Periodically, I’d like to give Abu M readers some exposure to interesting thinkers they may not otherwise read. I’m leading off the first interview with Charles Cameron. It’s hard to exactly summarize his interesting career. Though his work on religious thought and apocalypticism has the most relevance for Abu M readers, he also is a game designer and Herman Hesse aficianado. He specializes in rapid-fire blogged juxtapositions of interesting connections in the news, which you can read over at the Zenpundit archive. I was most interested in Cameron’s unique style of analysis, which may have utility to people interested in things like Design and applied creative thinking for security subjects.
Adam Elkus: Your blogging is
very reliant on pictorial juxtapositions and connections between disparate
things. How did you come to this method, and what is it useful for?
Charles Cameron: I think we’re moving pretty rapidly from an era
of textual to a time of graphical thinking — and I’d tie that in to some
extent with the arrival of cybernetics.
Cause and effect can be represented by a straight line, cause effect and
feedback needs to be a loop. So there’s a return to the visual and the
diagrammatic, visible all over the place from sidebars in major news media to
Forrester’s systems diagrams, the OODA loop, Social Network Analysis and PERT
charts to Mark Lombardi’s paintings — that’s high science to mass media to museum-grade
art. More generally, we see that the network rather than the line is the
underlying form for everything from the internet to Big Data….And if you look
back, you’ll see that all this picks up on themes we haven’t seen since the
Another way I see it is in terms of polyphony. If you want to model all the voices in a
conflict, all the various stakeholders in a problematic situation, you need a
notation, a way of representing their various tensions and interactions — a
way to score their polyphony. And
polyphonic & contrapuntal music is the closest analog we have — JS Bach is
going to be the master here.
Creative insight, and indeed all thought,
depends on analogy (Hofstadter; Fauconnier & Turner; Koestler) — so my Hipbone/Sembl Games and DoubleQuotes are designed to procure & explore creative/associative leaps & the fresh insights they bring, and nothing else. This
is more a poet’s mode of thought than an engineer’s mode, & underused in
heavily tech oriented analysis. The necessities of visual thinking also point me toward a
humanly readable graph with “the magical number seven plus or minus
two” nodes, with the nodes themselves not single data points but rich
& complex ideas in compact form (nasheed, flag, logo, anecdote, video clip,
quote), with multiple-strand, discipline- and silo-jumping juxtapositions
Almost all of the above is prefigured in Hermann Hesse’s
Nobel-winning novel, The Glass
Bead Game, which has been my central intellectual inspiration for at least the
last two decades.
AE: You study apocalyptic
tropes in religious movements. Which vision of apocalypse do you find most
CC: Well, first I should say that I’m not talking about the
current pop-culture trope of nuclear-devastated landscapes and zombie
invasions. I’m talking religious
“end times” beliefs, aka eschatology, cross-culturally, and with
specific attention to those with violent potential. Religion is often pigeonholed under politics,
as though it’s just a veneer and everything can be satisfactorily explained
without considering, eg, that it treats life after death as, if anything, a
more powerful motivator than life before it — so we miss the turning point
that “end times” thinking represents, with its implication that the
current war is the final test on which you will be judged pass/fail by the One
who created life, death and you yourself…
I pay particularly note to unforeseen apocalypses, clashing apocalypses, and
fictitious apocalypses. Muslim (Mahdist) apocalypticism was widely ignored
because we knew so little about it, until well after 9/11 – yet the hadith
saying the Mahdi’s victorious end times army with black banners will sweep from
Khorasan (plausibly: Afghanistan) to Jerusalem has long been a major lure in AQ propaganda — while its correlate, the Ghazwa-e-Hind, is
still largely dismissed. By clashing apocalypses I mean what happens
when rival apocalypses mutually antagonize one another, as when the Mahdi is
equated with Antichrist in Joel Richardson’s writings, or when Judaic, Christian and Islamic apocalypses clash over Israel
and the Temple Mount — probably the driest tinder in the world right now, And
by fictitious apocalypses, I mean the ones influentially but mistakenly
portrayed in works of best-selling fiction such as the Left Behind series, or
Joel Rosenberg’s far more engaging politico-religious novels.
AE: How has the study of
apocalyptic tropes and culture changed (if it has at all) since 9/11 focused
attention on radical Islamist movements?
CC: USC’s Stephen O’Leary was the first to study
apocalyptic as rhetoric in his 1994 Arguing the Apocalypse, and joined BU’s
Richard Landes in forming the (late, lamented) Center for Millennial Studies,
which gave millennial scholars a platform to engage with one another. David
Cook opened my eyes to Islamist messianism at CMS around 1998, and the
publication of his two books (Studies in Muslim Apocalyptic, Contemporary
Muslim Apocalyptic Literature), Tim Furnish’s Holiest Wars and J-P Filiu’s Apocalypse
in Islam brought it to wider scholarly attention — while Landes’ own
encyclopedic Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience
gives a wide-angle view of the field in extraordinary detail.
I’d say we’ve gone from brushing off apocalyptic as a
superstitious irrelevance to an awareness that apocalyptic features strongly in
Islamist narratives, both Shia and Sunni, over the past decade, but still tend
to underestimate its significance within contemporary movements within American
Christianity. When Harold Camping proclaimed the end of the world in 2011, he
spent circa $100 million worldwide on warning ads, and reports suggest that
hundreds of Hmong tribespeople in Vietnam lost their lives in clashes with the
police after moving en masse to a mountain to await the rapture. Apocalyptic
movements can have significant impact — cf. the Taiping Rebellion in China,
which left 20 million or so dead in its wake.
advice do you have for people looking to understand esoteric secular and
religious movements relevant to national security and foreign policy?
CC: Since “feeling is first”, as ee cummings said, to
“know your enemy” (Sun Tze) requires an act of empathy, the ability
to feel how the enemy’s feelings must feel. That’s not an easy task for the
rational secular mind, but to get a sense of the apocalyptic feelings of the
jihadists, I’d recommend reading Abdullah Azzam’s Signs of the Merciful in Afghanistan, with its
tales of miracle upon miracle, considering the impact of those narratives on
pious but unlettered readers sympathetic to the idea of jihad…
Pay no attention to pundits.
For real expertise, follow twitter and blogosphere, not Fox or CNN. Read
widely. Read above your pay grade, see
what the experts think are most significant distinctions. Look for similarities in own tradition and explore the
differences — read Rushdoony on Christian Dominionism and C Peter Wagner on
the New Apostolic Reformation to compare with the Islamist narrative.
Look for blind spots, and focus on them — they’re as
important as the rear view mirror is when driving. Watch for undertows, movements in the making.
Read comments sections, which will contain more unvarnished truth than is
entirely comfortable. Notice where
disciplines (or silos) intersect — learning which applies in two disciplines
is at least twice as valuable as learning that only occurs in one. Read where
worldviews collide. Lastly, I’d ask you to explore any tradition, whether you
think it’s idiotic or not, until you know what’s most beautiful in it — so
that, again, you see it with empathy & nuance, not just in black and white…