Oct 27

Crisis!

the opioid crisis epidemic is gripping the nation!

 

The “opioid crisis” is gripping the nation. President Trump has announced that it is a national emergency requiring extraordinary measures or something. In 2015, 33000 people died from overdoses of opiate drugs.

The narrative of the opioid crisis epidemic goes like this:

“Doctors were always reluctant to prescribe opioid pain medications because they were aware of the risks of addiction. But the makers of OxyContin, the Sackler family, created a marketing campaign based on creating confusion between codeine, a relatively weak painkiller, and oxycodone, a relatively strong one. They also lobbied the FDA to make it seem like time-release pills are less addictive, paid doctors to give talks claiming pain is under-treated, and did other bad stuff. Doctors started to prescribe tons of pain meds, regulation of pill-mill doctors was lax, and tons of innocent people’s lives were ruined by addiction while the Sackler family lined their pockets with 14 billion dollars.”

But while the Slacker family are clearly shitheads, their behavior is impeccable under the logic of capitalism. The reason we have an “opioid epidemic” isn’t because of the unscrupulous behavior of a few people who wanted to get rich. As such, the way to “solve” this crisis isn’t to force the said family to subsidize addiction treatment centers. This narrative is a red herring in the fullest sense—a distraction from the truth, which is as always much less palatable to everyone involved, and harder to fix.

The truth is that when people get addicted, they are getting something from their drug of choice that is preferable, for the moment, to their regular, un-addicted existence. Relatively content people don’t usually look to escape their reality, they invest and participate in it, enjoy it and try to suss it out. The fact that so many of us are trying our damnest to escape our supposedly state of the art reality gives away the truth.

Our present way of life in 2017 is traumatic for many of us, for different reasons. Psychologically and emotionally, we aren’t built to live the way we do. The biggest problems for so many of us are loneliness, aimlessness, and disconnection from life. Perhaps unsurprisingly, opiate drugs alleviate these precise feelings. Drug users find that opiates envelop them in a physical, psychological, and emotional warmth and security.

In highschool, I was taught about experiments where rats where given cocaine and heroin at the press of a button. The rats would then just keep pressing the button to get instant drugs until they starved to death. Turns out, things are not quite so black and white: in subsequent experiments the rats would be offered the option of returning to their rat brothers and cousins. Yeah, I bet you thought that they had that option the whole time, as I did! When they told us about this in highschool, we were led to assume these rats are the equivalents of regular, innocent people—normal in every way, spending their innocent days playing with other rats and munching on garbage and babies, or whatever it is rats do. Then one day, one of them spots a new object in the rat-house: a big shiny red button. The curious rat pushes the button, and its brain is flooded with dope. From that moment on, this rat is gonna ignore its rat friends and rat pleasures, stand in front of that button and press it until it keels over. Another one bites the dust—drugs are awful, bro.

But that’s not what happened at all. The rats were kept isolated in tiny cages, and when these miserable animals were given drugs, they took them. In experiments where the rats were kept with other rats in bigger cages, they didn’t. More than that, when the rats that were addicted to drugs in small isolation cages were returned to their groups, they would choose to go through withdrawal and do regular rat things rather than stay on drugs. Rats prefer doing regular rat things with their rat friends and relatives to getting opiates and cocaine on demand, even if already addicted.

People prefer doing regular people things with friends and relatives over becoming (and remaining) addicted to hard drugs as well. Count that as axiomatic.

What are these regular people things? Whatever individual things we like to do, we all need to have connection to others of our own kind and to ourselves. This means physical and emotional connection, and for at least some, intellectual connection. That may well be enough. Sometimes purpose and self-esteem are mentioned, but I’ve begun to think that these arise organically on their own from a meaningful relationship to our family and community.

When people are choosing to get high consistently and in large numbers, you can bet they are trapped in situations analogous to the rats in tiny isolation cages, physically or psychologically, or both. This being the case, you won’t have much success treating their addiction with methadone or suboxone and therapy. We use drugs because we are isolated and prevented from doing human things with humans, so obviously until our lives are such that we can do these things, we will be inclined to look for any ways to escape the shitty reality we are trapped in. When treatment is successful, it is always because in one way or another the addict is able to get these things back into their life. Otherwise, all you can do is substitute the mechanism by which they will try to escape their realities.

Good luck with that! If improving our lives was on anyone’s agenda, maybe these things would be considered and discussed. It’s not like I’m writing the theory of special relativity here, these things are well known to anyone with half an eye on their world. They are known to scientists who give dope to rats. They are certainly known to whoever is in charge of making sure we continue to work all day and buy shit we don’t need in our free time. Doesn’t look like we’ll be talking about it anytime soon.

Sep 02

Lessons in confidence and individualism with Conor McMoneyweather

you are what everybody says you are

 

On August 26, 2017, an aged Floyd Mayweather beat MMA lightweight champion Conor McGregor via TKO in round 10 (in a boxing match, need I say). Both fighters have their fans, and both are unlikable shitbags: one is a serial batterer of women, the other a bully and a dick.

There was little to suggest the universe needed the two of them to box each other, but box they did, and it was interesting, in ways. The fight itself, only slightly. The reactions of people– fans, journalists, other boxers and MMA fighters, etc—more so. Finally, there are things to be learned from the event itself, the fight game and its’ practitioners, and our societies’ embrace of such spectacles. Bread and circuses, as they say.

From round 4 on, Mayweather came at Mcgregor like he had no respect at all for his power or ability. The MMA “community” by and large seemed to think Conor did their sport proud, but that’s just wishful thinking and a lack of understanding of the other sport. Even I could tell that after the first round Floyd wasn’t taking his opponent seriously, loading up on his punches and trying to make a point instead of boxing as he would an equal. Conor was embarrassed by a 40 year old, much diminished fighter, perhaps 20 pounds lighter on fight day, who didn’t even spar in preparation for the fight.

In the past, much was made of McGregor’s visualization of his goals or whatever it is he does, as in the book The Secret. This outing clearly showed that no amount of visualizing will make up a gulf as wide as that between Mcgregor’s and Mayweather’s respective boxing skills. Did anyone think that all you had to do to succeed was visualize desired outcomes? Conor did not sit on his living room couch for the duration of his training camp deep in meditation, visualizing—he trained his ass off. But the visualization addresses one aspect of the ingredients necessary to win: confidence.

Both Conor and Floyd are positively brimming with confidence. I think it’s fair to say Mcgregor has more consciously incorporated confidence into his arsenal as a fighter, though Floyd surely has an equal amount. Their confidence comes from different sources (aside from the confidence they both get from the evidence their past bouts provide of their sporting excellence). Conor believes in the power of visualizing desired outcomes. Floyd believes in the “0” on the right side of his win/loss record. This alone allows him to claim “The Best Ever” status, although most boxing insiders place him nowhere near the truly great boxers like Sugar Ray Robinson, Roberto Duran, or Muhammad Ali.

The concept of visualizing yourself succeeding, a la The Secret, is one way in which some have tried to take control of their confidence. The idea is to brainwash yourself into erasing all doubt from your mind. Having not read the book, I’m not sure whether the author emphasizes the point that this technique only works (to the extent that it works at all) in conjunction with rigorous training, or work, or effort towards the desired goal. I sort of doubt it, since doing so invites the question why one would need to practice self-hypnosis if one already did everything humanly possible to make one’s goals a reality.

This is a whole can of worms. The truth is, we are none of us anymore completely safe from self doubt because the society we live is in many ways a self-doubt inducing mechanism. Busting our confidence is what modern western society does best. I talk at length about why I think this to be the case elsewhere, but understanding how our society induces self-doubt is pretty straight-forward. Insecurity goes hand-in-hand with capitalism; confusion is the flip side of “democracy,” at least the kind we practice. In a capitalist society, one is never attractive, successful, or rich enough. In a democracy, one only has him or herself to blame for their miseries. Hypothetically, “the people” are the “highest power in the land,” a funny thing to think about while wasting one’s best years slaving at some job or stuck in traffic with all the other members of this awesomely powerful group.

Perhaps more importantly, capitalism operates by destroying human communities wherever they occur.

Closely-knit families and communities are the only true source of confidence.

I know, this is a shocking reversal of that tired truism: Believe in yourself! Pay no mind to what others think of you, you’ve only got to please yourself! These sayings are the western equivalent of the Soviet “All power to the workers!” and “Proletarians of all nations, unite!” You didn’t think the we have propaganda in the free world? Tsk tsk. More, by far, than the commies ever did– it’s just not as gaudy.

So, the idea that you are to be complete unto yourself is the opposite of how humans actually work. We call someone who takes their cues for what is appropriate behavior solely from themselves a sociopath or a nut; it is no secret that mental illness and sociopathy are on a steep rise in America of late. We get not only much of our confidence from our communities and kin, but our very identities and meaning in general. Without others, we have no frame of reference for who we are and what we are supposed to be doing.

Capitalism takes over these functions from our communities and kin once they have been broken up and destroyed. The difference is, our families and friends care about us and want to see us succeed, while capitalism is just trying to sell us things. Not to mention, being a part of a human community is fulfilling; being a part of a capitalist society is inherently demoralizing since your only role is that of consumer.

How does Floyd Mayweather know who he is? How does anybody know who he or she is?

I’m not Floyd’s biographer, so please forgive me if I get a detail or two wrong. I also don’t know what Floyd is like in private, save for the incidents that became widely known because they involved beating women and such things—and just to be clear, I am not saying that women-beating is somehow a cultural trait. But the person Floyd Mayweather is, as a whole, is a product of the specific cultural, geographic, socio-economic, etc. milieu that he was born and raised in. Floyd Mayweather wasn’t born into a family of Vietnamese immigrants. If he was, he might be a Vietnamese boxer with all attendant details that involves: for one, he probably wouldn’t sport the infamous “Money” persona everyone loves to hate, and he certainly wouldn’t be a worldwide celebrity. The persona Floyd possesses today is the product of specific cultural, etc. conditions. This much is obvious, but somehow no one ever squares this banal truth with the bullshit self-affirmation mantras we all so casually proffer.

Conversely, if Floyd was really, exclusively self-directed—if anyone was really self-directed—taking his cues for who to be, what to believe, how to behave, from no one but himself, he would not possess any culturally specific traits, the signifiers by which we recognize and understand one another. Such a thing is an impossibility—we have no other way to be, to understand ourselves, or to present ourselves to others, except through what we pick up from the people around us. We re-arrange the elements given to us to make them uniquely our own, but not all that much. When we’re done customizing our “unique” identities, they end up pretty much just like everyone else’s in our peer group. And that’s a good thing. Or, at least, it is an essential thing: it is how each one of us knows who to be, what to do, what to believe. It is also essential to the function of society as a whole.

We all tend to exaggerate the extent to which we are unique individuals, just as we tend to exaggerate the extent to which our successes are of our own making while our failures are the results of fate. These are not altogether separate tendencies—it seems to me a similar mechanism is at work in both. This self-delusion, too, is essential for individual and social well-being.

Camus describes this paradox best in the story of Sisyphus. For fighting the gods, Sisyphus’ punishment was to roll a huge boulder up a mountain side, only to see it roll back down again when he reached the top, over and over, forever. But Camus thinks that we must imagine that Sisyphus is happy in his meaningless, tedious task. By accepting responsibility for his fate, Sisyphus is as free as anyone living out their eternity in leisure and comfort. The act of taking responsibility for our own being allows each of us to live as though we have free will, when in fact we (mostly) do not.

For our present purposes, it doesn’t matter whether we actually have free will or not. Each of us is compelled to go through life as though we are in control, when in reality all but the most mundane choices are already made for us. Who we are, what culture we are born into, what our demeanor and external attributes are (and therefore, to a large extent, how we are going to be perceived by others), whether we are to spend our lives working or playing–the most important things are decided for us.

Existentialists believed that the universe is cold and uncaring, devoid of all meaning. This means that there is no logical reason good things should happen to good people and vice versa; it certainly also means no amount of visualizing is going to induce the ether to help you reach your goals.   In plain English, the universe doesn’t give a shit about you.

The world being indifferent, the highest virtue for existentialists is “authenticity,” which is taking responsibility for your fate even though we are to live out our short lives in an uncaring, meaningless world. But most of us don’t fight against the meaninglessness of the universe as Kierkegaard did. Some people go through an intense searching phase in adolescence, and most probably don’t even experience that.

I believe this is because most people don’t look for meaning in an abstract sense.  For the vast majority of us, the meaning of life is clear: it is to thrive as an individual living among his or her group. What greater challenges does one need? This is plenty hard enough, but at the same time, it is not unattainable. Finally, this is a kind of meaning that everyone naturally understands. The quest for success in the eyes of our peers is the most basic narrative there is.

So, the idea that we are all individuals and should look no further than ourselves for self-affirmation is quite contradictory to our basic instincts. We get it, this isn’t a new idea; but the relentlessness with which it is currently hammered into everyone’s head is. It is perhaps inevitable, for any number of reasons. It is in line with our normal tendency to imagine ourselves as more in control of our lives than we actually are. It is also essential to the functioning of modern capitalism, since lonely “individuals” are infinitely better workers and consumers than people who are focused on their communities.

But it’s impossible for us not to pay attention to what other people think—of us, of themselves, of everything, because that’s basically what being human is about. We are social animals first and foremost. Believing we are mostly self-guided is just as delusional as it is natural, though most people seem to have no problem doing so while continuing to check with everyone else for what is considered acceptable and what isn’t. Still, there’s a staggering number of lonely people today, and I’m pretty sure this heavy emphasis on self-affirmation is part of the reason why.

It’s no solution to suggest that we need to give up our belief that we are best off without others’ opinions. We need to believe we are in control, so we can face life as sentient creatures. And we need to actually be almost entirely the product of social consensus, because we are social to a fault and lose our human identities if cut off even briefly from our conspecifics—as the cases of “wild” children attest. But as Camus’ story suggests, we can still be happy with this arrangement. So long as the balance isn’t thrown too far off.

Jul 20

Women in Love with Rick and Morty

Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence

Rick and Morty on Adult Swim, Cartoon Network

satyrs with woman

D.H. Lawrence is known today as some kind of a racy writer whose book Lady Chatterley’s Lover was the subject of an obscenity trial which opened the door to today’s multi-billion dollar a year porn industry. Lawrence inspires extremes of positive and negative emotions in his readers. He has been praised as a philosopher of modernism, a brilliant student of human psychology and character, and a great story teller. Others consider him a misogynist and proto-fascist. In fairness, his works provide ammunition to each of these views and then some: he pointedly refused to be pigeon-holed. But that doesn’t mean his ideas can’t be understood or are not coherent. Was he all the bad things people said he was? Lets consider that as we explore the amazing world of Women in Love.

The content of Lawrence’s work is a reflection of his time. He’s as good as any writer or thinker ever, meaning he had his finger on the pulse of his world. To use just a few examples, Women in Love rails against the reduction of men to machines as factories grow increasingly sophisticated; illustrates and dissects with amazing clarity the “generation gap” we are to hear so much about later; offers a fully developed theory of human mind, motivation, and desire before Western society was familiar with Freud. This all in a book written in 1916 and published in 1920. Reading Women in Love, I had the strange feeling that western society stopped making any progress towards understanding itself in the early 20th century.

Lawrence is hard to pin down because as soon as he commits to a position, he seems to renege on it in one way or another. In his fiction, he clearly enjoyed putting bits of his own thoughts into the mouths of his characters, knowing he can maintain deniability if need be. Even Birkin, the character in Women in Love most modeled on his own person, is held up to ridicule by his supposed friends at one point, and by the author himself at many others. Birkin is self-absorbed and suffers delusions of grandeur. The description of his and Ursula’s sexy time is insane and hilarious, so much it’s very hard to read it as anything but slapstick. What’s not clear is who is being lampooned.

Unconsciously, with her sensitive fingertips, she was tracing the back of his thighs, following some mysterious life-flow there. She had discovered something, something more than wonderful, more wonderful than life itself. It was the strange mystery of his life-motion, there, at the back of the thighs, down the flanks. It was a strange reality of his being, the very stuff of being, there in the straight downflow of the thighs. It was here she discovered him one of the sons of God such as were in the beginning of the world, not a man, something other, something more.

This was release at last. She had had lovers, she had known passion. But this was neither love nor passion. It was the daughters of men coming back to the sons of God, the strange inhuman sons of God who are in the beginning.

Her face was now one dazzle of released, golden light, as she looked up at him, and laid her hands full on his thighs, behind, as he stood before her. He looked down at her with a rich bright brow like a diadem above his eyes. She was beautiful as a new marvellous flower opened at his knees, a paradisal flower she was, beyond womanhood, such a flower of luminousness. Yet something was tight and unfree in him. He did not like this crouching, this radiance—not altogether.

It was all achieved, for her. She had found one of the sons of God from the Beginning, and he had found one of the first most luminous daughters of men.

She traced with her hands the line of his loins and thighs, at the back, and a living fire ran through her, from him, darkly. It was a dark flood of electric passion she released from him, drew into herself. She had established a rich new circuit, a new current of passional electric energy, between the two of them, released from the darkest poles of the body and established in perfect circuit. It was a dark fire of electricity that rushed from him to her, and flooded them both with rich peace, satisfaction.

‘My love,’ she cried, lifting her face to him, her eyes, her mouth open in transport.

‘My love,’ he answered, bending and kissing her, always kissing her.

She closed her hands over the full, rounded body of his loins, as he stooped over her, she seemed to touch the quick of the mystery of darkness that was bodily him. She seemed to faint beneath, and he seemed to faint, stooping over her. It was a perfect passing away for both of them, and at the same time the most intolerable accession into being, the marvellous fullness of immediate gratification, overwhelming, out-flooding from the source of the deepest life-force, the darkest, deepest, strangest life-source of the human body, at the back and base of the loins…

…Soon they had run on again into the darkness. She did not ask where they were going, she did not care. She sat in a fullness and a pure potency that was like apathy, mindless and immobile. She was next to him, and hung in a pure rest, as a star is hung, balanced unthinkably. Still there remained a dark lambency of anticipation. She would touch him. With perfect fine finger-tips of reality she would touch the reality in him, the suave, pure, untranslatable reality of his loins of darkness. To touch, mindlessly in darkness to come in pure touching upon the living reality of him, his suave perfect loins and thighs of darkness, this was her sustaining anticipation.

I don’t know. Maybe he’s serious. There is the idea floated in Women in Love that sex and sensuousness, equated with “primitive” cultures, is a pathway to knowledge unavailable by any other means, a deeper, separate kind of knowledge. Seen in this light, trying to gussy up a fellatio scene with all manner of spiritual-philosophical mumbo jumbo may be serious, or at least deliberate. More likely, it’s half-serious, like everything else here. Lawrence jokes around so much elsewhere, and this “loins of darkness” business is so insane it’s hard to not laugh…

Lawrence was, if anything, his own man. It’s no wonder he rubbed so many the wrong way. In the immediate aftermath of WWI, which sickened literally everyone with previously unseen levels of carnage and misery for no reason anyone could understand, he was making light of Victorian sexual taboos, high philosophy, and anything anyone took too seriously. I can’t tell whether he was equally silly about art, but he clearly thought everything humanity has worked so hard to create was a ridiculous joke at best. Eventually, others would come to the same conclusion. The period between the world wars saw the rise of Dada and Surrealism, and eventually pure abstraction—movements that, while not at all equal in merit, are all joined together by a common renunciation of the project of humanism in favor of various types of decadence or nihilism, which are in the final analysis the same thing.

Lawrence was far ahead of almost everyone in seeing the dead end western society had come to, the impasse in the ideology and myths by which we live as well as the physical barriers preventing us from working together. Consider the inter-generational conflict between the young protagonists of Women in Love and their village-bred parents. Ursula’s incomprehension of what motivates her parents in the scene where Birkin comes to ask for her hand in marriage is among the most genuine, and genuinely bewildering narrative passages in literature. The incomprehension is, of course, mutual. Though written a century ago, it’s something as true today as then, and if it ceases to be true it will only be because the old world, the world of the village, may no longer exist at all.

‘No, I won’t,’ she cried. ‘I won’t hold my tongue and be bullied. What does it matter which day I get married—what does it MATTER! It doesn’t affect anybody but myself.’

Her father was tense and gathered together like a cat about to spring.

‘Doesn’t it?’ he cried, coming nearer to her. She shrank away.

‘No, how can it?’ she replied, shrinking but stubborn.

‘It doesn’t matter to ME then, what you do—what becomes of you?’ he cried, in a strange voice like a cry.

Ursula is a brat, and her father, while perfectly together, is destined to be left behind by history. This passage seems very significant to me because of how vividly and starkly Lawrence describes the two parties’ inability to understand what motivates each other. Elsewhere, he seems to suggest that individual freedom is the highest aim, but here it is impossible to picture such characters achieving any kind of self-realization: the younger generation is too confused and self-absorbed, and their parents are not individuated by definition—they belong to the old, communal world. Perhaps Lawrence meant to reserve individual freedom for the Übermensch. Perhaps he believed himself one. But on the evidence of Women in Love alone, it would seem Lawrence has no answers for the confusion: he understands where each side is coming from, but can’t see a resolution so long as the world of the village continues to be swallowed by the world of the urban, the mechanical, and the trendy. The only thing for certain is that the old world is on its way out, and the new world has its head up its ass so deep it is useless to anyone, including itself.

I don’t think Lawrence would have championed the individual as artist as the solution, or even as a solution, had he lived much longer into the 20th century. He was too smart, too open-eyed, and too honest with himself for that. The truth is, being an artist, in the modern sense, only works when one is tethered to the old world, and breaks down when everyone crosses the threshold into the brave new world of yuppie individualism. The reason why should be obvious: a world full of individualists is a recipe for disaster, it is the prisoner’s dilemma rendered in flesh. Such a world is uniquely unsatisfying. To the extent that it is possible at all, it is doomed to self-destruction, as our world currently is. But the main thing is that it is unsatisfying, no world fit for human beings or other life.

What, then, are we to make of it all? What’s the answer? D.H. Lawrence was already clear at the start of the last century that it’s not in amassing wealth and power, nor in living a life of austerity or suffering and renunciation. Elsewhere, he seemed to lean towards the answer being individualism, individualism and art, but I think a little more time would have revealed to him the trap that individualism is as well, at least when it is channeled through capitalism. What’s that leave?

Pretty much everything, so long as it’s down to earth. The lesson seems to be that our lives are about what they always were, which is friends and family, little pleasures, fucking, fighting, being male and being female, eating food and smoking DMT, feeling better than others, and feeling together with them. Whatever we make our lives about, from now until the end, however long that may take, will center around the way we relate to our loved ones and our environment. There is nothing else. Really, there never was anything else, even though the story of progress made this hard to see.

It seems fitting that, these days, the most prescient commentary on these hefty issues comes from group projects, TV shows and movies. We are out of the age of bigger than life geniuses. Shows like Community, Parks and Recreation, Walking Dead, the Office and many others are about the way meaning in life comes from the way our lives are intertwined and mutually interdependent. You won’t find a heroic protagonist in the lot, someone to emulate as a role model: every cast member is a faulty individual whose very identity is the product of their relationships with their group. As are all the rest of us. It’s done no one any favors to live through a century of heroic protagonists in fiction because we are only capable of individual heroism to the extent that we are grounded in a communal reality. When we forget that we are defined by our communities, when we neglect to maintain them, everything goes to shit because we are, in essence, going against our very natures.

It’s interesting to test D.H. Lawrence’s ideas through the animated show Rick and Morty. Rick is a super- genius scientist, which is close enough to artist to make comparisons fruitful (though naturally, it’s more appropriate that he be a scientist—what with the complex and worshipful relationship our society maintains with science and technology). What does the strategy of individualism and creativity achieve in the 21st century? The adventures of Rick and his grandson Morty seem to indicate it’s nothing to write home about.

rick and morty season 1 episode 9

Rick creates a little sentient robot that he lets loose on the dinner table. “What is my purpose?” the robot asks. Rick says “You pass butter.” The robot looks at his arms, slumps, and says, “Oh my god,” to which Rick replies, “Yeah, welcome to the club pal.”

The show is only at the start of season three, so there’s plenty of time for conclusions to change dramatically. But so far, the only thing Rick seems to truly value is hanging out with his grandkids. It doesn’t matter what they do—they seem to mostly watch and guffaw at inter-dimensional cable. But everything else is a distraction, at best. Even, or especially, the fact that there is a galactic government which considers Rick a terrorist, as well as a city of Ricks from different dimensions who also hold little favor for c-137 Rick, the “main” Rick whom the show has mostly followed since its beginning, aka “the Rickest Rick.” Science and art hold no promise of redemption here. But family, friends, and simple pleasures do.

I don’t know if this qualifies as anti-intellectualism. Obviously, I’m not a huge fan of stupid smart-ness, seeing where it’s gotten us. But that doesn’t mean anti-intellectualism can offer any solutions either. Both suffer from a focus on the wrong thing, and both fall short of providing any respite from the mess we’ve dragged ourselves into. Now, everything points to the fact that there is no answer, no respite for us collectively seeing as we’ve uncorked forces we don’t understand and can’t control. But individually, we can still have a good time, and collectively, we can (and should) still do the right things, even if they be ineffectual.

Anyway, I’m sorry, it looks like this essay suffers from the same conceit as when I tried to write about other things I saw on the telly: the part about the popular things is obviously extremely thin. I had the thought that this Rick and Morty show is in some way a good update to D.H. Lawrence’s thought, but on closer inspection, I think the two have more in common aesthetically.  Philosophically, Rick and Morty is a pretty existentialist project, which is hardly very modern. Though this does lend further support to my feeling that our society stopped coming up with anything creative or new in the early 20th century—machines and fads notwithstanding.

I do really like this show. There’s nothing like it on television, but just barely: I think the combination that’s unique to it so far is the extreme cynicism towards modern society coupled with an unapologetic earnest affection towards family and friends, faulty as they may be. I think this is the direction all popular entertainment is heading, as indicated by a number of TV shows emphasizing the inter-relatedness of their characters’ lives, but for now the combination is still new. New to Americans, at least—it strikes me as interesting that this is probably the attitude embattled and oppressed people have maintained against (mostly) western hegemony for ages. Now Americans, too, are becoming third-world-ified disposable people. Better late than never—an overfed, over-stimulated populace is a terrible, useless thing, and this one looked like it was gonna masticate and eliminate the world for a minute, at least if you believe its own propagandists.

Enough wanking for now, huh? Just one question remains to be considered here.

What is D.H. Lawrence’s philosophical position, exactly? What is it that has proved to be so confusing/ inflammatory for his readers, and to lend itself to the various uncomplimentary labels he has been saddled with? Was Lawrence a misogynist? A budding fascist?

To be fair, there’s evidence for every one of those views. But none of them are true, and it is disingenuous or stupid to insist that to be the case. You can pull all kinds of statements from the oeuvre of a prolific writer, statements such as that below, from a 1908 letter to a friend.

If I had my way, I would build a lethal chamber as big as the Crystal Palace, with a military band playing softly, and a Cinematograph working brightly; then I’d go out in the back streets and main streets and bring them in, all the sick, the halt, and the maimed; I would lead them gently, and they would smile me a weary thanks; and the band would softly bubble out the “Hallelujah Chorus”.

This one is on Lawrence’s Wikipedia page. The “military band playing softly,” among other things, should tip you off that he is being facetious here. More characteristic of his true thoughts are passages like the following:

“Now we see the trend of our civilization, in terms of human feeling and human relation. It is, and there is no denying it, towards a greater and greater abstraction from the physical, towards a further and further physical separateness between men and women, and between individual and individual… It only remains for some men and women, individuals, to try to get back their bodies and preserve the flow of warmth, affection and physical unison.” Phoenix II: Uncollected Writings, Ed. Warren Roberts and Harry T. Moore (New York) 1970

d h lawrence was a hippyIt has to be remembered that D.H. Lawrence and his friends were essentially hippies.  And not even the first.  Eveything good and bad about the hippy hippies of the 60s, the proto-yuppies we’ve come to know so well, can be said about Lawrence’s friends too.  They dabbled in identity politics and worked hard to undermine what they perceived as the conformity surrounding them, not realizing they were digging their own graves.

I won’t comment on whether Lawrence was a misogynist here because it’s a can of worms.  For his time and place, he was surely a progressive guy!  Women received the right to vote in the U.K. in 1918 if they were over 30, and only in 1928 on the same terms as men–at age 21.  In the final analysis, D.H Lawrence was a smart, creative, and funny guy who took some joy out of fucking with people’s expectations of him. He was also a faulty human being, just like the rest of us. He despised the rich, but he also despised the poor. He seemed to equate capitalism with democracy and view them both as dehumanizing forces, somewhat presciently if we consider the Freudian (specifically Erich Fromm’s) thoughts on the effect of freedom on the average person. But he had at least as much derision for socialism. Here is a passage from Women in Love on the subject:

The two couples went asunder, Ursula clinging to Birkin’s arm. When they had gone some distance, she glanced back and saw the young man going beside the full, easy young woman. His trousers sank over his heels, he moved with a sort of slinking evasion, more crushed with odd self-consciousness now he had the slim old arm-chair to carry, his arm over the back, the four fine, square tapering legs swaying perilously near the granite setts of the pavement. And yet he was somewhere indomitable and separate, like a quick, vital rat. He had a queer, subterranean beauty, repulsive too.

‘How strange they are!’ said Ursula.

‘Children of men,’ he said. ‘They remind me of Jesus: “The meek shall inherit the earth.”‘

‘But they aren’t the meek,’ said Ursula.

‘Yes, I don’t know why, but they are,’ he replied.

They waited for the tramcar. Ursula sat on top and looked out on the town. The dusk was just dimming the hollows of crowded houses.

‘And are they going to inherit the earth?’ she said.

‘Yes—they.’

‘Then what are we going to do?’ she asked. ‘We’re not like them—are we? We’re not the meek?’

‘No. We’ve got to live in the chinks they leave us.’

‘How horrible!’ cried Ursula. ‘I don’t want to live in chinks.’

‘Don’t worry,’ he said. ‘They are the children of men, they like market-places and street-corners best. That leaves plenty of chinks.’

‘All the world,’ she said.

‘Ah no—but some room.’

The tramcar mounted slowly up the hill, where the ugly winter-grey masses of houses looked like a vision of hell that is cold and angular. They sat and looked. Away in the distance was an angry redness of sunset. It was all cold, somehow small, crowded, and like the end of the world.

Pretty hilarious. Lawrence seems to have nothing but derision for the working classes, even though he was himself brought up in a working class home. Even the sight of a working-class neighborhood evokes nothing so much as the end of the world.  But this isn’t fascism at all, it’s kind of a softer, more humane version of Nietzsche, insofar as the greatest sin Lawrence and many other artists of the time could imagine was conformity. And I get it: I imagine at the turn of the 20th century, anyone with an ounce of integrity could see that either the society mankind created was a terrible sham, or human life was not the sacred thing our society maintained it was, or both.

Lawrence, an observant and intelligent man, could see that society was not treating man or the planet fairly, or even in line with its own ideology. This conflict is the subject of his writing, as it was the subject of the works of almost every worthwhile artist and writer from that period. But when it comes to offering explanations and solutions, things were a lot less clear. The best that D.H. Lawrence could do was the idea that mankind was turning into robots, and needed to (re)connect with their primitive, submerged, passionate selves, their Dionysian side. This is obviously no solution at all, but then again none of his contemporaries had any better ideas either. Imagine, for example, Gregor Samsa connecting with his Dionysian side! Answers were hard to come by, in part because virtually no one was prepared to suggest that our society as a whole is built on a terrible foundation and needs to be torn down and re-built. Few are calling for such measures today, even as we prepare to collectively stumble down the most tragic chapter of our terrible history to date, but it was almost unthinkable in Kafka’s and Lawrence’s time.

Birkin looked at the land, at the evening, and was thinking: ‘Well, if mankind is destroyed, if our race is destroyed like Sodom, and there is this beautiful evening with the luminous land and trees, I am satisfied. That which informs it all is there, and can never be lost. After all, what is mankind but just one expression of the incomprehensible. And if mankind passes away, it will only mean that this particular expression is completed and done. That which is expressed, and that which is to be expressed, cannot be diminished. There it is, in the shining evening. Let mankind pass away—time it did. The creative utterances will not cease, they will only be there. Humanity doesn’t embody the utterance of the incomprehensible any more. Humanity is a dead letter. There will be a new embodiment, in a new way. Let humanity disappear as quick as possible.’

And a few chapters later:

“But I abhor humanity, I wish it was swept away. It could go, and there would be no ABSOLUTE loss, if every human being perished tomorrow. The reality would be untouched. Nay, it would be better. The real tree of life would then be rid of the most ghastly, heavy crop of Dead Sea Fruit, the intolerable burden of myriad simulacra of people, an infinite weight of mortal lies…’

‘…I would die like a shot, to know that the earth would really be cleaned of all the people. It is the most beautiful and freeing thought. Then there would NEVER be another foul humanity created, for a universal defilement.’

‘No,’ said Ursula, ‘there would be nothing.’

‘What! Nothing? Just because humanity was wiped out? You flatter yourself. There’d be everything.’

‘But how, if there were no people?’

‘Do you think that creation depends on MAN! It merely doesn’t. There are the trees and the grass and birds. I much prefer to think of the lark rising up in the morning upon a human-less world. Man is a mistake, he must go. There is the grass, and hares and adders, and the unseen hosts, actual angels that go about freely when a dirty humanity doesn’t interrupt them—and good pure-tissued demons: very nice.’

It pleased Ursula, what he said, pleased her very much, as a phantasy. Of course it was only a pleasant fancy. She herself knew too well the actuality of humanity, its hideous actuality. She knew it could not disappear so cleanly and conveniently. It had a long way to go yet, a long and hideous way. Her subtle, feminine, demoniacal soul knew it well.

‘If only man was swept off the face of the earth, creation would go on so marvellously, with a new start, non-human. Man is one of the mistakes of creation—like the ichthyosauri. If only he were gone again, think what lovely things would come out of the liberated days;—things straight out of the fire.’

‘But man will never be gone,’ she said, with insidious, diabolical knowledge of the horrors of persistence. ‘The world will go with him.”

Apr 14

Against His-Story, Against Leviathan!

larger resinAgainst His-Story, Against Leviathan!

Fredy Perlman

Black & Red 1983

Don’t be misled by the poetic and mythologizing tone with which Fredy Perlman renders his epic Against His-Story, Against Leviathan! This is an exhaustively researched book. It is also profoundly philosophical, asking questions and suggesting answers you won’t find anywhere else. The fact that it is beautifully written in an accessible manner is highly appropriate to its message, as you will see below. The book’s style is very much the opposite of dry scientific writing. I think if readers have difficulty with this book apart from getting a hold of it (it’s distributed mostly through its publisher, Black & Red), it is because there is virtually no precedent for the combination of style, depth, and content of Against His-Story, Against Leviathan! to this day. There are few works of any kind on the subject, but what few there are mostly take a (pseudo) scientific or essay approach. To my knowledge no one tackles the question of civilization with the background in philosophy, history, economics, anthropology, ethnography, Marxism, political science, etc. that Fredy does. The depth of this background knowledge may not be immediately obvious to the reader in part because of the pointedly un-scientific tone used throughout, but you could (and should, as I would argue) use Against His-Story, Against Leviathan! as an introductory text to a world history class.

Against His-Story, Against Leviathan! is the history of the world from the perspective of human beings and their communities. It may come as a surprise to some of you that this is very much the opposite of every other history book in existence, that all history books prior to this one were written as histories of institutions and the men (almost exclusively men) who supposedly set them in motion. The difference between these approaches is huge. On the one hand, we are looking at human beings and their concerns: life, freedom, joy, family, community. On the other hand we are concerned with machines and abstractions, undying entities which retool all existence in their image and relate to life only insofar as they need living beings to operate their cogs and levers because they are inanimate themselves.

Fredy Perlman asks the questions which end polite conversations and cause the questioner to be marked a pariah: if civilization is as wonderful as we are told, why did it have to be imposed on each new group of people at gunpoint? Shouldn’t its merits be obvious, the material standard of living and so forth? Why did the colonizers of the Americas complain that they can’t keep their citizens from running off to join the “savage” tribes, whereas the natives themselves could only be coerced to adopt “civilized” life, and would still revert to “savagery” given half a chance? What is it about the civilized that enabled them to conquer the world? What is it that makes them want to? And where did civilization come from in the first place?

Why against civilization? Why not against capitalists, communists, fascists, Illuminati, Masons, Republicans, Americans, colonialists, warmongers, or just plain assholes? Why not against greed or hubris? There have been many attempts to correct the injustices inherent in all civilized societies. Many people thought that if only their ideology could be given free reign everything would be fine. Every attempt so far failed; none have succeeded in returning to mankind a standard of living enjoyed by our hunter and gatherer ancestors, materially, and more importantly spiritually and psychologically. Studying history reveals that some things are not as new as they appear to us, cut off by our own literacy and technology in time. Consider the following story:

“The leader of a certain city is disturbed by the state of his people. He sees that society is two-tiered, the few rich and the many poor, and that the poor are in dire straits and have little hope for improvement. He remembers, or thinks he remembers, a time when things weren’t this way, when everyone had a fighting chance to live happily. He institutes reforms intended to fix the injustices. He decrees that “the youth was not required to work in the (rich man’s fields); the workingman was not forced to beg for his bread. The priest no longer invaded the garden of a humble person.” If a rich man wanted the healthy donkey of his servant, he had to pay the servant’s asking price in silver, and if the servant refused to sell, he couldn’t coerce him. And so on.

The reforms make the poor of his city happy, but seriously piss off the rich. The upper classes conspire to overthrow the reformer and help a ruler more sympathetic to their interests replace him.”

These events took place in the Sumerian city-state of Lagash around 2300 BC. They are recorded in a cuneiform script on a clay tablet. It is a completely modern story. In fact, Urukagina, the reforming ruler of Lagash, speaks of the injustices in his city as already ancient, though he knows they’re wrong. Lugalzagisi, the champion of the rich installed in his place, knows as well as any modern politician where his bread and butter lies. The lesson seems to be that those in possession of wealth and power will tenaciously cling to it. The Sumerians are not yet concerned with dressing up the injustices in their midst with ideologies like “trickle down economics.” But the reformers among them err in the same way as reformers will err until the present day: they assume that tinkering with the relative distribution of power and wealth is enough. Perhaps they themselves are heavily invested in the inequality, or maybe they have already forgotten what life outside of the Leviathan looks like. Or they may remember perfectly well what it is they have traded for civilization, but view the loss as already irremediable.

By the time of Urukagina, Sumerians were the inheritors of over 3000 years of increasing social stratification, large scale public works, strongmen, wars, and rapacious commerce. The first irrigation canals in the Near East were created in 6000 BC. Jericho in near-by Levant had 12 foot high walls around 8300 BC. Their world was cosmopolitan: merchants traveled ancient trade routes as far as the Indus Valley to the southeast, the Pontic Steppe (present day eastern Ukraine and southern Russia) to the northeast, Anatolia (Turkey) to the northwest, Egypt and Ethiopia to the southwest. Sumer would not have struck people from our time as incomprehensible. The concerns of a Sumerian were pretty much identical to those of a modern person: sex, stuff, status, work, rest. God(s). But both Sumer and 21st century life would be completely inconceivable to free human beings, those living outside of civilization.

During the period between the adoption of agriculture and animal husbandry around 10000 BC and the beginning of recorded history in around 2500 BC, mankind went through the greatest change it ever has and possibly ever will. For those who went through it, it is no exaggeration to say this was a change from being free human beings to inmates of a compulsory labor camp. For those able to temporarily escape the monster’s jaws through flight, life was also permanently changed for the worse. They would have to continue running with every advance of this or that Leviathan, this or that civilization, until nowhere remained to run and just one Leviathan is spread over the whole world. When Francis Fukuyama will announce its final victory in 1989, he will know it as democracy or capitalism.

The few handfuls of humans who still live in what we call a “state of nature” deep in the Amazon or Congo rainforests do so today only by the grace and generosity of the civilized. A much greater number exist in a semi-free state on the margins of society, wherever they can, overlooked for the time being. These groups span the gamut from greater to lesser amounts of freedom, but none of them can be completely free because none have the security necessary to experience complete freedom. For the rest of us, the very meaning of the word freedom is inverted.

Insist that “freedom” and “the state of nature” are synonyms, and the cadavers will try to bite you. The tame, the domesticated, try to monopolize the word freedom; they’d like to apply it to their own condition. They apply the word “wild” to the free. But it is another public secret that the tame, the domesticated, occasionally become wild but are never free so long as they remain in their pens. p.7

Instead of being free to develop our humanity to its fullest potential, a process heavily intertwined with the lore and traditions of our communities, we are “free” to create a personal identity based on the kinds of objects and experiences we can afford, largely in seclusion. Naturally, this modern kind of freedom leads to suffering and confusion.

The state of nature is a community of freedoms.

Such was the environment of the first human communities, and such it remained for thousands of generations.

Modern anthropologists who carry Gulag in their brains reduce such human communities to the motions that look most like work, and give the name Gatherers to people who pick and sometimes store their favorite foods. A bank clerk would call such communities Savings Banks!

The zeks on a coffee plantation in Guatemala are Gatherers, and the anthropologist is a Savings Bank. Their free ancestors had more important things to do. pp.7-8

So what is it we the civilized are missing?

Where does one start? The short answer is, everything.

Even during the coldest winter days, when the branches of evergreens sagged from their weight of snow, the human child was born into a very warm context. The warmth did not come from the walls of the bark lodge, which failed to block all draughts, nor from the fire on the floor, but from the radiant people welcoming the newcomer.

The child was expected; she was already an important personage; her arrival completed the community. Soon after her birth, she was ceremonially named, not arbitrarily but very carefully. The Totem, namely the community of the newcomer’s kin, possessed a number of names, as the sky possesses a number of stars, and the community was not quite whole, was in fact uneasy, if the names were not carried by living individuals. Everyone attended the naming ceremony because all were enhanced by the newly-named. The names did not run out. The Potawatomi were not committed to what we will know as Population Growth, and it is said that they did not experience the phenomenon.

The newcomer provided a missing rhythm. The name expressed the community’s embrace of the missing rhythm and also some expectations about the music that might be heard.

But the specific rhythm of the newly-named could be foretold no more than the final shape of a tree can be foretold from a seedling. The child was placed in no school to stunt her growth to the expected size and shape. On the contrary, the girl-child as well as her newborn brother were left free to emulate, or ignore, uncles and aunts, cousins among the animals, everyone and everything under the Sun, not excluding the Sun.

The grownups watched, not to close doors, but to open doors, to let the children wander where they would unharmed.

By the time the Potawatomi children were old enough to have expectations of their own, they were prepared to be their own guides. Dream lodges were set up in the forest, one for the girl, another for her brother. The youngsters fasted until a Totem spirit visited them. The spirit usually appeared in the form of an animal, and was usually not the same spirit whose name the child wore. The spirit promised to guide the child along a specific path, namely to give the child an individual rhythm, and the spirit offered the child certain powers with which to achieve the rhythm, powers with which to light the path.

Henceforth the children were on their own, bound neither by laws nor by the community’s expectations. Their own dream spirit helped them decide whether or not to live up to the ancestor whose name they carried. If they decided not to, they would be renamed after the first act that revealed the children were determined to follow distinct paths.

The boy, carrying his guide’s offerings in a beautifully adorned bag, and knowing that he could call on his guide simply by fasting, set out on his own to face a cosmos whose grandeur and mystery will be inaccessible to our imaginations. We will know something of his feats as a hunter or a warrior, as a long-distance walker, as a lover. We will know less of the depth of his friendships with kinsmen or strangers, and almost nothing of his friendships with wolves and bears whose tracks he followed, whose signals he tried to grasp, whose universe he tried to understand. And we will know nothing at all of his fasts on mountain tops or alongside green mirror-like tree-surrounded lakes, of the journeys he undertook with his guide across and through the water to the place of life’s origin, of his flights on the guide’s wings to the sunset land where his ancestors gathered.

We will know that he eventually returned to his Totem with meat and with numerous stories, and that he married his beloved’s sister because his beloved had in the meantime married a youth who had not stayed away for so long. We will know that he spoke of his exploits and his voyages to his children and also to his sister’s children, the nephew and niece whose dream lodges he built in the forest.

We will think that his strength left him when he gave up warring as well as hunting, when he became a peacemaker, storyteller and lone wanderer.

We will not know that he revisited a mountain top he had known in his youth, fasted until his guide came for him, flew to the land beyond the sunset, joined his beloved, he as youthful as on his first trip, she as beautiful as on the day he first saw her, and traveled with her alongside him across and through water to the place of Life’s beginnings.

If we knew all this, we wouldn’t ask why the man resisted encasing himself in our linear, visionless Order. Isn’t it our longing that expresses itself in a story about a European called Faust who turns his back on respectability, on the esteem of his colleagues, on law as well as religion, so as to have access to a personal guide and personal powers available to every Potawatomi?

The man’s older sister, in the meantime, created a music that will sound less ‘romantic’ to our ears. She too followed her own dream, but she found it possible to fulfill her own guide’s expectations as well as the community’s. She lived up to the Totem ancestor whose name she proudly continued to carry. She threw herself into the Totem’s activities, perhaps reacting against her lonesome brother; perhaps she, too, thought him excessively ‘romantic’.

Like her name-ancestor, she turned bark of birch trees into canoes and winter lodges and tree-sugar baskets; she turned the skins of animals into cloaks, skirts, moccasins and medicine bags. Her own spirit inspired the colorful quilled symbolism with which she finished everything she made.

Like her ancestor, she was one of the preparers of the ceremonial welcoming of spring’s new shoots, and after her marriage she was also a preparer of the ceremonial expulsion of Wiske, but the words she sang and the steps she danced were inspired by her own spirit.

Like her ancestor, she gathered herbs and became familiar with their general uses, but when her son was attacked by something he ate, she had to learn from her own spirit how to combine and administer the herbs while singing him back to health.

Her son as well as her daughter later took after her lonesome younger brother, but she was neither disappointed nor surprised; she knew that the children were following their own dreams, as she herself had.

Her dream had guided her to the center of the festivals and ceremonies, to the village council and the medicine lodge. Nothing her kin did or knew was alien to her.

Yet some of us will pretend to be honest when we ask why she was so vigorous in expelling Wiske from the ceremonial circle, why she would have been repelled by the prospect of becoming a housewife in a Civilized household, even the Archon’s.

Can we not recognize that in the fullness of development of universal human capacities she exposes the immiseration of the shamefully stunted products of Civilization? Can we not see that this Potawatomi matron who excels as Architect, Shoemaker, Shipbuilder, Furrier, Dramatist, Painter, Composer, Dancer, Druggist and Doctor already surpasses the many-sided Genius, the notoriously flexible Renaissance Man?

Shouldn’t the question be inverted? Shouldn’t we ask why we are fascinated by a Da Vinci, instead of asking why she is repelled? Is it because Da Vinci dangles from Leviathan’s neck like a cowbell, whereas she stands on ordinary dirt?

Why does a Da Vinci gleam for us among the beast’s innumerable cowbells? Is it because, after all the stunting and spirit-breaking that makes us Civilized, we still want to be what she was, but can no longer become even what he was, can only applaud what Leviathan becomes instead of us? pp.242-245

I’m sure I don’t have to emphasize the fact that it is extremely unusual to condemn civilization, wholesale or even in part. The idea that civilization is a good thing is, to most people, so true it is self evident and needs no proof. For most people born and raised inside of Leviathan, with no notion that there even is an outside, questioning civilization is among the hardest mental exertions. But as Fredy Perlman shows in this book, this wasn’t always the case. Once it came into being, civilization conquered or co-opted every group of people it came across, but it took a long time and the “progress” was far from uniform. From the very start, humans have resisted the supposed bounty of civilized life whenever they had the chance.

Much of Against His-Story, Against Leviathan! is concerned with tracing this history of resistance to civilization. People did not willingly trade their freedoms in the state of nature for the garb of a civilized worker and consumer. Such conversions mostly only take place once no other alternatives exist. The focal point of the resistance has shifted from those on the exterior of Leviathans in the beginning to those already inside it more recently, as less and less yet un-civilized space remained. It seems like the mountains are always the place where resistance is fiercest, from the first barbarians who descended on Uruk from the Zagros mountains to the unconquerable Pashtuns or Kurds of today.

The middle sections of the book may not hold the attention of people without some interest in history. It’s hard to keep track of the different groups being discussed—the Hittites? The Mittani?—but careful reading all the way through is extremely rewarding to even a casual student of history like myself for the insights Fredy offers about different periods and civilizations. Like his observations that the Ancient Greeks talked about everything but the olives and wine which made their empire function, and became aesthetes so they could maintain the illusion. Even for those lacking any knowledge of history, the first portion of the book is great as a stand-alone essay on civilization and its origins, and the section about the Potawatomi later in the book is a beautiful description of what life was like without civilization. Both are pure poetry.

In the past, the average person was “convinced” to become civilized at the point of a sword. Today, we are persuaded that we are the beneficiaries of the best, most advanced and satisfying way of living ever through more advanced mechanisms, but perhaps the biggest factor in favor of civilization these days is the fact that it has swallowed all alternatives to itself. Still, a staggering amount of work goes into convincing a completely captive audience that they should want the thing that is supposedly so wonderful it is self-evident.

It is no exaggeration to say the way we think about almost anything is channeled through the lens of our pro-civilization ideology. I first read Against His-Story, Against Leviathan! perhaps fifteen years ago, and may have been introduced to anti-civilization thought maybe a few years before that. In the years since, I’ve done more research on history, politics, economics, etc. and the way they alternately shed light on or obscure facts about our lives. I’m no stranger to these ideas, and yet re-reading Against His-Story this last time, I discovered that I still have trouble not being impressed by the grandeur of imperial Rome, the sublime aesthetics of the ancient Greeks, the sheer terror of Scythian or Mongol cavalry. A part of me still thinks of these as “Us,” when I know full well that this is the point of the propaganda; by identifying with these things I am being duped into trading experiencing my own visions for merely consuming the carefully calibrated visions of Leviathan.

A big reason it’s so hard to not be duped by the glitter and thrill of Leviathanic ideas and spectacles, even when you know full well they are no good, is that most of us have nothing better, know of nothing better. When we accidentally stumble on something that makes our hearts sing, we misidentify what it is we are experiencing because we have no frame of reference with which to understand it. Such is, to use one example, group life in the army. I’ve heard many soldiers express how fulfilling it is to be a part of a group of people who support each other as they work towards achieving a common goal. Whatever their feelings for the institution of the military,  many former soldiers miss this aspect of serving their country. Few realize that the fulfillment they experienced there is the same one that all humans used to share as a birthright.

We are all raised deep inside of Leviathans. Even village life is generations in the past for most of us. Most people don’t even have the vocabulary to describe the difference between life inside of Leviathan and without. Some have tried to describe the difference nevertheless, to create the vocabulary to do so from scratch or to reclaim words for this purpose from their Leviathanic usage. Those who did discovered just how hard it is to kick against the pricks.

There is very little reason to think that, things being what they are, a more critical approach to civilization is going to arise on a large scale anytime soon. I’m sorry for not having a more optimistic outlook. I’ve found that knowledge of these ideas is neither a prerequisite nor a predictor of human decency. A better predictor, I think, is the extent to which someone’s upbringing and life resembles that of a free human being. It is unfortunately extremely hard to unlearn the worldview we are raised with, and if we are taught that other people are objects and tools to manipulate, that’s pretty much how we’re gonna treat them. I’m not saying that people don’t change, they do. But there’s probably a pretty small limit to how much someone can change (sorry, born-again people; if you manipulated people as a godless drunk, you’re probably gonna manipulate them as a sober evangelical, too).

Without a prompt re-evaluation of our beliefs and priorities, we are facing an impending disaster on a global scale. It’s bizarre to live in a country where reality has been completely discarded in favor of a fantastical narrative of heathen enemies at the gate and god-given rights to plunder and profit from everything in sight. This story may have been current for some nation somewhere 3000 years ago, but it’s hard to imagine it being anything other than self-serving even then. Now, when we desperately need to acknowledge our unique predicament as a potential scourge of all creation, the bullshit issuing from the loudest available channels is deafening and disorienting, which is likely exactly the effect it is supposed to have.

Fredy Perlman was born in Brno, Czechoslovakia in 1934, and immigrated to the U.S. with his family in 1945. He apparently intended to be a teacher and an intellectual, but working at the University of Michigan in the late 1960s turned out to be more intellectually and ethically compromising than he could handle. For the rest of his relatively short life, Fredy lived a materially modest life, unattached to any institution that could influence or support his work. He spent a number of years in Yugoslavia in the 1960s, writing a doctoral dissertation in Economics for the University of Belgrade. He travelled to Paris in May of 1968 on the last train before the general strike stopped all transportation. Returning to Detroit, he organized and maintained a cooperative printshop used by different radical groups for the remainder of the 70s. Throughout, he never stopped learning and writing. A wonderful account of his life, Having Little Being Much, was written by his lifelong partner Lorraine, who also collaborated with Fredy on many works and translations.

Mar 09

The opposite of freedom is wellbeing

etching of adam, eve, and serpent by dmitry myaskovsky“Freedom is being you without anyone’s permission.” Anonymous

“Freedom lies in being bold.” Robert Frost

“I prefer dangerous freedom over peaceful slavery.” Thomas Jefferson

“Doing what you like is freedom. Liking what you do is happiness.” Frank Tyger

“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” Nelson Mandela

“Most people do not really want freedom, because freedom assumes responsibility and most people are afraid of that responsibility.” Sigmund Freud

“Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.” Janis Joplin

and of course, “Freedom is Slavery.” George Orwell

Throughout most of my life, I never thought twice about what freedom means. It seems self-evident: the more the better. In high school, I donned colorful shirts and stopped cutting my hair because I thought that the hippies of the 1960s were free while almost everyone I knew was not. Freedom from oppression and coercion is always at the front of our consciousness because being coerced is a terrible experience. It’s impossible to miss or ignore.

The concept of freedom as a negotiable quality is harder to pin down. The main idea here is that everyone has freedom and therefore we all have to curb our individual freedoms when they come in contact with those of another. Related to this is the idea of the social contract, a controversial theory from the 18th century which says that everyone agreed to exchange some of their individual freedom for protection and the rule of law administered by a government.

But the experience at ground level is very different from that posited in theories. When I chaffed under the coercion of my parents and school rules as a kid, freedom seemed a simple thing: I wanted it and didn’t have it. I was denied freedom by parents, teachers, and principals. Now that I’m an adult, I don’t feel significantly more free, but who’s coercing me? I’m not talking about the coercion of laws and economics, social constraints placed on all of us in supposedly equal measure. Even though I’m well aware that some in our society are much more equal than others, to use Orwell’s famous phrase, I’m not particularly upset by my lot in society in relation to everyone else. I can work with what I’ve got. As a citizen of the United States of America in 2017, I’m clearly not very oppressed or coerced, at least compared to most other people. But I feel limited nevertheless.

All I want from life is extremely modest. I want to have a good family to love and be loved by. I want good friends and neighbors, a group of decent people to belong to and to share my remaining years on Earth with. I want to be able to practice the craft which is important to me and which I’ve spent my entire life getting good at, although I am more than willing to accommodate the tastes and interests of my fellow humans in the exact manner in which I practice this craft, or even to switch crafts altogether if need be. Finally, I want to be able to continue learning and bettering myself, so that I can be the best person I can be to myself, the people around me, my society, and the planet on which I live.

Ok, you got me—I don’t know how to segue into what I’m trying to say… It’s possible for a person’s completely modest, boring goals to be impossible to realize through no fault of their own, or of their fellow humans, or even, arguably, of their elected and non-elected leaders. What’s preventing us from living our lives in a halfway decent manner isn’t anything outside of ourselves, but our misunderstanding of the concept of freedom.

During the later Middle Ages in Europe society was going through changes which would have great influence on the way we think of freedom. A growing acceptance of trade and commerce combined with new technologies was undermining the rigid social order, which had remained largely the same since the fall of the Roman Empire. The difference was that now people could buy their way into a higher social position. Before this, whatever station you were born into was the one you died with, no amount of desire or effort on your part making any difference.

Social mobility in practice meant that you were responsible for your own success or failure. When everyone’s lot in life was a foregone conclusion, no one could blame a carpenter for failing to make it rich and send his kids to a private school—no amount of dedication or genius could change that. While it’s distasteful to modern sensibility, this arrangement had an important plus side: if no one can rise to the top or fall to the gutter and god is the only one who controls men’s stations in life, no one need be anxious about failing to strike it rich. All evidence points to the fact that people were relatively content with their lots under a feudal system compared to what came after. I’m not saying they had nothing to complain about, as wars, famines, diseases, and who knows what else were certainly a feature of early medieval life. But it is a historical fact that peasant uprisings, lunatic asylums, the black death, and decades-long, genocidal wars began in earnest for Europeans at the same time as they underwent the shift to early capitalism.

Many factors which played a role in the transition from feudalism to modern society can be identified, but it’s hard to ascribe a causal relationship to any of them. These included growing urbanism, continued enclosure of the commons traditionally reserved for shared use by the peasants, increasing accumulation of capital by merchants vying for power with the nobility. For our purposes, the important thing is that starting in the late medieval period people were more and more likely to view themselves as responsible for their own lives, whereas before this everyone was secure in the role they played in their community and needed only to do their best.

Ironically, the events of the 1960s accelerated this trend toward personal responsibility. Hippies insisted that no one need to follow anyone else’s path, that everyone could be their own person. Not only was everyone now responsible for their own success or failure, but one’s very identity was up for negotiation. It’s easy to see the effects of this pressure on teenagers, at the moment in their lives when they don’t know who they ought to be yet and are desperately trying to figure it out. The question of identity used to not only not be a source of stress, but was instead a source of positive experiences. Children learned a trade from their parents, slowly building up their ego as they gradually mastered more and more difficult things. Now you struggle to find out who you are and establish your identity, choose a career, figure out what makes you tick at the same time as you’re learning what makes everyone else tick… Even under the best circumstances, this can be gut-wrenching. On top of everything else, our society’s obsession with individualism makes it hard to even talk about many of these things lest we seem weak.

Imagine being told that you could be president of the United States, that anyone could, when you can’t even pay attention in class, don’t know anyone whose parents aren’t in jail or on drugs or whatever? That kid is going to grow up with a sense that he’s a failure so deep he’s not even going to know it’s there. He’s just going to go from one experience which confirms what a fuck up he is to another, from juvy to jail to some shitty job flipping burgers. If he was born in a feudal-like environment instead, let’s say, 1980’s Guatemala, he would go through life expecting to pick produce alongside his parents, siblings, eventually children, and as long as the Army didn’t come in to steal the land his village reclaimed from the jungle over the course of seven hard lean years, he would be relatively content.

In contemporary American understanding, everyone is always competing with everyone else, and being poor is not ok, is your own damn fault. This is a really good way to get everyone to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown at all times. We’re just not made for this kind of constant stress and judgment, and increasingly, we don’t have adequate support networks to help each other deal with the psychological and physical burden imposed by the rat race, or simply to blow off steam.

A familiar way to think of this might be the juxtaposition of individual freedoms and the common good. Everyone probably remembers this concept from government class. Different societies can be placed on this scale relative to each other. In doing so, we would find that many eastern societies like China are closer to the common good end of the scale compared to present-day America, which is closer to the individual freedoms side. Modern globalized capitalism is, as a whole, incompatible with the common good side of the scale. It is a force pushing everyone toward the individual freedoms side. But, it is entirely possible that humans as currently constituted are incapable of living meaningful, fulfilled lives without a strong common-good ethos to guide them and keep them grounded. This doesn’t mean that everyone living in less individualistic societies is happy, obviously there are many ways to make life hard for people. But in general, we aren’t made to be “free” on our own: true freedom is being a part of a thriving community.

It can be said that freedom is inversely correlated with sanity insofar as it is only possible to succumb to the pressure of expectations (the main cause of many psychological disorders) when you live in a society in which you possess the freedom to succeed or fail. Conversely, in a society in which everyone is tied to their station in life and understands themselves as a member of their group rather than as a free-willed individual, issues of belonging, identity, and success or failure simply can’t arise.

Essentially, an increase in freedom implies a decrease in well being. I say this because medieval peasants didn’t miss the extra freedom we’ve gained over the centuries, but we free citizens of the free world clearly and profoundly miss the security and sense of belonging which the medieval peasants enjoyed. Modern capitalism relies on this fact to keep us buying shit we don’t need day in and day out. They’re quite clear on the mechanics of using our need to love and belong to sell us things.

Here is theologian Jacques Ellul on the trade-off between freedom and well-being

…man himself is exalted, and paradoxical though it may seem to be, this means the crushing of man. Man’s enslavement is the reverse side of the glory, value, and importance that are ascribed to him. The more a society magnifies human greatness, the more one will see men alienated, enslaved, imprisoned, and tortured, in it. Humanism prepares the ground for the anti-human. We do not say that this is an intellectual paradox. All one need do is read history. Men have never been so oppressed as in societies which set man at the pinnacle of values and exalt his greatness or make him the measure of things. For in such societies freedom is detached from its purpose, which is, we affirm, the glory of God.

There is an interesting theory by Julian Jaynes called bicameralism which essentially says that meta-consciousness (awareness of awareness or thought about thought) was a relatively recent development in human history, as recent as the ancient civilizations of the Near East in the millennia preceding the Common Era. I find this very intriguing. I associate meta-consciousness with the strong sense of self that characterizes late capitalist societies. Meta-consciousness, strong sense of self, may be both the evolutionary hurdle which, once crossed, spurred mankind to amazing technological achievements, and a barrier to being happy. It’s possible that we simply can’t have both advanced civilization like we have today and relatively happy people.

On the other hand, I don’t think that civilization per se is incompatible with high levels of meta-cognition. It may be that most people do not have a highly developed sense of self in any case, so that we’re talking about relatively low levels of highly individualistic people in any scenario. Also, I can’t for the life of me see the reason a low density, low technology (limited if any fossil fuel use), mostly small scale agrarian society can’t exist and even support billions of people. This is obviously an uphill battle at best, but it seems more grounded in reality than the utopias conceived by libertarians, communists, or anarchists. Although it’s possible this would be an anarchist utopia, out of necessity. In any case, such an agrarian society would not necessarily mean a complete absence of meta-consciousness or strong sense of self, perhaps just the opposite.

Almost everyone would be a farmer and agriculture would be extremely intensive. Lots and lots of technology would still exist to help us farm and live good lives, it would just be a tiny fraction of current amounts, in both total number and variety, because there would be no way to create or power it using any energy source more concentrated than wind or hydro. It could still be extremely sophisticated, like, we could still have limited internet in a more stripped down form for communication and laser tag if we’re hellbent on it.

Such a society seems plausible to me so long as we get to it before we turn the world into a desert. It’s how humanity has lived for ten thousand years, except in this ideal society no parasitic government, warlord, or boss would exist to suck up all the surplus (This is because in a densely populated world without fossil fuels to constantly replenish the soil, there will be nowhere to move except unproductive lands. To keep the soil productive season after season, all surplus will need to be reinvested. Such a society can’t afford a parasitic overlord). I know all you modern people out there hate the idea of no cars, no iphones, and farming, but that’s cause you lack the imagination or the knowledge to imagine a way of life other than the current one. You will not be consulted should the opportunity for our civilization to transition to anything but a wasteland presents itself, as you weren’t asked whether you wanted to become lonely, overworked consumers of unsatisfying trash. But you will be much happier. And you can still chew your cud with the other livestock.

Let’s not end on that note! I have every reason to think that all you wonderful people will become much better, much more generous, cooperative, sensitive to others, thoughtful, and yes, even more intelligent should we ever dump the lifestyle we presently practice. Just as the brains of wild animals are much larger than those of their domesticated kin, all our faculties will be sharpened by the transition to a sustainable way of life. And to be fair, I realize that none of us are such crappy humans by choice. Let’s be better, k.

Mar 06

What’s the deal with Abstract Expressionism?

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At the Chicago Art Institute, standing in front of Greyed Rainbow, a 1953 painting by Jackson Pollock, I overheard a middle aged man say to his female companion, “I think Emma’s made better fingerpaintings than this one.” Greyed Rainbow appeared unperturbed by their judgment. Why should it? Jackson Pollock’s huge messy canvases that look uncannily like the work of a 4 year old have been celebrated by critics and art history professors since the day Jackson drunkenly dripped them into existence. They’ve been maligned by the Aunt Gladyses of the world for the same length of time. For decades, the art elites have praised the same things that average working people have found ugly and ridiculous. The fact that the opposing assessments are finally starting to lose some of their edge feels slightly disappointing: the longstanding refusal of average people to embrace abstract expressionism seems eminently sane to me.

How did the art world find itself championing 50 foot long canvases that look like different kinds of walls? Walls with fresh and even paint, walls with multiple layers of paint chipping off in places, walls covered in illegible graffiti, walls cracking and crumbling, walls pasted with layers upon layers of colorful posters. Walls covered by tangled vines. The traditional narrative, the one I learned in school, is very simple and familiar. It goes something like this:

Humans have made art since the dawn of history. The first artists made prints of their hands on cave walls and little statuettes of big breasted women. Over time, artists learned more and more about how to depict things realistically, but it took thousands of years. In the Renaissance, the laws of perspective allowed artists to practice art in a more rigorous way, culminating in masterpieces like the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo and the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci. With the invention of photography, artists were freed up from the task of depicting reality for the first time. By the 1940s, abstract expressionism rose as the dominant school of art, a triumphant culmination of its history up to this point. The artist’s field of creative expression has been blown wide open into infinity.

This heroic narrative is as stupid as it is widespread. The basic idea seems to be that art has paralleled the rest of human history in its climb from obscure beginnings to its triumphant present state. This alone should give us pause, since the notion that humanity is now at its zenith is already being tested by all the horrible consequences of our hubris and short-sightedness, from environmental catastrophe to the human effects of globalized capitalism. But this linear narrative of art hides and obfuscates much more than that.

Ancient artists drawing on the walls of caves were really, really good. Their images of different animals are spot on, anatomically and dynamically sensitive and accurate, but more importantly, they are extremely effective images in the sense that they seem to capture and convey the essence of the animals they depict. From the beginnings of human history, artists used art as a means of communication, and as such were aware that some ways of depiction communicate more effectively than others.

Much early art is perfect in this sense, which is amazing when one considers that all early artists were technically amateurs, in today’s terminology. You’d think at least some of the ancient art we find would be crappy, the work of a novice not yet in full command of the expressive possibilities of his or her medium. At the very beginning we were already as good as we would ever be at making art. Sure, we’ve invented new art forms, and some people made really big artworks, but nothing we’ve done between Lascaux and the latest Venice Biennale has surpassed the effectiveness with which the earliest artists practiced their craft to communicate with their audience.

The notion that the arts have developed linearly over time is ridiculous. Linear progress is a very important idea for purveyors of fascist ideologies of all stripes, but the truth is that the only cases of such development in the history of art are to be found within individual civilizations or societies, and even then only if one also considers the development to continue after the high water mark into decadence and deterioration.

I passively learned this narrative from Gardner’s History of Art just like everybody else. But then I saw an exhibition of Ancient Near Eastern art at the Met: the 4000 year old bronze sculptures of people were as good as anything ever made! They were sensitively observed, accurately depicted, and just awesome to imagine doing whatever it is they did for Sumerians or whatever who used them.

In 1943, the art critic Clement Greenberg wrote about Pollock’s art, “I took one look at it and I thought, “Now that’s great art,’ and I knew Jackson was the greatest painter this country has produced.”

Really?

It’s too much. Better than Sargent? Hopper? Frederick Church? Grant Wood? Thomas Hart Benton? Whistler? The above mentioned stone-age artists? Greenberg’s comment is above all revealing of the contempt in which he held American painters, American art. It’s hard to understand Clement Greenberg’s attitude without understanding the power of the narrative of human progress, and how mid-century Americans perceived themselves in relation to it.

It was pretty much taken for granted in the first half of the twentieth century that the human experience has been one of ever greater achievements, and that contemporary civilization was the pinnacle of human achievement up to that point. Coming out of World War II, the United States was widely seen as the very crown on that pinnacle. While the rest of the industrially developed nations had been literally bombed to the stone age, the U.S. was not only unscathed but at the height of its economic power, turning out the majority of the world’s industrial output, setting the standard for all other nations in every field of human endeavor.

Every field except one. While the whole world may have thought of the U.S. as number one in every way, cultured Europeans found the entire thing vulgar, the way old money shames the new. America may be an industrial giant and a purveyor of everything anyone the world over could possibly want, from bubble gum to Hollywood Westerns, but that’s all low culture, the boorish attempts of an upstart society to look cool. To some in the American cultural establishment, this perception really rankled.

The painting which prompted Clement Greenberg to call Jackson Pollock the “the greatest painter this country has produced” is Mural, a 1943 commission from Peggy Guggenheim. It is a canvas 8 feet tall and 20 feet long, intended for the foyer of her new home. Mural is not yet made with the “drip technique” which made Pollack famous, but it looks pretty much the same as his latter work, maybe slightly less boring. (Jackson Pollock started making his paintings by dripping paint over them on the floor after he saw the work of Janet Sobel at Peggy Guggenheim’s The Art of This Century Gallery; Sobel was the first to do the “drip” thing.) In any case, one can easily see what Clement Greenberg saw in what Peggy Guggenheim saw in this yet unknown artist: the balls on this guy! He’s making giant pictures (well, he wasn’t before, but Peggy set him straight) which fit perfectly into the narrative of artistic progress, and look like nothing anyone’s made before! I can see the dollar signs in Peggy’s and Clement’s eyes…

The relationship forming between Greenberg, Guggenheim, and Pollock would prove to be the legendary foundation of American dominance of high culture. It would also set in motion profound changes for the world of art. Most importantly to them, perhaps, the capitol of culture will no longer be tied to a place with lots and lots of culture, like Paris—it will now be New York, the financial capitol of the world. For many years, figurative art will literally be considered outmoded; anyone who stubbornly persists making images of people and things, like the ones people enjoy looking at, will be a pariah in the art world, unable to exhibit their work seriously. Paintings smaller than a barn door will also not be taken seriously.

Most important to me, the changes set in motion by the Abstract Expressionist “revolution” will also reinforce the worst possible aspects of certain damaging ideologies. We’ve already talked about the narrative of human progress. Clement Greenberg may not have spent much time thinking about that one because at the time it seemed so self-evident to everyone. But he did spill much ink over his art theories, many of which have remained with us to this day. Greenberg believed that progress in the arts is in the direction of always less content. In the bad old days, someone who intended to make a picture had to make it be about something— Jesus, a basket of fruit, a pretty landscape, a bunch of drunk randy peasants. But art was never about the things depicted in the pictures, that was simply the price artists had to pay to do what they really liked doing: plopping gobs of paint on surfaces, dripping it on, smearing it around with their stubby fingers like kindergartners to their heart’s content.

Greenberg would create an entire theory around this idea that paintings should be about nothing, depict nothing, say nothing, and it really caught on for a very long time. Even many figurative painters who came once the ban on figuration was finally lifted, people like Chuck Close, Philip Pearlstein, and Lucian Freud, felt compelled to make their figures inscrutable, their paintings devoid of narrative. To Greenberg, painting is about the paint caking the two dimensional surface of the support.

For a long time, average “uncultured” people convulsed at the sight of abstract art while art critics and other art-world personalities thought it was just great. Today, I’m afraid the decades of pimping huge abstract canvases have paid off, and more and more people believe that abstract painting is good. Visual art is different from music, theater, or literature, insofar as it’s not always obvious what is good and what is bad. With music, it’s clearcut: if you hear an amateur or just shitty musician, pretty much everyone knows they’re no good immediately. Even the shallow, cliché stuff they pipe to us over the radio must meet certain basic standards of quality to be found acceptable, even if that minimum quality is often the work of producers armed with autotune. Not so in the visual arts: terrible paintings are adorning the walls of every coffeeshop across the country, and no one is clued in to their crappiness. At the highest levels of the art world it’s much the same thing: once Picasso opened up the doors to crappy art, there’s been no closing them. It’s incomprehensible to me how careers have been made painting the same blank canvas over and over, when not fifty years before a quality painting was still scrutinized for it’s message and the skill with which it was made.

It seems silly to tell artists not to do something they want to do, but I will do that anyway. I think artists are as confused as anyone else, by the heroic narrative of progress, by the rock star treatment given to drunk hacks like Jackson Pollock, by the continued promotion of abstract art by galleries and critics. But the truth is that abstract painting sucks. It’s not challenging to create. It is limited compared to figurative, narrative painting. There is almost nothing abstract painting can do that can’t be done better by figurative work. In fact, there are great figurative paintings that work in part precisely because they are also great abstract paintings, like some Manets or Turners, but the opposite is never true. It is essentially a cop out from learning to paint. The people who buy it like it precisely because it’s safe and not challenging, a good match for their couch. If that’s what you want to do, that’s fine, but I think we should call it what it is—a sell out, a lower order of art, or hold it to the same standards as figurative painting.

The notion upon which abstract art is based, that form can be divorced from content, is false. An abstract painting still has content—that’s why there are great abstract paintings. Did you think it was because of the “technical mastery of shape, color, and line” exhibited by the artist? The notion that we can appreciate technical expertise devoid of any subject is absurd. The splotches of color which dissolve into “ugly” brushstrokes as you get close to them in a Sargent painting, they are beautiful because when you step away again, they come together to describe a gorgeously rendered figure. They are nothing but ugly brushstrokes free of that figure. To use an example from another artform, Kafka is considered the premier stylist in the history of writing. But not even his impressive literary technique will convince anyone to read the insurance reports he filed at his job as a bureaucrat. Simply, form doesn’t exist separate from content, they are the two halves of the yin and the yang, each impossible without the other.

Abstract painting still has content, it is still representational. There is no non-representational painting because as long as you intend for your painting to be seen by others, you are representing something to them with it, if only your own confusion. Shit, I forgot about “art for art’s sake,” the idea that art is made purely for the sake of making art, rather than to communicate, or dazzle, or share a feeling. Do I even need to discuss this one? It’s also not true, is laughable. Unfortunately, the content of most abstract paintings is usually only the ancient story of decadence, delusion, and shirking responsibility, although in theory there is nothing preventing someone from loading a non-figurative piece with information and beauty, feeling and mood. Many have.

With figurative art, the responsibility is mandatory. Every time someone paints two figures, they are endowing them with a story of some kind. Mostly, this will be a pretty boring story since most people aren’t that interesting or creative. But by creating a story, the artist takes responsibility for something, opens themselves up for judgment, not just by the art critics but by anyone who will ever look at their picture.

If abstract paintings have no content and only form, the only criterion by which they can be judged is whether one looks different enough from all other abstract paintings or not. That’s just ridiculous. With such criteria, we’re literally just checking off boxes: the early arrivals got to enter history simply by painting blank canvases, circles, rectangles, squiggles. With these niches occupied, the next group had to be slightly more creative in choosing their “unique” look, but it was still wide open and not hard to find. As fewer and fewer yet undone gimmicks remain, artists are forced to be ever craftier and more sneaky, but eventually nothing anyone could do will look sufficiently different from what’s already been done. I’m pretty sure this point has already been reached, hopefully. Maybe now we can go back to the old way, where the standards by which a work of art is judged are how well it communicates what it has to say, which is almost always a factor of the skill the artist brings to their craft, which is something that comes from practice and tradition.

The politics of abstract expressionism serve as an interesting sidenote. The Congress for Cultural Freedom, a CIA-funded organization created to promote American culture and values, sponsored exhibitions of Pollock’s work. But despite the decidedly unrevolutionary nature of the project embarked on by Peggy Guggenheim, Clement Greenberg, and the rest of the American cultural establishment, most of the artists who were associated with Abstract Expressionism held far left of center views. I’ve seen it written that the large size of the canvases used by many of these artists was an attempt at making them too big for the museum and the gallery. I know, it’s absurd. In any case, I don’t believe any of the radical artists made rich and famous by Peggy and Clement’s art world coup complained about it or tried to return the money, although I understand that Jackson himself was tormented by his fame and whatnot. Then again he was tormented before he was made famous too.

Mar 04

To my friendsters

yuppies at the beach

A friend of mine used to tell me that looking at facebook depressed him because it seemed like everyone was having these amazing, satisfying lives, while he seemed to be going from one trial to another. It makes sense to me that we would post the best of ourselves for others to see and not the worst, but perhaps the fact that he was scrolling through the lives of hundreds of friends and acquaintances at once was deceptive, insofar as someone always has something good to share if you look at a big enough group. I personally know very few people who would claim to be content in any meaningful way with their life. Although everyone is making a valiant effort, and few people are outright failing.

How one defines success or failure is another matter. I know successful people by any worldly standard: their mothers would brag about their achievements breathlessly. And I know people who are not successful in the eyes of society, necessarily, but they do good, honest work, and have nothing to complain about in that regard. And yet, I know very few people who would say they are content. I certainly wouldn’t claim to be happy with my life.

Dear friends, acquaintances, fellow travelers through life, I am lonely and discouraged, and the conversations I have with you individually don’t resolve these feelings. I should say that I am not in any bad way, that I’ve been in a bad way before, and am now in a relatively good place. The best, in fact, I’ve been in maybe 15 years. In a good enough place to want to address the people with whom I’ve shared this world, although I am not sure what if anything I hope to come of it.

Many people think it’s a waste of time to complain about problems outside of one’s immediate control. This may be called the Alcoholics Anonymous school of thought: that whatever the external situation, we only ever have control over ourselves, and therefore we should focus on the things we can change within ourselves rather than things in the external world. That may well be a fine attitude, but sometimes a person tossed around helplessly by conditions outside of their control just needs to hear their fellow humans acknowledge that we are all in this same boat, at the mercy of events and circumstances, and there is little any of us can do about it. While it’s true that our reactions to external events are the only things we can control, not everyone can summon budda-like equanimity in the face of adversity. But everyone needs to feel like they belong to a group of fellow men and women, dealing with the same problems.

I don’t feel like I do. I don’t feel like I belong to a group of fellow humans sharing their problems and triumphs, the same external reality as me. Not most of the time. Not in a way I could call satisfying. At 37 years of age, having lived half my life in the same city, mostly the same neighborhood, knowing many of the same people for decades, I often feel like I am pretty much alone in the world. It’s kind of terrifying. In the long run, it becomes debilitating. It’s a feeling that, little by little, smothers initiative and hope, like an advancing glacier.

The last time that I did feel like I belonged to a group of people who shared daily struggles and joys was when I was in my early twenties. I was friends with some amazing people, and we all saw each other all the time, talked constantly, had lots of fun. I think we all looked forward to the future. It’s not that the future was disappointing, I don’t know, but the present certainly somehow turned out to be so. I’m still friends with many of the same people, but we don’t see each other as much, either because we don’t live close to each other, or whatever else. I’d like to think that maybe they all kept the feeling of belonging to something awesome, just sort of brought it with them to a new great thing. I’m sure it’s true for some of them.

I would assume that the people I know are smarter, more creative, more original and interesting, more gregarious, more goal-oriented and harder working than a group of people taken at random from the population, and yet I know very few people who would say that they are content with their lives. Maybe half the time, or on a good day. My friends may be special people, but they’re no more happy than anyone else. On the other hand, I know many people who are regularly tried to their limit by life, and sometimes past their limit. It seems that happiness has little or no correlation to smarts, creativity, sociability or hard work.

The problems we have with happiness are easier to understand with reference to the hierarchy of needs as described by Maslow. A person is first concerned with physical needs—food, shelter, safety. Only if these needs are met do we move on to the next level—belonging to a group and being loved. If all these are met, we can work on gaining the respect and esteem of others. Above all these is the work of self-actualization. Paradoxical as it may seem for educated, intelligent, and relatively affluent people to struggle with the more basic needs, it is no accident. The modern world would be impossible without lonely, insecure people. Aldous Huxley called our way of living “organized lovelessness.” There is not much love passing between the members of a civilization which considers its members chiefly consumers. Friends share things, buying and selling is technically something that only happens between antagonists.

The need to love and be loved, and to belong, is very basic to us. If we find ourselves denied the opportunity to love and be loved or to belong, we can’t move forward to the higher needs, the direction in which fulfillment lies. Our society is full of people whose need for love and belonging has been thwarted to various degrees and for different reasons. Families don’t live together in multi-generational households like they used to, which puts a huge physical and emotional strain on everyone.  We don’t grow up knowing the other people in our community, either because of how much everyone moves around nowadays, or because there is no community to speak of. A child today doesn’t expect to follow in its parents’ footsteps as it once did, but instead has to figure out, almost from scratch, who he/she is and what he/she will do in life. This question of identity used to not only not be a source of stress, but was instead a source of positive experiences. Children learned a trade from their parents, slowly building up their ego as they gradually mastered more and more difficult techniques. Now you struggle to find out who you are and establish your identity, choose a career, figure out what makes you tick at the same time as you’re learning what makes everyone else tick… Even under the best circumstances, this can be gut-wrenching. On top of everything else, our society is obsessed with individualism like no other, making it hard to even talk about many of these things lest we seem weak.

My very unscientific assessment is that many or most people in this society are extremely fucked up. It’s been so long since we’ve lived with anything remotely resembling humane and functional social arrangements, we don’t even realize we’re fucked up or that there may be another way. Under these circumstances, those of us who have maintained some semblance of sanity in our social life should probably be hailed as heroes. God knows it’s not easy. If you’re such a person, someone whose home is a place of love and whose relationships are based on respect and support, I hope you will keep in mind that the reason the rest of us don’t live as you do isn’t because we don’t want to, but because we are thwarted in our efforts every step of the way. Some of us, before we even begin to try, others by ourselves as we pursue strategies we didn’t know lead nowhere.

The rest of us, god help us all. Our need to love, be loved, and to belong is so strong and our options often so limited we tend to take what little in way of this that we can, whatever the circumstances. As a kid, almost every one of us has had a friend or group of friends who put us down and made us feel like shit, but we still hung out with them again and again. Hopefully, not for very long. As adults, we often do the same thing: we stay in awful relationships, jobs, and “scenes,” simply because the immediate need is so great. Or we settle for half-way satisfying arrangements, getting half of our needs met, because that may well be the best we can do. I think this is what Facebook is to most people: we would prefer to have real communion with others, but when we for whatever reason aren’t able to do that, Facebook fills some of that need. It can be hard to initiate real communion with people when the faces of everyone you pass on the street look like they’re passing kidney stones pretty much all the time.

Maybe you’ve heard that Americans now have two close friends each, on average, down from three a generation ago. Facebook notwithstanding. A quarter of Americans have no one at all to talk to about serious things, and another quarter have only their immediate family members. In another study, it was observed that Americans touch each other just twice an hour on average when two people engage in casual conversation. The French touch each other 110 times an hour. Puerto Ricans 180 times. I don’t put much stock in studies and have little but anecdotal evidence to go on otherwise, but it’s simple common sense that even having friends and lovers, families and social networks of certain kinds may not necessarily offer us the emotionally fulfilling experience that we need. The quality of the social networks matters. I’ve lost friends to suicide who had hundreds of online friends and dozens of real-world people who cared about them deeply. None of it matters if we aren’t part of a meaningful whole.

I wish I lived in a neighborhood full of families living right there where they work, small stores selling all kinds of stuff, so that when you walk out of your house to buy groceries a few blocks away you see your neighbors and can catch up, and when you’re hanging out on your porch after dinner, you see the neighbors’ kids playing in the street and keep an eye on them so they don’t get into trouble. Living in this kind of neighborhood, you don’t have to post stuff and “like” stuff to remind people you exist, you get to have meaningful interactions just by living there, and maintain your privacy to the degree you prefer. Where everyone knows everyone else, someone is bound to check on you if you fall ill and miss some part of your routine. You have no idea how much time and energy having that kind of social network saves: from sharing knowledge, tools, chores, carpooling, baby-sitting, etc. etc. And you get to not be lonely, alienated, purposeless, meaningless, that is to say, you get to be sane.

I know many people don’t trust this notion of an “idyllic neighborhood,” since the idea of it evokes nothing in their minds except the WASPy, white picket fence, small town ideal of a place that is supposed to represent everything that’s good and great about America but is in reality more often than not a bigot-infested, repressive, close-minded hellhole many of us have been lucky to escape from and never look back. A great neighborhood full of people who trust and help each other isn’t automatically a false ideal, or a Trojan horse for small-minded values. Just as a white picket fence, waspy small town isn’t automatically devoid of acts of genuine acceptance and generosity.

This stereotyped kind of place might exist here or there, to greater or lesser extents. There have been summer days when I could have sworn Riverwest is this idyllic kind of a place. But really, not so much. What makes a great neighborhood what it is takes place over years, decades, centuries, not days. Riverwest is ok and all, but… There are few places to shop and none to work so you have to drive everywhere. The kids seem more jaded with every year refusing to acknowledge you even if you see them walk past your house twice a day for years. My own generation is getting to an age when realism trumps idealism, so we make ourselves scarce. People around town seem to be terrified of each other. And no one visits anyone anymore.

So, I’m sure it’s me now as much as anyone else, passing the shitty attitude around and around instead of opening myself up to people, but it’s got to stop. No one’s gonna win, at this rate. I don’t imagine it’s a matter of simply gritting your teeth and smiling more. But to be honest, I’m not even sure what to suggest. I kind of think we’re fucked. The people who can be civil and neighborly do their best, with various degrees of success, while everyone else is trapped in awfulness by either poverty or money, health or trauma, lack of imagination or an evil upbringing. Whatever.

I hate to end on such a negative note. I guess the severity of every problem is in the end in the eye of the beholder. The reason I’m so pessimistic about this issue is that every component of it seems to be stacked against a positive outcome. Americans (and westerners in general) don’t see this as a problem, are by and large not aware that their quality of life suffers because of the individualism and materialism of their lifestyles. When we inevitably feel depressed and bewildered, we’re likely to look for the cause in the things we are doing and consuming rather than in the things we are failing to do. Economic institutions which have such sway over our lives are not only not concerned with the death of the community spirit, they actively encourage it because it is their meal ticket. Corporations are well aware that members of strong communities make for bad consumers, and that conversely, depressed, lonely people are the best consumers. The government is the weakest it’s been in a long time and getting weaker by the day. Even assuming that people wake up and demand a saner, more sustainable community-oriented society, it’s very unlikely that the holders of real power who exercise disproportionate influence over our governments would take it laying down. Do you even realize what it would take, specifically, to backtrack from the rapacious model of capitalism we have become prisoners to? An end to economic growth, for starters: sustainable communities are by definition zero growth, on the whole. A dismantling of virtually all economic systems with global reach: we can’t be ferrying raw materials across the globe to be assembled by semi-serfs and shipped back to where people can afford the finished products. This should be obvious. These strategies will necessitate a mass exodus of people living in places like Phoenix, Arizona, since there’s no way millions of people can live in the desert without exploiting the resources acquired elsewhere.

The list goes on and one. All we’re trying to do is re-introduce sanity, but this requires dismantling all the insane things we’ve surrounded ourselves by. We’re obviously not going to do anything of the sort without a cataclysm on the order of a nuclear war. Short of this, we can just try to smile more and hope for the best. There are many, many good people who refuse to participate consciously in selfish, shortsighted behaviors, and I hope I can spend more time with some of them in the near future.

Dec 15

Current Trends in Socialization

painting of a giant phallus running over pedestrians by dmitry myaskovsky

How much does the way we conceive of human nature matter? Normally, we pay very little attention to it, with the exception of philosophers, but I’m not even sure we still have those. It’s been suggested that people are the product of their genes, which would mean that human nature is something programmed into us the way dog-ness is programmed into dogs. I think its more like a collage of different influences: our genes, which is another way of saying the millions of years we spent as all kinds of other animals before we evolved into primates, hominids, sapiens; everything every other human has ever figured out before us and passed down to us in the guise of “culture”; the social conditions we are born into; the material circumstances of our life; and surely other stuff, too.

In our century, the idea that humans are competing with each other all the time has become widespread. This idea didn’t exist until Darwin came up with the theory of evolution and natural selection. Before Darwin, societies conceived of their members at various times as free sovereign beings, god’s children, vessels of sin, and other things. People can be treated as the subjects of their own destinies or as objects of oppression or exploitation, in accordance with the way they are thought of. Today, we have the ability to feed, clothe, house, and entertain everyone on Earth, and technological tools to make the planet a paradise. It seems to me that the idea that humans are always competing with one another is a way to justify maintaining the status quo: a world of economic inequality, where the haves have everything and the have nots make everything. The richest 1% now own as much wealth as the other 99% combined, a level of disparity never seen before– not in Ancient Rome, not in Genghis Khan’s times, not in the age of the Robber Barons.

Any other conception of human nature would imply certain inalienable rights to mankind; at a minimum, the dignity not to be treated like something disposable. Not in the “competition” model of society. Here, no one owes anyone anything, and getting away with something at others’ expense means you’re smart. If someone isn’t doing so well, it’s their own fault. Poor people are poor because they are stupid and lazy. Rich people are rich because they are smart and worked hard for their money. Any boy or girl can be the president of the U.S.A.

People are not by nature competitive. Some are, and some aren’t. But people are social to a fault, and have a profound need to belong. This need is so strong that, in a fascist society people adopt fascist principles, and in a socialist society they adopt communitarian ones. In a capitalist society people adopt heartless capitalist principles, and act the competitor because that’s what society at large promotes and values. To think that the American personality is what people are really like is ethnocentrism: there are plenty of other people living in other ways in other societies even now, despite the centuries-old campaign to rid the world of any way of living that doesn’t recognize private property and such.

For how often one hears the American way of life is evoked and lauded, you’d think it would be a well-defined, well-understood thing. But what the American way of life is, exactly, is rarely discussed, and never defined: all we get are the clichés “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and the “American Dream” (now more likely to be achieved almost anywhere else). Yet, the American way of life is a real thing as well as a slogan, and can be described and understood.

For a period of decades following World War II, the material standard of living in the U.S. was the highest in the world. European competition was bombed to pieces while American industry had spent the war years making things like cars, planes, and bombs. Americans got used to being well off and being able to afford stuff, and ideas of social justice were put on a back burner amid this unprecedented prosperity. When movements for social change came back around after thirty years, they were of a very different kind from those of the Depression years. Depression-era social movements were about economic issues, which naturally begged the question, “why exactly do the haves have everything and the have-nots nothing?” Late 1960’s social movements were often born of boredom rather than poverty and injustice, and the infusions of energy provided by the genuinely revolutionary movements happening at the same time or shortly before, movements for an end to segregation or apartheid for blacks and indigenous people, end to colonial occupation, and perhaps for equal rights for women, didn’t really catch on with kids rebelling against what they imagined was oppressive conformity. The rebellion against boredom eventually produced results: American capitalism responded to the crowds by providing products tailored to individual tastes, and learned to sell lifestyles and experiences. Apparently, this solution has kept everyone content for 45 years and running. Content not to riot, anyway.

Americans are obsessed by the idea of individualism: one can safely say that individualism has become one of the pillars of the American way of life. Despite all evidence to the contrary, everyone believes they are unique. In 1880, the ten most popular boys’ names were given to 40% of all newborn boys. Throughout the 20th century the proportion has been shrinking. Today the top 10 most popular boys’ names account for about 8% of male newborns. People used to name their kids in honor of a relative to continue a human chain through generations, or at least to give their kids a name respected and popular with their peers. Today, parents want to give their kids a unique name, which will presumably help them grow up into a unique individual. The names have changed, too: only half of the most popular boys’ names in 2015 were even in the top 50 until recently. Top 3 of 2016? Noah, Liam, and Mason—boys, Emma, Olivia, Sophia—girls.

The most important thing we misunderstand about our nature as human beings is the degree to which we are social beings. Everything we do depends on our continual engagement with others of our own species, and the rest of creation. We can’t achieve anything without the support of others. Very slight failures of socialization in childhood can make a person permanently miserable and incapable of doing anything for themselves or anyone else.

It’s hard to over-emphasize the degree to which we under-estimate our social natures. Most of the problems people hire psychologists to fix for them stem from improper or inadequate socialization, at childhood or another point in life. Ironically, psychologists’ method of solving these problems often involves advising their patients to focus more on themselves, which works just fine if your goal as a medical professional is to continue getting paid indefinitely, but not so well if you’re actually trying to get better. Society has been described as running on “organized lovelessness.” If people were properly socialized at all stages of their lives, no one would work a shitty job for a minute longer than it takes to make sure one is fed and clothed. Properly socialized people would never stand for a society built on violence, as ours is, and you can bet they would have no trouble coming together to find ways to overthrow the rotting carcass of the oppressive civilization around them and build a better society from scratch. In a million ways, people starved of human warmth and affection are the absolutely indispensable foundation for a society like ours.

Most people are raised in an environment social enough to maintain basic function, but not nearly enough to create complete human beings. From civilizations’ point of view, it’s a delicate and necessary balance. Below a certain threshold, people stop functioning; above a certain threshold, people stop being manipulable. Because people innately understand their need for socialization, and make efforts in that direction in any situation, there is a constant effort to break up these efforts. At the same time, where socialization is too retarded, the costs of policing people become too high.

What happens when socialization falls below a critical threshold? The story is told adequately in commonly sited statistics. In 1972, U.S. prisons held 300,000 people. Today, they hold 2,300,000. This is actually undesirable to a capitalist society, since somebody has to pay for all these prisoners. Ideally, they would all be working at McDonalds for just enough money to buy essentials and an occasional iphone or whatever. It may be argued that this social model, call it the U.S./ third world model, is competing with the European social model, where workers get higher wages and support a greater proportion of the overall economy than in the U.S. at the expense of the richest of the rich. I see it as an experiment everyone in the business of oppression is happy to see carried out: how low can you go before the little people either rebel, starve, or go mad, whichever the case may be in the particular experiment. The fact that European “elites” accept slightly lower portions of the pie to ensure slightly smoother social functioning may or may not be better than the “take ‘em for all they’re worth” mentality of the American super-rich. Neither system is currently doing anything constructive to prevent the impending global climate catastrophe. Still, considering that it’s impossible to get anything at all done among people lacking socialization, I would probably prefer Europe to America.

Have I communicated how worrisome (and debilitating) I find the current trends in socialization? More and more, people I meet seem to lack even basic social graces, never mind the instincts to be supportive to one another. Everyone believes themselves to be smarter, better, or anyway more special than everyone else, and this is considered normal, if not a good thing. Selfishness is, for many, a virtue. Personal ambition is assumed to take precedence over relationships. And in spite of all evidence that we are a nation of lonely people, everyone insists that what they personally need is money, or love, or fame, or new breasts, anything but the obvious—friends and family, a good home and community.

Socialization is invisible to us until it is gone, at which point we all of a sudden realize that we can’t get anything done without some amount of it. But it can remain invisible after it is gone, too, especially when so much effort goes into convincing us that the problem isn’t our world, it’s us. But it’s actually not us for once: the society we inhabit is the problem.

Nov 11

Anti-Technology Revolution

fight the power

 

Anti-Tech Revolution: Why and How
Theodore John Kaczynski
Fitch & Madison Publishers, 2016

Ted Kaczynski’s new book is divided roughly into two parts, as indicated by the title: the why, and the how. Looking at the two parts separately allows for a more generous reading of the book, so that’s what I’ll do.

The first two chapters deal with why modern society is bound to fail. I share the conviction that this is, sadly, all but an inevitability with TJK, and appreciate much of his analysis. In chapter 1, probably the most convincing chapter of the book, TJK makes the assertion that “the development of a society can never be subject to rational human control” (the chapter’s title). This is a logical place to start for an analysis of our civilization’s future, and the arguments in favor of this notion are convincing and plentiful, perhaps more so to someone already on board with the idea, but I think, with a little work, to any rational person. Our leaders are, by their own admissions and all available evidence, always playing catch-up with current events. They mostly react to what happens, and preferentially plan for the immediate and near-term future, and only marginally for the long-term.

One of the most important ideas of the book is introduced in this chapter. Competition between what TJK calls “self-propagating systems” (certain institutions, corporations, agencies, but also ideas, organizations, movements) works in such a way as to privilege short-term planning at the expense of survival in the long term. So, if a group of companies are competing in a certain area, they are under constant pressure from their competitors to use available resources with no thought for the future. If one of them decides not to extract resources as fast as is possible, they are quickly out-competed by the rest, which are all the while growing through reckless resource management. Of course, the combined rapacity of the competing companies will also condemn them to failure when they exhaust all available resources.

TJK chooses the unfortunate name “natural selection” for this process of competition between corporations, governments, nations, and movements. It is unfortunate for a number of reasons, one of which is the fact that the interaction of international corporations and nation-states is only partially competitive: John Kenneth Galbraith argued convincingly in The New Industrial State and The Affluent Society that the relations of the biggest corporations are characterized largely by, if not cooperation, than a sort of detente. This should be self-evident in regard to nation-states. So, the dynamic described by TJK where short-term, rapacious planning is privileged due to cut-throat competition doesn’t apply at the level of the biggest players, since they are in most cases not competing, which opens a window of possibility for those interested in salvaging a little of our poor planet.

There are many other problems with the use of “natural selection” here. It is a vague term when applied outside of its biological context, and has already been misused egregiously by people using it to justify inhumane social policies (social darwinism). Even in its narrow biological meaning, it’s not clear how big a role natural selection plays in evolution: a recent trend has been to emphasize cooperation, as well as to give more credence to the complex web of relationships between organisms in ecosystems. As a widely used and misused term, “natural selection” also seems to discourage closer examination of the actual relationships in question. Lastly, and most importantly, when applied outside of its strict biological meaning, natural selection suggests that everyone is engaged in competition for survival at all times, that the basic condition of living things and man in particular is that of “nature red in tooth and claw,” which isn’t true. As discussed elsewhere, competition attributed to man in his natural state is a more accurate description of civilized life, and Hobbes’ famous “nasty, brutish and short” line describes the lives of civilized humans much more accurately than those of our “primitive” forebears.

Competition seems to be a condition of civilized life. It applies on most levels short of that of the biggest corporations and nation states, and plays an even bigger role in the official ideology of capitalist societies. It’s been noted by astute observers that capitalists would subject everyone to cut-throat competition leading to a reduction in labor costs and standards of living, while reserving welfare-state treatment for their own class, and they’ve largely succeeded in shaping many nations in this way. Ultimately, I agree with TJK’s premise that technologically advanced civilization is on its way to a catastrophe, and that competition is a driving force behind this process.

What, then, of collapse? The other work most sorely missing from the bibliography of Anti-Tech Revolution is Joseph Tainter’s Collapse of Complex Societies (there are many works sorely missing from this book’s bibliography, works which would have saved TJK from duplicating effort, simple errors, and even writing entire chapters). Collapse of Complex Societies analyzes diminishing returns on social complexity in a few historical civilizations, and finds evidence that the laws of diminishing returns apply in equal measure to contemporary civilization. Collapse, the point at which no further investment can offset the drag caused by the added costs of social complexity, is inevitable as civilizations age and grow top heavy, according to this model. Tainter’s analysis doesn’t take environmental costs and resource depletion into account, so collapse is simply a reversion to a less complex state to shed the burden of costs imposed by added complexity. We won’t be so lucky.

Besides providing support for his thesis, Tainter’s work would have saved TJK from speculating about things like artificial intelligence and “Moore’s Law”, the idea that the performance of computer chips would double every year or two, growing exponentially. Certain dreamers have taken this, as well as the intoxicating pace of technological development of late in general, to mean that technology as a whole is always developing at an ever increasing rate. “Moore’s Law” itself was formulated to come to an end within decades, but it shouldn’t take a scientist to see that this idea is at odds with the law of diminishing returns. It may happen that something which excites the imaginations of hordes of people (and is lavishly funded) defies the overall trend in diminishing returns for a while, but it’s pure folly to think that this is somehow a self-perpetuating phenomenon.

TJK claims that the collapse of this civilization will wipe out all complex life forms on the planet: “…the extinction event that has now begun is of a fundamentally different kind than all of the previous mass extinctions that have occurred on this planet.” This may be a minor point, but I still wish that the exact nature of the collapse was discussed, and the reasons why TJK believes in the total destruction scenario fleshed out. As it is, no reasons are given other than cursory and hodge-podge mentions of some of the ills we face today.

In any case, since civilization is doomed, TJK believes a timely revolution is the only way to steer our course away from total disaster. Chapters 3 and 4 deal with the shape this revolution, and the movement leading up to it, must take, and the errors to avoid in pursuing this goal. They read like the thoughts of someone who’s never participated in a group project.

Manual for Revolutionary Leaders by Fredy and Lorraine Perlman (written under the pen name Michael Velli) is an extremely high-brow spoof of what it would take to pull off a revolutionary usurpation of power. Anti-Tech Revolution reads as if it could be a less-literate part of that spoof, except, of course, TJK is dead serious. I’ll try to keep this short, because I’m getting tired of talking about this book while all kinds of seemingly important things, like U.S. election drama, are happening, but here’s a quote:

A revolutionary movement can’t be successful if it allows its pursuit of its objective to be limited by reservations or qualifications of any kind, for these can only lead to fatal hesitation at critical times. (p.153)

Yes, it’s what it looks like it is: TJK is saying that moral qualms are fatal to a successful revolutionary group, the kind he is writing the manual for building. He also says that this group can’t be democratic in its decision making, must have the rank and file follow the leadership’s directives to a letter, must exclude well-wishers and fellow travelers to remain “pure,” and so on. In a word, he is describing an authoritarian-style group, a group along Stalinist or Maoist lines. Plenty of these have always existed, and those of us who have actually had the experience of working on common projects with members of such groups know that their members cultivate the attitude of humorless automatons, and that the eventual outcome of such endeavors is bloodshed and misery. In the words of Raoul Vaneigem, “those who speak of revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints, such people have a corpse in their mouth.”

TJK justifies the bloodshed and the misery the revolution he is calling for will cause by evoking the image of a ravaged, uninhabited planet Earth, the result of our civilization’s hubris and greed if we don’t drastically change course soon. This is a relevant point. To me, it seems that any kind of revolution that is executed in the spirit of authoritarianism and inflexibility, and is undemocratic and immoral to boot, can only create a new order that is more of the same: hatred, oppression, and misery. It may be argued that this wouldn’t be the case with a successful anti-technological revolution, since once there is no technology more complicated than a knife, any tyrant will have to content him/her self with a fairly small domain. This may be so– I would certainly take my chances in such a world over this one, and once there, perhaps it won’t matter what road we took. But until technological society is overthrown, TJK is basically asking a lot of us to do really awful, immoral, inhumane things, perhaps for the rest of our lives, perhaps longer, in the name of this revolution. The sad thing is, I know there are plenty of people (with corpses in their mouths) who will gladly do those exact things, but I think that even for them, this project will have to be coated in much sweeter terms than are found here.

The thing that is most disappointing to me about Anti-Tech Revolution is the fact that TJK seems to have gotten human nature utterly wrong in so far as he pegs us as motivated by competition. This may be because the only ethnological or anthropological work he uses is Jared Diamond’s Collapse, an unfortunate choice on many levels. If people are so hopelessly competitive that they need to be protected from their own destructive instincts and delivered into a more humane utopia, pretty much against their natures (yet, ironically, by a revolutionary organization run by an undemocratic and immoral elite), why bother? If people are this nasty, they will make the garden of eden into a concentration camp. Let them rot.

I believe that people are not driven by competition. Rather, people adopt the qualities that they see their neighbors possessing, and their neighbors adopt the qualities that society says they should possess. Everyone simply wants to fit in, and does their best to do so. Paradoxically, if everyone practices anti-social behaviors such as excessive competitiveness, selfishness, or greed, our need to fit in will drive us to act in an anti-social way as well. But there it is. It can be unlearned. Many societies didn’t, and don’t, practice greed and competitiveness.

Materialism, greed, is the common factor underlying the pathology of our lives, our civilization’s reckless race to the bottom, to its’ doom. Seriously! I realize how uncool that is to say, since even the Christians view harping on greed as outdated and passe. But that’s really all it is. Societies choose what values they will adopt and to what extent, and a wide range exists among societies in the world today. Scandinavian countries have made a collective decision to support the weakest members of their society; the U.S.A., by contrast, has made a collective decision to blame the weakest members of society for their own problems, and to celebrate those with the most instead. In fact, so much of American society is geared solely to excuse and justify greed that people are literally bewildered by the contradictions and paradoxes this creates. To take something everyone knows is bad and to spin an entire ideology around it to transform it into something good can leave anyone not sure which way is up.

Getting rid of technology and sending society back to the stone age would certainly solve the problem of greed by getting rid of anything anyone might covet. I am not against this solution at all. But, I find it very hard to see anything good coming from pursuing this goal (in such a way) for my generation, who won’t yet be the beneficiaries of a greed-free world, but will have to spend our lives living out the worst things our present society has to offer, and then some. Yet, the future of our planet hangs in the balance.

Oct 18

Neanderthal sex

just like the homos sapiens, neanderthals were non too bright

We still picture neanderthals as non too bright and non too happy

Though we have more power than ever to change our environment, we seem as confused as ever about who we are, what makes us tick, where we came from, how we fit into our world, exactly, all questions which have immense importance for how we choose to wield our power. More worryingly, we seem to have adopted a mode of thought (science) which disregards these exact questions as “unfalsifiable,” outside the scope of scientific inquiry, and hence, of no consequence. Science as we currently practice it carries the implicit assumption that we need not worry ourselves with such questions: science is always there, working on our behalf; everything scientists discover will be used for good; and if somehow something causes a problem, science will automatically remedy the situation. Clearly, this is wishful thinking, not to mention deluded, dangerous, and terrifying, and we need to address the old questions now more than ever.

The extent of our ignorance about ourselves is staggering. The way scientific inquiry works has given us the false impression that we are much more knowledgeable and much more in control than we actually are. In reality, tradition and convention mean that scientists tend to work in established fields, and build on existing ideas. Yes, the framework is in place to replace a faulty theory with one which better describes reality, but many factors work against this in practice, not least of which is the fact that we are disinclined to consider theories which seem to go against our current understanding of how things work. Or a lack of imagination. What this means in practice is that a vast amount of work in the sciences goes on in support of theories which are wrong. This gives the impression that the totality of scientific knowledge is rapidly increasing, while in reality we are often merely adding to a faulty foundation which will one day be discarded wholesale.

Where do we come from? The main reason we get it wrong when trying to imagine what early humans were like, how they lived, how they settled the world, etc., is because of our fallacious belief that we are an infinite distance removed from any other critter, a different level altogether. We maintain a condescending attitude towards them, and waste time fashioning scenarios which fit our notions of development from inept apes to Mount Olympian homo sapiens. We are primed to resist thinking of human and animal consciousness as being made of the same stuff, so to speak, in part by centuries of religious thought. Christians believe that only humans have souls, and that only souls get to go to heaven. To the extent that Christianity influences the debate, we will have a hard time understanding the nature of our consciousness and that of other animals.

We’ve always believed that we’re different from and superior to apes in specific ways, but it’s not completely clear what those ways are. Humans seem to be better at learning socially than other great apes– maybe, and better at abstract reasoning– perhaps… The only thing that’s undeniable is that we have a bug up our ass that’s gotten us to do all this stuff above and beyond the needs of bare survival, and that, having done stuff and made stuff, we’re convinced that an unbridgeable gulf separates us from “lower” animals. It seems to me that the “bug up our asses” is consciousness, and more specifically, what’s referred to as meta-consciousness, the consciousness of being conscious. This is the factor which pushed us, alone out of the animals, toward ever more abstract and complicated activities. But this isn’t as simple as having a quality that another being lacks. This kind of consciousness is rare, even among humans, and then, only at work some small portion of the time, while the rest of the time we react more or less automatically to the things life throws at us. Rather, it is more accurately conceived of as a motivator, the restless and unfulfilled state of mind which, in combination with superb analytical capabilities, could push one towards interesting new things. But this isn’t the only way in which we differ from other animals.

For a thought experiment, imagine stripping a human of not only clothes, tools and weapons, etc., but also of the 10,000 years of civilization and 3,000,000 years of chipping at stones, and leave them in the rainforest with empty hands. How much better than apes would we do? How effective is our cognitive apparatus without the knowledge our culture has gathered over the millenia? Has a human child ever been raised by apes, but grew up into a human? And if we did eventually figure out how to thrive without any culturally transmitted knowledge, what would that look like? Similar to other great apes or not? Would we have language? What kind of language?

Conversely, scientists are finding that many animals, and great apes in particular, do most everything we once thought of as unique to man. They have emotions, hold grudges for months, solve complex problems, learn language and abstract thought, and are capable of deceit, meaning they have the ability to think from the point of view of another being. The criteria for what are considered uniquely human qualities are getting increasingly complicated.

A July 2012 conference at Cambridge titled “Consciousness in Human and Nonhuman Animals” concluded: “Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.” It’s great that scientists in the field of animal cognition are recognizing that many animals have the makings of human-style consciousness, but this doesn’t mean that the work of scientists in other disciplines is going to take this into account, or that laboratory animals will cease being tortured in their colleagues’ labs. Nor that our laws will be changed to reflect this.

So, if apes are capable of accomplishing most everything we can, but usually don’t care (or need) to, we are forced to view early hominins as people, if somewhat scatterbrained and unambitious ones, and their activities, motivations, and ways of life become intelligible.

Did homo sapiens breed with neanderthals? Has a frat boy ever refused sex? No amount of cultural prohibitions have ever thwarted our sex drives. Our closest relatives, the bonobos, fuck to relieve tension, boredom, hunger, and just to say hello. As do we. It is a safe bet that early humans also bred with anything that walked, and that at least some of the time, some of the matings produced fertile offspring.

That being the case, the mystery of what happened to all the early hominins seems a lot less mysterious. Just like in America’s fabled melting pot, human groups disappear to interbreeding all the time. If a group is similar enough to mate with, it’s a good bet it could eventually be absorbed through interbreeding, and if it was too different to mate with, it was probably killed off. It’s worth remembering that times of crisis are the most likely times for interbreeding and absorption to happen, just as the survivors of decimated groups of Native Americans came together to form new tribes after contact with Europeans and their diseases.

Did humans migrate out of Africa once 55,000 years ago, to colonize most of the known world in one wave? Or did we leave Africa a number of times? This is, to me, a strange question. Once humans settled Europe and Asia, any additional immigrants would simply join the colonists already there. Furthermore, there is no reason for the emigrants not to visit the relatives they left back home in Africa, or even to immigrate back. That’s what people do. I’m not sure what kind of signs this would leave on our genomes for scientists to decipher. Both apes and humans can be far-ranging, and the homo sapiens who ventured out of Africa around 125,000 years ago may already have had watercraft, expediting travel. Certainly the later “waves” of migrants had boats, since they colonized Australia by 40,000 ybp at the latest. It seems to me that the only way this debate can exist is if we assume that these were animals less than capable of making decisions and executing them. Otherwise, the question seems a little academic: people just fill open niches and seek opportunities where they exist, and there were probably very few times when a group of people entered a large expanse of new land and found it yet uninhabited by hominoids.

If neanderthals disappeared as a distinct race by 24,000 bp at the latest, while humans from Africa with fewer neanderthal genes kept migrating into Europe and Asia after that, we would expect to find the proportion of neanderthal genes carried by Europeans and Asians to be ever smaller as we get closer to the present day. This seems to be the case, as Europeans carry 2% neanderthal genes today on average, but apparently had a greater proportion in the past, as archaeological finds such as the Lapedo Child in Portugal, buried 24,500 years, seem to show. Neanderthals, too, seemed to carry some proportion of sapiens genes.

Anatomically modern humans existed by 150,000 bp, but most scientist carry around a checklist of “modern” behaviors, and deny our ancestors the status of behavioral modernity until about 50,000 bp, when enough behaviors on that list appear together. Yet, at least 80,000 bp, sapiens used ochre for decoration and fished at Blombos Cave in South Africa, while neanderthals apparently did everything sapiens did, but weren’t even of our species. “Some researchers describe how anatomically modern humans could have been cognitively the same (as modern humans) and what we define as behavioral modernity is just the result of thousands of years of cultural adaptation and learning.” That makes sense. We are beneficiaries of the knowledge of our ancestors, and wouldn’t be so smart or successful if we had to figure it all out from scratch. Early sapiens brains, too, were larger than modern humans, just as wild animals’ brains are larger than their domesticated kin. Neanderthals had brains on average 20% larger than ours.

Bicameralism is a theory which says, among other things, that the development of meta-consciousness (consciousness of consciousness) as we understand it today may have happened as recently as 3000 ago. Julian Jaynes, the author of this theory, believes that prior to the rise of meta-consciousness, volition (the minds’ commands) were perceived as coming from outside of oneself, and perhaps attributed to gods. Texts composed prior to this time give no indication of self-awareness, introspection, or other cognitive meta-processes, whereas after this time, the full range of meta-cognition is present. The change falls in the middle of the old testament; unfortunately, there aren’t all that many texts written before this.

This seems on the right track: a great range exists among people today in self-awareness, as well as, probably, between different groups of people. It makes sense that consciousness wouldn’t be an absolute, possessed by humans but no other being. We all have varying amounts of it. Some people seem to entirely lack the capacity for self-awareness, self-doubt, etc., and even those of us who do have it go through life largely without using it, being stricken by it only on certain occasions. Yet other people seem to be absolutely paralyzed by a constant over-abundance of it. (Too much self-awareness can make daily life impossible. The only way I can get through work is by shutting off my conscious mind as much as possible, just dealing with what’s happening on an automatic level.)

Wikipedia page on behavioral modernity says:

…bicameral mind theory argues for an additional, and cultural rather than genetic, shift from selfless to self-perceiving forms of human cognition and behavior very late in human history, in the Bronze Age. This is based on a literary analysis of Bronze Age texts which claims to show the first appearances of the concept of self around this time, replacing the voices of gods as the primary form of recorded human cognition.

But, this is not “very late in human history,” human history is, by definition, recorded history, which first arose shortly prior to this time. Anyway, it doesn’t seem important when, exactly, people added meta-consciousness into their arsenal for dealing with the world. The main thing is that it is something we in the West today have a lot of, relatively speaking, and that in the recent past it was scarce to non-existent. One could say that meta-consciousness is significantly correlated with civilization, and may be either the cause or the effect of it, if not both. The other main thing is that meta-consciousness is something which arises culturally, rather than biologically or genetically, as everyone has always assumed it did.