The Burning Blade

Fireaxe Newsletter - edition 13.3

April 2, 2010

"Nowadays, if someone is vastly more talented than us, we donít
congratulate them ó we envy them and resent their success. It
seems we donít want heroes we can admire, so much as heroes we
can identify with." "If Achilles were around today, the headline
would all be about his heel."

- Dylan Evans, quoted by The Guardian.

Just as our consumptionist ideology has rehabilitated the deadly sin of greed into a virtue so has it similarly transformed envy into an emotion to be exploited in order to advance the cause of Capitalism. Greed is easily understood in economic terms with the nagging truth behind the familiar quote about "keeping up with the Joneses" helping to explain the runaway nature of the recent housing bubble, but envyís connection to economics is not so obvious since it tends to be focused on more abstract qualities such as attractiveness and popularity rather than material gain and the pursuit of power. Thus one might think that of the two vices only greed has anything to do with consumerism while envy remains a purely moral issue, but to do so would clearly underestimate the pervasiveness of our market-based culture and the degree to which it will go to incite and exploit feelings associated with the most atrocious of human behaviors.

Not long ago the self-help section of the bookstore was small and reserved mainly for books aimed at boosting the self-esteem of insecure people, or at least the ones who were not so insecure that they would dare to be seen buying a book about how to become more confident. Today we have entire industries built up around the notion of transforming people into an idealized version of themselves with the most notorious of these being the weight-loss, fitness, body-building, body sculpting, tanning, lap-band, et al, industry. Indeed, with a little willpower and a lot of money it seems that you too can look like a magazine cover model. But in our market-based world you can improve much more than just your physical appearance, for instance you can hire a "life coach" to improve many aspects of your behavior and your personality, enroll in a seminar that will remake you into a "spiritual warrior" or "marketing ninja", read one of a number of books detailing the secrets that will allow you to do almost anything in life that you want to do, or select from the extraordinary number of interventions that you, as a parent, can inflict upon your children, or rather that you can use to assist your children, in order to improve their lives while they are still young and not set in their ways. Indeed, envy no longer, become the kind of person you currently resent, and thus turn your wildest dreams into reality.

If none of these transformational programs worked then this would all be good for a laugh and we could mock our gullible neighbors as well as ourselves for having bought into some slick salesmanís snake oil pitch, but they do work, to a degree, for some of the participants at least, and this has the unfortunate side effect of exacerbating the feelings of envy in those who were once on top as well as those who end up getting pushed farther down the social ladder. This escalation of envy can turn once friendly contests into no-holds barred cut-throat competitions that starkly divide us up into winners and losers and where the spoils are plundered by those with the best skills and the greatest appetites while the rest struggle to get what is left over. Even the parts of our lives which we thought were not competitive at all can be turned into envy generating sparring matches and thus today we can feel inadequate in ways that we had never even dreamed possible just a few decades ago.

But as it is with any market-based competitive system the haves often seek to permanently separate themselves from the have-nots, usually by colluding to raise the bar on what is required to get oneís share of the pie. The have-nots will push back, using notions of democracy, socialism, or just common "fairness" to force the haves to share what they have gained and the battle lines are drawn. In these struggles our deeply ingrained beliefs about competition and the envy that drives it tend to come out in full force, treating those in the middle to a hideous display of arrogance, self-righteousness, and rage from either side. No where was this more evident than in the recent battle for health care reform in the United States.

Perhaps youíve seen the viral YouTube video where a gathering of health care reform protesters are shouting and degrading a man suffering from Parkinsonís disease who is sitting quietly in front of them and holding a sign in support of reform. One protester throws money at the man, mocking his desire to receive a health care "hand out", while another shouts at him to "get a job", perhaps not realizing that those suffering from Parkinsonís disease would find it hard to hold down a job in any economy let alone one that has shed millions of jobs over the past year and a half. Indeed, many people in the United States lose their jobs because they became too sick to work and as a result lose their health insurance coverage and end up bankrupt, yet this catch-22 seems lost on the protesters who seem to believe that a good kick in the pants can magically transform anyoneís life. Worse still is the fact that a job is no guarantee of anything in the United States these days. Too many jobs offer no health care benefits at all and many places only hire people into part time positions so that they do not have to give them a full benefits package. Many people work hard and many more are willing to work hard but cannot find work. Do they not deserve to be treated when they get sick?

Denying health care may seem cruel, but it is here when an overdeveloped sense of envy comes into play. Those protesting government guaranteed health insurance feel that they have paid their dues, done all that was required of them, and suffered their share of setbacks, but through it all they sacrificed and persevered and truly earned all that they have. Of course not all of them have struggled and sacrificed more than those whom they sneer at, but they tend to feel that they have nonetheless. And while they are often willing to give part of what they earned to others in the form of charity they vehemently oppose the government taking a portion of what theyíve earned and giving it to those whom they feel do not deserve it. These sentiments make sense. Itís only fair to demand that everyone pull their own weight and by making things easier for some you diminish the incentive for others to work hard. But these sentiments can easily become distorted as ideological differences, class and race conflicts, and political affiliation pollute oneís perceptions, allowing them to grow into unreasonable demands to be placed on anyone whom the protesters disapprove of. Noble sentiments can turn into envy fueled weapons used to deny others what they have earned.

This is not something unique to those protesting health care reform, it is something that can afflict anyone who feels that they are entitled to something special due to the efforts they made in attaining it. As Gore Vidal wrote, "It is not enough to succeed, others must fail," implying that without others falling short of a goal the taste of victory and sense of accomplishment gleaned from it is diminished. The upside to this notion is that it can inspire individuals to achieve devilishly difficult goals so that they can stand far above all others, but the downside is that those who are not able to rise up to such a vaunted level will often resort to ensuring their standing by denying others their due. In other words, if one cannot succeed, ensuring that others fail keeps you in your position above them. Everyone is familiar with the latter part of this equation and most people can remember a time when some unethical knucklehead with an obvious vested interest handed down a decision which stuck you with the short end of the stick when you felt that you deserved more. Perhaps you were right to feel indignant but perhaps you were not. However, we often find ourselves on the other end of such matters where we are the ones judging others and determining if they are worthy of the prize that they are trying to earn. Here it is critical that we be fair and impartial judges, but so many of us are not, allowing our envious natures to corrupt us and in many cases we remain unaware of how such thoughts cloud our judgment.

Through the prism of envy, and the concomitant feeling of entitlement when we work hard for something, our misconceptions and prejudices can become arbitrary reasons to deny things to others for the purposes of building up ourselves or our ideologies. Add to that mixture the pervasive sense of inadequacy that ideologies instill within their believers in order to motivate them and you have the potential for serious autocratic indifference to the plights of others. Take for example someone who never had much when he was growing up, who always followed the straight and narrow path, who studied when their friends partied, who worked hard when those who were more talented breezed by, who suffered setbacks and overcame them with sacrifice, who spent his money wisely and saved it when he was able, and who never asked for anything in his life. Such a person would embrace an ideology built around personal responsibility, hard work, and freedom; and such a person would also feel that a lot of his cultural behaviors and traits, like modesty and politeness, were every bit as important to his success as his skills were. Now, when such a person sees people who are struggling and asking for help he might think that the reason they need assistance is because they didnít make all the sacrifices that he made in order to succeed: that somewhere along the way they got lazy and played video games or slept around or goofed off instead of studying and working, or they disobeyed their parents and bosses instead of doing what they were told whether they agreed with them or not, or they squandered their opportunities and their talents, or they quit when things got a little too rough, or they failed to overcome any number of challenges that he faced in his life. He might simply assume that everyone who is in need has failed in one of those areas, or if he looks hard enough he is certain to find some mistake that someone who is in need made which he can point to and declare that the person deserves to suffer for what they did. One reaps what one sows, right? But thatís not always true or fair. And if there isnít an obvious failing to point to, our hard worker might identify any difference, like a lack of modesty, or an unusual sexual orientation, or a cultural or racial difference, or some perceived personality flaw, or anything at all as being the root cause of a personís inability to get ahead in life regardless of whether it has anything to do with their lack of success. Anything can become an excuse to deny.

This is not to say that nobody ever makes mistakes nor that they donít deserve to suffer when they make particularly egregious ones, but the logic being followed is that if a person is in need then he must have done something wrong in his life and thus he deserves what he got. If their mistake cannot be identified easily then that means nothing since they would not be in the state that they are in if they had done everything correctly. One can simply assume that those in need messed up somewhere in their lives and can thus be written off as slackers. This kind of thinking can become truly pathological and those who feel very inadequate can become quite obsessive in their quest to find flaws in others and deny them their due. The world is full of such people, withholding money, love, attention, and rewards of every kind and coming up with reason after reason and excuse after excuse to deny good things to those under their power. By doing so they are defending their ideology, ensuring that only those who follow their strict interpretation of it advance, and solidifying their status as one of their ideologyís success stories.

Envy also plays a role in the other side of this equation, protecting the ones who have "failed" from seeing their own inadequacies. Just as the person who "succeeded" pronounces her judgment over others in ways which prop up her self image as someone who has met and exceeded the challenges set before her, the person said to have "failed" exercises similar judgment over her circumstances by seeing herself as having overcome just as many obstacles and performing just as well as anyone else who has "succeeded" and is thus entitled to receive the same sort of reward as they did. Both will twist the facts in order to defend their self perception with the difference being that the person who "failed" will assume that she should have succeeded and will try to find some flaw in the person judging them, or some problem with the system, or a shortcoming of the ideology, or an unusual run of bad luck, or some other excuse such that the cause of her "failure" lies outside of herself. This is not to say that no one ever gets cheated or that the system is always fair and just, but excuses for failure are as ubiquitous as the endless self-congratulatory words of advice that flow from the mouths of those who succeeded, and whose success was often due more to good fortune than they would care to admit. The world is full of such complainers, always ready to bend your ear and fill it with often well thought out, perfectly reasonable, and fiercely defended reasons for why they should have more than what they currently have or should have become more than who they are. And by doing so they too are defending their ideology, or at least their version of it, claiming to have championed its ideals, that the ones who denied them are corrupting it, and believing that they should go on a crusade to save their ideology from those who are defiling it.

Both sides are usually more than willing to lie on their own behalf, spread disinformation, launch attacks based on any number of logical fallacies, and engage in all sorts of embarrassingly self-righteous behavior just as they would do in defense of their ideology for that is precisely what they are doing. Their ideology has set forth the standards by which success is judged and their believers have embraced those standards. But since each person is judging their success by their own personal perception of their ideology they reach a different conclusion. Each person has received an ideological reward in a purely psychological form, that is, they believe that they have done what they needed to do in order to satisfy the demands of their ideology, but the real life equivalent rewards have not been similarly distributed. This means that those who are deprived believe that a grave injustice has been done and that their ideology is under attack. It also means that those who are not deprived believe that a grave injustice will be done if the situation is forcibly changed. And thus the envy that fuels the motivation to succeed also drives believers into internal conflict. The vice turned virtue becomes a vice once more.

Speaking of internal conflict my health situation went through an ugly rough patch or two over the last two months. I had a setback, I got aggressive with a cure, I went too far, and then I had to fight hard to recover. I wish that I had good news but right now all that I can say is that all things on the Fireaxe schedule have been pushed back once again. My illness is slowly robbing me of my life as it is slowly robbing you of the fruit of my labors lost. Itís incredibly frustrating but I still refuse to concede. The battle wages on.

A big ĎHelloí to anyone receiving the Burning Blade for the first time. This is the Fireaxe newsletter.

Personalize your computer with Fireaxe art

No need to scan your Fireaxe cover art and stare at creases or poorly dithered images all day long, now you can have perfect digital copies of two amazing looking Fireaxe works of art rendered at the ideal 1680 x 1050 pixel size as customized backgrounds. Both the cover art for "Eternal Devotion to the Dark Goddess" and the poster for "Nathicana" are available and both look really sharp on screen in bright, vivid colors. And while the two donít fit perfectly in the wide-screen window, Nathicana suffering the worst as the top and bottom needed to be clipped, the will surely brighten your day. The price is right too: free. Enjoy.

Avatar, Avatarism, and Narcissism

I finally got around to seeing the movie Avatar and ended up regretting putting it off for so long as it was no longer showing in 3D nor on an Imax screen. Still, the movie surprised me in a number of ways. First of all it was spectacular, not so much that the images were so realistic, which helped immensely when it came to showing close-ups of the CGI modelsí faces, but that the scenery itself was a sight to behold. The surreal world of Pandora was so wild and colorful and lifelike that it looked like a real place populated by real aliens, so much so that when I walked out of the theater it seemed more like I was stepping off of a star cruiser that had just arrived from another planet. Indeed, it felt as if Iíd really been there, like Iíd used one of those virtual reality machines they are always showing in sci-fi shows, and while I was expecting the special effects to blow me away, I wasnít expecting them to be quite so immersive.

My second surprise was how deeply this movie made me think, inspiring me to start writing this edition of the newsletter the moment that I got home from the theater. Not about the plot or the theme of course, Iíd read enough reviews of the movie to know exactly what to expect, and even if I hadnít the movie followed a storyline so overused that there were no true surprises in store, but I found myself thinking about how this movie captured the essence of our modern ideology both on and off the screen. Whereas so much of the talk about Avatar was about the naturalistic religion of the Naívi what it really got me thinking about was our ideology of extreme individualism, or narcissism as I have described it before, and how it might be more aptly and accurately described by the name Avatarism.

First a little background. An avatar is a representation of oneís self inside another realm, for example, a remote control toy car you drive around a track, or the character you play in a video game, or the living, breathing creature controlled by the main characterís thoughts in the movie. In these examples the avatar is a real thing, separate from you, and existing in a real world of some sort even if it is just a computer server somewhere in Des Moines. There is no physical connection between you and your avatar, save for the tools and wires which send signals back and forth. However, the more things that you do with your avatar the more that your mind begins to see your avatar as a part of yourself and the more your mind constructs an internal version of the virtual world that the avatar "lives" in. Of course, this isnít particularly new. For centuries books have provided people with the ability to dive into fantasy worlds and experience them alongside the main character, and before that storytellers were providing the same experience long before Homer spoke of the Iliad. But what is new today is that computers and the internet are opening up a way for people to pilot their avatars and interact with other peopleís avatars in a virtual world and not be forced along a plot written by someone else. No longer do people have to live vicariously through a main character controlled by an author, actor, or director, now they can step inside a virtual world and in essence be the main character in a narrative that they control, or at least partly control. This is virtual reality, or at least a relatively crude version of it, for as impressive as some of these computer simulations are the feeling of truly stepping into another world is still substantially further off technologically speaking. And until I saw Avatar I felt that movies had a ways to go too.

Avatarism is the projection of the self onto oneís avatar. Of course, we all do this to some degree when we are using an avatar. When weíre racing itís not our friendís remote control car cutting off our remote control car, itís our friend cutting us off personally. How dare he? Yes, itís easy to blur the distinction between oneís self and oneís avatar, thatís what makes it so much fun after all, but for Avatarism to have any objective meaning it needs to have some sort of threshold beyond which a person is no longer merely relating to their avatar but suffering from Avatarism. I think that a good reference to use is personal preference. If a person prefers to play their avatar and interact with a virtual world instead of doing things personally in the real world then that person has crossed over into Avatarism. Certainly internet addicts fall into this category, but I think that a further criterion is needed since the name Avatarism implies that it is some sort of ideology, and someone who merely enjoys video games isnít serving anything more than his content provider by sending out a handful of bucks every month. To truly be an ideology, Avatarism must induce a set of behaviors in those who follow it such that they make sacrifices to support the ideology in exchange for virtual rewards and such that they propagate the ideology to others. Furthermore, Avatarism must alter peopleís behavior in ways beyond merely playing the game obsessively, it must change the way that they see and behave in the real world as well. In other words itís not just that the person prefers to play in the virtual world, it is that the person actually lives in the virtual world, that they are their avatar, and that their real world self is merely a tool to facilitate their achievements in the virtual realm. Their virtual life has become more important than their real life.

This is not particularly new either. Many religions construct virtual worlds in the minds of their believers and some of those believers can be said to be suffering from Avatarism just as much as any internet addict. Christianity, for example, has believers imagining themselves to have souls and that their choices on Earth determine whether they enter a paradise or are damned when they die. Heaven, hell, souls, and the spiritual world are all components of the Christian virtual realm. Now, this alone isnít Avatarism, but when Christians see the world as a battleground between good and evil where demons lurk around every corner and where resisting temptation and preventing sin become duels between oneís spiritual warrior self and the malicious hellspawn inhabiting others then one can say that their belief in an inner fantasy world has taken over their concept of reality. They are no longer people believing in a religion, nor are they crusaders fighting for a cause; no, they see themselves as spirit beings inhabiting human vessels temporarily as they do their godís good work. Their physical bodies are avatars controlled by their virtual, in this case spiritual, selves.

The key to the successful spread of Avatarism is to present a virtual world that is so much better than the real one that people not only want to believe that they are a part of it but that they embrace their avatar stronger than they embrace their physical selves. To do this the formula is very straight forward. In the case of a religion the trick is to convince people that they donít have to die but instead that they can rejoice in the afterlife for eternity, thus taking away their fear of death, however, such a glorious fate can only be gained if they do things that propagate the religion, such as helping others, converting them, and acquiring real world resources for the church. Similarly, in the case of something like a movie, video game, or book series which can grow into a multi-million dollar franchise, the trick is to make the fantasy world so alluring and rewarding that people will immerse themselves in it as deeply as they can in order to receive their virtual fix and keep them doing so for as long as possible. For example, if youíve been wooed by the movie Avatar you can watch it over and over, but the effect will wear off with repeated viewings. So then you can buy the video game and get your fix that way, but that thrill will wear off too. So then you can buy movie posters, go online and talk about the movie with other fans, and read or write fan fiction set in Pandora, potentially becoming a fan for life, similar to the Trekkie phenomenon. But how does one woo millions of fanboys and fangirls in the first place? The basics are fairly straight forward and I will use the movie Avatar as an example.

The plot of Avatar is your basic garden variety heroís quest. In a nutshell, this plot starts off with the main character, who is lacking in something, and who goes on a quest to gain that thing. Along the way he meets a number of friends who help him to become that which he is destined to be and who in the end help him to defeat some scary menace. So many forms of story-like entertainment follow this formula with only minor variations on the theme, so if you look for it you can find it everywhere. Many popular movies such as Star Wars and Spiderman follow this theme as well as the successful Harry Potter book series, but the heroís quest story has been around for thousands of years, going back at least as far as the ancient epic story of "Gilgamesh". The reason why the heroís quest plot is so successful is that the average person can relate to the main character at the start of the story. The hero is flawed and struggling with their life just like you and me. To make this connection more personal, the story is usually told from the main characterís point of view and is carefully crafted to allow the viewer or reader to relate to the hero to be. We go through the learning experiences alongside the main character and discover his wonderful new world and his special powers at the same time he does. Once this connection is established we will live and die with the heroís successes and failures and eventually we will feel exhilarated and personally rewarded when he wins in the end. For a while we become the hero, we live in his world, and we vicariously experience intense emotions, heartfelt losses, and gratifying victories. Then we go home to our drab little lives where exciting things like those in the story donít happen at all, or at least donít happen very often and where we arenít nearly as talented, attractive, and wise as the hero. Ah well. But perhaps we wish that we could be him for a little while, escaping into his world, or maybe doing the next best thing and changing who we are in order to become more like the hero, transforming our life story into a heroís quest of our own.

Many of us, perhaps all of us, do this to some degree. We paint our normal trials and tribulations in the more exciting and dramatic terms we see in our forms of entertainment. A mistakenly sent bill is seen as an injustice perpetrated by a heartless corporation, a wrong that needs to be righted by a hero channeling his favorite character from a popular courtroom drama series. When our quest for take out food for our friends back at the office is thwarted by a lackluster waitress she instead becomes a villain to be vanquished, and when she is defeated and her manager is summoned then it is up to the heroine to defeat this levelís "boss" and move on to the next screen. Yes, seeing our life events in this way not only makes thing seem more exciting, but it also turns us into strong individualists as every problem that comes along becomes a challenge which we must defeat personally and which gives us a boost of self esteem when we do. Of course, if we personalize and magnify everything too much then we will turn into drama queens where every little thing is transformed into a big freaking deal. So letís not do that shall we?

Anyway, by making virtual worlds so much more interesting than our real lives, movies like Avatar pull at our desires to embrace a fantastic virtual world in favor of our mundane one. They start by making us painfully aware of our own limitations, of the drab reality of our world, and of our menial positions within it. We are like the marine Jake Sully: a part of the machine that is destroying a beautiful world. He is handicapped, inadequately trained to control an avatar, seen as a nobody to be used and thrown away, and who willingly plays out his traitorous role as those in power dangle promises of wealth and health over his head. This is what the main character throws away to become a Naívi and how can we say that we wouldnít do the same if we were in his place? As a Naívi he is strong and healthy, meets interesting new people, learns all about a strange and fascinating world, accomplishes amazing things like being able to ride a dragon-like creature, is accepted by the clan and is thus allowed to speak his mind to everyone (and be heard!), and falls in love with and marries a beautiful, sexy, strong woman. This is a dream come true. His former reality canít even come close to his virtual world. But it gets better. Jake goes on to become a great hero, doing the impossible by subduing the biggest flying predator in the skies, uniting all of the clans, even getting the Naíviís "goddess" on their side, and defeating a powerful military force bent on destroying the Naíviís spiritual core. Jake isnít just their hero, heís their savior. Itís the ultimate fantasy. And given how fantastic the main characterís adventure was in Avatar even someone who was relatively successful in real life would desire to live in such a world instead of his own, or at least embrace the general themes expressed in the heroís quest plot.

Now, there is no shortage of such epic heroic movies, especially in fantasy settings in which Avatar grounds one of its feet, but what makes Avatar different is simply how immersive the movie is. I didnít see it in 3D or on an Imax screen, but I sat close enough to the screen so that the picture filled my vision. And with the digital sound production that studios use these days they can make the lows so intense that they shake the theater and so you feel the movie as well as see it and hear it. The camera angles were also chosen in a way to put you in the heroís footsteps and the bouncing camera technique also gives you the impression that you are there, sometimes confusing and disorienting you during actions sequences which is all by design, making you feel the way that you would if you were really experiencing it all. And of course the computer generated images were incredibly realistic with the movement captured with a truly life-like quality, which is where a lot of CGI films fall short. All these things will make you feel like you are really there, but what got to me the most was the attention to detail. When the hero is first in the jungle he doesnít just wander off and get in danger, he plays with the collapsing flowers, which fascinate and delight us as much as they fascinate and delight him. When the seeds fall from the sacred tree they are so beautiful, glowing, delicate, and mysterious that you feel like you can reach out and touch them. And the hero and his love interest didnít just fly around on dragon-like creatures, they sat up in a tree afterwards and talked and joked and laughed about how they flew, capturing those wonderful moments in a young relationship where everything is free and easy and you want nothing more than to be in each otherís company. Itís true that the movie makers did the big spectacular things too and did them well, but they also took the time to do the small things, like showing how Jake was so eager to get back into his Naívi body that he wolfed down his breakfast and jumped into the pod. All of these things worked together in concert. Not only does Jake experience Pandora through an avatar, but he also serves as our avatar as well. We experience Pandora is if we were him, just not quite as vividly.

The main message of the movie is an environmental one, which Iíll address as well, but of particular importance is the message that goes along with the well worn heroís quest storyline. The heroís quest is very much about individualism and it has become a vital part of many of our modern ideologies. This is our religion: the triumph of the self. The belief that one can achieve greatness, become the best there is, and stand against overwhelming odds to win everything. Individualism is hero worship, and yes we still worship heroes Ė but only as long as they win as Dylanís quote at the beginning of the newsletter points out our fickleness Ė but our heroes are our avatars. Like our sports heroes whose jerseys we wear proudly and whom we sometimes pretend to be. Like our action heroes who serve as our avatars in movies and video games. Like our more subtle movie and storybook heroes who champion charity and sacrifice for love; they are fictional characters in fictional worlds that we wish were real and would love to meet. So how deep do our fantasy lives go? How often do we imagine our favorite teams winning it all? How often do we imagine that we are helping them out somehow by being behind them in spirit and cheering loudly for them from the stands? How often do we dream of economic success, or that of our company or our nation? How often do we dream that we are the ones who made the difference in the successes of our teams? How often do we dream of military victory overseas? How often do we dream of personally inflicting violent retribution against those whom we feel truly deserve it? How often do we hope for fictional characters to fall in love so that their romance can give us hope and comfort? And how often do we long for that special someone who can fill our own hearts to overflowing, just like we see in romantic dramas? We seek to accomplish things far beyond our drab little lives and we make demands of our avatars to do those things for us so that we can experience what we so deeply long to feel. Slowly but surely we favor the virtual over the real. The virtual can deliver wonders that the real simply cannot.

Of course, we demand modesty of our avatars too, like our sports heroes, or at least weíve tried to in the past, admonishing them if they donít espouse the ideal of teamwork and downplay their drive for personal success. But do we demand the same of ourselves? Do we dutifully play our roles to make victory happen or do we strive to be the lone warrior fighting our own battle to serve the greater cause? Do we really come together and work as a team, or are we really just pursuing our personal dreams, aching to feel that wonderful rush as we play the role of the hero or at least take a few bold steps down the path to glory? Most sports stars know that teamwork is critical to success, the proof is on the scoreboard, but most of us are so immersed in individualism and heroism due to the ideological bombardment we get from our entertainment sources that we not only dream of individual success but we feel disappointed when we fall short, and fall short most of us will. We canít all be heroes, but we can all dream of being heroes, and as long as we are all still dreaming our dreams can motivate us to greatness.

Our ideology says that personal motivation is the most powerful motivation there is and so we see nothing wrong in grabbing for all the gusto we can. The drive for personal glory can indeed bring out the greatness in people and Avatar is an example of that as well. The director surely did something heroic, producing yet another landmark movie against which so many other films will be measured for years to come, but heroic efforts were required on the parts of so many others involved in making it. From those who worked long hours to create the stunningly realistic special effects to those who designed the world and how it all fit together, and from those who painted the amazing creatures so vividly and vibrantly to those who dreamed up the religion of the Naívi, Avatar required so many people working so hard to push the boundaries of what had been done before and create something truly fantastic. And thus we have an entire team of people all chasing their own heroís dreams, producing a movie about someone living the heroís dream, so that millions across the world could vicariously fulfill their need to be a hero, if only for a few hours, and propagate the ideology of individualism. A number of people became very rich in the process, another part of our ideology in that it rewards those heroes who do something truly remarkable. And thus I would say that individualism is the only ideology that was truly championed in Avatar regardless of the environmentalist theme of the movie.

Ah yes, the theme. As it seems to infect all things these days, political ideology reared its two ugly heads over the subject of Avatar and they engaged in another pointless shouting match about how liberal Hollywood was pushing propaganda down our throats as well as how conservative Wall Street was destroying the planet with greed and exploitation. To be sure Avatar is obviously a depiction the systematic slaughter of Native Americans and the destruction of their culture over a century ago, with a far different ending of course, but the parallels to the United Statesí current wars for oil and natural gas are very clear and thus many took up sides regarding the movie based on their political stance towards the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is all well and good but the deeper point seemed to be missed and that is that if we truly want to change the world we are in desperate need of finding a new ideology, one that actually unites us rather than champions foolish notions of heroism and personal glory. If this movie is pro-environmental propaganda I feel that it failed. I left the theater wondering how the movie could possibly be something that awakens us all to embrace our environment and bond with our fellow humans.

When one watches Avatar one does not feel a bond with nature. After all we do not ride personal dragons, live in a majestic tropical paradise complete with islands floating in the air, or have a way of mentally (and spiritually) connecting with the animals and even the earth itself. Far from it, in our version of nature most living things in the wild will run away from us, attack us, sting us, exploit us, or take what we have. Our world is no Garden of Eden. Mother Nature may give us what we need but at the same time she is also trying to kill us and she will eventually succeed, but if we are strong and if we are smart we can survive in her world, fighting back against the predators and the parasites, and propagating our genetic heritage. That is reality. Nature isnít harmonious, itís brutal, and often itís war, but of course that doesnít mean that we can just lay waste to our ecosystem. The movie tries and succeeds in making the point that all living things are interconnected, which they are, but not in some pseudo neural network that gives the forest an intelligence and spiritual consciousness far above ours (although that is a brilliant idea). Mother Nature canít summon up rhinos to stop bulldozers nor induce swarms of birds or insects to prevent human penetration into sacred lands, we have to do those things ourselves, but itís possible for us to modify things in nature and still make it all work. We need to understand it though and take care of it better than we have, which the movie hints at now and then. But I feel that the failure of the film is that it portrays a version of nature that is so wonderful that one would be far more inspired to reshape our environment to be more like Pandora rather than revel in all that it is, mundane and unpleasant as it can be in comparison. I feel that we would think it acceptable to destroy a vast expanse of natural habitat to put up an Avatar theme park so that we can appreciate something better than Mother Nature could ever conjure up. And maybe one day we will simply be able to create our own creatures and worlds, just like those in the movie or in so many video games, and eventually master nature to such a degree that we have no need for that which has given us birth. I feel that the movie presents a virtual version of nature that is so wonderful and enchanting that we would sacrifice the real thing to live there instead.

Perhaps Iím going a little too far though. I know that places like zoos, aquariums, botanical gardens, and national parks occasionally inspire a lifelong love of nature in children who later grow up to do much to preserve the environment. The fact that we are keeping animals in captivity for life where they do little but eat, sleep, and have their pictures taken can be seen as a sacrifice that some animals make so that their wild counterparts can keep something alive that is important to us in ways that most of us donít fully realize. However, I see Avatar as being far too steeped in fantasy to accomplish what it set out to do. It will inspire children to love nature about as much as Harry Potter inspires them to love school.

And when one watches Avatar one does not feel a bond with their fellow humans either. While the hero gets accepted into the clan he really doesnít become a part of the clan. Instead he goes from being the outcast to being the traitor to being the heroic leader and not once does he become just another Naívi. He is always special to some degree and usually in some exceptional way, good or bad. He is trained not by some aging warrior but by the daughter of the clan leader who eventually he takes as his wife. When he needs help for his dying friend or needs to gather an army to defeat the space marines all of the other Naívi come together to serve his interests and do their part in his important missions. He need not sully his hands in the conformism of the community, or take part in the ritual chanting, or to really listen to the concerns of others. He is always right. When the Naívi follow his advice they do well, and when they donít they suffer. When he first met the Naívi they spurned him, saying that he and his people would not learn their ways, and by the end of the movie I think that it can still be said that he didnít learn their ways and neither did we. Itís true that they accepted him but did he accept them? He joined them after all, physically becoming his avatar, but only after becoming a hero and only after doing things his way and succeeding. The message that it sends is less of becoming one with a clan, bonding with mother earth, and accepting oneís place in the world, but rather that one must change the world to make it into what you need it to be. This is the narcissism of the modern age where one says to the world, "I refuse to do what anyone tells me and you will hate me for that, but I will do something so wonderful and so grand that you will realize that I am right and that you are wrong and thus you will accept me and give me the accolades and rewards that I deserve."

This is what we have been told for decades. This is the ideology of individualism reinforcing itself through those who have succeeded in our economic, political, and educational systems. Even those who have failed in their heroic attempts often continue to embrace this ideology, dreaming that they will one day succeed, or that you will if they can convince you to do things a little differently and take one more valiant try at achieving greatness. I also believe that we are witnessing this ideology slowly exploding in our faces, but that we are so enchanted with it that we see the solutions to our problems as ones which require even more heroism, individualism, and forcefully applied changes.

But I have to confess that I too am a victim of that very same mindset. I have been all of my life. Fireaxe is one of my efforts to be the hero, doing it all my way and trying to excel so grandly that everyone must validate my accomplishments.

And I feel that I need to change.

Itís cruel what we do to each other and ourselves in service to our individualist ideology. The way that Iíve pounded away on my body, abusing it even, to become a better musician, producer, and artist, is something that I could never bring myself to demand of another person and I have demanded a lot of those Iíve loved. Even in play, like when I ride my bike for example, I turn it into a contest, trying to pedal faster, climb higher, and achieve more than I did the year before. I know that demanding so much of myself contributed to why I ended up with cancer and chronic fatigue syndrome and yet it felt so good to push so hard. The aches and pains of sore muscles could be swept aside by the knowledge that I had ridden farther and harder than Iíd ever gone and that next time I would be able to go farther and harder still. At some point cycling changed from being recreation into an obsession, from exercise into an ordeal, and from a joy ride into a test of my willpower, and yet inside I was always yearning for more. Itís madness.

In the musical realm itís much the same. The time and effort it takes to produce a CD all on your own is like taking on a second job. You pour your heart and soul into a tiny chunk of plastic and then hear the criticisms drowning out the positives. And it hurts because you know that a lot of them are true and that you need to work harder, demand more perfection, and spend more money to have a shot at greatness. It all works to make you better, but itís an ordeal all the same, and you wonder if when you make it to the top, or at least to a place where you can be satisfied, that you will feel like it was all worth it. Why does my music need to be so good? Why does an orchestra have to work so hard? Why do we need to go to such extremes to make a movie like Avatar? Our economic system is so harsh, demanding the best and depriving lesser efforts of the funds to continue. But this is about more than just economics; our individualist ideology has infected so many other parts of our lives. So many areas have become a marketplace and so many things now compete against each other for our attention, our wealth, our accolades, and our love. And in return weíve become fickle, demanding, and needing of something better than what came before to satisfy us anew. Weíve become like addicts seeking fixes, demanding more of others and more of ourselves so that we can feel that warm rush of pure bliss. Itís not enough for our idols to repeat as champions, they must exceed what they did in the past, and when they remain the same do we see them as strong or as stagnant? Again, itís madness.

Sometimes I feel like throwing it all in, disappearing into the desert somewhere and shutting out the world. Maybe I can find a way to shut myself out so that Iím not demanding more of myself than I can ever accomplish. A person can be their own worse critic and who wants to live with someone like that? But doing so reminds me of Ayn Randís failed Objectivist ideology and the theme of "The Fountainhead". The book is narcissism plain and simple. The main character refuses to contribute if something cannot be done his way, preferring menial manual labor to lucrative architectural design. That would be what Iíd end up doing no doubt, trying to learn to be average and appreciate all that comes with it. But Iíd diverge from the main character in Randís book when it came to his extreme sense of self importance, destroying something of his own design just because someone else changed it. And to think that we are all slowly but surely becoming more and more like him. Itís disheartening.

At other times I feel that the world needs to change, but isnít that just more of the same exaggerated sense of self importance, trying to make others do what I need them to do? After all when I complain about the fact that there are too many people trying to gain accolades and not enough people giving them away arenít I just trying to get all those other people whom I see as less talented than I am to set aside their dreams so that they can fulfill mine? Well, as I described when I mapped out the life cycle of the ideology there are times when the dominant ideology becomes overly burdened by its own successes. Ideologies are based on false promises and eventually too many people cling too tightly to that which they feel entitled to and deserve that the ideology simply cannot satisfy on them all no matter how hard everyone is worked. Things break down and the powerful take what they need while the numbers of the deprived grow larger. Cooperation gives way to competition. The leaders cling to power through the use of lies and sheer force and are oblivious to the fact that their ideology has failed. At times like that, change is needed.

Iím not the only one who feels that change is needed, in fact with so many unsatisfied people out there it seems that everyone is in agreement with me about that, but everyone disagrees about the kind of change we need and so there is a cacophony of ideological solutions out there, most of which arenít based at all on models proven to work but upon fixing only one or two things that appear to be the problem. If I am to posit a solution I feel that I need to get something to work in real life, otherwise Iím just mouthing off like the multitudes of ideologues which deserve, and hopefully receive, derision.

But how does one work together with narcissists? They all want to do things their own way, they tend to take more than they give back, theyíll throw a tantrum or even quit at the slightest offense, they make demands of others and wonít reciprocate, they argue to win instead of trying to find a compromise, they compete with each other, aggressively and passively, trying to prove that they are the best in the group, and they are in constant need of praise. So you can give them that praise and feed them what they need in the hopes that they will loosen up and begin to give more, but some narcissists are just eating machines that take and take and take no matter how much you give them. Also, taking charge of a group will make you a target of derision and blame, and you donít really lead them you just try to hold everything together by doing all the mundane things that they refuse to do. Itís like herding cats.

It can be done though. One option is for me to lead my own charismatic movement and convert other narcissists to a new way based on false promises. I know that this works but I have no stomach for fanaticism and lies, and some narcissists are so flighty that even if I did convert one to my new way they would jump ship not long after when something better came along. The only real solution in that vein in this day and age is to become a serial liar, jumping on to whatever big new trend has come up or trying to make an outrageous new one myself and milking it for all that it is worth until something new comes along. It seems so pathological though, like serial monogamy or drug addiction, youíre bored, lonely, and unsatisfied most of the time except for those rare moments of sheer pleasure. That just isnít for me.

Iíd rather go with the truth. Maybe things will become so bad, and people will end up so unfulfilled by their narcissistic ways, that something that isnít as awesome as total and spectacular fulfillment, just partial but more consistent fulfillment, will look better by comparison. Until then I think that Iíll just have to keep shooting the moon and hoping that something sticks. Itís a quandary for me though, and I honestly welcome your thoughts.

(bev at neptune dot net)

The Fireaxe theory - Outline

I. Basics - well established theories

  • 1. Emergent systems - that complex systems can arise from the interactions of simple things
  • 2. Natural selection - that organisms mutate, proliferate, and compete, with the "losers" becoming extinct
  • 3. Behavioral science - that neurological systems, at their core, function according to the rules of conditioning
  • 4. Entropy - that within a closed system, entropy always increases, which limits the amount of transformation that can occur

II. Extensions

  • 1. That consciousness is an emergent system: a complex system arising in the human mind from the interaction of simple neurons.
  • 2. That civilizations are emergent systems arising from the physical interactions of humans whether conscious or not.
  • 3. That ideologies are emergent systems arising from the psychological interactions of conscious humans
  • 4. That emergent systems follow the laws of natural selection in much the same way that organisms do
  • 5. That the universe is, by definition, a closed system

III. Contentions regarding consciousness

  • 1. That consciousness is a survival advantage
  • 2. That being a member of an ideology is a survival advantage
  • 3. That making its members conscious is a necessary part of an ideology's survival
  • 4. That consciousness is created by instilling within a person a permanent sense of inadequacy - in essence a state of constant fear
  • 5. That the deeper the sense of inadequacy, the stronger the person is motivated - generally to serve their ideology

IV. Contentions regarding ideological struggle

  • 1. That ideologies fight for survival using many methods including, but not limited to, war and enslavement
  • 2. That aggression is a survival advantage
  • 3. That survival in the short term outweighs survival in the long term prompting ideologies to pursue shortsighted and sometimes suicidal strategies
  • 4. That aggressive ideologies make members of rival ideologies feel afraid and inadequate which in response become more aggressive, thus creating a vicious circle
  • 5. That aggressive ideologies must continue to grow or face internal strife as their aggressive members will feed on each other to satisfy their needs
  • 6. That internal struggle results in ideological mutation

V. Contentions regarding the future

  • 1. That internal strife is inevitable since the laws of entropy imply that continuous growth is not sustainable
  • 2. That the abstract bases for ideologies transcend mortality and thus suicidal aggression is not restrained by fear of death
  • 3. That technological progress has made the destruction of the world through ideological warfare possible and will continue to make it easier to effect
  • 4. That ideological mutation will eventually result in the creation of a suicidal ideology which will destroy the human race in the attempt to save it

How to order Fireaxe CDs

Ordering Fireaxe CD's is an informal process as I am selling them personally out of my apartment. Simply mail me a letter which contains the following:

  • 1. The names of the CDs that you want to buy.
  • 2. The address where you want the CDs sent.
  • 3. Cash, a check, or a money order for the total cost.

Or if you want to do PayPal, just send me the answers to 1 and 2 above in an e-mail and I'll tell you where to send the money.

Here is a price list. The first number is the cost for U.S. based customers, the second is for outside the U.S. The prices include shipping and handling.

Eternal Devotion to the Dark Goddess: $6 / $9
Food for the Gods: $12 / $15 (SOLD OUT)
Victory or Death: $5 / $8 (free with any purchase)
Lovecraftian Nightmares: $5 / $8 (SOLD OUT)
A Dream of Death: $3 / $6 (SOLD OUT)

Send everything to:

Brian Voth
1301 Medical Center Dr. #415
Chula Vista, CA, 91911 USA

If you review CDs on a website or in a magazine, any one of the single CDs (Not "Food for the Gods") is free of charge in exchange for the review. In this case all I need is a request by e-mail. Please send me the URL of your review site or copy of your magazine with the review in it when it is done. If you want to exchange CDs, tapes, or stuff of equivalent value, make these requests via e-mail and we'll arrange a trade.

The CDs come with a booklet filled with awesome art, a letter about the project, and some information about the CD which can also be found on the Fireaxe site.

Lastly, if you want to print and distribute Fireaxe CDs I can send you an additional CD which contains tiff files for all the booklets, tray cards, and labels for each project. The tiff disk is free so just say the word.

The Future

Unfortunately 2009 was a total bust for Fireaxe as far as recording is concerned. Health issues sidelined projects scheduled for completion during the year and other than the guitarist taking the opportunity to get a whole lot better with his axe, nothing was accomplished. With any luck 2009 will be the only year that went for naught.

In 2010, Fireaxe will once again focus on remaking the past. First of all, "Food for the Gods" has sold out and will be re-mastered before a second printing run is made. Also, it will be re-mixed with the vocal rerecorded for much better sound quality. When all is said and done it should sound as good as "Eternal Devotion to the Dark Goddess. Secondly, the first Fireaxe CD, "A Dream of Death" will be getting a complete overhaul before it is re-released. Everything will be rerecorded using much more modern equipment and with everything that I've learned over the last ten years going into it to make it better than ever. Also, since it was recorded at a time when CDs had a 74 minute limit instead of the current 80, I will add six more minutes of music to the work in which I will explore a number of musical themes as well as add a killer new song written by Octavio Ramos. So it looks like a year of sequels for Fireaxe. I'll probably leave the names of the CDs the same but I've been kicking around a ideas for alternate titles, such as "Food for the Gods - Regurgitated", "Desert for the Gods", and "A Dream of Undeath", "The Morning After Death", or "I'm Dreaming of a White Strait-Jacket - a Fireaxe Christmas in Hell".

My goal is to deliver music to whoever wants to hear it in whatever way is necessary. Whatever the market demands, I will supply, but I do want to avoid the mass marketing channel. Exposure is fine, but in the modern business, the substance of the music must be altered to match the demands of the marketplace. This would totally defeat the purpose of why I write music in the first place. I write music because it is a way to express my emotions. What I both think and feel goes into the songs. That is the power, Fireaxe is the channel, and any diversion diminishes the emotive effect. Thus I try to avoid such diversions. That is how art should be.

Rights to duplicate Fireaxe materials

Currently Fireaxe is not for profit. I sell the single CDs for $5 or $6, $12 for "Food for the Gods" since it is three CDs, which covers the production and mailing costs. For CDs sent out of the country, I'll have to charge an extra $2 per disk to cover the additional mailing cost. If you write reviews or put samples on your website I'll give you a CD for free. Since I am not making any money with the current recordings, you are free to make duplicates of them to distribute as long as you obey the following guidelines:

  • 1. You can only sell the duplications for the price of the medium or less, plus any delivery cost. You are not allowed to make any profit with the music.
  • 2. You should tell me how many copies you gave out and who got them so I can keep track. Also, if they have an e-mail address I'd like that as well so I can add them to the mailing list.
  • 3. You are likewise free to adorn any webpages or duplications with the gifs and jpgs on my website as long as you include an obvious link back to my website. This includes putting Fireaxe song samples on your site as well.
  • 4. You are free to play any Fireaxe songs (in unaltered form) provided you are an unsigned band without a marketting tie-in. You are not allowed to record those songs onto anything that you will sell.
  • 5. Do not fall in love with the Dark Goddess. I mean, seriously. She's the goddess of death after all. It's not a good idea. Furthermore, do not have sexual fantasies involving the Dark Goddess. She does not have a womb and thus lacks the entrance to that particular organ. Also, attempting to use other entrances will likely result in castration. Again, it's not a good idea.
  • 6. You are vehemently discouraged from doing anything depicted in the CD "Eternal Devotion to the Dark Goddess" such as: torturing someone, lying for corporate profit, rationalizing greed, beating, raping, and murdering your girlfriend, destroying the lives of those who've wronged you and their families, corrupting the government, trying to kill yourself with pleasure, kidnapping and ransoming people, committing atrocities, cutting someone's face to pieces, destroying half the world as revenge, and especially stating that any of these things are okay because "God is on your side." Please, think before you act.
  • 7. You are food for the gods.
  • 8. You are required to crank the song "Hounds of Tindalos" as loud as you can as often as you can. It's your only defense against THEM. Be warned, they come through angles. Note that the CD is round. Are your speaker cabinets square?
  • 9. Cthulhu, the Necronomicon, Hastur the Unspeakable, and all other mythos creatures are purely the inventions of Lovecraft and other fiction authors. None of it is real, at least that's what I'm going to say in court if you try to sue me for destruction of your property, house, city, or soul as a result of listening to the "Lovecraftian Nightmares" CD too much.
  • 10. You are free to play "The Rack" in school or church or any other institution bent on crushing your will and turning you into a mindless zombie slave of the corporate dominated world. Try not to develop a bad attitude about it.
  • 11. You are not free to commit suicide while listening to any Fireaxe song. I'm sorry, I'll have to prosecute. On a serious note, if you are thinking about doing it, please e-mail or call me if you have no one else to talk to. When I was in my teens the album "The Wall" by Pink Floyd used to really get to me. Just hearing songs like "Comfortably Numb", and "Hey You" would get me pretty depressed and mildly suicidal. I'm just trying to say that I've been there. If my music is having that effect on you, please get in touch. You aren't alone.

The gist of it is that you can do just about anything with the music as long as you don't profit from it and that I get some sort of credit for having written it. I'm open to any methods of distributing my music, such as compilation tapes or CDs, radio play, or recording label distribution. However, you will need my direct permission to do so or some kind of legal agreement.
Brian Voth - Creator of Fireaxe

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