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November 9, 2003 Opinion













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In Defense of Los Angeles: Steven Hawking, Jacques Derrida, Aldous Huxley and the Rand Corporation
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I've made four extended trips to Paris in the last six years and must say I feel at home there.  Yeah, I've sipped cognac at the Flore.  And walked endless miles in the rain, and spent hours in dusty bookstores.  I've twice done my Christmas shopping at Bon March and Printemps, and at the wooden stalls at the outdoor Christmas fair a block south of Les Halles.  I feel good in Paris, and it wears its intellectual-literary history well.  And good things are happening there now.  I have my collection of ambient-trance club music from the Alcazar and the Man Ray, and the Bui Bar.  But as my friend Ric of MetropoleParis wrote to me, "Alan, you are just going to have to get used to the idea that Paris is becoming a lampoon of itself.  It's like the unbuilt theme park that already has 25 million annual visitors; to keep 'em coming it's gotta fit their imaginations."
 
True.  Paris does at times seem like a theme park for English majors who studied Hemingway and Stein and the rest, and read Camus and go all depressed and moody. 
 
So let me speak of the intellectual-literary legacy of Los Angeles, and of what is happening now.
 
Okay, I know California is a strange place.  Last week I watched the PBS show Nova - and tried to understand string theory.  As far as theoretical physics bumping up against cosmology and higher mathematics, well, all the explanations of the eleven dimensions, even with the visuals, left me a bit puzzled.  I get the first three, then time - but the other seven dimensions are a bit of a stretch for me.  I must be getting old.  Singularity?  What came before the Big Bang?  Closed-loop multidimensional strings becoming membranes outside of time?  Yipes.
 
I came across an article in the L.A. Weekly that explains,
...to its proponents string theory holds out the hope that this may be the longed-for "theory of everything."  To others, it seems a theory of nothing.  It is not even science, they argue. For as its exponents acknowledge, there is not a shred of evidence to support any of its conclusions so far.  Speaking on Nova the other night, Nobel Prize-winning particle physicist Sheldon Glashow expressed his feelings in scathing terms.  "Let me put it bluntly," he said, "there are physicists and there are string theorists."  For Glashow, physics is about experiment, and without experimental verification string theory has no validity.  Not since the Middle Ages has speculation so exceeded the reach of observation.  "Is this a theory of physics," Glashow asked, "or philosophy?" 
Indeed.
 
But the California thing?  At the world's first "string cosmology" conference, held a few weeks ago a short drive up the coast at the University of California Santa Barbara, the guest of honor was Steven Hawking.  And he tried to explain it all.  The very next day who should speak but Jacques Derrida.  And that fellow can be infuriating in a different way.  Derrida had been invited to speak at a conference on religion, and his theme was living together, and he talked about his experience as a Jewish child growing up in prewar Algeria.  But of course his talk was more about the limits of language and what we can know.
 
So out here as the fires raged and the days were dark with smoke at noon, and while we had two earthquakes, and then had a small jet airplane drop from the sky into a trailer park, Stephen explained the origins of the universe and all matter, and Jacques explained how language works, or doesn't... again.
 
Must be the end of the world.
 
The article that tied it all together is here:
Quark Soup
Brain Worlds
Hawking, Derrida and living with the other
by Margaret Wertheim 
LA Weekly Issue of November 7 - 13, 2003
My friend Phillip Raines (see this week's I WAS JUST THIS CLOSE) commented on it.
String theory just cracks me up.  Multi-dimensionality does the same.  I enjoy and comprehend physics as long as I personally don't have to do the math.  That's a bit of a stumbling block for serious study, but I can hardly take it too seriously.  One of my closest friends is a physicist and another sax player and as soon as I saw the same Nova I rang him up just to chat about it. 
 
String theory (or as he called it "super string" like it was the pimp of theories) relates to the theory that finally it's the music of the spheres, with the emphasis on music.  That vibration is in the biggest stuff and the smallest stuff and the reward of higher consciousness is that conscious self and moving between the dimensions like a worm wiggling through the holes in slices of Swiss cheese.  These cheese slices become most apparent in dreams or intense hallucinations, like the kind induced by peyote or the strongest mushrooms.  Still nothing, no drug at least, compares to the abstract flexibility of music that is deeply felt.  Goes back to what Vonnegut said - "the only proof of the existence of God he needed was music," a nice epitaph.  [See November 9, 2003 Reviews for the Vonnegut passage.] 
 
I get a kick out of Derrida and reading so much into the impact of language on experience and how experience impacts language.  He could rattle on to me about that all day and I'd be almost tickled by it.  He reads a lot into a little and is playful about it all.  Hawkin show us that first treat people with respect, because you can't tell the value of a person form the outside, so pay attention to the inside, even if it's difficult.  Imagine how easy it would be to dismiss some one who you can't understand like Hawkin.  And these guys were just around the corner.  What a wonderful day in the neighborhood. 

Yeah, as the article says of Hawking, who "attempted to explain to Homer Simpson the nature of space and time, that joshed on the Star Trek holodeck with Newton and Einstein"  (I saw those segments on television!) ...

Up close Hawking looks like an imp, an escapee from Lord of the Rings.  His delicate features are preternaturally enhanced by four decades of living with Lou Gehrig's disease.  Since I first interviewed him 18 years ago, he has visibly shrunk, but at this point it is a medical miracle he is alive at all.  It's his eyes that demand your attention, as if the life force withdrawn from his body has concentrated in his orbs.  They don't just twinkle, they radiate light.  Though he can barely move anymore and must now be attended by a small army of nurses, when he nods assent to a question, one senses the power of a still-extraordinary mind at work. This combination of gymnastic intelligence and immobile body creates a profound sense of otherness - Hawking is as close to an alien among us as Mr. Spock, and every bit as enigmatic.

And as for the universe-as-music business the article contains this:

Physicists like to use musical analogies, and we might say that if general relativity describes a Strauss waltz, quantum theory gives us a speed-metal riff.  Practically speaking this duality has little effect, but aesthetically it's profoundly unsatisfying. Physicists cannot bear the bifurcation within their world picture; they yearn for unity.  At the Santa Barbara conference, David Berman, a young English physicist from Hawking's department at Cambridge University, took the musical theme further.  In music, he told me, 'You can have two voices that sound discordant, then a third comes in and resolves them into a harmonic whole.' Physicists are searching for this resolving voice, and in string theory they believe they might have found their answer.

As for my neighborhood, well, perhaps the California days of the fifties and early sixties are returning - far out thinkers from around the world arriving here to say things about reality and its analogs.  Those were the days. 

Aldous Huxley was living out here then, doing peyote and writing, in 1954, The Doors of Perception.   And that freshman at UCLA in the sixties named his rock group The Doors - then when off to die in Paris and be buried there.  Hawking and Derrida are welcome.  This is the place for such people to chat about reality.

Adam Kirsch on Los Angeles:

For Nathaniel West in The Day of the Locust, it was famously a "dream dump," a "Sargasso of the imagination" in which civilization is reduced to "plaster, canvas, lath and paint."  For Truman Capote, it was a nightmare city where "a crack in the wall, which might somewhere else have charm, only strikes an ugly note prophesying doom."  And those are some of the milder opinions.  H.L. Mencken thought "there were more morons collected in Los Angeles than in any other place on earth."  Aldous Huxley wrote that "the truest patriots, it may be, are those who pray for a national calamity" to wipe the smile off the face of "Joy City."

Minor notes:

1.) Peyote, Cactus Pudding, Dry Whiskey and White Mule are some of the common names given this cactus that contains more than fifty alkaloids and related compounds. Mescaline (3,4,5-trimethoxy-beta-phenethylamine) is structurally similar to the human neurohormone epinephrine and is the primary active constituent of peyote.  It produces the indescribable, brilliantly colored visions that are the hallmark of the peyote experience. Aldous Huxley's book, The Doors of Perception, vividly describes his experience while under the influence of mescaline and was an important milestone in the history of psychedelics. 

2.) In 1937 Huxley relocated to California with After Many Summers Dies the Swan (1939) set in Los Angeles. Other novels during this period include Time Must Have a Stop (1944), Ape and Essence (1948) and The Genius and The Goddess (1955).  Around this time Huxley began to experiment with altered states of consciousness and his novel The Island (1962) reflects his search for a wider spirituality.  His choice of drug was mescalin, described in The Doors of Perception (1954) and its sequel, Heaven and Hell (1956).  Other works include The Devils of Loudin (1952) and numerous essays in Collected Essays, (1959). He also wrote two travel books; Jesting Pilate (1926) and Beyond The Mexique Bay (1934) and edited The Letters of D.H. Lawrence (1932).  He died in Los Angeles, November 22, 1963.

Another:

William Blake (1757-1827) "...if the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite."

Well, William Blake, if the doors of perception were really cleansed, everything would appear to be a cloudless day on the beach in Santa Barbara, or a quiet evening here in the Hollywood Hills with Harriet-the-Cat.

By the way, Phillip added this too:

Some people can handle mind-altering substances, some cant.  In the current political environment punishment is preferred to guidance or education.  I doubt there will never be a merit badge for hallucinogens issued by the Boy Scouts of America, though exploring alternate realities could be much better assisted and understood by a responsible and experienced guide.  If Huxley or Derrida could describe a method or ritual of experimentation, acknowledge by the sanctioned academic community, it would still piss off Ashcroft and his goons and rattle the ghost of other pricks in history like Cromwell and the witch hunters in Salem.  The fact that it is driven underground is a frame of mind that only makes it worse.

Phillip, I agree.

I was now thinking Los Angeles was a pretty fine place.  And then I came across something really interesting, from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists - everyone's favorite quick read in the waiting room at the dentist's office.  (Isn't there always a copy lying around?)  And any author who starts out "one was reminded of Cato the Elder" is grabbing Joe Six-Pack's attention right there. 

Well, a lot of this is a review of the history of the policy of "mutually assured destruction" and how that way of thinking about scary weapons, and about death and destruction, and about safety, was worked out down the street from where I now sit at the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica. 
 
When I first moved to California and rented a place on the sand in Manhattan Beach I used to chat with my landlord, one of the Rand guys with his two or three PhD's who said he spent his days calculating kill ratios and who'd be left alive but glowing should we or the Soviets get really ticked off.  One of his PhD's was in mathematics - game theory.  I was working for the defense contractors at the time - Northrop and then Hughes - and these chats were always a tad unsettling.  Then I married the daughter of one of the Assistant Secretaries of Defense for Reagan.  Ah, those were the days.
 
But this guy in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists draws it all back to Iraq.  He says we're suffering from the remnants of that way of looking at conflict.  He says back then "even the smallest chance of vulnerability was unacceptable, given the catastrophic consequences involved in nuclear war. This made it imperative to anticipate the enemy's every move."  And he says we're still thinking that way.  He traces "strategic thought" at Rand in the sixties down though the years directly to Paul Wolfowitz.  Cool.
 
Seems that Wolfowitz did his PhD dissertation at the University of Chicago for an ex-Rand theorist - on nuclear proliferation in the Middle East.  Wolfowitz argued that the United States needed to look beyond simply defending traditional allies against the communist bloc.  Areas with natural resources vital to our economy ought to be as much a part of a "strategic defense umbrella," and anybody with the capability to threaten those areas must be "regarded with concern" - and suggested that "even the hint of nuclear weapons in the Middle East would be a matter of the gravest concern."  This was the late sixties.  Then Wolfowitz and Richard Perle went on to work for "Scoop" Jackson and the rest is history.
 
Key conclusions regarding the current war?
Why was the war necessary in the first place?  In the eyes of those who pressed for war, the United States was already in a quagmire following the indeterminate outcome of the first Gulf War.  According to Wolfowitz, leaving Saddam Hussein in power was a big mistake.  The way he saw it, there was no way to readmit Iraq under Saddam Hussein back into the community of nations, because it would then be impossible to suppress his ambitions to acquire weapons of mass destruction.  Given the zero margin of error that weapons of mass destruction allow, and the strategic significance of the Middle East, such an ambition could not be tolerated.  The sanctions, for their part, could not be maintained indefinitely, either.  The status quo was the quagmire, and regime change was the only way out.  And the sooner it was carried out, the lower the cost of the operation and rebuilding would be. 
 
The quest for an impregnable defense and military supremacy over the rest of the world has brought America to a perilous moment of truth. ... The application of counterforce ideas to a guerrilla war pulled the United States into a colossal quagmire in Vietnam.  But the doctrine of preemptive action turns the iron law of necessity in nuclear strategy into foreign policy.  This time the quagmire will not be an unwinnable war in one country, but endless war across a vast stretch of the Earth - a war from which extrication will be next to impossible.
A fascinating history all laid out here. 
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists - November/December 2003, Volume 59, No. 6, pp. 6271
Neocons: The men behind the curtain
By Khurram Husain
And it all started here in Los Angeles. 
 
What a place!  Cosmology and language theory being discussed just up the coast by the guys on the edge of it all.  All of our current wars being invented decades ago down in Santa Monica at Rand, with my former landlord somehow involved, and Huxley and Jim Morrison somehow linked by peyote out in the empty desert just over the hills.   And the Sunset Strip just a half-block down the street from my door. 
 
Who needs Paris?

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November 9, 2003