elenbaas
It's a difficult thing to capture both the "fact" and the "archetypal" or "mythic" dimension of a story in a documentary format. "The Imposter" is a rare documentary that walks a tightrope between these worlds and delivers perhaps the best big screen take on the "trickster" archetype ever made.
The film, which was directed by Bart Layton and released on DVD this past week after a quiet independent theater run in 2012, follows the most bizarre story of a Texas boy, Nicolas Barclay, who went missing in the mid nineties only to supposedly surface several years later, half way across the planet in southern Spain. The truth of the matter, which the viewer is made aware of from the beginning of the film, is that the rediscovered boy is actually a 23 year old con-man nicknamed "The Chameleon." What makes the film so special is the way in which the con man, whose real name is Frederic Bourdin, as well as the Barclay family and various members of the Spanish and American governments and social services, explain how the con was accomplished.
The explanations, provided through riveting interviews, add a mythic dimension to the already other worldly psychological suspense of the film's fictional recounting of the story. For example, Bourdin explains during the interviews that he had attempted other cons (it was later discovered that Bourdin pulled off over 500 identity theft acts!) because he didn't have parents, he was an outcast, and he simply wanted to convince people to take care of him and love him. Prior to his impersonation of Nicolas Barclay, Bourdin had bounced from one youth home to another, for several years straight, posing as different lost children and often times trying to sneak his way into families whose children had gone missing. In the meantime the family and government officials explained that "even though the boy looked nothing like Barclay who could disbelieve family members who insisted that this was their son?"
But why would a family insist on deluding themselves when his eyes were different colors, his accent had changed, his hair color was dark instead of light, and so forth? As the story unfolds and these questions are put to the family it becomes clear that something's not quite right. The family of Nicolas Barclay seems to be in an odd and serious state of denial, and as a result a murder investigation begins that targets the family members themselves as the possible killers. While the family insists that they knew nothing about what had actually happened to their missing son, the viewer, as well as Bourdin and the authorities, are deeply suspicious. Even Bourdin cannot believe the degree of the Barclay family's denial as the truth begins to surface that he is not actually their son. The film's message again becomes deeply mythic. A boy with no family wants to lie his way into one that can't except the truth, or is hiding the truth, about their own missing boy. After the film was over I scoped out the birth chart of the con man Frederic Bourdin, and I was pleased to find that he was born a sun sign Gemini: among other things, the destiny archetype of a trickster and con-man.
The reason this film will not disappoint viewers isn't just because of the amazing plot, which I've just described. This review hasn't been a spoiler in the least. The Imposter will blow audiences away because of the way in which "fiction" and "reality" appear, in certain moments of this film, to be one and the same thing. This rare documentary/cross over film is like an archetypally altered state!
Adam Elenbaas is the author of Fishers of Men: The Gospel of an Ayahuasca Vision Quest. Adam is the director and founder of Nightlight Astrology, a donation based astrology school located in Washington DC and NYC. Elenbaas is one of the founding writers and contributing editors for RealitySandwich.com.
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