1. When I was a kid my mother made me enroll in the the little Town’s local library summer reading program: silver, green, blue, and gold stars depending on how many you went through. I can still remember the tiny library in the court house on the square in small-town Mississippi and the prim librarian. But I only remember three books from that whole period. The first one, oddly, was a red covered copy of Das Capital to the left of the door as you first entered (never tried to read it, hell, I would’ve been around eight then–guess the bright red cover stood out, dunno); the second book was the Joel Chandler Harris’ Tales from Uncle Remus — couldn’t understand the dialect in there at all, was like a foreign language to me—which of course was part of my fascination with it; and third book was The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet by Eleanor Cameron, which my wife found a copy of recently to give me.
The book was written in 1956 and the photo of the author on the back of the dust cover could be a publicity still from ‘Leave It To Beaver’. Even in 1956, the book had gone through nineteen printings and the book is still in print so god knows how many kids — and now adults — have read this book. And have perhaps had it lodged somehow, somewhere in the cultural unconscious. In 1985 Director Joe Dante made a sort-of version, unintended homage I’m sure, called Explorers (trashed by many critics, and for many of the reasons Colin Bennett below is often critiqued – but that’s another book/post).
The Cameron book involves two young boys making a space ship under the tutelage of one Tycho Bass, a.. ‘person’ who seems to be a mushroom being and who (which?) succeeds in getting the boys off the earth to explore and warn the mushroom people of the planet Basidium (orbiting invisibly fifty thousand miles above the surface) about a perhaps impending catastrophe. The book now reads like a weird propaedeutic to all of the alien harvests abductive circularities hidden conspiratorially in plain site. At any rate, reading the book fifty years later, of a sudden the world of the fifties opens and yearns pensively further down the temporal field. One doesn’t have to be that much of a postmodernist to think that the remainders we have sloughed off can return as revenants to haunt us (extend that thought all the way down the historical chain and you nave plenty of material to think/be haunted by.)
“Perhaps you’ll find it in your dreams, David,” said Dr. Tropman, smiling down at him, “not for ten or twenty years yet, or maybe even fifty. Might be something to look forward to though.”
“Perhaps you’ll find it in your dreams, David.” said his mother hopefully.
“But I don’t WANT to find it in my dreams,” said David impatiently, “That wouldn’t do at all. I don’t WANT it to be a dream. I want it to be REAL!”
2. One segment of this real/dream deferral/culmination is constituted by the redoubtable Colin Bennett and his new book, An American Demonology: UFO’s over the White House. I love Bennett’s mashups between ufology and postmodernism, both it’s philosophical parts and lit’s more lurid pulp aspects. This book follows the first official investigator of unidentified aerial phenomena, Colonel Ruppelt, which he began at the behest of the then nascent USAF … in 1956! You’ll note the publication date of Ms. Cameron’s work above. At any rate, Bennett’s stuff is kinda like shoving Queen, 50-cent, Stockhausen, and Foucault together. I also loved his previous books: Looking for Orthon, on the odd Mr. Adamski; and the Politics of the Imagination, on Charles Fort. I started reading much of this ‘outlaw’ stuff many years ago (like, after 1956??) – stuff like the Donald Keyhoe book on flying saucers, Morning of the Magicians, and the ton of stuff still coming out – Bennett’s books are really the first to put the material into some perspective for me. (by which of course I mean that it accords to ‘conclusions’ I had already reached but had not articulated to myself. Warning: those who find they have an epistemological stick up the butt will find it shoved ever more firmly into place. (I’ve also followed Mr. Bennett’s post on his web site and he’s a ferocious take-no-prisoners fighter Unfortunately he is now dead. .
“The human mind is not a machine. It was not designed for accuracy, stability, rationality, or mechanical logic of any kind. It was built to manufacture countless transcendental options, whose ‘being’ and ‘reality’ varies along a scale from solid to vaporous. We navigate mentally by hoaxing ourselves, by creative hallucinations; we wind these things up like toys and watch them click and wheeze their faltering way to east of the sun and west of the moon. When we look into ourselves, we see that we are made up of impostures numberless, like an Eiffel Tower made of watch and clock parts.”
3. Believe it or not, Mr. Bennett’s work dovetails fairly neatly with W.J.T. Mitchell’s new book, What Do Pictures Want?, on contemporary art and culture. Mr. Mitchell’ is the editor of the journal Critical Enquiry, and his previous book was The Last Dinosaur, a highly entertaining and fascinating book on the culture history of the dinosaur. His thesis in this new book (chapters consisting of articles published in various places, not a problem here because they all work pretty much together), is that we have created a society of autonomous imagery. (One could perhaps say that both ways: the autonomous images have a ‘society’ of rules and interactive possibilities, as well as the society that creates and maintains them.) As he says early on, the idea that images have a social or psychological power about them is a cliché of contemporary visual culture (the return of the repressed of ‘idolotry, fetishism, totemism’) and that “There is no difficulty in demonstrating that the idea of the personhood of pictures (or, at a minimum, their animism) is just as alive in the modern world as it was in traditional societies. The difficulty is in knowing what to say next [….] Is is our task as cultural critics to demystify these images, to smash the modern idols, to expose the fetishes that enslave people? Is it to discriminate between true and false, healthy and sick, pur and impure, good and evil images? Are images the terrain on which political struggle should be waged, the site on which a new ethics is to be articulated?”
Well, yes and no, thinks Mitchell, and this next part is very pertinent to the views of Bennett I’ve come to see: “Images are certainly not powerless, but they are a lot weaker than we think. The problem is to refine and complicate our estimate of their power and the way it works. That is why I shift the question from what pictures DO to what they WANT, from power to desire, from the model of the dominant power to be opposed, to the model of the subaltern to be interrogated or (better) to be invited to speak. If the power of images is like the power of the weak, that may be why their desire is correspondingly strong, to make up for their actual impotence. We as critics may want pictures to be stronger than they actually are in order to give ourselves a sense of power in opposing, exposing, or praising them.”
(Just as extended note here: I guess I find the Cameron and the Bennett book and the Mitchell book – in their different registers — interesting because they cover a sort of burgeoning – although not really because it’s heritage is in phenomenology –philosophical movement sort of exemplified most recently by Graham Harman in his first book Tool-Being and unfolding further in his newest one (Guerilla Metaphysics and the Phenomenology of the Carpentry of Things) where he tries to talk about ‘objects’ and the “reality of entities as genuine forces to reckon with in the world, as real players exerting influence outside themselves even while hiding behind their exposed surfaces.”
I realize that this seems hopelessly high-academic esoteric but it seems to be very pertinent to whatever cultural/historical/political/ethical turns that are rapidly approaching us courtesy of our machines and the desiring mechanisms of our images. It is no less about the demise of a certain sort of culture, the old humanist culture that Foucault went on about in that amazing book, The Order of Things, wherein resided the much quoted and just as much debated image at the end of the book of the ‘invention of man’ and this man(kind) as a figure inscribed on the sand on the edge of the ocean, soon to be washed away. These ideas are just as controversial now as they ever have been, even as we begin to live them.)
At any rate, to finish up an already lengthy—though not nearly long ENOUGH really — review, a couple of pertinent quotes from Mitchell: “The epithet for our times, then, is not the modernist saying, ‘things fall apart,’ but an even more ominous slogan” ‘things come alive.'”
“We live in a time that is best described as a limbo of continually deferred expectations and anxieties. Everything is about to happen, or perhaps it has already happened without our noticing it.”