Once upon a time a series called Game of Thrones was broadcast on the television machine. It was one of those remote and long-lost events that occurred before The Great Scrambling, during that vast stretch of time reaching back to the first civilizations, which historians know as Antiquity.
“Wait!” a reader may object. “I watched that series and remember it well.” The reader would be technically correct. But that just goes to show that a) history is not an exact science and b) some passed through the Great Scrambling with clearer heads. Others of us were too busy surviving the reign of a deranged child-king and the invasion of zombie hordes from the Global North to recall a televised fiction with similar plot elements.
Some archival work was necessary to piece together this past. Here are a few of the items that I uncovered.
1. On April 25, 2015, at the Washington Correspondents Dinner, an early connection was made between Game of Thrones and contemporary American politics. President Obama was at the mike along with “Luther,” his “Anger Translator,” played by comedian Keegan-Michael Key. The bit allowed the President to lightly mock the press, thanking them for “two weeks of non-stop Ebola coverage,” and for a series of perceived “Obama’s Katrina,” which never came to pass. Comfortable as he neared the end of two terms, Obama/Luther mentioned the 2016 election, still nineteen months away. He named the most likely candidates and paired each with a joke. The Jeb Bush joke was mild, the Cruz joke skewering. It was the Hilary Clinton joke that made reference to the popular HBO series. Luther, strutting, his fingers interlaced across his chest, spoke of Clinton’s fearsome ability to raise funds. “Khaleesi is coming to Westeros!” he said.
To this, I’ll just add a few comments. First, Games of Thrones was by this time past its sixth season, and all the pieces of its endgame were in place. Dany Targaryen—Khaleesi, Queen of the Dothrakis, Mother of Dragons—would travel over The Narrow Sea with her armies to claim the Iron Throne. It was hers rightfully, that is to say, by blood, but she also earned it. She had grown into a strong leader, become a champion of the enslaved. She had passed through the fire, literally. What is more, the show’s audience was behind her. How great that a woman, long-abused and underestimated, would rise in this man’s world and bring to it a higher politics!
Second, and this hardly needs be said, the joke hinged on an association between Dany’s story and Clinton’s in the popular mind. There were those of us who might have aligned more closely with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party in terms of policy, but who really wanted to see a woman president. I don’t know what to say about this. The cells in my brain where this thinking existed have since been replaced by scar tissue.
Finally, judging by the available video, the joke received a mixed response from its audience. Why? Was the reference too obscure? Professionals working at the top of their fields have less time for television, supposedly. Did this perceived signal from Obama himself that Clinton was the presumptive nominee make them shift uncomfortably in their chairs? I won’t hazard a guess. This is history, after all. Most of the data is unrecoverable.
2. On April 11, 2016, a Game of Thrones think-piece, authored by Clive James, was published in The New Yorker. Although the primary season was well underway, James drew no connection to the political scene. His goals were loftier: What explained Games of Thrones’ immense popularity? James had been a reluctant viewer whose ability to suspend disbelief was typically restricted by “a total embargo of dragons.” But like so many others, he soon overlooked the trolls, giants, magic, and all the other trappings of fantasy fiction, and got caught up in the moral battle. “The whole thrust of the show,” James wrote, “is to give us a world where the law is not yet formed,” a world governed by nothing but “the lawless interplay of violent power.”
Game of Throne‘s power players were ruthless, as was the narrative itself, which it proved by its willingness to kill off its purported heroes. “Everyone in the show is dispensable,” James wrote, “as in the real world.” The one exception, James explained, was Tyrion Lannister, the character played by Peter Dinklage. He was
the epitome of the story’s moral scope. His big head is the symbol of his comprehension, and his little body the symbol of his incapacity to act upon it. Tyrion Lannister is us, bright enough to see the world’s evil but not strong enough to change it.
James captured much that was true about Game of Thrones, but his conclusion was hasty. A full year had passed since the Washington Correspondents Dinner, and only now were new episodes in release. The series’ endgame was still in play. Evil might not yet triumph. James claimed that the appeal of the show was its “raw realism,” and certainly, the ruthlessness in storytelling raised the stakes. But what kept people watching wasn’t a consensus that this rawness was real, but the requirement that in the end, viewers would be reassured that it wasn’t.
Is this really the way the world is? That was the question the show asked over and over, and that it would keep asking until the end.
Many are tempted to answer yes, that life is nothing but a nasty scramble for domination, with a few big winners on one side and the rest of us on the other. The evidence in support of this answer is overwhelming, and mainstream science provides a basic rationale. In a 2018 essay collection, titled What Are We Doing Here?, novelist Marilynne Robinson summarized this rationale: humans were “locked in a perpetual cost-benefit analysis, unconsciously guided by a calculus of self-interest somehow negotiated at the level of genome.” We were deceived to think otherwise, the science claimed. But the question is contested. Robinson’s essays contest it. Lots of people think otherwise. This is what I mean by the appeal of Game of Thrones. We thought otherwise and had to watch to the end to find out if we were deceived.
3. On June 1, 2017, George R. R. Martin, the author whose series of novels Game of Thrones was based, was quoted in Esquire, saying, “I think Joffrey is now the king in America.” Joffrey was the show’s first and most despised villain, a disturbed boy, installed unexpectedly onto the throne. Vainglorious and cruel, Joffrey loved and even craved power because it shielded him from seeing himself as he really was: a coward, a bully, a bore, and a creep. His was also weirdly blonde.
It doesn’t matter that Joffrey had been killed off in season four, way back in 2014. A direct comparison between this fictional creation and the former US president seems almost too obvious to make. Still, I have no recollection of making it at the time, not even as baby-Trump-in-diaper balloons began to show up at protest gatherings around the world. Trauma does funny things to the brain. It can disturb the most elementary of calculations; it can scramble the very experience of time.
4. Between April and May, 2019, the final season of Game of Thrones was broadcast to widespread disappointment. Part of this can be explained by delays in production and a decline in quality. The producers had been running ahead of Martin’s unfinished novel series for some time, and now there seemed an absence of vision as to how to conclude. All the time the narrative had invested in characters and their relationships was felt to be squandered in a headlong rush to the finish.
Disappointment, too, coalesced around the ending. Khaleesi came to Westeros, but she wouldn’t win the throne, after all. Those who thought Dany’s story was about the feminization of power were let down to find her representative of something else, something more familiar. A Robespierre-type, or perhaps a Stalin, Dany got paranoid, went crazy with her dragons, and started setting the populace on fire. Why end a story with so many interesting, varied, and powerful women on such a note of classic conservatism? Dany was supposed to be the anti-Joffrey, and this turning of the tables left many confused, especially since, in our actual lives, we were suffering under the government of the paranoid fringe.
No, the winner of the Game of Thrones wouldn’t be Dany, or Sansa, or the indispensable Tyrion, or even Jon Snow, but instead—and unexpectedly—the younger Stark brother, Bran. Bran, an adolescent in the show’s first season, was left paralyzed from the waist down from an attempted murder. Physicality was unavailable to him, so he had to train his intellectual gifts. The human reality of Game of Thrones might have been one of naked self-interest, but beneath this thin surface was an animistic world of forest sprites and non-human wisdom. Bran plugged into those enchanted depths. Tutored by some sort of tree man, Bran learned to see the past, the future, and everything in between. Because he could not focus on every instance simultaneously, he had to steer his attention from one data source to another, and then to visualize it, to form an interpretation. His powers—unwieldy, imprecise—were those of curating the endless texts libraried inside his head. Bran was, in short, the Humanities.
Or to state it more broadly, he represented the academy—that complex apparatus by which the record of human experience and understanding is remembered, organized, sheltered, passed down, disseminated, and applied to conditions of ever-present change. In the Borges story, “Funes the Memorious,” the boy Funes is thrown from a horse and paralyzed. He develops “infallible” perceptive abilities and a perfect memory. Borges understood the importance of the academy. He also understood its fragility and the near-impossibility of its task. “My memory, sir, is like a garbage heap,” Borges has his character say. He is cursed to live the abolishment of the general by the specific in all its exponential abundance. “His own face in the mirror, his own hands, surprised him every time he saw them.”
“The Great Scrambling,” like any period marker, is an attempt to chart change amidst the bombardment of events. Are things different now than they used to be? It sure seems that way. As I remember it, the academy, when not being pressed to make a case for its usefulness, was viewed mostly as a harmless indulgence, residue from some obsolete past. The joke about the liberal arts major and the fast food industry was good for a chuckle in almost any American setting. Yet during the Great Scrambling, historians and other humanist scholars stepped forward as witnesses to and interpreters of our collective ordeal. We needed their expertise. Heather Cox Richardson’s “Letters from an American”—just to name one obvious example—served as a lifesaver for people from all walks of life, as something solid to hold onto as the floor beneath us rocked and seized. So I want to say it’s reasonable that the final hero of the most popular television series of its kind would be the personification of this service.
Meanwhile, generations of scholarship, reduced to an umbrella term, Critical Race Theory, are being twisted into a racial dog whistle. A controversy surrounds Professor Hannah-Jones, her tenure, and the 1619 Project. Not long ago in Austin, Texas, the lieutenant governor canceled a talk by authors of a book of history at the Bullock Texas State History Museum, there at the state’s flagship public university. That the governor is touting something he calls “the 1836 Project” testifies to the stature of its model and namesake. The Great Scrambling was a disruptor of paradigms. What once seemed an amorphous, blanket disrespect for the academy has been replaced by a cluster of pointed assaults on it, each traceable to a particular source and tinged with desperation.
A version of this essay was published at the Society for US Intellectual History blog.
President Obama’s remarks at Washington Correspondents Dinner, 2015: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HkAK9QRe4ds
Clive James, “Thrones of Blood,” The New Yorker, April 11, 2016: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/04/18/the-raw-appeal-of-game-of-thrones
Marilynne Robinson, What Are We Doing Here? (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018), 52.
Logan Hill, “Kill the boy … let the man be born,” Esquire, June 1, 2017: https://classic.esquire.com/article/2017/6/1/kill-the-boy
Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths, (New Directions, 2007), 59-66.
Letters from an American: https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/
Fifty years ago last month, Curtis Mayfield and a four-piece band appeared at the Greenwich Village nightclub, Paul Colby’s Bitter End. A small room, a small band, an intimate atmosphere. In the recording made of the performance, one hears the sound of the audience by hearing the individual sounds that comprise it—pairs of hands clapping, appreciative shouts, calls out from here and there, “Right on!” “Right on!” When Mayfield speaks to the crowd, his tone is mild, relaxed, conversational. He doesn’t have to raise his voice even when the band continues to play behind him.
At one point, introducing “We’ve Only Just Begun,” a song not associated with him, Mayfield acknowledges the odd choice. “A lot of folks think this particular lyric may not be appropriate for what might be considered underground,’” he says. “But I think underground is whatever your mood or feelings may be at the time so long as it’s the truth.”
“We’ve Only Just Begun” had itself only just begun. It had started as a jingle in a bank commercial a year earlier; currently it was a smash hit for a new group called The Carpenters. This sort of data can be discovered on the internet in a matter of seconds. More difficult to decipher would be what Mayfield meant by the term “underground.” This was an artist who, as principal singer and songwriter for The Impressions, had had numerous hits on the R&B and pop charts for the better part of a decade.
But these matters don’t necessarily play into the feeling I have when I hear those scattered shouts of “Right on!” and when I hear the particular pronunciation Mayfield gives to the phrase so long as it’s the truth. The specificity of these aural artifacts transports me not only into the room but into the political-cultural moment. It may be the closest thing to time travel that I’m able to know.
In his anthology of African American social and political thought, Let Nobody Turn Us Around (2009), Manning Marable divides the Black Freedom movement of 1955-1975 into two roughly decade-long phases: “the campaign for desegregation and the struggle for Black Power” (352). Mayfield has a presence in both phases. His hits with The Impressions, “Keep on Pushing” and “People Get Ready,” released in 1964 and 1965 respectively, associate with the first phrase in the years of its great legislative victories. These songs emphasize the moral legitimacy of the movement and the religious underpinnings behind its commitment to integration and non-violent resistance.
The Impressions’ movement songs, while memorable, were a very small part of the group’s catalog. “We’re a Winner,” released in November of 1967, marks a transition. As a seeming call for black pride, it preceded by nine months James Brown’s “(Say It Loud) I’m Black and I’m Proud.” Its chorus calls more explicitly for activism than do the group’s earlier songs. During the Bitter End set, Mayfield remarks on the political blowback he’d received for the song: “You may remember reading in your Jet and Johnson publications, whole lot of stations didn’t want to play that particular recording. Can you imagine such a thing?” To this Mayfield adds a rhymed couplet, his primary lyric mode:
I would say, like I’m sure most of you would say
we don’t give a damn, we’re a winner anyway.
“Right on! Right on!” shout a number of individuals in the crowd.
Mayfield, like any perceptive commercial artist, adjusted to the changing times. Starting with “We’re a Winner,” The Impressions’ took on a more socially conscious image and urban style. Gone was the formal, prosperous, nightclub presentation. The photo on the cover of This is My Country (1967) posed the vocal group in a crumbling cityscape; The Young Mod’s Forgotten Story (1968) showed them again on the street, in leathers and brimmed cloth caps.
At the same time, Mayfield began a soft break from his group. Curtis/Live! was his second solo record, following Curtis in 1970, on which he continued both this stylistic and topical transition, as well as his experiments in psychedelic soul. Arrangements were complex, hand drums more prominent; he ran the guitar through a wah-wah pedal and other effects. But playing at the Bitter End, live with a small band, did not allow Mayfield the studio elaborations he’d been dabbling in. The sound was less busy, more organic. The players are wide-awake but never aggressive. They weave a warm, improvisational nest in which to hold Mayfield’s gentle falsetto. This distillation of Mayfield’s sound paved the way for his crossover triumph in 1972, the soundtrack to Superfly.
In describing the first phase of the Black Freedom movement, Marable includes the phrase, “the deracialization of popular music.” I’m not sure I understand what he means. Interracial exchange and appropriation—love and theft—had always driven the genius of American music, though the degree of racial segregation of performance sites and the market waxed and waned. Genres are largely market-driven and racialized; they are often the tail that wags the dog. On the other hand, 1955 is a pretty good marker for the birth of rock and roll, one of the most explicitly recognized moments of love and theft. A lot of change followed in its wake, both in terms of the development of the music, and the embrace of black artists by white audiences. Music was an unmistakable cultural component of the desegregation campaign, and its contribution was simultaneous with a kind of desegregation of the popular music market. If all of these aspects are included in what Marable means by “the deracialization of popular music,” then yes, the result was an enormous cultural achievement, a vast catalog of songs and recordings that can scarcely be overpraised.
In this sense, Curtis/Live! and Superfly—along with There’s a Riot Going On (1971) and Fresh (1973) by Sly and the Family Stone, and What’s Going On (1971) by Marvin Gaye—are transitional. They are among the many jewels in the crown of this deracialization. But in them we can also see the beginning of a reversal. By the end of the decade, with a major inflection point coming with the anti-disco debacle, genres would become more racialized and politicized. Black music and white music would again be largely segregated on radio and in the marketplace.
This may have something to do with the theme of ambiguity Marable identifies in the second half of the Black Freedom movement, the struggle for Black Power. Black Power “replaced liberal integrationism as the dominant political ideology and discourse for many African Americans,” Marable writes. Yet it “never consolidated itself as a coherent social philosophy or strategy” (348). The united front of the desegregation campaign fragmented over the concept. But what did Black Power mean and what form of radicalism did it call for?
Marable indicates several “overlapping tendencies” that gathered in answer to these questions (349). Included are religious and cultural nationalisms, both of which Mayfield gestures toward lyrically on Curtis/Live! There’s the liberation gospel of “People Get Ready” and the emphasis on self-definition and solidarity in “We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue.” Marable sympathizes most with the tendency he calls revolutionary nationalism. Curtis/Live!’s most progressive sentiment may be the one expressed in “Stone Junkie,” the final cut on the record. The song points out the classist and racialized stigmatization surrounding the use of drugs and other stimulants, a critique that would become more pointed as the emerging War on Drugs took its toll.
Mayfield mostly floats atop these crosscurrents. Does he take any particular stand? Songs are different from persuasive prose. Compared to the speeches and essays that populate anthologies such as Marable’s, songs allow for much hedging and evasion. Yet in “Choice of Colors,” one of the socially conscious, late Impressions tunes that Mayfield performs on Curtis/Live!, his message is a little too slippery. The song asks a series of questions, and both their asking and their answering are never quite nailed down. It’s usually a strength that Mayfield’s rhymes don’t sound long thought-over, but in this case, the artlessness loses some of its charm.
I can only understand the song in the context of those that address the same topic, songs such as “Mighty Mighty (Spade and Whitey)” and “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Gonna Go.” On these songs, Mayfield is carrying the ideals of the first phase’s united front into the ideologically contentious second period. Mayfield has made some legitimate and productive concessions to the greater aggressiveness of Black Power and to its demands for full autonomy. I’ve mentioned the style change, and the music’s complex, improvisational space. Significant too is the greater grittiness, the cursing, and the appropriation of racial epithets for new purposes. All this points to the future. But on the question which Mayfield seemed to see as the question of the day—the question of racial separation advocated by the crosscurrents of Black Power—he upholds some form of King’s integrationist message, its spiritual core, and its insistence that the destinies of all Americans are intertwined.
A version of this essay appears on the Society for US Intellectual History blog.
Many dislike John Irving’s fiction for its cruel implausibilities, but my friend wanted to push back on that opinion. Implausible things happen all the time, and people are regularly traumatized by them. The comment made sense, coming from this friend, whose recent experience is indeed worthy of a John Irving novel. It was his last remark that struck me. “Everyone needs therapy, more or less.”
The words set in motion a lightning sequence of thoughts. If my friend was right, and everyone got the therapy they required—just to achieve some baseline of health—society would need to find a way to train and employ a great number of therapists. And would that be such a bad thing? I mean therapy not as one more consumer item designed to feed insatiable impulse but therapy broadly understood as any work aimed at the restoration of health. What would our lives be like if more of us worked at jobs that served to heal rather than to wound? What if our economy were organized not for the extraction of value from living systems but for the restoration of their health?
Hardly a beat had passed, and I don’t remember exactly how I responded, except that I used the term, “restorative economics.” It piqued my friend’s interest. He wanted to know what it was and asked for something he might read that would explain it.
It was then I realized that I’d used the term as if it were a thing when I wasn’t really certain that it was. Or if it was a thing—a lesser-known discipline, perhaps, a research field, an item you could look up on Wikipedia—it wasn’t the thing I was referring to. It wasn’t the thing I was referring to because it couldn’t encompass all that was behind what I meant by it. And behind what I meant by it was several years’ worth of reading a variety of texts, some fairly disparate, and the connections between them which are not necessarily gathered under any particular term or in any particular place, except in me, in my own mind, as the reader of those texts.
Readers are nodes in a network of ideas. Readers are essential workers.
The work I did when I got home was to assemble a list, just to understand my process. I’d never used the term before, nor planned to. Why restorative? I stopped at item seven but could have kept going.
1. Chapter 6 of Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics, 7 Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist (2017). In this chapter, titled “Create to Regenerate,” Raworth describes the concept of a Circular Economy. One illustration she used looks something like a butterfly with two wings, one marked “Regenerate” and the other, “Restore.” Raworth’s book is among many that ask this question: What if the purpose of economic activity was not growth but healing?
2. The “restoration story” George Monbiot tells in the first chapter of his book, Out of the Wreckage, A New Politics for an Age of Crisis (2017). “There is something deeply weird about humanity,” Monbiot writes. “We possess an unparalleled sensitivity to the needs of others, a unique level of concern about their welfare, and a peerless ability to create moral norms that generalize and enforce these tendencies” (14). Monbiot represents a strain of postmodernism when he argues that modern ideologies have overshadowed this understanding of what human beings are. That understanding must be restored, Monbiot argues. “Through invoking the two great healing forces–togetherness and belonging–we can rediscover the central facts of our humanity: our altruism and mutual aid” (25).
3. Paul Hawken’s description, in Blessed Unrest (2006), of the international ecological movement. He calls this movement (which barely registers in the US), the “largest social movement in all of human history.” Its participants are “willing to confront despair, power, and incalculable odds in order to restore some semblance of grace, justice, and beauty to this world.” The movement proposes a regime of words beginning with the letter R: “restore, redress, reform, rebuild, recover, reimagine, reconsider” (4).
4. Jason Hickel, author of Less Is More (2020), on what life might be like if the economy was designed for healing rather than growth: “People would be able to work less without any loss to their quality of life, thus producing less unnecessary stuff and therefore generating less pressure for unnecessary consumption. Meanwhile, with more free time people would be able to have fun, enjoy conviviality with loved ones, cooperate with neighbors, care for friends and relatives, cook healthy food, exercise and enjoy nature, thus rendering unnecessary the patterns of consumption that are driven by time scarcity. And opportunities to learn and develop new skills such as music, maintenance, growing food, and crafting furniture would contribute to local self-sufficiency.”
Under such a new framing of economic life, “We would not have to feed our time and energy into the juggernaut of ever-increasing production, consumption and ecological destruction. The economy would produce less as a result, yes – but it would also need much less. It would be smaller and yet nonetheless much more abundant … but public wealth would increase, significantly improving the lives of everyone else.”
When I went back and re-read this passage, I read public wealth as mental health.
5. Daniel Christian Wahl’s project in Regenerative Cultures (2016). Wahl also proposes a regime of R’s: “restorative design,” to restore healthy self-regulation to local ecosystems; “reconciliatory design,” to reintegrate humans into “life’s processes and the united of nature and culture”; and “regenerative design,” to create cultures “capable of continuous learning and transformation in response to, and anticipation of, inevitable change.”
6. The entry for “care” in Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era (2015). It’s first paragraph reads, “Care is the daily action performed by human beings for their welfare and for the welfare of their community. Here, community refers to the ensemble of people within proximity and with which every human being lives, such as the family, friendships or the neighborhood. In these spaces, as well in the society as a whole, an enormous quantity of work is devoted to sustenance, reproduction, and the contentment of human relations. Unpaid work is the term used in feminist economics to account for the free work devoted to such tasks. Feminists have denounced for years the undervaluation of work for bodily and personal care, and the related undervaluation of the subjects delegated to undertake it, i.e. women. Feminists continue to affirm the unique role that care has in the well-being of humans. … [C]are is fundamental in the support the mental, physical and relational integrity of each and every human being.”
7. Restorative justice, a field that explores and promotes legal modes of atonement for crimes, recent and historical. Individual human beings aren’t the only living systems that require restoration. Social groups, too, have suffered damage and deserve reparations.
Right now I’m flashing on the work being done to remove a mountain of asbestos shingles that had been allowed to accumulate in South Dallas and affect the lives and health of the residents of the African American community nearby. It is a classic case of environmental injustice that is finally being addressed and at least partially rectified. When I think of the work of removal being done now, and the years of work that has led to this moment—the reading, the reporting, the organizing and advocating—I think of this as noble work, as therapy, broadly understood.
First pages of book chapters and introductions are formatted differently than interior pages. For instance, at the top of the first page of the introduction to Daniel Belgrad’s The Culture of Feedback: Ecological Thinking in Seventies America (University of Chicago Press, 2018), are a few extra inches blank space. Below that is the word, “Introduction,” in large type, and then in a smaller, special type, an epigram—several lines of lyric from a 1972 song by Funkadelic. At this point, there isn’t much room left on the page, but Belgrad makes it count with these two brief paragraphs:
We speak casually of improving a course of action by getting some feedback, as if that were the most natural thing in the world. But the idea of feedback itself has a history. During the Second World War, “feedback” developed as a term to refer to the dynamics of self- regulating mechanical systems, which correct their actions by “feeding” some effects “back” into the system as input to influence later actions. Due to the ability of such systems to self- correct, or “learn,” they could be considered intelligent.
Conversely, systems theory, which developed to describe how such systems worked, came to define intelligence itself as the ability to self- correct in response to feedback. Redefining intelligence this way—not as a uniquely human faculty produced by consciousness, but as the property of a system governed by feedback loops—eventuated in new ways of thinking about the varieties of intelligence found in nature. This is what I mean by ecological thinking.
I responded to these sentences with both joy and consternation. How many words had I committed to paper, how many lines and paragraphs had I sweated through, and never stated the case and its relevance so clearly? That was the consternation. The joy was mostly in that last sentence. With his articulation of “ecological thinking,” Belgrad confirmed the basic insight that had guided my own work. I was all in. But then again, he probably had me at Funkadelic.
All in, yes, but not without at least one arched eyebrow. The ideas of anthropologist and systems theorist Gregory Bateson, the central figure in my own book, are prominent in The Culture of Feedback, and two scholars, looking at the some of the same evidence, can’t be expected to agree in every particular.
Later in the introduction, Belgrad quotes a line from Bateson’s essay, “Social Planning and the Concept of Deutero-Learning,” which Bateson gave at the Second Symposium on Science, Philosophy and Religion in Their Relation to the Democratic Way of Life in New York in September of 1941. The question on the table at that symposium was to what degree the knowledge created by the social sciences should be applied to the fight against Nazi Germany, especially in regard to using that knowledge to fashion effective pro-democratic, anti-fascist propaganda.
Some argued that if the Western democracies wanted to defeat the fascists, they ought to use every tool in their bag. But both Bateson and Margaret Mead, then married, advised that the reckless use of anthropological learning for something as instrumental as defeating an enemy could undermine the very values they wished to defend. Rather than embracing the premise that ends justified means, Mead proposed that ends and means be integrated, so that democratic values were present at every moment in the process of working toward the goal. Bateson restated Mead’s proposal this way: “that we discard purpose in order to achieve our purpose.”
This is the quote Belgrad uses, and it winds up carrying significant weight in the book overall. The paradoxical character of the quote, and especially the way it represents a willingness to cede the desire to control natural processes in order to cultivate a healthier alignment with them, “would become” Belgrad writes, “a central tenet of the culture of feedback” (12).
Yes, something like this idea would become a tenet in thinking in terms of feedback and in thinking ecologically. But that wasn’t what Bateson was really after when he wrote these words. For him, the construction was mostly rhetorical. By restating Mead’s earlier proposal to integrate means and ends with a phrase that owed more to poetry than science, Bateson wanted his listeners to sit up and take notice. Having gained their attention, he then delivered a largely technical contemplation of how difficult it would actually be, “to discard purpose to achieve purpose,” especially for a society whose commitment to “purpose and instrumentality” was both stronger and deeper than its commitment to self-government and the human rights of individuals (Steps to an Ecology of Mind, 159-60). This contemplation involved a reframing of “value” by way of a theory of learning, the laying out of which was Bateson’s primary objective with his piece—but that’s another topic.
It’s not that Belgrad’s use of the Bateson quote isn’t legitimate. “Social Planning and Deutero-Learning” is an important work in the development of Bateson’s thought. That makes it important, too, to the development of what Belgrad calls the culture of feedback—and important to ecological thought, generally. That’s how significant Bateson is to this history of ideas. Both Belgrad and myself give attention to the essay in our respective books and quote some of the same lines, including the one in question. The difference between how we do so says something about the practice of scholarship.
Here’s how I see that difference. In regard to the historical evidence—Bateson’s essay, in this case—Belgrad stands at a further distance away. That position allows him to telescope time and make a broader claim. My stance is close in. The culture of feedback doesn’t yet exist. The closer-in position allows for insights not only into the essay’s main ideas but also into the relationship between Mead and Bateson, their difference in styles, the concerns and attitudes that drew them together, the concerns and attitudes that were pulling them apart. The story becomes one of persons as well as of ideas.
Having made that observation, let me hasten back to unreserved praise for The Culture of Feedback. For one thing, I admire how readable it is. Data from the philosophical, the political and the aesthetic sit side by side in these pages, with nary a creak in the prose. It’s thoroughly researched and comes with all the expected academic apparatus, yet the book reads weightlessly. Belgrad’s claims are straightforward and clearly demonstrated.
In one chapter, for example, he shows how the ideas related to the culture of feedback were applied in a series of musical experiments. For these experimental artists, “music was a way of integrating sounds into a natural, open system, organized by feedback relations rather than having been put in order by the composer’s dictatorial authority” (111). Under the heading of what was sometimes called “acoustic ecology,” some sought to design music-making and listening processes that didn’t contain a blueprint of its outcome—that discarded purpose to achieve purpose, as it were. Involved in these experiments, too, were efforts to include input from the environment in the acts of composition, performance, and reception—input that was by its nature undetermined and ever-changing.
Before reading Belgrad, I was unaware of names such as Pauline Oliveros, Max Neuhaus, La Monte Young, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and Charlemagne Palestine, but I was familiar with Brian Eno, who built on and incorporated a number of these concepts and methods in recordings with titles such as Music for Airports and Music for Films. With these and other recordings, Eno opened a pathway for what he called “ambient music” through the semi-popular to the mainstream.
Belgrad’s chapter on experimental and ambient music made me dig out my copy of Eno’s first LP in this series, from 1975, called Discrete Music. On the back of the cover was an “operational diagram,” looking very similar to those that Donella Meadows used repeatedly in Thinking in Systems: A Primer. As Eno explains in the liner notes, the diagram shows how he fed “two simple and compatible melodic lines of different duration” into his recorder while continually feeding them back in the recorder on a delay loop. He didn’t know how it would all turn out but, after designing the process, became “an audience to the result.”
Interesting, too, is how Eno describes his motivation for these experiments as a personal disinclination to intervene: “It was a point of discipline to accept this passive role, and, for once, to ignore the tendency to play the artist by dabbling and interfering.” This brought to mind Heidegger’s concept of “releasement” (which I’ve written about previously on this blog), as an alternative to the active sort of intervention that is the typical response to an urgent need. Eno acts at the level of premise, rather than at the level of behaviors allowed within the scope of premise, one might say. He’s not writing or even playing music. He’s making change in what music is understood to be.
How marvelous to discover that music can be that, it turns out.
Ecological thinking encourages interventions like this in the economy and other fundamentals— especially the thinking done by degrowth and other postgrowth communities. These are present-day advocacies, but what they are talking about isn’t exactly new. I’ll conclude with a sentence from Belgrad that incorporates a quote from Ervin Laszlo’s 1972 book, Introduction to Systems Philosophy:
The Western world tends to offer the values of affluence as the panacea for all social ills,” [Laszlo] observed; but this behavior had resulted in an unsustainable level of resource consumption. Therefore, now “progress must be redefined, and that means a new system of values.
A version of this essay appeared on the Society for US Intellectual History blog
My first social gathering since the quarantine was a meeting of our record club, which I’ve mentioned before on this blog. We met outdoors, across a wide deck, four couples, well-separated and following recommended precautions. Each couple brought a separate speaker, and we played our selections from our phones. Our theme: what music has helped you during the pandemic?
It wouldn’t be a hard question to answer–not for me. Facing a school shut-down and a week to shift to online instruction, I happened to find myself in possession of Fela Kuti’s entire recorded catalog, a recent gift, some twenty-seven hours of music. I ripped the songs to my computer, arranged them on a playlist, and set the playlist on repeat. During what turned out to be more than a month of days spent in front of the computer, this was my soundtrack. I listened through a few times in chronological order, then a few more times through on shuffle. At some point, I started rating the songs as they came up, later sorting them according to rating so as to listen to my favorites first, and so on, in various configurations.
Fela Anikulapo Kuti was born in 1938 to a prominent Nigerian family. His father was a minister and educator, his mother an activist for women’s rights and other causes, widely respected, a real personage in her country. Fela was educated in London. He was to study medicine, like his brothers, but switched to music, strongly influenced by modern jazz, particularly Miles Davis. He formed a band with drummer Tony Allen, playing something very close to highlife, a West African genre popular since well before decolonization.
A turning point came in 1969 when a benefactor sent Fela and his band to Los Angeles. Fela was reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X and socializing with members of the Black Panther Party. He formed an intellectual and romantic relationship with party member Sandra Smith (later Izsadore). While Smith schooled him on the movement, Fela represented to Smith something authentically African at a time when many American blacks were committing to pan-Africanism, third world alliances, and a cultural return to roots. The result was a transatlantic exchange of music and ideas that would have a lasting significance.
Back in Nigeria, Fela and Allen formed a new band, Africa 70, and began to play a new kind of music, which they called afrobeat. Afrobeat retained components of highlife but also incorporated percussive and chant elements of traditional African styles as well as the various currents of postwar jazz. Lyrics were sung mainly in pigeon English, which made them more accessible across the continent and signaled a consciousness of social class. Critical, too, was the influence of James Brown–as an innovator, a bandleader, and a personality. Fela had followed Brown’s music for some years, but he also may have seen Brown and his band play live during his American sojourn.
A live recording of Brown that year in Augusta, Georgia, offers an idea of what Fela would have heard. Having established a new genre of his own–“a brand-new bag,” today called funk–Brown led a crack band of some fourteen members, including three drummers, and a road crew, staff, and entourage of similar size. The James Brown Orchestra crisscrossed the country, slaying auditoriums nightly, playing their vamp-based songs at breakneck tempos, making a sound never before heard. Importantly, too, as an influence on Fela, was James Brown’s August 1968 hit, “Say It Loud–I’m Black and I’m Proud.” The political element in Brown’s music would be fairly short-lived. For Fela, the merger of politics and music endured.
“Gentleman,” “Water Get No Enemy,” “Go Slow”: as the weeks went by, my favorites list from the discography grew. Choosing which one to play for the record club was mainly a problem of length. The whole concept of the club, in which we went around the circle, each person taking a turn, was built on the tacit understanding that a three- or four-minute song was the norm. A Fela cut, in contrast, tends to run up toward twenty minutes. Typically, it will begin with a slow build-up of instruments– guitar, bass, second guitar, percussionists–vamping on a one- or two-measure rhythmic pattern. Then comes a series of jazz choruses, improvised solos by saxophone or keyboard, intercut with R&B-style melodic heads played by a full horn section. At about the halfway mark, recognizable verses begin, and then vocal choruses, a call-and-response between Fela and the back-up singers. Now fully mature, the song serves its teaching function, and Fela delivers his political and social commentary.
Maybe it was merely coincidental that a) the virus had sentenced me to long hours at the computer, and b) I had this enormous body of music available to consume. Maybe that was just a happy opportunity. On the other hand, when the workday was over, after I’d taken in a painful dose of the evening news, after dinner was finished and the dishes done, it was my handful of Fela vinyls, procured back in the 1980s, that invariably found their way to the turntable. I’d been obsessed with artists before. This was different. This was more a kind of therapy. I began to wonder if there wasn’t something particular that this music supplied that met what the moment required.
Fela’s lyrics showed him to be in rebellion not only against the emotional and structural legacies of imperialism but also against Nigeria’s post-colonial, military government, awash in petro-dollars. Fela, his large band, his dancers, his family–which included numerous wives–and the many others associated with his organization, lived on a compound in a poor section of Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city. The compound included living spaces, a studio, a nearby performance hall, and a health clinic that served the neighborhood. Dress was casual, herb-smoking a daily practice. Fela named his commune the Kalakuta Republic, after a jailhouse where he’d been incarcerated, and declared it to be an independent state, outside the jurisdiction of the authorities.
“The government regarded Kalakuta as an affront,” scholar Randall Grass writes, “a first step toward incipient, secessionist anarchy, no joke in a country racked by civil war.” Fela seemed to like nothing better than to taunt the junta and its leader, General Olusegan Obasanjo. His massive 1976 hit, “Zombie,” depicted Obasanjo’s troops as mindless automatons. In February of 1977, soldiers and police invaded the compound. Inhabitants were beaten, raped. The buildings were set afire. Instruments and masters tapes were destroyed. Fela was beaten almost to death, and his mother, the famous activist then in her late seventies, was thrown from a window. She died from her injuries the following year.
The effects of this assault on Fela should not be underestimated. He redoubled his resistance against Obasanjo. Numerous recordings addressed the attack head-on: “Unknown Soldier,” “Sorrow, Tears, and Blood.” Fela used music to process his trauma, though no music could have completely healed the physical and psychic wounds. In the new commune Fela established to replace Kalakuta, he put a coffin on the roof to memorialize his mother’s martyrdom. He began to speak regularly of receiving communications from her spirit.
The attack may have also encouraged an already stout megalomania. As did two other domineering, genre-inventing band leaders–I’m thinking not only of James Brown but also Bill Monroe–Fela faced rebellions and ultimatums within his own camp. Tony Allen left in 1979 and took many of Africa 70 with him. Fela brought in new talent, renamed the band, and continued to record for almost two decades, until his death from AIDS in 1997.
One of Africa 70’s last recordings, made during a transitional period following Allen’s departure, was “Coffin for Head of State” (1981). The record and its cover art recount General Obasanjo’s last day in office. A civilian government had been voted in. Fela removed his mother’s coffin from the rooftop display and carried it in a procession to Dodan Barracks, the General’s quarters. There he deposited the coffin as a final protest and reminder of the brutality of his loss.
The song starts, as usual, with interlocking bass and guitar figures. Fela plays a few stately chords on electric piano. The groove builds and releases, builds and releases, breaking down again and again to its initial, two-measure vamp. The lyrics are gospel-like when they finally kick in. “Almighty Christ our Lord,” Fela sings; “Amen, amen, amen,” the singers chant. Yet Fela wants to denounce Christianity–and Islam, too–as illegitimate imports, hypocritical covers for corrupt power. He mockingly imitates the sound of Latin and Arabic prayers. Then he’s walking, describing a journey across Africa.
I waka waka waka
I go many places
I see my people
Them dey cry cry cry
He notes the hurts, the abuses. General observations become personal ones.
Them steal all the money
Them kill many students
Them burn many houses
Them burn my house too
Them kill my mama
So I carry the coffin
I waka waka waka
“Coffin for Head of State” clocks in at almost twenty-three minutes. As with all great Fela songs, uncompromising sentiments are delivered inside a deeply soothing, hypnotic groove. “Ain’t it good to ya?” James Brown would say about music like this. As I’ve lived this pandemic, and as I’ve watched how our highest leadership has responded, its seemingly eager sacrifice of the weak, the disadvantaged, and the old to self-interest, Fela Kuti’s music served as an anodyne without diluting the anger, while leaving contempt intact.
A version of this essay appears on the Society for US Intellectual History Blog.
Both a recent documentary on Fela called Finding Fela! and another from 1982 called Music is the Weapon are available to stream from Kanopy and other services.
Randal F. Grass writes about Fela in The Drama Review, https://www.jstor.org/stable/1145717?read-now=1&seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
Sandra Izsadore remembers Fela in the LA Weekly: https://www.laweekly.com/fela-kutis-lover-and-mentor-sandra-smith-talks-about-afrobeats-l-a-origins-as-fela-musical-arrives-at-the-ahmanson/
Playing out today, as everyone wonders what life will be like on the other side of the pandemic, is some version of the perennial conflict between radicalism and reform. Some are asking when we’ll get back to normal; some speculate about how “the new normal” will be; others claim that normal was the problem to begin with, and that what we want is something wholly different.
In my last post I used the phrase, “the literature of transformation,” which seemed warranted when I thought about my reading these past two years. But I picked up the phrase from an article by someone whose reading in this literature has been much more thorough and systematic than my own. That article, titled, “Degrowth: A metamorphosis in being,” by Pasi Heikkurinen, of the School of Earth and Environment at the University of Leeds, was published last year in Environmental Planning E: Nature and Space.
Heikkurinen points out that, in much of the literature of transformation, there is a “lack of rigor” regarding the concept itself, and, quoting another researcher, that “analytical clarity is often superseded by visionary and strategic orientations” (529). Transformation as a concept is under-analyzed and undertheorized, and Heikkurinen sets out to help rectify that situation. The degrowth community has an active research agenda. They’re turning over all the stones.
One thing that his analysis argues is that transformation can be looked at in two ways: ontically and ontologically. Ontic transformation occurs in “the social and political realm.” Ontological transformation concerns “the realm of being.” If I understand his distinction, the conflict between reform and radicalism has to do with transformation perhaps wholly in the ontic realm. The socio-political is organized to transform matter, energy, and life to human purposes. Radicals and reformers mostly agree that this organization itself requires transformation but disagree on how much transformation is required and how it is to be carried out.
Analysis of transformation in the ontological realm uncovers in humans a “will to transform.” To transform the world–to make it a better place–is “an unequivocally stated value axiom,” Heikkurinen writes. It’s the “main objective of responsible human activity.” The words improved, developed, and responsible signify value, but the will to transform as an expression of ethics is almost beside the point. Humans have “an inherent drive” to “endlessly craft and reorder the world.” Whether aimed at selfless improvement or self-interested greed, “constant transformation is needed, and stillness is not an option” (535).
In 1967, in London, the atmosphere of the Congress on the Dialectics of Liberation was heavy with the conflict between radicalism and reform. Urgency for intervention was at a fever pitch and militancy felt ascendant. This conflict overshadowed the original intent of the gathering, which had been conceived a year earlier by a group of phenomenologists associated with the radical psychologist R. D. Laing. Because the anthropologist and systems theorist Gregory Bateson was one of Laing’s mentors, Bateson was the Congress’s first headliner. Bateson later refined his lecture and published it under the title, “Conscious Purpose versus Nature.” By fixating on data that led them in a line toward the achievement of purpose, human beings were “blinded” to their own “systemic nature,” the loop structures in which they were embedded.
Grasping the tenor of the moment, Bateson offered a path beyond the radicalism/reform face-off. His words were meant to move his audience–to put it in Heikkurinen’s terms–from an ontic to an ontological orientation. Today we call that orientation “ecological.” Some call it the systems view.
As a systems theorist, Bateson also had a lot of say about logical typing, and following that thread, I want to see the relationship between the ontic and the ontological as a member/class relationship. Every intervention in the ontic realm has thermodynamic, ontic realm consequences–an increase in entropy. But no intervention in the ontic realm can affect the ontological realm. In cybernetic terms, no change in the temperature of the house can change the thermostat’s threshold setting.
This class/member relation is likely why we face what Heikkurinen calls the “transformation paradox,” and what Bateson referred to as a double bind. Conditions increasingly trigger the drive for transformation. But efforts we make in the ontic realm do not affect who we are ontologically. Rather, they further produce the conditions that made the need for transformation urgent to begin with. Another way to articulate the dilemma is to say that transformation at the ontological realm can’t be imagined in ontic realm terms.
Heikkurinen turns for an alternative to a form of “Heideggerian mindfulness” called “releasement.” Heidegger had borrowed the term from Meister Eckhart. Releasement is a way of being that lets go of the will to transform, that lets go and “waits.” It is “calm, self-possessed surrender to that which is worthy questioning” (540-41). This thinking had come during a time, according to Hannah Arendt, when Heidegger was trying to come to terms with his involvement in the Nazi movement (536-37). With this detail, one must pause to acknowledge that any talk of existential transformation as a solution to social crisis can be reasonably viewed as fundamentally reactionary. Michael E. Zimmerman takes up this issue in Contesting Earth’s Future: Radical Ecology and Postmodernity (1994), a book Heikkurinen draws on for his piece.
Having noted those matters, I’ll move on to sum up. Because every transformation pays a thermodynamic price in increased entropy–even those transformations meant to reduce matter-energetic throughput–“a proper response to the call for transformations would involve following the example of releasers, who allow being to unfold without constant anthropogenic intervention.” Thus the releasers are a symbol of hope. They are “already living the metamorphosis” (539).
Who are the releasers? This is the question reading Heikkurinen’s article made me ask.
Works of fiction may be my only vista into imagining who the releasers might be. It’s been months since I saw the movie, Shoplifters, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Palm D’or-winning film of 2018, but I keep thinking about it. It’s the story of a multi-generational, make-shift family living in some forgotten corner of the urban landscape. They survive on the minuscule, unreliable salary of one parent and what they can pilfer from local shops or scavenge from their surroundings. Like another fairly recent film, The Florida Project (2017), and last year’s celebrated Parasite, Shoplifters focuses on economic inequality, on families struggling with poverty, though through a different lens.
The economic inequality depicted in The Florida Project and Paraside is a technical matter: Material resources and education have been unfairly distributed. In the world of abundance we have built, some have been left behind. The families in these films live outside the abundance but they continue to live inside the imaginary, and this shapes their efforts to intervene and better their conditions. In Parasite, for instance, members encourage the marshaling of “vigor.” Vigorous intervention is the key to transforming change.
Although there are tragic lapses, the family in Shoplifters seems to exist mostly outside this capitalist imaginary. Their concerns are about the relations between them, their appreciation of each other and of life. Manners are mild, interventions are minimal. The most prominent quality surrounding them is love and care. Does the film merely romanticize poverty? Does my reading of the film romanticize poverty? That could be. But I think Kore-eda means for his audience to take in the love and care his characters exhibit without sanctifying them. When I tried to imagine what Heidegger might mean by “a calm, self-possessed surrender to that which is worth questioning,” I thought of the characters in this film.
Releasement, according to the Heidegger quotes Heikkurinen uses, involve not doing, not intervening, but “waiting.” Releasement, Heidegger tells us, can’t be rushed; it can’t be made to happen. Rather, one waits for the call. That call might come as the collapse of civilization, which, Heikkurinen points out “has already shown itself to many.” Ah, now the article becomes uneasy-making. Some people get angry, reading things like this, and for good reason.
Many within the degrowth community themselves might bristle at this line of analysis, especially during the current environment, in which the shrinking of national GDPs is accompanied by widespread suffering and fear. Prominent degrowth voices, such as Giorgos Kallis and Jason Hickel, have taken pains to point out that virus-driven shrinkage, made worse by weak national safety nets, is not, as some assume, degrowth in practice. Degrowth is planned; it’s directed–what we are going through now isn’t. “Those who liken this economic crisis to degrowth are being deliberately obtuse,” Hickel wrote in an April tweet. “It’s like comparing a car wreck to carefully tapping the brakes. They’re not just dissimilar, they are opposites.”
Yet in a column last month in the New York Times, Hugh Roberts reiterates that solutions are not technical. That they are not only or primarily technical might be a better way to say it. Or that change must not occur only or primarily in the ontic realm. With all this in mind, I thought about the passage from Zora Neale Hurston’s classic about another community living outside the capitalist imaginary. It’s the part where the title comes from. The inhabitants of The Muck, like the family in Shoplifters, have also rejected the will to transform and instead take part in low matter-energetic activities the point of which is human interaction and joy. Of course, they live in neglected areas, and when the greater systems breakdown, they suffer in higher ratios than others do. It’s a hushed moment that this mysterious, disturbing passage describes. They are in their shanties waiting for the hurricane that will flood them out, uproot them, and kill some of them. They sit in the night in stillness and wait. “They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.”
A version of this essay appears on the Society for US Intellectual History Blog.
 Bateson, Gregory. Steps to an Ecology of Mind. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 440.
How long will we live like this before we have trouble remembering how things used to be? When that happens maybe we’ll know we’re living through systemic change.
Obama said we’re the change we’ve been waiting for. Lately, many are suggesting that the pandemic has brought an opportunity for change if we can master the moment. When old ways seem to be falling apart and the future is uncertain, hope is found in the notion that we have some say in what’s comes next.
And it begins with saying, doesn’t it? With articulating what we value and what kind of society we want. Can we take pause, find some silence, and imagine the kind of society we aspire to—imagine it and put it into words?
This is what Jedidiah Purdy does in his 2019 book, This Land is Our Land: The Struggle for a New Commonwealth. He describes a place where everyone has “a share of the world, dignity in their work or in the condition that keeps them from working, the respect of officials and the law, the expectation that they can walk without fear or shame in any public place, [and] confidence that they will get care when they are sick or hurt.” Purdy expands upon these familiar ideals, associated in this country with the concept of freedom, with insights derived from the ecological imagination. In his commonwealth, “no one gets their living by degrading someone else, nor by degrading the health of the land or the larger living world.” “Deep equality” is balanced with “deep reciprocity” so that the freedom afforded “would not be freedom from dependence on others, or from responsibility for them.”
In this “world-renewing, ecological commonwealth”—a phrase Purdy uses in the last pages of his book, “the flourishing of everyone and everything would sustain the flourishing of each person.” He aims for a fine balance between the individual and the collective.
I say, yes, by all means, but how do we get there? What stands in our way?
We’re in conflict, we’re divided. That’s the main thing. Purdy’s focus is on the land—“the thing we share which holds us apart.” The fights over Bears Ears National Monument and over coal mining in the Appalachians are particular demonstrations of this conflict. But in a broader sense, the conflict is between the way we answer the sort of questions Purdy asks and answers in his book. What is the meaning of land, of wealth? How do we value life?
For a couple of years now, I’ve been reading about systemic transformation. I’ve read many calls for it and a few theories about how it comes about. I’ve had to navigate through a lot of vocabulary that seems to mean the same thing: worldviews, mindsets, paradigms, imaginaries. I’ve needed to confront the problem of how these immaterial complexes of word and image take shape in the material world. Purdy lays it out pretty plainly. “I teach law,” he writes,
which always leaves me thinking that words and material power, narrative and force, have the closest of relations. No story or picture of the world matters much if it floats too far from what people do with one another’s bodies and with soil and weapons and other tools; but also and by the same token, no material change in power will go forward without ideas and images that give it shape and a horizon to aim for.
Words and material power, narrative and force. The experience of systemic change, which we appear to be going through presently, is about the friction between narratives, between imaginaries, the urgent concerns of which are not, as Purdy puts it, “tractable” in each other’s term.
The fearsome obstacle standing in the way of the world-renewing, ecological narrative is the dominant narrative that it challenges, the dominant imaginary which it criticizes and to which it offers an alternative. The obstacle is fearsome because the dominant narrative has the built world behind it, to embody it, to give it force.
While sheltering in place, my family and I streamed the recent movie, Knives Out. It’s a contemporary Agatha Christie-like who-done-it. A renowned detective is required to solve a murder set in a house with many rooms and many eccentric suspects. At about the film’s midpoint, the detective makes a speech that riffs on the title of Gravity’s Rainbow. Solving a mystery is for him is as simple as that of determining a rocket’s trajectory. He observes “the facts without biases of head or heart,” calculates the “arc’s path,” strolls “leisurely to the terminus,” and waits for the truth to land at his feet.
This is his method. It’s as reliable as a “machine.”
The scene pokes fun at the mechanistic worldview, its scientific method, its faith that the world can be perceived just as it is, without bias of the head or heart. This Land is Our Land contains a critique of a similar faith. Any “theory of value” was inherently totalitarian, the neoliberal economists believed. Better to leave the question of value to the market. The market was neutral, merely a multitude of persons and their rational choices. The market was the world as it is.
“But there is a deep mistake here,” Purdy writes. By trying to avoid a theory of value–and any claim on “freedom and equality” it would inevitably entail—they wound up with a “totalitarian system of value” after all, one “imposed through the mechanics of price.” This mechanics now tells “the value of our own lives, and the value of life itself, of the living world.”
Blame has long been cast on ‘economic man’ and his so-called rationality. What’s interests me is the reflexive dynamic described here, the way our ideas about the world become our world’s conditions. In an unfinished 1966 essay, systems theorist Gregory Bateson identified several theories of value—he called them “justifications”— for scientific work. One justification was that science was useful and led to progress; another was that it was simply the objective pursuit of truth. His point was that these justifications, whether sound or unsound, reflected back on the justifiers, shaped their society and what they expected of it, shaped the way they saw themselves.
Bateson was talking about relations between words and material power, narrative, and force. He’d struck a similar note in an essay a few years earlier. “There is much connection certainly between scientific truth, on the one hand, and beauty and morality on the other: that if a man entertain false opinions regarding his own nature, he will be led thereby to courses of action which will be in some profound sense immoral or ugly.”
What Bateson meant by “false opinion,” Purdy means by “deep mistake.” There is no perception without a shaping narrative, without a theory of value. There is no evading the claims that come from being embedded in the web of life. The point of friction between the competing narratives is that one recognizes and the other evades a moral claim.
Resistance to this evasion is widespread, amorphous, ever-present, many-streamed. But evasion is the “common sense of our times,” and that sense has shaped our institutions, our habitats, our cityscapes, our systems of transport and communication, our filtered atmospheres, our cultivated soils. Purdy cites a measurement of this built world—the global “technosphere”—at thirty trillion tons. Every movement we make (especially those of us most complicit) is mobilized within and by that world.
People have used the word sin to describe this predicament. In one or two affecting passages, Purdy acknowledges this. “In some sense, everything we do is a choice,” he writes, “but in another sense, we do not choose the terrible ecological terms in which these choices have their costs.” We’re caught up in our “technological exoskeleton,” no matter how differently we may want or think.
Does this dilemma change in a time when it is precisely the built world that feels so much in flux? Purdy was writing a year ago, a time which, I must say, is growing a little fuzzy in my memory. What he wrote then, he’d probably write again: “What we lack is the faith that understanding can help us.” I think he’s talking about understanding, most of all, the relations between narrative and force. “If the problem is the world we have built, then it is in our power to build another.” 
This Land is Our Land: The Struggle for a New Commonwealth comes in at 150 pages. It can be read in a single, quarantined day.
A version of this essay appeared in The Society for US Intellectual History blog
 This question was inspired by an April 4 tweet by writer and filmmaker Nora Bateson: “This crisis that has revealed the fragility of the institutions has the possibility of cracking the perceptions that uphold the existing system. Only when the perception changes will there be a longing to live differently. Do you still crave the normalcy of 6 weeks ago?”
 Purdy, Jedidiah. This Land is Our Land: The Struggle for a New Commonwealth, (Princeton UP, 2019), xii-xiii.
 Ibid., 148, xiii.
 Ibid., x.
 Ibid., 3.
 Ibid., 143.
 Ibid., 142-145.
 Chaney, Anthony. Runaway: Gregory Bateson, the Double Bind, and the Rise of Ecological Consciousness, (UNC Press, 2017), 128, 131.
 Purdy, 143-144, 21-22.
 Ibid., 144.
 Ibid., 149.
In a terrific essay in The Nation, Yale historian Greg Grandin weaves current controversy over the New York Times’ 1619 Project into pointed restatements of his argument in The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America, his 2019 book recently published in paperback.
Historians who’ve criticized the 1619 Project point to unsubstantiated claims and an over-reading of the role of slavery and anti-slavery activism in the construction of American political freedom, especially during the Revolutionary period. Grandin writes largely in support of the 1619 Project and without directly disputing the specific criticisms. Yet he also implies, in agreement with critics, that the Project’s argument is too narrow.
Slavery alone didn’t deliver the material prosperity upon which American political freedom was founded, and the concept of enslavement alone didn’t define for white Americans what freedom was. In Grandin’s view, the genocidal destruction of indigenous Americans and the dispossession of their lands through continuous western expansion prepared the ground for slavery. With expansion and dispossession, slavery expanded; the two worked in lockstep. Both constitute “the country’s founding paradox: the promise of political freedom and the reality of racial subjugation” (138).
The procedure Grandin describes is not unfamiliar. Settlers invaded Indian land, triggering hostilities; federal troops were then sent to vindicate the settlers’ freedom to invade. “This dynamic,” he writes, “in which danger caused by the United States going over the line pulled the U.S. over the land, was repeated over and over” (66-67). It was during the Jacksonian era, however–the period of Indian Removal and the Second Middle Passage–when the expansion-slavery nexus crystalized and generated a lasting politics. Grandin calls it the Jacksonian political coalition: “minimal state, the racialization of any welfare-providing bureaucracies, the sanctity of property rights, individualism, and a definition of freedom as freedom from restraint” (106).
After its defeat in the Civil War, this politics rose again at the turn of the century, when the concept of the border was extended to Cuba, Latin America, and the Philippines. Military actions overseas allowed the sons of the rebels to be reconciled, to fight again for a racialized freedom from restraint gussied up in high political ideals. As with Indian Removal, these aggressions planted seeds of hatred, guilt, and trauma that came to harvest domestically as racist extremism, only to be vented again, in the next expeditionary adventure. The process was sustained by the dual meaning of the frontier myth: it was, on the one hand, a space of ideological revitalization, and on the other, a space where freedom from restraint could be carried out in its purest form: in a practice of racialized brutality.
Americans were inevitably forced to face limits when their adventures failed, but such periods of confrontation were typically short-lived. After the sobering disaster of Vietnam, for example, Americans again sought escape in Reagan’s restoration of “weightlessness, limitlessness, and deathlessness” as national virtues (217). Again the pattern repeated itself. “Conflicts that seemed irresolvable in the here and now,” Grandin writes in his The Nation essay, were perceived to be “resolvable in the there and then: there beyond the line of settlement.” Grandin describes this dynamic as a “great evasion.”
It’s all over now, though, he contends. The meaning of Trump’s border wall is that “expansion, in any form, can no longer satisfy the interests, reconcile [or evade] the contradictions, dilute the factions, or redirect the anger.” The myth of limitless expansion has ended, extremism has turned inward, and conflict, with no other outlet, is left to “whip around the homeland” (7-8).
There are a few kinks in the argument that I’ve yet to work out. “Make America Great Again” was designed as a general repudiation of Obama but also an explicit repudiation of Obama’s realism concerning the Unites States’ place in the world. In Grandin’s construction, the end of the myth is the end of American Exceptionalism, and if he is correct in regard to the meaning of the wall, there has been no greater anti-exceptionalist than Trump. Yet Trump continues to speak the language of limitlessness. Perhaps it’s that this language has dropped all pretense of political idealism. Entitlement and strong-arm tactics no longer require any gussying up. What we’re seeing now, across many fronts, is a resurgence of the Jackson coalition, supported by widespread denial and evasion.
Grandin describes the contradiction/evasion dynamic in numerous ways in his essay and in his book. It’s an attempt to “square the circle” (35, 237), “a devil’s bargain.” It’s a “violent cycle,” an “addictive cycle” that “simultaneously hastened and stemmed crisis” (67, 83). The dynamic worked as “both a valve and a throttle, with each conflict simultaneously venting the hatreds produced by the last while creating the conditions for the next” (98). To someone who wrote a book about Gregory Bateson’s double bind concept and the rise of the systems view, these descriptions resonated.
For a contradiction to become a double bind, for a double bind to become pathological, the silencing of information is necessary. Certain things must not be recognized or said. Certain realities must be evaded. The result is that common-sense efforts to solve the problems at hand serve rather to reinforce the problematic conditions. Grandin’s summing up of what he sees as US History’s central dynamic has the sound of a double bind: “Expansion became the answer to every question, the solution to all problems, especially those caused by expansion” (30).
Even more resonant was how the pattern Grandin describes mirrors that described by the postgrowth/degrowth movements I’ve written about several times here and elsewhere. Growth’s imperative transcends both planned and free-market economics. It transcends both Keynesian and supply-side methods of stimulation. According to the growth paradigm, without constant growth, goods will become scarce, and society will become ungovernable on principles of equity and justice. The health of the body politic is viable only as the body metabolic accelerates.
As with Grandin’s expansion dynamic, the venting of social ills is part of the growth equation. As growth undermines social and ecological foundation, growth becomes the answer to every question, the solution to all problems, especially those caused by growth. Whether territorial or metabolic, the relations described here are not linear but recursive. These are loops that reinforce themselves.
In other instances, Grandin’s reasoning displays the influence of the ecological imagination, an imagination steeped in, if not synonymous with, the systems view. In one passage Grandin is discussing the cultural meaning of borders, emphasizing how they are imposed upon space by power. Borders, he writes,
represent the absurdity of human efforts to force the concrete to conform to the abstract … But they also announce the panic of power, something that overcomes a political state similar to the way dread comes over an individual with the realization that their psyche isn’t theirs to control alone, that it is formed in reaction to others.
Bateson described this “panic” as akin to the feeling that you have when the car you’re driving gives way to the ice on the road, and the technologies of brakes, steering, and gas pedal suddenly fail to cohere. The point is that Grandin’s passage is premised on a certain framing of the human condition: because we exist inside the living world and are dependent upon it, intentions and results do not necessarily align, and we suffer, psychologically and socially, as a result. The logic of the passage relies, too, on qualitative resemblances. Individual systems are “like” social systems, the former nested within the latter but operating in formally similar ways.
In another passage, Grandin contemplates his theme: the historical centrality of expansion. “What kind of republic was the United States of America,” he asks,
that its national border didn’t just move occasionally, in response to episodic war or diplomacy, but constitutively as a quality of its being? What, exactly, lay on the other side of that moving border? And what happens to a nation when that line stops moving? These questions didn’t haunt the United States. They animated it, giving life to its history as an exceptional nation. (31)
Explicit in these sentences is that ideas give life to history. Implicit in them is the notion that ideas and matter are knitted together.
Describing the subjective experience of subduing and removing tribal people–in this case, the “recalcitrant” Seminoles in Florida–Grandin quotes from an anonymous artillery officer writing in a Charleston newspaper in 1838:
He and his fellow soldiers had driven [the Seminoles] “into the swamps and unwholesome places of their country,” where they clung “with the last efforts of despair to their beloved homes.” He reminded readers that “equilibrium” is a moral as well as a physical concept and that “retribution will inevitably follow dereliction.” (60)
A moral as well as a physical concept. These words flash on the essence of the ecological imagination. It isn’t merely that “everything is connected to everything else,” in Barry Commoner’s iconic phrase. It’s also that everything immaterial is connected to everything material, that the moral is connected to the physical, and that our prevailing imaginaries, our politics and our sciences, are blind to or reject those relations. This evasion is necessary for all justifications for limitless expansion, whether metabolic or territorial.
In both his book and essay, Grandin gives a prominent role to Martin Luther King Jr.’s Vietnam speech of April 1967. It was a speech few wanted King to make, a speech for which he was widely condemned, but one he insisted on making anyway—the opposite of evasion. In this speech, King saw the US involvement in Vietnam as a consequence and instance of the nation’s inability to conquer its “giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism.”
It may be said that liberals and the left have still not recovered from that speech, or anyway from what its times represented: the enervation and fragmentation of the politics that had contained the old Jackson coalition. The Roosevelt coalition, the Liberal Consensus–call it what you will–had been more rational, more humane, more democratic, more inclusive. But it had neither broken with the founding idea that, as Grandin puts it, “expansion was necessary to achieve social progress” (205), nor had it ceased to function according to the double-binding contradictions of that idea.
A new ecological coalition, if one is possible for a society with habits so deeply sunk, will need to be based on that insight.
A version of this essay appears at the Society for US Intellectual History blog
“Ford v. Ferrari,” now playing in cinemas, is about a maverick team of car designers and drivers who have been commanded by the Ford Corporation to build a car that will win at Le Mans. In one scene, corporate head Henry Ford II is unexpectedly taken for his first ride in the GT40, the car his crew is piloting. The car takes off, and Ford is rocketed up and down an airport runway, his face frozen in terror. This is about the time a newbie soils himself, a seasoned observer remarks.
When the car finally screams to a halt, Ford bursts into a fit of weeping. At first he seems unmanned—‘crying like a little girl,’ to quote a familiar gibe. But then we learn the real reason for his tears. If only granddad could see this, he says. The implication is that jetting a human body 200 miles per hour over a patch of cement was what his legendary namesake was really after all along. To push a limit, to break a record, to go faster. The sacralization of speed (and masculinity) is a move the film makes over and over. Whether automobile or airplane or rocket ship, the petroleum-fueled combustion engine is the machine men have made to surpass limitation.
What’s the old riddle about Mount Everest? “Because it’s there.” For as long as I can remember, this ‘breaking of a limit for its own sake’ has been lifted up and celebrated as the quintessential mark of human distinction
How have we come to think about limits this way? How has the idea of limits shaped our economics, our politics, and our relationship with the living world around us? These are precisely the questions Giorgos Kallis asks in Limits, his new book from Stanford Briefs.
A prominent advocate for degrowth, Kallis is a prolific writer of articles and books that deliver careful research and argument in no-nonsense persuasive prose. (One of his sidelines are essays on how to be a productive academic.) Born in Athens, educated transnationally, Kallis is an environmental scientist working in the field of political ecology and a professor at the Autonomous University in Barcelona. Limits, however, is a straight-ahead history of ideas. It’s based on a reading of a classic text, Thomas Robert Malthus’s 1798 essay on population and food supply. The subtitle of Kallis’s short book is Why Malthus was Wrong and Why Environmentalists Should Care.
The argument is a little difficult to put succinctly because it runs so counter to the way Malthus has been commonly understood. Malthus, the prophet of scarcity, said that human population would always outrun the amount of available food. Malthusian pessimism signifies a kind of regressive blindness to the human capacity to surpass limits, to innovate, and to discover new sources of fuel, both for our bodies and for our machines. This popular understanding of Malthus comes from a mis- or half-reading, Kallis finds.
Kallis stresses the political motivation behind the essay. In 1798, Malthus was writing expressly to refute those who were challenging the new capitalist order and calling for redistribution. Because we’d never have enough to feed the poor out of current stock, he countered, continuous exertion was necessary to stay ahead of the geometric ratio. So, yes, Malthus did raise the prospect of a limit to human reproduction, but it was only to remove the prospect of a limit to economic growth. Malthus’s genius was “that he managed to make scarcity compatible with growth, limits with no limits,” Kallis writes. His essay was “the first rejection of redistribution and welfare in the name of growth of free markets” (29, 21).
So Malthus was wrong, Kallis argues, but not for the reasons popularly understood. He was wrong, first, to assume that the human species was incapable of regulating its own reproduction. Second, Malthus was wrong to assume that the Earth was capable of sustaining the ever-increasing demand on its resources that was necessary. This should matter to environmentalists because environmentalists have largely accepted Malthus’s model of inevitable scarcity. They have taken upon themselves the mantle of Malthusian pessimism. When they argue that we are confronting nature’s limits, they re-inscribe Malthus’s growth calculus and reduce their own case “to a sterile scientific dispute … of how growth can be sustained and for how long.” Environmental policies become bleak schemes to stave off, for as long as possible, the day of reckoning (48).
But thresholds need not ever be passed, Kallis claims. Limits don’t exist out there in nature. They exist in our own intentions, how we define the good life, and most of all, in our politics. Those concerned about economic, social, and environmental justice shouldn’t be trying to figure out how to make growth more efficient and sustainable. Rather, they should abandon growth as a goal altogether and work to institute a “non-fatalistic politics of [self-imposed] limits” (62). Malthus taught that sharing will do no good because there would never be enough for everyone. Kallis argues that we will only have enough when we limit ourselves to our fair share. The problem isn’t natural. It’s social and political.
I’m one who’d only dipped into Malthus’s essay and had received its common meaning without question. Kallis’s reading isn’t an in-depth engagement with the original text—the book is less than 150 pages, after all—and it likely fits his degrowth agenda a bit too cleanly. But a reconsideration of Malthus, like recent ones of Adam Smith, is a welcome part of the assault, across many fronts, on the neoliberal order.
In the second half of Limits, Kallis touches on his own biography, which is something I’d not seen in his writing before. He was close to his mother, an Athens activist, and her death, when he was a young scholar, hit him hard. Among her possessions, he found the book she’d long kept by her bedside. Its author was the Greek political theorist Cornelius Castoriadis. His mother’s favorite theorist would have a great influence on his own intellectual journey. We see something of this in the second half of the book, a discussion of the relationship between self-restraint and freedom, which comes partly from Castoriadis and his understanding of the culture of ancient Greece.
There doesn’t seem to be a lot of Castoriadis readily available to the American reader. I found a copy of A Society Adrift, a compilation of late interviews and writings, which Kallis cites a good deal in Limits. I felt some due diligence was required in regard to Castoriadis’s concept of “the social imaginary.” It’s a term I’ve used a lot in the last couple of years, having picked it up from my reading in the environmental humanities, without really grasping its provenance. The term seems a lot like the terms worldview, or mindset, or paradigm, or episteme, which is to say, it aids in articulating the relationship between our immaterial ideas, our immaterial descriptions of those ideas, and the material world we come to live in as a result.
Castorious develops his explanation of the social imaginary with dense intricacy; this concept and his thinking in general shows the influence of systems theory. The systems theorist Dana Meadows confronts the matter and sums it up quite simply: “A society that talks incessantly about ‘productivity’ but that hardly understands, much less uses, the word ‘resilience’ is going to become productive and not resilient. A society that doesn’t understand or use the term ‘carrying capacity’ will exceed its carrying capacity” (174). Kallis would probably see some re-inscription of Malthus in Meadows’ thought, but they share a foundation in the importance of frames, rules, and goals in contemplating how to work toward change in a destructive system spinning out of control.
Anyway, here’s a tip: don’t go see Ford v. Ferrari if you’ve been reading Meadows, Kallis, or Cornelius Castoriadis. Or at least, if you do, don’t expect to enjoy it. As I watched, Castoriadis’s various descriptions of the “capitalist imaginary” were fresh in my mind. History had seen conquerors who thirsted for power before, Castoriadis explains. “But with capitalism, for the first time, this tendency toward the unlimited extension of might, or of mastery, encountered the appropriate, adequate instruments: ‘rational’ instruments'” (62). Henry Ford II is buckled into one of those rational instruments. He experiences this expansion of mastery in real time, as it were.
The thing about imaginaries is that they can be challenged; they can be replaced. That’s the theory, anyway, and the basis of Kallis’s political project. He relies on what Castoriadis calls “autonomy,” the capacity to continually critique both the imaginaries that dominate our perception as well as those we put up, experimentally, as alternatives. “We can have less suffering instead of destruction,” Kallis writes, “to the extent that we can institute mechanisms that help us reflect on our wants and prudently manage those that are excessive. At the level of the individual, this is the mission of psychoanalysis; at the level of the collective, Castoriadis argued, this is the role of democracy” (93).
Today, with democracy on the ropes and growth in throughput still the barely-questioned measure of all economic success, one can’t help but ask if imagining a steady-state economics of sharing isn’t too flatly utopian. It is, I suppose, if one’s thinking is shaped by Malthus’s model of scarcity. It is if one’s politics is shaped by fear of apocalyptic collapse. And it is if one’s definition of the good life is shaped by a devotion to ever-increasing, ever-accelerating production, consumption, and speed.
A version of this essay appears at the Society for US History Blog.
Castoriadis, Cornelius, Enrique Escobar, Myrto Gondicas, and Pascal Vernay. A Society Adrift Interviews and Debates, 1974-1997. 2010.Bottom of Form
Kallis, Giorgos. Limits: Why Malthus Was Wrong and Why Environmentalists Should Care. 2019.
Meadows, Donella H., and Diana Wright. Thinking in Systems: A Primer. 2015.
“Air can hurt you, too,” David Byrne sang on a record released forty years ago this month. The song was called “Air,” the album, Fear of Music, and the name of the band was Talking Heads. If one is to believe random internet commentary–claims often attributed to memory of some Byrne interview or another–this was not a song about air pollution.
No argument here. I would point out, however, that this song was made within a decade or so of the rise of modern environmentalism in the US, which was acutely attuned to the imagery of air that could hurt you–to photos of billowing industrial smokestacks and thick smog hovering over cities such as Los Angeles and New York. It was also a song recorded within weeks of the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania when one the facility’s reactors suffered a near-meltdown, and radioactive gases were vented into the atmosphere.
Good songs resist being reduced to prosaic readings. “Air” isn’t about air pollution. But it is a song that draws on the ecological imagination, the shift in the way many perceive the nature of reality and their relations with their surroundings. It is a song that partakes of historical context and events in which the ecological imagination took shape. And it is a song that speaks to the fear and dread that is, to my mind, one of the under-explored and under-theorized aspects of that imagination.
In her book Radiation Nation: Three Mile Island and the Political Transformation of the 1970s (Columbia UP, 2018), Natasha Zaretsky provides a case study in what I’ll call, for this post, environmental fear. The consciousness of our interdependence with the living world, our interconnectedness and our embeddedness in nonhuman life processes, is often associated with a commitment to universalism. When the Apollo photos, such as “Earthrise,” were published, people saw that they shared the same “lonely planet,” that we were all one, etc. But in the local response to the accident at Three Mile Island, Zaretsky reveals another aspect of the ecological imagination. To put it bluntly, the response was tribal. Trust, already weakened, broke down. In the end, universalist perspectives were rejected for the sort of resentment-based nationalism that we’re so familiar with today.
“What is happening to my skin?” Byrne sings. “Where is the protection that I needed?” The ecological imagination emphasizes the permeability of boundaries, not least skin boundaries. The fact that radiation poisoning was invisible and its effects gradual, for example, made it an especially insidious kind of bodily threat. The Three Mile Island community perceived itself, Zaretsky argues, as the heartland, as the true body of America. That body had been invaded. Sixties progressives had celebrated the body as a site of liberation and pleasure, but in the reaction to Three Mile Island, “conservatives folded the body into a discourse of decline and betrayal, creating a body politics of their own” (98). Zaretsky calls this “biotic nationalism.”
Some bodies were more vulnerable than others. Mothers, pregnant women, and children were the first advised to evacuate. In abstract terms, they represented what was most in peril–a society’s ability to reproduce itself. The symbols adopted by the movement came to reflect this. Biotic nationalism was “shot through with ecologically derived images of the vulnerable bodies of mothers, babies, and fetuses” (13). Meanwhile, within conservative politics more broadly, the rights of the unborn were likewise moving to the center of concern. Writing recently in Politico, Dartmouth’s Randall Balmer has stressed the role race played in this political restructuring. Having lost the moral high ground in the contest over segregation, social conservatives and evangelicals sought to reclaim it on the issue of abortion. In Radiation Nation, Zaretsky provides an ecological inflection to this more familiar story.
Zaretsky’s book tells us something about environmental fear politically. On this blog, I’ve written about Sarah J. Ray’s research into student distress over the climate crisis. All this helps. Still, I want to cast a wider net.
At first, “Air can hurt you, too,” seems a neurotic claim. It fits the twitchy, hyper-literal persona David Byrne had established with the group’s first two records. The song is less a warning about air than it is a warning about fear. Its underlying message–its wider inference in the Byrne program–is to push past fear and to embrace life’s wonderful messiness. The theme would become more direct in subsequent records. But the song’s conceit only works if the claims made about air are perceived as paranoid, which they aren’t, by any means. Air can hurt us. Millions die from dirty air every year around the globe, most especially in the global south, where our fossil-fuel-based economics tends to shunt its externalities. Would the song make sense at all in a place where people don surgical masks to go out of doors? These considerations push the song even further away from an environmentalist reading. Or we might put it this way: “Air” functions in a space of relative privilege.
But air isn’t supposed to hurt any of us, is it? In a 1966 letter to the radical psychiatrist R. D. Laing, Gregory Bateson remarked on how human bodies had evolved according to this supposition. Unlike whales and dolphins, whose blowholes were figured according to the premise–the truth, one might say–that air was only intermittently available, human bodies were formed according to the premise that air was healthful, abundant, and available at all times, right there in front of our faces. “Modern environments” were challenging that “built-in” truth, Bateson noted. This challenge was a cause of “disturbance” in “an epoch … more deeply disturbed than any other in the history of man.”
The social disturbances of the Sixties are well-known. Bateson’s point was to urge Laing to perceive physiological, psychological, social, and environmental disturbance as formally similar phenomena. At the very least, he hoped that a kind of humility might arise from this perception—humility as to human options for dealing with disturbance. His position was that the default option was the source of a good deal of the disturbance. The default option was the drive for mastery, the epistemology of control.
“Control kills, connection heals, come home or die.” This is the written message left by the militant environmentalists in Richard Powers’ 2019 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Overstory, whenever they stage an action. The militancy isn’t Batesonian. The written message is.
Oh, where am I going with this? There’s a thread here I’m unable to grasp between my fingers. Past truths are no longer applicable, yet we still have emotional stakes in them, and in some cases, those stakes are built-in. The species of denial are manifold and respect no particular politics. They trap us into repetitive behaviors that only speed us toward the next “accident.” I began with the idea of environmental fear being under-explored, under-theorized. Bateson’s thought offers ways to think about living systems when trust deteriorates and people are afraid.
A version of this essay also appears in The Society for US Intellectual History Blog.