A Veil of Strangeness

A veil of strangeness is settling over our world; it is becoming more and more a feature of every day. By the ‘strangeness’ I mean incongruous events, Orwellian language, dramatic disconnectedness: Examples: there is great clarity that humans have a massive impact on the biospheric living space, from physical occupation to changing the chemistry of life sustaining biophysical cycles – and yet people who revel in the immediate consequences of our powers often actively refuse to consider that they any responsibility, at all; that the great middle has been, and continues to be, robbed by the economic elite is transparent, yet is ignored by media and government alike; and of course, there is the utter distortion of all things war and peace.

I am not speaking of simple irrationality; although such strangeness rides irrationality as a surfer might ride a wave. This is beyond irrationality: this is the human capacity trying to work in a design and with “responsibilities” well beyond its powers. We could think of movies where a ‘primitive’ is thrust into the present. We have, small step by small step, made the details of our world in such a way that they integrate into a whole that is beyond our comprehension and our powers of adaptation. We are all ‘Encino Man.’

Economists are struggling to understand and, in some way, control a global process of exchange that has grown to become like the energy economy of a rainforest in which only 5% of the species are even identified much less known in any comprehensive way. These people are very smart and yet, ultimately, they are seen to fall back on ideological prejudgments: the conflicts and dueling pronouncements are really statements of largely unfounded belief. Such situations lead only to the opportunism of personal aggrandizement and gain, and not to rational options for whole communities living more successfully in integration in an ecosystem.

I have long felt this strangeness because of training in the standards of biological integration and adaptation. Actions that remove from the universe thousands of species integrated into adapting ecosystems, remove millions of biochemical systems that have evolved through the same processes, over the same immense time, actions that remove these things without the slightest awareness, are incomprehensible. They are exceedingly strange. But there has been a quantum leap in the presentation of strangeness; it requires no special sensitivity or training for its recognition.

I spend a great deal of time with “children” (14 to 18) who are fighting the strangeness, fighting the upsets and uncertainties of their days. The strangeness has left them without a solid surface to build their lives on.

The transition years have always been difficult – the transition from protected childhood to responsible adult. Our ancestors had a solution to this change: a child observed, as he or she grew into pubescence, the behaviors of adults and at a point, decided by tradition, was initiated into the next stage with ceremonies and specific instruction. After such an initiation the child was then a baby-adult, just as he or she had been, at their beginning, a baby-child. A degree of certainty surrounded these human lives like water surrounds a coral reef.

The children I spend time with, for the most part, are overwhelmed by the strangeness and uncertainty that pervades their every moment. They don’t believe anyone or anything and thus contribute to another layer of strangeness. Adaptation for them is an impermanent process of the moment laid over a desperate desire for stability, safety and a future that they can count on – precisely the qualities of life they are denied. And in a dramatic act of strangeness they come to believe in commercial advertising, celebrity and subculture reality.

That they select these things as a reliable source for reality is not in itself strange at all: a large part of the economic world is devoting considerable energy to create just such a platform from which to communicate, sell to and control these children. What is exceedingly strange is that the so-called adult world has allowed its children to be stolen – Pied Piper fashion – from them. But these children are not secreted away behind a cleft in a rock, but are there in front of us, just beyond our comprehension; a condition, they have been told, that is good for them. Our youth and what they will become, what they will do with the increasingly complex world using their decreasingly effective education, is another strange conundrum. It adds to the sense of weightlessness.

The adults, those grown into full size and needing some job to sustain themselves, are barely adult-like in the sense of competent practitioners of the human way. The strangeness settling over them leaves them angry and frightened; uncertain and grasping for the hand-up offered by religion, militancy or materialism, or by almost anything that will seem to let them see a bit of acceptable future through the strangeness.

The world has grasped for Obama to clear away the uncertainty, the lies, the terrible incomprehensibility; yet this only adds to the strangeness. We want our leaders to make sensible decisions; we want them to make our world safe and understandable. But leaders haven’t done that since we lived in small nomadic communities. Leaders have for thousands of years struggled against the grounding reality; their power only comes from the illusions of their followers. It is this that has finally resulted in whole populations living in ungrounded strangeness. It is left to us to find our way through the strangeness, to find the grounding structures in our lives.

I seem always to find my way back to this place. Either I have little imagination or this is, like the bottom of one of those spiraling coin funnels used for charity donations, the final destination for our efforts. We are turned back on our own resources, and they have to be enough. Ultimately, we must accept that the strangeness is not a condition that we can make sense of and thereby overcome or correct. It is the product of billions of individual actions disconnected from reality coming more and more each day into collision with each other and reality. The consequences seem strange and overwhelming because they are; and they are not to be made sense of. Sense is to be made of our own lives and our daily contact with The Real. The trick is to discover what that is. It is a first step, at least, to know what not to consider.

James Keye is the nom de plume of a biologist and psychologist who after discovering a mismatch between academe and himself went into private business for many years. His whole post-pubescent life has been focused on understanding at both the intellectual and personal levels what it is to be of the human species; he claims some success. Email him at: jkeye1632@gmail.com. Read other articles by James, or visit James's website.

13 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Michael Dawson said on October 12th, 2009 at 10:17am #

    Sage advice, though I’d certainly always remember to mention that leaders also represent, happily and partly in frustration, overlords, who themselves devote a serious chunk of their booty to fostering popular delusions.

  2. lichen said on October 12th, 2009 at 1:17pm #

    You say a lot of ridiculous things about young people here. Most of all is your ridiculous claim that young adults suddenly stumble upon religion due to the strangeness–as opposed to being indocrtinated into it by their parents. Since society in the US doesn’t give teenagers full human rights–either as defined by the UN Convetion On The Rights Of The Child, or as far as concerns voting rights or other democratic control over their education and lives, it would seem pointless to overpsychoanalyze their activities or label them useless, let alone simply judge it from afar as being empty. The young people I’ve known are very political, very intellegent, and outspoken–they don’t rely on standard education, but seek out new information and ideas freely themselves in their own time.

    The “coming of age” rituals present in many societies are brutal, moralistic, and hateful. I’m glad they are wearing away now, and I’m glad that less children are neglected, beaten, sexually abused, and utterly subjugated into silent, obedient shells than they were twenty or forty or fifty years ago. Since adults are the ones making advertising and commercial products, I think it is their fault–and surely a result of their moralistic coming of age practicies that they were forced into, as well as the supposedly “effective education” that usually involved being beaten at school.

  3. Late Revolution said on October 12th, 2009 at 2:51pm #

    I agree, basically, but ignoring the necessity to right the wrongs and simply concentrating on knowing when to smell bullshit seems wrong, too. We are living in a proto-Orwellian world. Another twenty years, you’ll start seeing full-on 1984. Global corporations control every aspect of our lives, and we ignore it the best we can. Class condition is the number one deciding factor on how long we will live and how painfully we will die—the United States is 30th in life expectancy in the world, especially for the lower class. Again, we ignore this to the best of our ability. Crime is ridiculous in this country, as it always has been. Fewer and fewer people can afford a decent education, and fewer and fewer people are able to make a go with what they have. Other countries actually want an educated, informed populace. This country doesn’t. Again, we keep pretending that that $30000 college debt we’ll never finish paying back is necessary and acceptable. Stress is killing us. Worry is killing us, making us far more susceptible to heart disease, diabetes, cancer and whatever else than any other civilized nation on earth. So…At what point does all this shit stop? Well, it doesn’t. We as a people gave up whatever fledgling power we may have had long ago, and sealed the deal with our obsessive consumerism. Pray for 2012.

  4. Mulga Mumblebrain said on October 12th, 2009 at 4:26pm #

    The collapse of human civilization, now, I would say, inevitable, has been coming for a long time, and was plain enough to those with eyes to see. I remember hearing Edward Goldsmith, the founder of The Ecologist magazine, informing a bemused radio presenter, in 1988, that the forty years of planetary destruction since WW2, if replicated for another forty years, at the current rate of growth in the economy then, would see our civilization collapse. Clearly he was dead on the button with his prediction.
    Goldsmith’s prediction has been echoed by other scientists, increasingly desperately, throughout my life. The recent paper published in Nature by an eminent team led by Johan Rockstrom, identified nine ‘planetary thresholds’ that we must not cross if our civilization is not to destroy the climate and ecological stability of the last few thousand years that enabled our human edifice to be erected. They found that six of these boundaries had already been crossed, and in the others the science was not yet settled.
    Now, I think the strangeness that Mr Keye speaks of is rooted in knowing this to be true, knowing we are stuffed, knowing that our civilization, if not our species is about to disappear, and knowing that not only is nothing being done, but that powerful forces, mobilising millions of insanely imbecilic and morally obtunded fanatics, are doing their level best to ‘bring it on’. The intelligent, informed and rational know it from research and the use of their intellect, the less well-read understand it intuitively.
    The central question must surely be ‘Why is it so?’ Why are the leaders of the world so quiescent? Why do they ignore their scientists, and pay more heed to the psychopaths of the Rightwing media lie apparatus, and their equally psychopathic owners? Why, when the merest reflection tells any normal mind that endless growth on a finite planet cannot go on, do they always, without exception, place economic growth as the highest good in society? Why, with weather and climate disasters unfolding on a daily basis, is nothing being done?
    The strangeness is basically the utter incongruity of belonging to a species that defies the prime operating imperative of all life on the planet, to preserve the species into the future. Every indigenous society we know of made sustaining the environment for future generations a prime concern, but they were primitives, wiped out by the ‘march of progress’-a march to a mass grave as it has turned out. Once the emphasis passed from the collective good of the whole, including those yet to come, and passed to the egotism of the cult of the individual, the avaricious, contending, aggressive, intimidating, accumulating, murderous individual, society began to select for the psychopath, and became a machine for death and destruction, constructed by and for the worst in our species. That process has reached its end-stage. Strangeness is inherent in living at odds with everything that sustains life, ruled by psychopaths who lie with every breath, existing to no higher purpose than to consume useless crap, the manufacture, distribution, purchase and disposal of which is killing the biosphere. I suppose it’s just another example of ‘Those who the Gods wish to destroy, they first make mad’.

  5. James Keye said on October 12th, 2009 at 4:40pm #

    Michael: I agree with your thought; I include the overlords in the generic term ‘leader.’ Yours is a useful clarification.

    Lichen: Not sure how to address your comment. I certainly agree that there are many – even most – of the children I work with are intelligent and charming human beings; this in no way prevents them from being overwhelmed. I think that you miss my point when you talk about the activism of young people as if that is a counter to what I am describing. In the strangeness of our world there is less and less opportunity for effective activism as actions are absorbed into the very processes that they are intended to oppose.

    I am not suggesting that young people should be beaten in school. I have to assume that you are led to you comments by my reference to initiation rites. I don’t think that you can equate the brutal aspects of them with all brutality, but even then there was a social function contained in them that integrated the community. I was educated 50 years ago and was never a silent, obedient shell of a person – in fact I can think few who were.

    Late Revolution: I am not suggesting that we ignore the sources of strangeness, just that we do not have to incorporate them into our lives. We need to discover as much relationship with a species reality (what I call specieshood) as possible. We are better able to know what is important and how to express our interests if you actually know our interests. When we are overcome with the strangeness of the world and still in the belief that we can and must comprehend it, there is little change that we will be able to come to a competent understanding of ourselves.

    Mumblebrain doesn’t mumble.

  6. Don Hawkins said on October 12th, 2009 at 6:05pm #

    Why do they do nothing because they are hopelessly dependent on the system.

    Morpheus: I imagine that right now, you’re feeling a bit like Alice. Hmm? Tumbling down the rabbit hole?
    Neo: You could say that.
    Morpheus: I see it in your eyes. You have the look of a man who accepts what he sees because he is expecting to wake up. Ironically, that’s not far from the truth. Do you believe in fate, Neo?
    Neo: No.
    Morpheus: Why not?
    Neo: Because I don’t like the idea that I’m not in control of my life.
    Morpheus: I know *exactly* what you mean. Let me tell you why you’re here. You’re here because you know something. What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad. It is this feeling that has brought you to me. Do you know what I’m talking about?
    Neo: The System
    Morpheus: Do you want to know what it is?
    Neo: Yes.
    Morpheus: The System is everywhere. It is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work… when you go to church… when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.
    Neo: What truth?
    Morpheus: That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else you were born into bondage. Into a prison that you cannot taste or see or touch. A prison for your mind.

    The central question must surely be ‘Why is it so?’ Why are the leaders of the world so quiescent? Why do they ignore their scientists, and pay more heed to the psychopaths of the Rightwing media lie apparatus, and their equally psychopathic owners? Why, when the merest reflection tells any normal mind that endless growth on a finite planet cannot go on, do they always, without exception, place economic growth as the highest good in society? Why, with weather and climate disasters unfolding on a daily basis, is nothing being done?

    For the leaders the prison for the mind is complete. Are they psychopaths probably not at first but given just a little time it happens without there knowing it The thinking of course is to embrace the system as to not be a slave to the system but a leader and little do they know in so doing they themselves have become the biggest slaves of all. Don’t tell them you know.

  7. lichen said on October 12th, 2009 at 7:15pm #

    James, I think it was good to bring up the reality of how schools ‘used to be’ run and to mention the status of children’s rights in the US. All people develop at their own rate and should be allowed to follow their own way and course when and how they wish to. Hazing, and moralistic/repressive obligations, often spilling into human rights abuses, should not be doled out to someone simply because they reach a certain age.

  8. siamdave said on October 12th, 2009 at 8:16pm #

    Grounding can be found at Green Island http://www.rudemacedon.ca/greenisland.html . A good escapist story to escape for a short while from the dystopic nightmare around us, but within that story some explanations about how we got in this mess, and how to get out of it. We can do it – if you want.

  9. Hue Longer said on October 13th, 2009 at 6:29am #

    Good stuff, Mulga but Easter Island comes to mind when you say, “Every indigenous society we know of made sustaining the environment for future generations a prime concern,…”

    Not sure everyone else (indigenous folks) understood finite resources too well either or if so much of it is romanticism forgetting a lack of potential to really fuck things up.

    No argument on the SEEING bit of fucking things up and continuing to do so…the capitalist sociopaths are a different breed entirely (I’d imagine) from the islanders who failed to do the math.

  10. David said on October 13th, 2009 at 8:10am #

    And how am I to face the odds
    Of man’s bedevilment and God’s?
    I, a stranger and afraid
    In a world I never made.

    A. E. Housman

    We choose again and again to embrace the devil that we know rather than the devil that we don’t.

  11. James Keye said on October 13th, 2009 at 9:35am #

    I would point out that the relationship with the environment is not a rational one, but is adaptive. When the environment is vast in relation to the powers of a species – the historic and typical condition – the species adjusts its design and behaviors to fit into environmental designs. Hominids increased their powers in the environment with a newly evolved capacity; for most of our existence the environment remained the preeminent force, and thus we adjusted to a sustaining style. But as our powers to change energies and materials to our narrow control occurred, especially in contained environments like islands, they could be overwhelmed. Our powers have become so great that we are overwhelming the island earth – as well as our own presence on it.

  12. kalidas said on October 13th, 2009 at 11:02am #

    Yea, until the earth burps, or hiccups.

  13. Mulga Mumblebrain said on October 14th, 2009 at 3:23am #

    You’ve got a point Hue, but the Easter Islanders lived in a very restricted space, and seem to have adopted a proto-capitalist form of extreme social stratification and a primitive type of commodity fetishism, ie those great bloody statues. Other indigenous societies, such as the Aborigines in Australia, vastly changed the ecosystem when they arrived, the Aborigines by introducing fire on a large, but controlled, scale, as a hunting tool and to promote the growth of certain food plants, but, after a while, they arrived at a steady state accommodation with the land, and, in the Aboriginal case, adapted to extreme climate change at the end of the last Ice Age. They, and their contemporaries in North America and elsewhere, certainly did not utterly destroy the ecosystems needed to sustain human life, as our society has.
    One facet of their understanding of man’s place in the cosmos, gained through thousands of generations of experience, was in knowing just what a sustainable human population is. It seems that a very large proportion of indigenous pharmacopieas consists of herbs and other natural substances that worked as contraceptives or abortifacients. Our ‘civilization’, in service to the great Daddy in the Sky, was ordered to proliferate, spread, subdue the planet, and, in so doing, has created the conditions for our demise. I suppose Daddy will magically appear, just in the nick of time, to rescue his loyal followers.
    I think that is another source of ‘strangeness’. We can see, from the evidence of our eyes and the findings of science, that we are living in the end-times, because of ecological collapse, of our civilization, if not species. Previous apocalyptic presentiments were based on religious mania, mostly, or the threat, real enough, of nuclear war. This time it is science that tells us, that, bar a miracle, we are stuffed. The demented denialism of the Right, so unfailingly wrong, so consistently vicious, ignorant and arrogant, only serves to reinforce the message of rational, disinterested, science. So, where other generations, when facing death, whether believing in religious salvation or not, at least had the consolation of knowing that humanity would go on, for good and ill, and that Shakespeare, Bach and Einstein had not lived and created in vain. Today, strangest of all, we know that death is coming for the entire enterprise, the whole millions of years of crawling out of the ooze, down from the trees and across the savannahs and badlands acround the world. It had to happen, some time, as all species end, even if we deluded ourselves into imagining we could escape into the cosmos and hide out from extinction in some far-flung corner. But to be living when the terminal diagnosis is delivered, that is strangeness indeed for any psyche to contemplate. A rare, if dreadful, honour.