Hocus Pocus Postmodernocus!

I can’t imagine who amongst the readers of this blog that I know of would be interested in this book, but I’m so geeked that my friend Pat has published this that I can’t not pimp it. Postmodern Magic: The Art of Magic in the Information Age is a book about magic, the supernatural kind, from the point of view of a postmodernist neo-Hellenic pagan and sometime chaos magician. Learn why magic circles are like parentheses, and how to make up magical symbols for fun and profit.

It’s written more in a personal, “this is what I’ve done, this is what I think, this is why” style than a kind of “here is the Secret Occult Truth from On High” style, though he doesn’t entirely evade that — he does teach college students, after all, so it’d be pretty hard to completely eradicate pontification from his communication. :) It’s a lot of fun to read. Buy it! Support my man Pat!

I’ll let y’all know if I decide to call postmodern spirits from the vasty deep. :)

Carl Rogers

I triangulated on Carl Rogers recently. Marshall Rosenberg, whose work I’ve been interested in lately, studied under Rogers. I recently picked up again a really great book on writing called Writing Without Teachers, by Peter Elbow. In the latest edition he acknowledges a huge debt to Carl Rogers. And finally, I noticed that a really wonderful book I’m reading on art by Ellen Langer, On Becoming An Artist, pays homage in its title to Rogers’ On Becoming A Person.

So I thought it was time to check out Rogers. All I knew about him was that the computer program “ELIZA” was supposed to accurately simulate Rogerian therapy: that is, he was known as somebody who advocated mechanically repeating anything the client said. That didn’t sound promising. It sounded like a silly and fairly empty technique. But then, I’d only heard about it from people who didn’t think much of it.

As it happens, from what I’ve read so far, Rogers is a really important and deep thinker, and he seems to be either the origin or an early advocate of many ideas which are very important to me.

However, the impression I am getting is that he was so influential in the sixties that his ideas were borrowed, distorted, diluted, and turned into mush, both by people who liked him and people who disliked him.

For example, you know that whole weird cliche about “trying to find yourself”? (“But dude! You’re right here! You don’t have to find yourself! Ha ha!”) That’s an out of context echo of Rogers. To Rogers, “becoming who you are” had a very specific and fairly deep meaning — it meant learning that your core, authentic self, the deep “you” that you are underneath all your positive and negative reactions to other people’s expectations of you, is a positive, “prosocial,” good person that you can trust and embrace. It was a process he had seen many times, in therapy which went well.

But “finding oneself” became this empty meaningless phrase. That happens a lot with words and phrases which an author coins to mean something unusual, which isn’t well known in the culture at large — they end up in the culture at large anyway, but emptied of their particular meanings. For example, “deconstruction” has a pretty specific meaning if you read deconstructionists, but most people haven’t, and the actual meaning of deconstruction is a thing with which the culture at large is unfamiliar and which takes a lot of explanation. So the word has been emptied of its very specific meaning and turned into a pretentious synonym for “analysis.”

I’ve seen this a lot: when you discover something really important about life, either through experience or through reading a really profound book, or whatever, it often turns out to be a cliche. But that cliche never had a real meaning to you till you discovered it yourself through other means. You may have bandied the cliche about, mocked it, or refuted it logically, all the while completely failing to grasp it.

Back to Rogers. He’s widely mocked for his “reflective listening” technique. Couple things there. First off, it’s not something you can do mechanically. The point of it is to really understand what the client is saying and to show them that you do understand. People can tell if you’re bullshitting that, and it won’t help them.

Secondly, it’s something he came up with through some hardheaded experimental technique. Rogers was one of the first people to really do empirical research on outcomes and techniques of therapy, and his work was based on his research. One of the things he did was tape therapy — lots of it — done by himself and other therapists. He studied interactions between client and therapist, and found that when a client had an insight, and the therapist responded to it by interpreting it, or clarifying it, the client shut up and stopped exploring his insight and listened to what the therapist told him. But if the therapist reflected it back at him, trying to capture it and understand it but not expand on it, then the client kept on thinking and exploring and got further.

To Rogers, a client who kept thinking was doing better in therapy than a client who sat down and shut up and let the therapist tell him what’s going on, so the logical consequence of this research was to maximize reflective listening and minimize the kinds of interactions which shut clients up.

Important things of which Rogers was a big supporter?…

  • The idea that people are basically good, not basically bad and dangerous.
  • The value of unconditional acceptance.
  • The idea that evaluation is damaging — both positive and negative evaluation.
  • Rejection of authoritarian/heirarchical relationships
  • The importance of process orientation vs product orientation
  • The “DIY” factor — the notion that the most important things come from within oneself, not from outside oneself.

Probably some other stuff I’ve forgotten.

In any case, Rogers is good stuff and the picture you get of him from summaries in textbooks and what not is completely bogus.

How to be Creative?

GapingVoid has made some good noise lately by releasing a Creative Commons licensed book on “how to be creative.” It’s in PDF form and also on the web.

I’d say it’s partly brilliant and partly wrong-headed.

I think that depending on who you are when you read it you are either going to take away the brilliant parts and think it’s a wonderful book or the wrong-headed parts and come away the worse for it.

Wrong-headed: he doesn’t (at least on the face of it) shake the myth of Successful People vs Losers. He’s always talking about failed creative people who work as waiters and whatnot. But then he’ll turn around and say: “Even if your path never makes any money or furthers your career, that’s still worth a TON.” Well, wait a minute. Should we pity the pathetic losers working as waiters because they didn’t have sufficiently different or unique ideas, or should we realize that what they’re doing may be “still worth a TON”?

There is a lot of this kind of conflict going on in the work. He takes a broad “everyone can do this, it doesn’t take special talent, just hard work” tack in one section, and then he talks about how really talented people “don’t need props” and mere hacks do. Wait, does talent matter or not?

Again and again he equivocates on really important issues. I think he says some really deep & true & important things, things where society’s assumptions are wrong and harmful, and we need to see the truth, but then he lapses back into those wrong assumptions on another page.

This is frustrating. But I think it’s a good book nonetheless, and I am really glad he wrote it and made it available. Lot of very very good stuff in there.

And I must admit I wrote this before finishing it, so I may have missed some very important stuff before the end.

The Search for a Nonviolent Future

Reading The Search for a Nonviolent Future by Michael Nagler right now. It seems like it’s going to be one of those Big Books that Really Matters to me.

What I’m getting out of it so far (about 1/3 of the way through):

  • Nonviolence is already being practiced the world over; it is wildly underreported in the media. It has not entered the public consciousness outside the people who are deeply involved in it.
  • Nevertheless, it has had some massive successes. The attempted coup against Gorbachev was prevented by the action of many, many nonviolent resisters, who had been trained in nonviolent resistance. It worked. The nation of India achieved its independence from Great Britain by means of nonviolence. South Africa’s apartheid was ended by nonviolence. And of course, MLK Jr’s nonviolent tactics changed America.
  • Nonviolence can be understood as a positive force, not a negative prohibition. The Sanskrit word which is translated “nonviolence,” “ahimsa,” is a word which expresses a positive through its opposite. A comparable English word is “infinity.” Which means something much more positive than merely “lack of finity.” Heck, “finity” isn’t even a word. “Ahimsa” is like that, in Ghandi’s usage at least.
  • The power of nonviolence is that it can only work through the free will of the oppressor. This means it is always a gamble. But it turns out that in practice it is a very good gamble. Many people who would act very badly towards those who either fight or flee them, find themselves changing when they are confronted by those who neither fight nor flee them, but oppose them with nonviolence.

I’ll write more when i’ve read more.

Reading Dogs

I’ve just started reading D. Vincent Baker’s Dogs in the Vineyard. It has to be the single best written roleplaying game I’ve ever read. I don’t remember ever reading a roleplaying game that kept me coming back to it as if it were a novel or something. Here’s a section about the ceremonial coat of office that the Dogs wear:

You’ll serve actively as a Dog for three or four years, usually, sometimes less and sometimes more — sometimes lots more — and your beautiful new coat won’t hold up. It takes a fierce beating in the field. It becomes the responsibility of the communities you serve to maintain your coat, patching, piecing, repairing, even replacing it as you need. Some dogs come out of their service with three or four coats, the earlier ones packed carefully away to preserve them. Some come out with only their original coat, and it’s torn and battered and ruined. In later life, as you’re called to higher and higher sacred offices, you are always allowed to replace whatever vestments accompany your office with your old Dog’s coat, no matter how beat up it is. And if you end up in the Dogs’ Temple training and initiating new Dogs, your old coat is powerfully significant.

(Picture one of the Dogs’ teachers. His coat’s so faded and stretched across his shoulders that you can see his shirt through it. It has an old stain and a crude patch under his left arm. The boyfriend of the woman he loved stabbed him, so long ago, and he had to stitch his coat back up himself. How high in the esteem of the new Dog initiates he is! He regards them all with hope, love, and very mixed feelings.)

All of the above: typical case.