Reviews

How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions by Francis Wheen

Tim O'Neil

How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World is no mere catalog of silliness and superstition for the amusement of the learned bourgeoisie -- rather it is a powerful jeremiad against the very foundations of modern society.


How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World

Publisher: Public Affairs
Length: 328
Subtitle: A Short History of Modern Delusions
Price: $12.00
Author: Francis Wheen
US publication date: 2005-07
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On first glance this appears to be a rather light-hearted volume, with the anachronistic Ouija board cover design reinforcing the idea that, in the words of noted ironist Nick Hornby's cover blurb, Wheen's narrative will be "fast and smart and very funny". The back cover quotes continue in this vein, with the Toronto Globe & Mail describing it as "[S]avagely amusing", and the New York Press declaring that "it will delight". I have to ask, in all seriousness, if the learned critics at these august institutions might not have read an entirely different book than the one sitting before me now.

How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World is no mere catalog of silliness and superstition for the amusement of the learned bourgeoisie -- rather it is a powerful jeremiad against the very foundations of modern society. For those of us who pay attention, there is very little new on display here. We are all well acquainted with the practices of conspiracy theorists, Biblical literalists, motivational speakers and supply-side economists. The book's power comes from the cumulative evidence of these seemingly unrelated hysterias, stacked up in such a way as to reveal an almost endless sequence of connections. The key to understanding these connections lies in the fact that almost every instance of modern irrationality stems from a depressingly familiar root: the death of reason and rational inquiry.

How else to explain widespread belief in angels, UFOs, Illuminati conspiracies, "Intelligent Design", and holistic medicines? These are all phenomena that have been shown time and again to rely on nothing more than a thin tissue of rumor, circumstantial evidence, deliberate misreading of scientific evidence and flat-out lies. Irrational beliefs are incredibly strong when stacked up against the somewhat emaciated voice of killjoy skepticism. The weird and unlikely is more likely to sell newspapers and television advertising than the banal and carefully corroborated. Credulity is a preferable default for many people -- otherwise intelligent and discerning individuals who, for whatever reason, find it easier to believe nonsense than to exercise skepticism.

But the most innocent examples of charlatanry can have unintended and drastic consequences. One of the most disturbingly effective facets of Wheen's analysis is the ease with which he extrapolates the logical consequences of illogical occurrences. From a discussion of widespread belief in astrology and alien abduction he segues chillingly into the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City by Timothy McVeigh -- an act at least partially fueled by the contemporaneous proliferation of irrational conspiracy theories.

But paranoia is not merely a creation of the media. There's a deeper insecurity here, a systematic and society-wide attempt to discredit the tradition of rational inquiry, which descends to us from the Enlightenment. It is not merely the conservative right that receives a thorough thrashing. The laissez-faire economists and supply-side policy makers almost get off easy compared to the morally bankrupt radical left of postmodern academicians and Chomsky-worshipping ideologues -- the implication being that although the Thatcherites and Reaganites have wreaked economic and social havoc for decades by ignoring the widespread negative effects of their policies, the traditional liberal enemies of irrational politics have gradually dawdled into irrelevancy. We see Michel Foucault's love affair with Iranian fascism, Chomsky's defense of Pol Pot and Slobodan Milosevic, and the continuing defense of the Soviet Union by American intellectuals through the 1980s as proof of their irrational inability to see beyond a dangerously limiting dualistic worldview. Just because Reagan was essentially right about Communism doesn't mean he was necessarily right about anything else, and this sort of irrationality is still a hallmark of liberal thought. This does not even mention the unbelievable gall of postmodern academic attempts to deny the factual reality of the Holocaust, with every bit of the abdication of reality such a stance implies.

So the problem is deeper than simply any one layer of stupidity, deceit or willful ignorance. The problem, as proposed by Wheen, is universal:

"Cumulatively... the proliferation of obscurantist bunkum and the assault on reason are a menace to civilization, especially as many of the new irrationalists hark back to some imagined pre-industrial or even pre-agrarian Golden Age... those who rewrite or romanticize history, like those who rejoice in its demise or irrelevance, are condemned to repeat it."

It's hard to laugh at folly when it jeopardizes so much. This isn't a funny book, despite the jocular tone. It's quite sobering, and the only real hope for the future lies in the conviction that folly is its own reward. Unfortunately for those of us alive now, such judgments are usually the sole prerogative of history.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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