Saturday, 23 September 2017

Charon - Lesser God of the Dead

Diodorus Siculus claimed that near Memphis, within Lake Acherousia, there was a House of the Dead to which, under the Egyptian rites of the dead, there was a ferryman called Charon whose boat would take the body of the deceased to its new home. There was a death demon of the Etruscans called Charun. But neither story convinces many as the origin of the myth.

Burn the body, close the grave, pay the ferryman, place the coin in the mouth (since the soul departs through the mouth at its last breath), the ritual is all necessary, and so the deed is finally done. An apple or honey cake, a ribbon or a wreath are all signs of the passing. Later (when people might have believed that the dead were going to a better life), the departed would be given perfume, garlands of flowers and food to take on the journey to their new life in death. 

There is also a prayer to be made to the spirits of the River Styx since, without their help, Charon himself cannot easily cross the river and may be forced to wait outside the entrance to Hades’ realm. The mourners cry and as they cry the soul passes into the hands of the God of Death. Their wailing is a call to tame and calm Death and to ask for his care and protection of those they love or to whom they have a duty. 

Imagine him! – very aged and close to senile but strong and horrible in his filthy cloak and proletarian tunic, the hair around his bald pate still black and wild but with white hairs both there and on his bearded chin, eyes that glow and flicker with a radiant soft flaming and skin wrinkled and scorched black by Phlegethon.

Insatiably hungry to get the job done, instinctively harsh and merciless, a supernatural demonic creature, a lesser God, he visibly enjoys preparing the places for the dead in the boat, gently placing the corpses of the innocent to ensure an easy passage while forcing the less than innocent to come to sufficient zombie-like life to row the boat forward.

He is a terrible creature, who takes pleasure in the tears of the grieving. He steers the black boat of the dead, decked in trailing river weed, across the Styx, the howling, wide and bottomless Acheron Lake and across the Lethe towards a place which Apollo never visits. Charon thus removes us from the exhaustion that is life. He takes slaves and freemen, putting all at the oars or at least those he dislikes and he hears no claims for precedence.

For the journey, all we need is a jug, the clothes we are buried or burnt in, a bundle of necessaries and the ‘obol’ – the coin that is the price of a day’s wage, the last day on earth. Hades is a mercenary place. Hermes Psychopompos who guides the soul to the boat, wants his payment from the obol he gives Charon (which suggests that change has to be given somewhere in the transaction), so does Charon, of course, often considered greedy, and so does Aeacus the greedy gatekeeper into Hades.  The chthonic gods are human traffickers. It is a business.

We might add the greed of Pluto (though not the Greek Hades) though how one obol would cover all these costs is another mystery. It must be a bulk commodity business. War must be profitable. This mercenary side may just reflect a late Roman obsession with contracts and consideration (we pay, we get entrance). Some in the lower classes would put in more coins into the grave than a Greek would have needed.

Some have said that there is no fee, some just the obol and some, though they are wrong, two. For the Greek, the real price is the burial rite or the funerary pyre. Those who have no burial rites, no mourning, no pyre, are left to wander on the near shore of the Acheron pursued remorselessly by vicious beasts and demons, not on life’s shore but another shore altogether.

The obol is symbol of all our earthly wealth being transferred to the ferryman and lost to us forever. It is our passport and also the confiscation at the frontier. As refugees from life, we go into the shadow world with nothing. The payment is also the closing of the grave as much as the tombstone being in place. What you can take with you (according to the philosophers) is your wisdom, your integrity and your true nature.The payment may also reflect a far more ancient fear of the dead as avaricious, hungry ghosts. If you pay them now then perhaps they won't come back and ask for payment later.

There are two sides to this coin – the obverse is the remembrance of the dead by the living and the reverse is a new existence in the realm of the dead or non-existence. It is the representation of a new mode of existing at the cusp of two worlds – mental and supernatural. If a man refuses to die willingly, Death will give him a nudge. He will execute all who refuse to die and without mercy. He kidnaps the young. All are equal in his attention even though he will show unaccustomed grace, gentleness, kindness and tenderness to young mothers and their babes, to the innocent who may even be exempted of their fee. 

And, though fearful of Charon, men still praise him when a tyrant dies. A cult of Charon emerged from Palestine to Mauretania and up to Milan and coins were widely placed in the mouths of the dead in the Second Century AD. Just saying the name Charon could inspire fear by then. He becomes Charondas in much later Greek folklore. 

Once in the boat, there is no return. Only the dead can cross the Acheron. With so many sallow-faced souls on board, the boat threatens to sink but it never does. Some say that the boat expands to fit the dead and grows to huge size after major battles. Some say Charon even carries the souls of all the animals as well. And some say that there are places on earth which provide a shortcut to Hades – such as the land of the Hermionians. 

Very rarely a hero such as Hercules (the only hero strong enough to beat Charon in a fight), Orpheus or Aeneas or heroine such as Psyche may enter Hades as a living soul and return, but for the rest of us there is no golden branch or road money that will allow us to enter and return to the land of the living. 

We cannot pass in and out of death or ride on Charon’s boat and enter Hades before our time. Even Orpheus was denied a second visit until his time was due and Charon was himself punished once for letting Hercules through, albeit that he probably had little choice in the matter. 

And if we think this is a fairy tale and there is no Hades and no Charon, still it is true that Death subsists in any case, as an eternal exile from Existence, irrevocable. But we cannot accept the late glosses that merge into the Christian mythos in which Dionysos represents the triumph of life over death. Perhaps many Romans (though not the Greeks who had a grim view of the underworld) believed that Charon was taking their souls to a better world beyond the grave. But belief is not truth.

The Freedom Agenda - Polyamory as Exemplar

I have made no secret to my true friends of my polyamorous nature. I not only make no apology for it, it helps define who I am. It is by no means all that I am but I would not be true to myself if I did not accept that it was an important part of who I am. I am lucky to live in an immediate environment that finds this no problem but, observing the reactions to polyamory of those outside that immediate environment, it has given me an abiding intellectual interest in the relationship between individual freedom and society and the cultural pressures that effectively enslave people to the control, expectations and aspirations of others.

Freedom is never just about something as one-sided as sexual orientation - freedom is about belief systems, consent, relations to the state system, the family, the locality and the work place, one's positioning by others in a corrupted media, control of your body, adequate resources (which is why the true libertarian must ultimately be, at least in part, a form of socialist), politics, education, friendship and emotions. Freedom is about the totality of being in the world.

My own position is that each person has the right to express themselves in any way they wish so long as they do no harm to another person. I cannot count harm as challenging other people's emotions, sentiments and thoughts but I can count harm as hurting their material selves, their private property and their reputation or status.

The society that controls my language to save the feelings of another is an oppressive society but the real harm it does is in not creating the space to enable a culture of good manners to emerge that will minimise harms without suppressing risk and challenge. It would be bad manners for someone to disrespect me as polyamorous but it would also be bad manners for me to 'out' someone polyamorous without their very specific consent. The failure to create this space is why we live in a culture of weak emoting and terror-stricken snowflakes instead of increasingly strong, resilient and fundamentally compassionate people.

The fine balance between an individual (which, in the sexual sphere, includes all orientations including the often forgotten asexual and, of course, the monogamous) and society is sometimes difficult to hold. In my case, the discussion of these issues is conducted amongst friends in a set of Facebook Groups that have now been running for nearly six years in some cases and cover a wide range of freedom and society issues (ideology, culture, the internet, sexuality, philosophy, music and art). A six year old erotica one is now moribund because of mounting Facebook intrusion into a secret group of consensual adults of around 30 people (actually disproportionately women!). The group was a deliberate canary in the mine to track Facebook's emergence as social control mechanism and it has proved fruitful in defining this even if the canary is now effectively as dead as Monty Python's parrot. Facebook's social control role was tracked and exposed over time.

What is clear is that the total social system is now tending towards a top-down corporatist control of freedom not out of malice but out of fear of the system's own lack of control of the general situation in response to the failures of a globalisation that it had promoted and the sometimes spurious and sometimes real threats arising from terrorism and organised crime. The system created the conditions for terror, economic collapse and organised crime and now wants us and not itself to pay the price. Big business, fearful of regulation that will cut into its profits, is conniving in the process, most notably with its setting of online standards that intrude into private life.

My own view is that the genie of freedom is out of the bottle and that there is no way that the total corporatist system can crush dissent except by cultural means which is why it has turned its attention to its alliance with the media again. Controlling culture is the standard mode of the hegemonic system - with cash if necessary as we saw in the promotion of abstract expressionism by the CIA in the 1940s. Today, we are increasingly able to see through this manipulation and create islands of cultural resistance that can connect with others despite the attempts at informal algorithmic censorship and control. The new technologies increase control and increase abilities to resist in a call-and-response process that means that the controlling system can never quite win over all aspects of human existence. Sexuality is increasingly that canary in the mine - now repressed, now channeled into an absurd identity politics, now culturally appropriated and now a mode of resistance.

In fact, the means and modes of resistance through the internet and through a new awareness of personal freedom (and, above all, a new preparedness at the margin to stand for personal autonomy and take risks) have resulted in a powerful half underground and half overt energy directed at ensuring that every strike against freedom results in a tenfold determination to strike back, often in a fluid and 'queer' way so that eventually the state system is going to have adapt to us rather than we to it if we are both to work together to remove those who are actually dangerous to safety and society (as opposed to those periodically witch hunted in order to enforce policy). The really dangerous person is not at the top but at the white collar middle management (the 'kapo') level and the soi-disant 'creative' or 'intellectual' embedded in the cultural or policy system - these people are generally second rate minds living in a state of anxiety.  It is these people who seek to master the algorithms. These are the people who failed to protect the child abuse cases in Rotherham. This is why the Labour Party is now dangerous. It is becoming the party of that class.

Crude attempts at censorship and cultural control are yesterday's tools ... the system can track everything we do or say but what it cannot do is stop us doing anything legal (and sometimes illegal) or saying what we like or kicking back to organise to make what we want to be legal to be legal, sometimes simply by making the law unworkable if it is foolish. Censorship of hate speech has simply made heroes out of the hateful. Attacking pornography has simply normalised it. Disrespecting sex workers has provoked them into more effective organisation. The destruction of the authoritarian pseudo-liberal Left has now become as important as the containing of the authoritarian Right - more so, since the Right has adopted the freedom agenda for private life in stages since the 1990s.

The new Einsteinian politics of individual mobilisation and volatility which is replacing the systems-based Newtonian politics of the West is only in its early stages. The Catalonian experiment under way today is an amusing and even playful as well as deadly serious game of cat and mouse between a pompous State machine and local aspirations. Brexit is going to go in the same direction as the attempt to ensure a corporatist solution to a populist decision results in the slow emergence of a country revolt against the pretensions of the liberal middle classes. As Frank Furedi has pointed out, the Hungarian resistance to cultural bullying is another, wholly misreported in our increasingly unreliable official media - the BBC is little more than the Pravda of a failed system.

There will be flows back to the Newtonian and then new discoveries until a major paradigm shift takes place and we are in a new world of Globalisation 2.0, intelligent and stabilised populism and strong but responsive States that have been forced to abandon their presumption that they are more important than the people they serve. The Churchillian Imperial approach is dying on its fight but so, we will find, is the absurd 'all must have prizes' New Left Socialism of the narcissistic Baby Boomers. Identity politics is rapidly travelling up its own orifice.

In that context, since the personal is the political, I produced a discussion paper on just one small aspect of the Freedom Agenda for the Facebook Group on Sexuality (which anyone can join who is not a troll- we are not snowflakes, we execute trolls). I reproduce it below for the record. Variants could be produced for all parts of the Freedom Agenda - other forms of sexual conduct, mental health, internet freedom, personal liberation from party, corporate or tribal loyalties, child-rearing, property-holding, corporate demands on our time, virtue and moral obligation, freedom to believe nonsense if it does no harm, command of our own bodies, fair redistribution, the management of technologies and community and family obligations. Try inserting asexual into the text and with a few sensible adjustments you have a liberatory strategy for asexuals.

The challenge here is to balance an oppressive inherited communitarianism in society, which still has some value as solidarity in bad times and which need not be oppressive at all, with a new and responsible libertarian impulse that still permits the freedom to create sustainable communities. So, here are seven propositions about polyamory for discussion and you can insert any orientation and any private belief system you like and adapt it to your own needs:
  1. Many people who are polyamorous generally cannot be happy without recognition of their polyamorous nature although others can be happy enough but not entirely fulfilled. The polyamorous need to connect emotionally with others. They are not driven primarily by sexual need although the sexual element cannot be ignored. The essential drive remains emotional. Why this is so is irrelevant. It is not a disease or a weakness. It is simply so. 
  2. The bulk of society cannot comprehend the polyamorous sensibility, largely because it does not think about it. This is its problem which has become that of polyamorous people. Polyamorous people should not allow it to be their problem. 
  3. The social barriers for polyamorous people meeting other polyamorous people and developing sustainable relationships are formidable. 
  4. Many people who have a polyamorous orientation cannot communicate that orientation to their family and friends and so they are not able to develop an open and transparent relationship with others. They are locked into social conformity by their condition. This breeds not so much loneliness (because they have existing sustainable emotional relationships) but lack of personal fulfilment and dissatisfaction.
  5. The ‘self-closeting’ of the polyamorous (out of concern not to cause pain or upset to others for whatever reason) is a serious barrier to the sustainability of polyamorous relationships as well as to meeting other compatible polyamorous people. The pool of possible contacts is thus made smaller by social conformity.
  6. There is no intrinsic reason why anyone should limit their natures to the private and the secret to satisfy the social prejudices of others. It is a form of subservience to society which society has not earned the right to demand.
  7. Lifestyle polyamorous communities (centred on the narcissism and anxieties of defensive polyamorists) are simply reproducing the anxious defensiveness of the communities that they are trying to isolate themselves from. The polyamorous person must be able to assert their normality in all those respects that matter while remaining polyamorous.
If these propositions are true, what conclusions can we draw from them? It is from the answers to that question that liberation can start to take place.

Friday, 30 June 2017

Facebook & Arbitrary Power

"Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you-
Ye are many - they are few."

Facebook has just proved itself to be an idiot again - or rather its algorithms have proved idiotic. Its guidelines on 'nudity' (a particular cultural neurosis emanating from the dark recesses of American disgust with the otherwise perfectly natural human body) are actually crystal clear that if an 'artist' paints a nude, then it is somehow just dandy.

This is, of course,  a concession to the nonsensical idea that, for some romantic reason, artists can represent safely what is not permitted in the real world. However, those are the guidelines - no nudity (except for a political concession to breast feeding mothers) unless it is art and then it is permitted. Let us be clear - if it is an artistic representation, it is expressly permitted.

In this particular case, I posted, in a Closed Group dedicated to art and with members who are all invited adults, a picture by the mid-level baroque female painter Artemisia Gentileschi, somewhat of a feminist icon. Indeed, I have the cynical notion that Facebook only backed down when I threatened to set the feminists on it for blocking their heroine, one of the few female artists to 'make it' in the seventeenth century - actually a fairly average and over-hyped artist.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, not only did their moronic algorithm not recognise a work of art and blocked it but the operation did something unconscionable - it arbitrarily halted me from posting anything and anywhere for 24 hours. It gets worse by the way, but wait for the end on that one.

My response was immediate, aggressive and utterly contemptuous. They got a message on their help desk every five minutes for two hours pointing out the idiocy of the blocking with a one hour twitter campaign of direct contempt for their inability a) to recognise art and b) to understand their own guidelines as well as an expression through every means of direct anger and outrage that they should arbitrarily block anyone for 24 hours rather than just block something that their idiot algorithm could not recognise as a rather unerotic bit of baroque flummery.

The net result was that the block on my posting was lifted within six rather 24 hours and the picture was restored but my contempt for this arbitrary act and algorithmic stupidity has returned me to my high level of distrust for Facebook that had existed some three or four years ago when they suspended my account without adequate cause and were forced to relent after another time-wasting and determined twitter campaign and complaints to the regulatory authorities in Ireland. At least this time, it was a matter of hours and not months!

But then they blundered again. This time in a way that is almost comical. I made it clear to two Groups that I would no longer be posting on them as a mode of resistance to self censorship but also to preseve rights that now seemed to threaten my right to post in some 15 or so others of an educational nature.

A debate ensued in which a bit of consciousnes was raised about Facebook's arbitrary power and then I commented on another sixteenth century Northern Renaissance nude, posted in the past where others saw 'attachment unavailable'. In other words, Facebook had arbitrarily stopped others from seeing it without giving me fair warning of why this was so. When I commented on it, the result was that the algorithm stupidly marked this art work (well within Facebook's guidelines) as problematic and, yes, in another arbitrary act, banned me from posting for another 24 hours. There is a moron out there, either a programmer or an AI.

Facebook needs to understand that it has every right to set the rules for its platform but there are two things it cannot do. First, it cannot breach its own guidelines - those guidelines give a rather silly priority to art but that commitment to permit art must be met. Second, blocking a picture may be unfortunate and immature but it is permissible within those guidelines. However, it is outrageous that it can behave like a medieval despot and remove posting rights and make threats of loss of account on any basis, let alone a breach of its own guidelines. Body neurosis is tiresome - it shows a weak and decadent culture incapable of standing up for maturity. It also evidences an even more tiresome American cultural imperialism. But this weird thing about Art/Good and Body/Bad remains Facebook's privilege. Arbitrary incompetence or algorithmic malice does not.

What is really disturbing here is something much deeper. Because of its administrative errors, my digital existence is being put at threat because these blunders are inexorably leading to my own digital arbitrary execution.  

The Debate on the Art Group during the brief period when I had access to posting was instructive because Facebook's acts are raising a sort of 'revolutionary consciousness' through its arbitrary acts which have not just affected me. It is a sinister algorithmic attempt at socialisation that is going very badly wrong.

I do not accept defeat but I recognise the reality of power which is that Facebook, if I persist, can remove, in an arbitrary way, my entire six year Facebook ouevre comprising engagement in over 15 groups and with nearly 400 Friends and 160 Followers. In other words, Facebook, like a despotic ancien regime estate, can execute me in the digital world on the whim of one of its own aristocratic algorithms. It is as decadent, corrupt and villainous as any ancien regime. 

So what does a rebel do? He does, as Churchill points out, like any oppressed peasantry take to the hills ... or he engages in guerrilla activity or he emigrates or he gets educated and plots or he engages in a calculated 'dumb insubordination' and 'go slow' or he raises the next generation to understand power and eventually seize it. Or all of those as circumstances dictate. The understanding of power is a fine art - first one must know one's powerlessnes (which few really appreciate) and then one must know the power of the powerless (as Foucault pointed out) in its insidious ability to destroy its oppressor. Eventually conditions change and there is a revolution against arbitrary power.

Every arbitrary act by the ancien regime increases resentment and eventually the heads of the aristocrats roll, eventually humanity will command these AI-driven platforms by revolutionary fiat. I engaged the platform in struggle and temporarily won the 'pay rise' to which I was owed anyway but the power relationship has not changed and the capitalist may still fire me at will when conditions change. He may have put me on a blacklist. Indeed, that is what happened. Within hours of the first suspension, I got 'locked out' again with the suspicion that I am a 'marked man'

I can engage in an idle and short term trades union reformism or I can take the revolutionary route and plan for the long game - the utter overthrow of the arbitrary regime and its replacement by a dictatorship of the subjects! The Art Group remains - it just does not have me posting. It is for others to carry on the revolution in the factory. Better to die on your feet than live in fear on your knees so off to the hills I go with mental kalashnikov in my fist. My investment elsewhere is too valuable in the revolutionary cause and there is nothing they can do about that except 'kill' me. And, if they kill me, others will arise to protest their arbitrary power. My very small amount of power has been redirected with more force. The only thing I can hope is that I have raised the revolutionary consciousness of my own fellow Facebook proletariat.

What is going on here? I think Facebook is running scared of legislation from an equally neurotic government structure and is trying out algorithms that restrict and contain us, all on the spurious grounds of protecting us. The platform is weak and governments are oppressive and, between them, we could be but nuts in their nutcracker. The answer is simple as it is to all arbitrary power - expose it, fight it and apportion blame where it is due: in this case, cowardly and greedy unchecked corporate power and weak and oppressive states. We must never be the nuts ... the nut cracker must be broken, and we should be allowed to grow into great oaks.

Appendix: My Protest At The Second Suspension

To Facebook

I cannot believe your stupidity or is it the stupidity of your algorithms. Yesterday, you suspended me for 24 hours on a seventeenth century artwork which met your guidelines. Six hours later you restored me. I commented on 'old' posting of a sixteenth century artwork (well within your guidelines) this morning and you suspended me again for 24 hours. Now I fear that your algorithms are marking me out for account loss on your idiot mistakes.

This really is not acceptable. I want the painting restored. I want the 24 hour suspension lifted. I want my algorithm corrected to remove all references to these arbitrary actions outside your guidelines.

If this is not done clearly and quickly, I will do the following: I shall write to the regulatory authorities and to my elected representative (who is a member of a minority government putting datas regulation through Parliament); I will produce a blog posting on your failures which I shall circulate widely; and you will have a Twitter reference every ten minutes for as long as it takes.

This is an absolute outrage - two blunders in 24 hours against your own guidelines with arbitrary and unjustified attacks on service provision.


On July 22nd, 2017, I posted a photographic art work in a thread on the photographer Man Ray in the same closed Art Group censored above. In this case, it was borderline because it is moot whether a photograph is art to some people though few actually contest Man Ray's status in this respect and the picture was part of a series, all classically correct, as representative of Man Ray's work including his anodyne but attractive 'Pebbles'.

This particular work was interesting because it was a staged (and very obviously staged) image of 'crime passsionel' which only a moron would not see as expressive and poetic rather than either as a) an incentive to crime or b) some sort of vicious misogyny though, of course, some of the half-educated wallies coming out of the universities nowadays seem unable to draw a mental distinction betwen reality and fantasy which is, I suppose, a sign of the times. If the American President cannot do this, it is probable that his subjects may have difficulty as well.

However, accepting that Facebook are not sophisticated and they have rules, in this case, I am perfectly happy to see the picture removed as borderline since they are clearly trying to protect any one in any sex-negative, body-fearing, unthinking culture to which they want to flog their advertising from having their imagination or brain cells tested very far.

What I do not accept is a) the blocking from posting for 24 hours and b) the bullying threats associated with the blocking. What they should do (as I made clear in my main posting) is remove the picture without threats and advise that this has been done and suggest the possibility of a problem if there is a pattern of such activity within some system of adequate due process. This is what I wrote to them:

"You've done it again .... removed an art work. In this case, a clearly staged photographic art work by the great photographer Man Ray in a thread about Man Ray's work in a closed Group dedicated to Art.

"I have dealt with your censorship behaviours in depth in the past (as above) which I urge you to read with care ....

"In this case, I recognise that it is borderline in terms of the actual posting and that it is reasonable for you to remove the picture in the light of your guidelines - idiotic though the act is in every other respect (the closed and dedicated nature of the Group and its dedication to art amongst consenting adults who do not include primitives).

"However, it is not acceptable to block an individual for 24 hours and offer threats but only to remove the picture and a note to this effect will be added to the posting if posting rights are not restored within one hour.

"I accept that the picture may be removed. I do not accept your arbitrary decision to block posting without due process."