Saturday, November 16, 2013

Urban moons

Max Weber famously discussed the “disenchantment of the world” in a 1917 lecture, by which he meant the loss of the overarching meanings, animistic connections, magical expectations, and spiritual explanations that had characterized the traditional world, as a result of the ongoing “modern” processes of rationalization, secularization, and bureaucratization. 
One possible antidote is artistic imagination. As demonstrated by Bas Jan Ader:
In Search of the Miraculous documents a 1973 nighttime walk by Dutch-born artist Bas Jan Ader through Los Angeles, from the Hollywood Hills to the ocean.
The artwork offers 14 night views of urban blandness: a freeway, an underpass and suburban houses emerge out of the blackness under the glare of street lighting. Scribbled at the bottom of each image are the lyrics to a song by the Coasters: Yeh, I’ve been searchin’, I’ve been searchin’, Oh yeh, searchin' every which way ... Just visible in each of the frames is the small figure of the artist, flashlight in hand, searching for miracles.
But even imagination is suspect:
Rational adults could partake of enchantments through the exercise of their imaginations, but despite the protestations of romantics, the imagination continued to be cast as inferior to reason.
But sometimes imagination and reason coincide. Viewing the moon through a double glazed window at just the right angle reproduces the parallel world 1Q84 of Haruki Murakami. I highly recommend this exercise. You can do this at home or on the train and in the bus:

Then he slowly opened his eyes and looked at the sky again, carefully, his mind calm, but still there were two moons. No doubt about it: there were two moons.
One was the moon that had always been there, and the other was a far smaller, greenish moon, somewhat lopsided in shape, and much less bright. It looked like a poor, ugly, distantly related child that had been foisted on the family by unfortunate events and was welcomed by no one. ... It was without a doubt a chunk of rock, having quietly, stubbornly settled on a position in the night sky, like a punctuation mark placed only after long deliberation or a mole bestowed by destiny.
Searching YouTube will yield countless videos of strange moon phenomena. None of these are scientifically valid. But they are fascinating to watch. And it is inspiring to see others in search of the miraculous, however misguided. And there are many interesting moon discussions on the Fortean Message Board:
A dot of light shot out from behind the right hand side of the moon - it was clearly substantially above the moon, there was a very visible gap between the edge of the moon and the object. It zipped, in maybe 1 - 2 seconds from the right of the moon to the left, passing over the dark band of occlusion, incredibly fast. It disappeared behind the moon. It was bright enough to see against the moon's surface, especially on the dark bit.  Then it shot out from the right hand side again, and went right around a second time.
Now, at that age, I knew full well the moon was big and I also knew nothing could do what I'd just seen, absolutely nothing, no comets, asteroids, spaceships, nada. I stared up, said "Did you see...", my brother said "yes..."; he'd been looking at the moon too, as it happened.
Never saw it again, but I was so convinced it was so big, so noticeable, I checked the papers and TV the next day, expecting to hear something, I mean, my god, this must've been visible to near half the planet, even if it was for just a few seconds ...
 A beautiful combination of enchantment and scientific observation is presented in the painting Les phases de la lune III, 1942 by Paul Delvaux. It is part of a Rotterdam museum collection and each time I'm in Boijmans museum I go and visit it:
Two educated men are standing on a square between two scientific institutes: left, a planetarium and right an observatory. The scene is lit by moonlight and breaths a cold atmosphere. The men and women walk up and down the steep stairway to the planetarium like marionettes. The barren landscape, with discarded heavy machinery, contributes to the atmosphere.
But I do not agree that the atmosphere is cold. I feel that 19th century science, with its massive steampunk tools is very tangible, human and mysterious. Modern science with its computers and electronics is much more cold and alien.
Classic science, using physical models and tools that everyone could understand was closer to us than modern science. But even modern science can be mysterious and romantic, as is demonstrated in these NASA pictures of the moon. People seeing this on TV without background information thought they were seeing Ufo's:
It was a video of the full moon, with a spherical object, almost as big as the moon passing between the video camera and the moon. The object looked brownish. I guess that the object was passing in the outer atmosphere as it did seem distant and moved slowly in front of the moon. It wasn't just a dot, like the other videos that I've seen before.
I myself have been pleasantly mystified when I watched the crescent of the setting moon in the city. When I thought: "There are black spots on the moon. I have never seen these before. What is happening?" Then I realised that I was looking at the moon through the branches of a tree which was invisible in the darkness. A magical experience. I have sought and found it many times afterwards. It never fails to move me:
And just like the moon is made more mysterious by viewing through a tree or window, it is also made more mysterious by viewing through curtains. The camera reveals a new and more interesting layer of reality. It is fiction and artificially created "sky shock", but it can be taken seriously:
She saw the backyard and field behind her house light up like she had never before - considering it was nearly midnight and it was pitch black outside. "I was so shocked when I saw it out the bathroom window I just stood there in awe for five minutes" ...
An amateur astronomer describes the problem as "sky shock", Adults of a civilized society can take stars for granted for years until they finally take the time to see just what is possible in the heavens. People have seen "spikes," beams," "appendages," and sparkles shooting out in all directions from bright stars
Finally, just looking at the moon and trying to photograph it is very satisfying. With a cheap digital camera it is not easy at all. It becomes even more difficult when trying to make a picture through cheap binoculars without a tripod. Again an exercise that is heartily recommended:

Well, the moon does have mascons. Just drop the "C" and you have masons. And masons were originally stone-carvers, and the moon is made of stone ... so all this makes perfect sense.
Max Weber:
Bas Jan Ader:
Haruki Murakami:
Fortean Times message board:
Paul Delvaux:
Lunar sundial:

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The beauty of disenchantment

A long time ago I saw a painting by the German painter Michael von Ofen in Kunstforum. It was called "Frühindustrie" (Early Industry) and showed an old factory in an (otherwise) idyllic landscape. I mis-remembered the artists name and it took me a long time to find the painting on the Internet. But is still has the same effect on me, one of enchantment:
It felt very romantic, pastoral and magical. But according to Max Weber this should not be the case:
Max Weber famously discussed the “disenchantment of the world” in a 1917 lecture, by which he meant the loss of the overarching meanings, animistic connections, magical expectations, and spiritual explanations that had characterized the traditional world, as a result of the ongoing “modern” processes of rationalization, secularization, and bureaucratization: “the increasing rationalization and intellectualization . . . means that principally there are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play, but rather that one can, in principle, master all things by calculation. This means that the world is disenchanted.”
This single painting has sensitized me to the beauty of early industry in other artworks. Somehow early industry (and science) don't feel cold and disenchanted, but romantic, cute and human-scaled. Warmer and friendlier than our own industries. From Marx I know this is wrong, but the feeling persists anyway.
Johan Bartold Jongkind - View on Montmartre - ca. 1850 - oil on canvas - Museum Boijmans van Beuningen
Notice how in the early Jongkind steam power still competes with wind power and even animal power. It would be interesting to read more about the struggle between wind, water and steam. Probably it took longer and it was more gradual than the term "industrial revolution" suggests.
Camille Jacob Pisarro - The Oise near Pontoise in gray weather - 1876 - oil on canvas - Museum Boijmans van Beuningen
Disenchantment ... is the historical process by which the natural world and all areas of human experience become experienced and understood as less mysterious; defined, at least in principle, as knowable, predictable and manipulable by humans; conquered by and incorporated into the interpretive schema of science and rational government. In a disenchanted world everything becomes understandable and tameable, even if not, for the moment, understood and tamed.

George G. Lemmen - Factories on the bank of the Thames - ca. 1892 - oil on canvas - Museum Kröller Müller
But the many charming paintings with early industry prove that contemporary painters saw their beauty and maybe were aware of the romance of the subject. But maybe they just registered the contemporary landscape with an analytic and objective eye. No added significance. Just "what you see is what you get".
George Hendrik Breitner - Timber rafts in the snow near Zandhoek - 1903 - oil on cardboard on panel
Enchantments did not disappear entirely, but were marginalized in various ways. Wonders and marvels were relegated by elites to the ghettos of popular culture in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the new mass culture that succeeded them in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In addition, enchantments became associated with the cognitive outlooks of groups traditionally cast as inferior within the discourse of Western elites: “primitives,” children, women, and the lower classes. Rational adults could partake of enchantments through the exercise of their imaginations, but despite the protestations of romantics, the imagination continued to be cast as inferior to reason.

Michael von Ofen:
Early industrialization:

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Financial Solar System

In August 2011 I participated in the Suffolk Psychogeophysics Summit. We organized an outdoor closing session on the steps of Ipswich Town Hall. There were technical demo's (computer interpreted tea-leaf reading, ghost detection) and improvised noise performances. I had written a short lecture on the Financial Solar System. It was an attempt to change the state of the world through artistic ritual. The ritual did not work. Everything is a mess, as always. But maybe you can make it work.
In alchemy the Sun is associated with Gold. We are at the center of the financial solar system.
From here emanates the force that keeps the universe together. Here are the central banks, keeping the whole financial universe running by determining interest rates, controlling the nation's money supply and by being the "lender of last resort" for all the other banks. For all those banks we - as taxpayers - had to bail out recently.
It is rumored the financial markets are influenced by sunspots. The financial system worked tidily - like a mechanical clock - initially wound up by Jupiter himself.
It continued ticking along - as a perfect machine - with its gears governed by the laws of economics. And we humans thought that every single part of the machine was completely predictable.
That is what we thought. Until everything came crashing down.
Next we come to Mercury, the planet closest to the sun.
Mercury is the Roman god of money and commerce. But Mercury is also a trickster and the god of cunning thieves. The ancients knew how to choose their symbols.
In alchemy mercury is known as quicksilver, a liquid metal. It indicates volatility or fluidity and it is also called the ‘water of life’.
Liquidity is what keeps the financial solar system running. Assets that can be easily bought or sold, are known as liquid assets and a high level of trading activity implies high liquidity. When no one trusts anyone trading stops and the system grinds to a halt. That is the financial system crash we are now witnessing.
Venus is the goddess of love and beauty and the second brightest object in the
night sky. In astrology Venus is associated with the principles of harmony, beauty and
We all know that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. Economists think that the financial crisis could have been avoided if more women were employed in speculative investing. Women are less likely to choose a risky job in finance. And if they speculate they are more careful and take less risks. It all has to do with the level of testosterone.
Venus is the planet associated with copper. At the moment the Chinese are buying up all the copper they can get, because it is one of the few valuable commodities left in the western world.
Our own home planet, the planet where finance is booming, busting and blowing bubbles. Causing volatility and chaos. Disturbing the clockwork.
The earth is divided in a northern hemisphere, with bank-managers with multi-million dollar salaries and even bigger bonuses. And a southern hemisphere, where a billion people live in poverty, surviving
on less than a dollar a day.
The heart of the financial system lies in America - one of the most religious countries in the world.
For a religious American the right question is to ask: “What would Jesus do?” Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all who sold and bought and he overthrew the tables of the moneychangers. And he said to them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but you have made it a den of thieves.
Mars is the red planet, the god of war and bloodshed. Astrologically Mars presides over the genitals, the gonads and the muscular system. On Wall Street a big-time trader or salesman is also called a “big swinging
dick”. Did I mention testosterone already?
But if we talk about the god of war and bloodshed - let us quote Marx, the revolutionary philosopher:
The weapon of criticism cannot, of course, replace criticism by weapons, material force must be overthrown by material force. Theory becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses.
We are the masses Marx is talking about. How long will we tolerate that a mysterious financial alchemy determines our lives?
Now we have arrived at the giant planets. And who are the giants of the financial system?
The world's most powerful investment bank is Goldman Sachs. It has been described as follows: “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money”.
The Goldman money-making machine is running at $38m per day - or $1.58m per hour. In each second you listen to me Goldman will make another $439 of profit.
In Roman mythology Jupiter is the ruler of the gods and their guardian and protector, and the CEO of Goldman Sachs has once said that he is just a banker "doing God's work."
In Western astrology Saturn is associated with the principles of limitation, restrictions and boundaries. The things we have now run up against in finance. Saturn is also considered to represent the part of
a person concerned with long-term planning. Which was lacking for a long time.
In Indian astrology, Saturn is the bringer of bad luck and hardship.
With the coming of the financial crisis panic is in the air. Stocks are falling. Treasury bond yields are plunging. Confidence is low and fear is in the air. Nowadays everyone wants to buy gold and maybe – when all the speculation is over – the gold bubble will burst. All the speculative gold will turn into lead.
In alchemy Saturn is associated with the metal Lead.
The modern planets
We have now left the classical planets that were known to the ancients. Since the invention of the telescope, Western astrology has incorporated Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto.
I will not talk much about modern financial techniques, because they are abhorrent. If we had stuck with classical finance we could have avoided the chaos that is dominating our financial solar system.
I will give just three frightening examples:
Modern astrology associates Uranus with new and unconventional ideas and inventions. It is the planet of sudden and unexpected changes and originality.
High frequency trading uses sophisticated technological tools and computerized algorithms to analyze incoming market data. A trader holds an investment position just for very brief periods of time - even just seconds - and rapidly trades into and out of those positions, sometimes thousands or tens of thousands of times a day.
The International Astronomical Union has downgraded the status of Pluto to that of a "dwarf planet". And Standard & Poor's rating agency has downgraded the U.S. credit rating, one notch below AAA saying that the U.S. government’s finances are “less stable and less predictable.” Maybe the U.S. will sometimes become a financial dwarf.
The god Jupiter is away on business. Our predictable clockwork system is disintegrating.

Outer space
We are now in outer space and the sun is just a tiny shining dot far away. Remember the word “liquidity”?
Out in far financial space are the frightening dark pools of liquidity, also referred to as dark liquidity or simply dark pools. They represent large trades by financial institutions that are anonymous and concealed from the public. Here institutional investors can buy and sell without showing their hand to others. There is no longer a fair and transparent market, the transaction s are clouded and are comparable with murky water.
We are at the end of our journey through the financial solar system. It was turbulent and volatile journey. How will be the rest of the spaceflight? It has been demonstrated that predictions are unreliable – especially if made by experts.
Financial doom and world apocalypses have been predicted for centuries. Somehow we managed to survive. But that is no guarantee against a future apocalypse.