“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.
I suppose if one only stuck a toe into the literature of climate change, into its factual evidence, its numbers, into its long-form meditations and its day-to-day reportage, one might still be able to manage some deflection. One might still be able to push what it has to say into a corner to be visited only now and then. Put in a half of foot, however, and compartmentalization becomes almost impossible. We face a moral crisis of shattering proportions.
Here’s what some environmental activists are arguing about these days: Is societal collapse inevitable, and therefore, is our time best spent in moral and practical preparation for that collapse; or are we capable of some great transformation at the most fundamental levels–transformation of our myths and metaphors, of the way we think and the way we live? It sobers one to the bone just to grasp that this question isn’t being raised in some dystopian novel or film, one step away from nightmare, in an aesthetic practice of venting and processing. It’s being raised in the terms of a rational debate.
Earlier this year, Jeremy Lent, the author of The Patterning Instinct who I’ve mentioned several times at this blog, took issue with Jem Bendell, the writer of “Deep Adaptation: A map for navigating the climate tragedy,” a concept paper published last year that has since been downloaded many tens of thousands of times. In this paper Bendell argued that the resilience of our current systems cannot be assumed and that their breakdown is already unfolding and inevitable. He created a forum to explore what changes, personal and collective, “might help us prepare for–and live with–a climate-induced collapse of our societies.” Lent found much common ground with Bendell but pushed back on the notion of inevitability. That sort of hopelessness would become a self-fulfilling prophecy, Lent argued.
My purpose here is to call attention to their exchange. My summary sentences don’t do it justice, and it drew notice and comment in other online locales. There are several ways to follow it, but this was my path:
“Hope and Vision in the Face of Collapse — The 4th R of Deep Adaptation” — a January summary by Bendell of his initial paper with an extended discussion of his concepts of “reconciliation” and “radical hope.”
“The Love in Deep Adaptation — A Philosophy for the Forum” — a March post by Bendell and Katie Carr that makes clear that Deep Adaptation is not a call for going off-grid with a stockpile of weapons.
“What Will You Say to Your Grandchildren?” — Lent’s April essay pushes back against Deep Adaptation and poses, instead, Deep Transformation.
“Responding to Green Positivity Critiques of Deep Adaptation” — Bendell answers Lent the next day. This post includes all of Lent’s post with responses interspersed between passages.
“Our Actions Create the Future: A Response to Jem Bendell” — Lent follows up to Bendell’s response and includes a selected bibliography on civilizational collapse.
(Here is a link to Bendell’s complete Deep Adaptation paper, which I have not yet read in full.)
It’s best to read the exchange for oneself, but I’ll offer an observation. I was struck how much Lent and Bendell share in common in terms of fundamental orientation. Both have a “systems view of life,” to use Fritjof Capra’a and Pier Luigi Luisi’s phrase. This is explicit in Lent’s work. The Patterning Instinct begins with a preface by Capra, and one of its themes is the “remarkable correspondence” between what the West called Neo-Confucianism in Song-era China and “modern findings in systems and complexity science.” These findings emphasize “how self-organized systems are fractally embedded within one another” and “the intrinsic interdependency of all living systems” (252, 371).
I’m less familiar with Bendell’s thinking, but claims he makes in the posts above align with the systems view. We suffer from the “delusion” of separateness, he writes. We haven’t regarded “rivers, soils, forests and fields as part of ourselves.” This “othering” of nature, of a piece with the othering of people, has justified “exploitation, discrimination, hostility, violence, and rampant consumption.” Elsewhere he writes that “wisdom traditions” and “contemporary physics” tell us that “we are co-creating our reality with others, the material and ineffable dimensions in ways that we can never fully comprehend.” These are basics of the systems view. Lent wouldn’t disagree.
It is on this last point, however–the point about the co-creation of reality–that Lent intervenes. Maybe we can’t fully comprehend the ways in which we co-create our “material and ineffable dimensions,” but we do know that these dimensions are intrinsically coupled. “Human society itself,” Lent writes in his second response to Bendell,
is really two tightly interconnected, co-existing complex systems: a tangible system and a cognitive system. The tangible system refers to everything that can be seen and touched: a society’s technology, its physical infrastructure, and its agriculture, to name just some components. The cognitive system refers to what can’t be touched but exists in the culture: a society’s myths, core metaphors, hierarchy of values, and worldview.
The dynamic interaction of these two systems create feedback loops that “can profoundly affect each other and, consequently, the direction of society.” The attitude we take to the current crisis matters, in other words. Thinking in terms of collapse reinforces the possibility of collapse. Thinking in terms of transformation reinforces that possibility, in turn. “The only real path toward future flourishing,” Lent writes, “is one that transforms the basis of our civilization, from the current one that is extractive and wealth-based, to one that is life-affirming, based on the core principles that sustain living systems coexisting stably in natural ecologies.” Already moving in that direction are “innumerable pioneering organizations around the world.” They need our support, our membership, not our dismissal.
Why do they differ on this point? Is it that Bendell’s systems thinking is less thoroughgoing than Lent’s, or is it an understandable distrust, on Bendell’s part, that even a touch of the utopian is escapist? It may boil down to how one characterizes denial. “Green positivity,” as Bendell calls it, is in denial of the inevitability of collapse. Bendell, Lent charges, denies the possibility of a great transformation.
“What will you tell your grandchildren?” Lent asks in the title of his first post countering Bendell. He evokes the question German children asked their parents and grandparents about how and whether they took a stand against Hitler. When our grandchildren ask us about the climate crisis, Lent asks, will we be able to look them in the eyes? Bendell replies,
I will never look my grandchildren in the eyes because I decided not to have children. Many people are choosing to make this very difficult decision. One reason is that having a child in the West is the greatest contribution to carbon emissions that you could make. Another reason is the realization of the world they will have to live and die within.
I’m leaving Bendell the last word here, not necessarily because I favor his position, but because I want to recognize the skin he has in the game.
A version of this essay was published at the Society for US Intellectual History Blog.
A colleague of mine with a large fan base recently tweeted that his reason for getting a PhD was a love for writing and teaching. People will confess to almost anything on social media, even their worst afflictions. I, for one, sympathized. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder how a slight adjustment to this combination of loves might have led to an entirely different and more appealing life-path.
If one loved biking and teaching, for instance, one could lead bike tours in some historically rich city, like New Orleans. This is on my mind because I recently went on a half-day bike tour of New Orleans with my family, and we were taught quite a lot by our knowledgeable guide, John.
For instance: The French settled first near what is now called Bayou St. John. Soon they came to realize that the water, the air, and the mosquitoes were less of a problem a few miles away, where the Indians just happened to be living. That was where we were standing right now, John explained, the highest ground in the city of New Orleans, beside Saint Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square. Yeah, John said, they forced the Indians off the prime real estate and just took it for themselves. Sad story, but there you go. With dismissing phrases and gestures like these, John seemed to suggest that there was a lot we could talk about that we weren’t going to talk about.
“We won’t be talking about slavery,” he added.
The comment struck me, and I understood it in several ways. Sometimes the light will dim in the eyes of my students in the US History survey, as if to say, “He’s going to talk about slavery again, kill me now.” All I can say is, I know, I know. The topic can bring you down.
This semester I’m teaching an upper level African American history course for undergraduates, and I’ve about had it with the topic myself. Trying to cover all my bases for a class on Nat Turner, I finally got around to watching “The Birth of a Nation,” the recent film by Nate Parker. In one early passage, Nat’s master is renting him out to preach obedience to the slaves on neighboring plantations. Here the film punches hard, depicting the cruel squalor and indignity whites forced on blacks in order to profit off them, their flesh and their lifeblood. “I’ve had enough,” I remember thinking.
John’s customers were folks on vacation. They weren’t looking for a heavy ordeal.
I read an article once by a guide who gave tours at a southern plantation, who had to deal regularly with a hostile contingent eager to argue whether slavery was as bad as everyone wanted you to think. “We won’t be talking about slavery,” made sense from this angle, too. John would want to nip that kind of controversy in the bud. He wouldn’t want to get into it with some idiot with an ax to grind. His job was to keep things upbeat and move us along.
John was a ropey, tall man, forty-ish, weathered, very slim, some cool tats, a notable haircut. Later I asked my kids what they remembered about him. My daughter described his earrings and polished nails. My son remembered his zip-up leather jacket and how quickly he spoke. Both liked him. I liked him, too, but also took a professional interest. We would bike for a while, and then he’d gather us somewhere and deliver a blast of information. Sometimes you have to talk fast when you’re on a schedule and trying to fit it all in. His talks were like my lectures, not delivered each time word-for-word but very well-practiced, all the same. He would state a point, a concept, fill in some detail, give an example or two, and then come back and restate the point. He was doing what I try to do, to usher a few bits of information through my students’ brains, from the short- to the long-term memory.
And doing a good job of it, too. There were a number of things I learned on the tour that I’m not likely to forget. The difference between a balcony, a gallery, and a veranda. The technology of an above ground tomb. The sixty years of French rule, the forty years of Spanish, before the Americans took charge. Grasping this rough chronology gave me a new appreciation of the city’s history. Something took root in that single century, something particular, that continues to bear fruit to this day.
In preparation for our trip, I had re-watched “Gumbo,” the first episode of Ken Burns’ documentary series, Jazz. Wynton Marsalis is one of the great voices in that series, articulating much about the music and the city that gave it birth. “Jazz music celebrates life, human life, the range of it, the absurdity of it, the ignorance of it, the greatness of it, the intelligence of it, the profundity of it–and it deals with it.”
I remembered this quote as we wheeled down the boulevards that serve as the borders between neighborhoods—“neutral ground,” John told us. It reminded me of David Simon’s HBO series, Tremé, about post-Katrina New Orleans. Simon’s argument in that series can be boiled down to the following: look what we almost lost; look what we’re still in danger of losing.
One of the members of our party, a Californian traveling with her husband, had Katrina on her mind. “Was this part flooded?” she would ask as we crossed from one neighborhood to another. John would answer without elaboration. Finally he said, with a touch of exasperation, “We’ve been here three hundred years—that was just one storm.” Katrina played such a role in one President’s political fortunes, and perhaps in the election of his successor, I wondered if the topic wasn’t another racially-charged minefield that required steering around.
And yet I began to notice that we weren’t always on neutral ground. Andrew Jackson may have won the battle of New Orleans, John admitted, but otherwise was “not a good guy.” Slavery would get a mention after all, as would the Trail of Tears. In the cemetery we visited, among the somber, rough and crooked tombs slowly baking their contents into ash was a castle-shaped mausoleum, built of polished stone, with wooden doors and stained-glass windows, and outfitted with climate-control. Our affable guide didn’t hide his disapproval. All it lacked, he suggested, was a disco ball.
Other remarks were dropped here and there, some choice commentary, let’s say, to go along with the facts. Interpretation wasn’t totally absent. It was just that things were carefully managed as to restrict it to a single source. In this, too, I recognized a kinsman. I have my captive audience. I like to deliver my point of view. And I tend to manage, at least most of the time, to avoid controversy or disagreement. But I’m not going to explore the matter further. Let’s keep things upbeat and move along.
A version of this essay appears at the Society for US Intellectual History blog.
The story, perhaps a legend, goes something like this: a handful of photographs of the earth in space, supplied by the Apollo missions during the nineteen-sixties and early seventies, clarified for humankind the wholeness and lonely fragility of our planet. In an instant, all wars became civil wars, all fights fights between family, and the necessity of caring for our shared environment a shattering revelation.
Ritual re-tellings came last December in news articles commemorating the fifty-year anniversary of “Earthrise,” taken by the astronauts on Apollo 8. The photo provided “a unifying expression of vulnerability,” said the story in The Washington Post. The photo became the environmental movement’s icon, the story in The New York Times reported, “a gift of perspective at the end of a dark year.” As iconic as “Earthrise” is “The Blue Marble,” taken by Apollo 17 in 1972, which has been called “the most environmental photograph ever taken.”
The story is often accompanied by some version of this flourish: Isn’t it ironic that these very images that made us newly reverent for the environment came from the space program, which the environmentalists of the time had disparaged? The unspoken message being, of course, good thing we didn’t listen to them! What I’m suggesting here is what if these photos–“Earthrise,” “The Blue Marble,” and their like, as exquisite as they are–didn’t mark change but continuity? What if what is celebrated as new perspective was actually the stubborn persistence of the old?
These questions are among several I took from viewing “Inside,” a recent lecture by Bruno Latour, available on Youtube. An October 2018 article in The New York Times Magazine alerted me to it, a piece by Ava Kofman about Latour, about his new book, Down To Earth, and about our particular post-truth moment. Latour attributes much of that moment to the fact that we find ourselves disoriented in time and space, due largely to a misleading cosmology. Images of the earth in space are only the most prominent example of an insistence on perceiving ourselves from outside the world. It is as if we’d actually lived Plato’s myth and exited the cave into an ether of pristine abstraction and objectivity. This perception of our home as a globe in space has paralleled our striving for universals in political life and the globalization of the economy.
As an alternative, Latour invites his audience to join him back inside “caveland,” where it’s dark, wet, complex, and confusing. The lecture is a collaboration with some artists and designers whose projected 3-D images surround Latour on the stage as he speaks, sometimes obscuring him completely. Watching and listening, I was reminded of the outdoor installations I saw last year at the AURORA exhibit in downtown Dallas, which I wrote about here on the blog. Latour and his collaborators, like the AURORA artists, seem to begin from the premise that we require radical reorientation to bring perception and experience into sync.
The cave image works as commentary on Western thought, but a cave, enclosed and underground, obscured more by an absence of light than by apparent complexity, isn’t really what Latour offers as an alternative to the image of the globe. Rather, he describes our home as a “critical zone,” a thin layer of sun-energized life atop the compressed remnants of the past. The critical zone consists of “nothing but the activity of the living.” It’s sensitive, fragile, far from equilibrium, and hard to know. Most of all, though, it’s relatively small and thin—”tiny, tiny, tiny,” “a varnish, really”—yet containing “everything we care for, everything we have ever encountered.”
The Apollo photos do capture something of this in the earth’s surface glow, a vibrancy indicating organization and life. Seeing this from outside, however, extracts us from it, Latour argues. We can’t represent home and be in it simultaneously. The critical zone is an attempt to overcome this paradox. By inverting the globe, flattening and refolding it “like a tart,” he and his collaborators place us inside a kind of whirlpool, a vortex of processes in the sunshine, some of those processes close and moving quickly, others moving more slowly and thus harder to detect. The systems theorist Gregory Bateson would likely have smiled on this conception of complexly interrelated circuits running transforms of meaning in varying spans of time.
On Christmas Day, 1968, the day after “Earthrise” was first published, poet and writer Archibald MacLeish offered an appreciation which was published on the front page of the Times. His brief column may indeed be the source of the “Earthrise” legend, or in any case, it’s first telling. “Men’s conception of themselves and each other has always depended on their notion of the earth,” he begins. He then employs a history of thought that, while not uncontested, is still in use today. First there was “the medieval notion,” which placed men at the center of the universe. Later there was “the nuclear notion,” which removed them from that center and made them “helpless victims in a senseless farce.” But now, with this photograph, we’d seen earth for the first time “from the depths of space,” “whole and beautiful and round and small.” Perhaps now a new notion of the earth, and of ourselves, was possible, and we could see ourselves “together, brothers on that that bright loveliness in the eternal cold.” Senselessness, might be exchanged for solidarity, presumably, and “man may at last become himself.”
Although shorn of patriarchal language and modernist despair, Latour’s scheme is formally similar. Instead of “medieval” and “nuclear,” Latour uses the terms “local” and “global.” Whereas MacLeish presents a linear march forward, one notion replacing the one before, Latour recognizes the local and the global as concurrent modes. The West’s current political situation is such that the universals of the global have been discredited and so are being abandoned for the walled-off assurances of the local. Meanwhile the denial of the climate crisis, a crucial intellectual component to this movement, allows the new localists to blame the failures of the global on those outside the walls. Latour’s critical zone is an attempt to “triangulate” the local and global in a different way–a way that faces climate deterioration full on.
The strength of the critical zone as a representation, as Latour himself admits, is that it foregrounds “processes and transformation.” That seems right. As a scholar trained in intellectual history exploring the environmental humanities, I’ve written numerous sentences over the years about the need to reorganize perception, to provide a new account of reality, a new imaginary, etc. So I applaud and admire the efforts of Latour and his collaborators to do just that.
This is especially impressive because I also often wonder, can this actually happen? Can epistemology be rebuilt from the ground up? Can we provide an answer to our current disorientation–an alternative notion, to use MacLeish’s word–that isn’t so strange as to disorient ourselves all the more? At times I wonder if it hasn’t already happened, and that the many attempts at articulation are merely part of the vast apparatus of habit catching up to minds and hearts. Annoying questions! The jury is still out. The jury’s always out–it’s almost never in, come to think of it, living inside the critical zone.
A version of this post appears at the Society for US Intellectual History blog.
Driving into Bisbee, Arizona, last month, the first thing we saw was the old quarry. Coming in from the east, just before reaching Old Bisbee, you could pull into a lot, park, and peer through a chain-link fence into the enormous, red pit below. Earth-moving machines had raked and scalloped its walls. At the bottom was a pool of worrisome liquid, thick and red as–well, I’m not just being dramatic—it really looked like blood.
Bisbee was founded in 1880, a boom town near the border, where copper was mined. Like Butte, Montana, Bisbee is representative of industrial practice in the West in the decades after the Civil War. As the historian T. H. Watkins says in Stephen Ives’ documentary series, The West, “The mining industry, probably more than any other single industry, was designed specifically to get into the West, find what resources it had, dig them out, leave a wreck behind, get out, and move on someplace else.”
Not all had moved on. The mine closed in 1975, and Bisbee has survived as a small, remote high desert town. The historic district seems to have resurrected itself as an artist colony and bohemian enclave, with make-do homes up the mountain side, vintage hotels, funky shops, galleries, and sites of tourism. It’s no ghost town, but it does seem to have a fascination with the ghosts of its past. Some of these ghosts may be the disappeared, the 1200 striking miners of 1917—mostly Mexican and Eastern European–who were gathered at gunpoint, packed into cattle cars, hauled off into the desert, and abandoned. Last year’s film, Bisbee ’17, part documentary, part reenactment, tells this story.
I thought about Bisbee, and the Watkins quote, when a week or so later, I watched the Coen brothers’ new film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The Scruggs story is only the first of six separate narratives, taken from an imagined book of Western tales. The segment that made me think of Bisbee was the one with Tom Waits, called “All Gold Canyon.” It begins with scenes of an idyllic canyon glade, glowing in the sun, where flora and fauna go about their days in perfect homeostasis. Balance is disturbed by the arrival of an old prospector, played by Waits. He pauses in the stream to do a little panning and discovers a few specks of gold. Intrigued, he conducts a series of experiments, digging holes, panning the dirt, eyeing the specks, calculating. With slow deliberation, he is systematically determining the best spot to dig in earnest. Soon the glade has a pock-marked patch, as if diseased.
Much environmental philosophy stresses the need to be in relations with the world outside us, rather than to see it as dead matter to exploit as we wish. The old prospector does speak to “Mr. Pocket,” the vein of gold he is hunting, as if it were a living intelligence. I’m going to find you, Mr. Pocket. Sooner or later, I’ll track you down. The trust he places in his science proves sound. Eventually, he locates Mr. Pocket and reacts with a burst of maniacal laughter.
The idea of a lone prospector, talking to himself amidst the vastness of the American West, serves myth more than it does history. According to Ives’ The West, the westerners of the second half of the nineteenth century and after “were rugged individualists chiefly in their dreams. In real life they were likely to draw paychecks for digging in corporate mines, plowing corporate fields, or chasing corporate cattle.” This myth continues to support Western libertarianism, which tends to ignore the massive corporate and federal expenditures that have made collective living there viable.
Not that miners themselves aren’t rugged, tough individuals. Industrial mining requires brute strength and quick wits. It isn’t at all abstract. The point is to extract the ore; you can see it, you can weigh it, and you’re paid accordingly. One can appreciate how a miner would take pride in the job and be hesitant to give it up for paper pushing or the service industry.
These are the impressions I gathered, anyway, from the ancient miner who gave the Queen Copper Mine Tour in Bisbee. Leading us into the tunnels on rail cars, he told of how he’d gone into the mine right out of high school and stayed on through the years to its closing. Although he talked some about the history of the mind before his time and supplied some historical information, he didn’t mention the 1917 incident. Rather, he seemed to most want us to know what good money he’d made when he worked there, a base salary with a bonus tied to production. If I understood him correctly, he was pulling down well over a thousand a week, and that was in 1960s money.
He acknowledged the many dangers involved in the work but mostly to joke about it. Danger is best met with good humor. This stoicism in the face of hardship and death—long celebrated in Western myth –is one of the threads that ties the six stories of Buster Scruggs together. At times this stoicism is cheerful to the point of absurdity. Characters find themselves in dire straits: the savages are attacking, there’s a noose around your neck, a faster gun appears on the far end of Main Street. When conditions are boiled down to first principles, these heroes don’t flinch. Not only do they not flinch, they seem to lack the very capacity to flinch.
How do these myths function? On one level, the heroes are celebrated. On another, the principles are reinforced. Nature is red in tooth and claw; only the strong survive. If we didn’t manfully accept that fundamental reality, if we hid behind feminine sentimentality or “a pretense of humanitarianism,” as Theodore Roosevelt argued in his speech, “The Strenuous Life,” we might as well “leave the Apaches of Arizona to work out their own salvation.” Myths about the fundamental nature of reality have been used to justify all manner of deeds and behaviors.
To get to Bisbee, we made the long drive to El Paso and then west along the border on I-10. The highway was abundant with border patrol vehicles. We passed through check points, saw officers operating sensors on poles. We saw the tent city outside Tornillo. The president was on the radio, arguing for his border wall, and threatening to shut down the government. It isn’t that he’s against immigration. He’s in favor of “merit” immigration, he explained. If you don’t have something valuable to trade, we have nothing for you, in other words.
It’s a policy that regards humanitarianism as a pretense, either to gain political advantage or to protect the weak from the brute fact that deep down, we’re all predators seeking the upper hand.
I thought about this policy of merit immigration when I watched another of the Western stories from the Coen brothers’ movie. This one, titled “Meal Ticket,” features an orator, a young man without arms and legs, whose impresario/handler takes him from town to town in a carny wagon. The orator specializes in Shakespeare’s sonnets, the Gettysburg Address, and the Cain and Abel story from the Bible. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Or is my brother a resource, from whom, through sharp dealing, I might extract a measure of gold? The films of the Coen brothers are often described as ironic, darkly comic, and misanthropic. Now critical seems a more apt word.
A version of this essay appears at The Society for US Intellectual History Blog.
A few Saturdays ago, just after sunset, a sizable chunk of downtown Dallas was converted into a giant public outdoor art event. It was a biennial exhibition of installations combining light, sound, and video that goes by the name AURORA. Maybe the noise and anguish of the midterms had inhaled my attention, but it almost got by me. Then I happened to catch one of the curators being interviewed on the radio the day before. Her description of the exhibition’s theme intrigued me.
“Whether dystopian or utopian, sci-fi or retro-futuristic,” I later read in the program, the artists were aiming “to open a dialogue about how we collectively envision our Future Worlds.”
During the past few years, I’ve devoted a good deal of time to readings in environmental thought, mainly that of academics, scholars, and public intellectuals. At times I feel a kind of sameness setting in. Arguments tend to stall before a similar set of conundrums. A transformation of values is called for to readdress “our attitude toward the problem of physical reality.” Yet our means for doing this seem of necessity to be based on old metaphors, faulty narratives, and obsolete modes of perception.
This was why the theme “Future Worlds” intrigued me. When it came to envisioning a radically different future, were the artists doing any better than all those writers of discursive prose?
We caught the streetcar downtown the next evening.
The first two installations we saw set the terms of the exhibition and offered answers to some of my questions. “Melting Memories,” by Refik Anadol, was a projection of light against a back wall of the city hall building. The image was of an enormous, shallow box, set on its side, so that viewers would look directly into it. Inside was a continually morphing topography of fluid, foamy sand. What governed its constant movement? Anadol had gathered “data on the neural mechanisms of cognitive control” from a machine that “measures brain wave activity” and somehow rendered it into an algorithm. This wasn’t a record of something that had happened in the past. This was something that seemed to be happening in the moment. To be frank, it looked alive.
Coming around city hall to the vast public plaza out front, we literally stepped into the second installation. It was another projection, this time not against a wall but across a rectangular portion of the plaza itself. This piece, called “Digital Icons,” was described as “a giant light carpet” made of many-colored icons, familiar from “the early days of the computer era.” These icons appeared and disappeared around our feet, creating new patterns as we walked across them, responding differently to each of our individual steps.
The patterns moved around our feet; the people moved within the rectangle. Outside the rectangle, crowds were moving, too–across the plaza, the green spaces, the sidewalks and streets, gathering at and moving away from the glowing obelisks that marked each installation. If you could claim a perch that was distant enough to take it all in, the shapes you saw would be constantly moving, like the glowing sand in the sandbox, which was based on brain waves, on thought.
I paused to take stock. What did these shapes have in common? Open-ended motion. Unpredictability. Asymmetry–they were absorbing but not conventionally beautiful. A number of films had come to mind. One from long ago, the famous Koyaanisqatsi, disrupted commonplace perspectives by playing with film speed and other visual devices. The more recent Mother! combined fable with a similar acceleration of narrative time. In Annihilation, also recent, an alien presence breaks down barriers between organs, organisms, and species. All the hard divisions we’ve come to depend on are compromised. A scientist’s journey to investigate becomes one not of conquering an enemy but of overcoming repugnance at what she finds.
In each of these examples, technology is used to appropriate a natural dynamic in order to make visible something formerly unseen. The most direct of AURORA’s installations was one by Fabian Knecht, called “Freisetzung (Release).” Again the city hall building was used, this time the roof, from which a dense white smoke was somehow being emitted. The smoke billowed “freely for some time before dissipating.” As it did so, it changed continually “in terms of orientation and color to the given atmospheric conditions.” Again, all the characteristics I’ve described were on display: the unpredictability, the asymmetry, the ability to mesmerize and soothe. I could have stared at the smoke for quite a long time, as around a campfire I’ve stared for hours at flames.
The program had used the term “dystopian,” but so far, these installations were all heart. They imagined futures that we could be a part of, if we could overcome resistance, expand our notions of what’s beautiful and what’s lovable, like the scientist in Annihilation does. Where was the unassailable threat and dread we typically feel when thinking about technology, climate change, and contemplating the future?
Kristin Lucas’s “Sick Waves,” the only piece that explicitly mentioned climate change, fed the interpretation I was moving toward. This was a light projection, too, but otherwise unlike the other pieces I’ve described. A series of concentric circles were programmed to place the viewer inside the formation of an ocean wave: to build, to spin, to crash, and then to start all over again. Of course, no real wave is so uniformly repeatable. None have that kind of perfectly balanced precision. These waves were sick, like the present we’re trying to imagine ourselves out of.
Later that week, I was back to reading discursive prose. In a section of his 2017 book, Out of the Wreckage, environmentalist-journalist George Monbiot challenges the notion that an individual’s political principles are arrived at by rational means. This may be important to historians and other writers of discursive prose, we who prize rational argument and who are understandably wary of those who don’t. Yet people don’t put their political selves together rationally, Monbiot argues. They look to the community around them, and they try to belong. This isn’t necessarily a negative. “If we perceive ourselves to belong to a community in which people work together, to improve their lives, and then neighborhood, to enjoy each other’s company and help each other, that perception is likely to shape our political self-image.” Such an image could take the quality of a contagion.
I wondered about the verbs Monbiot uses in this sentence: feel, believe, say, belong; work, improve, enjoy. I tried to imagine these actions and the thread between them as shape in movement. Aesthetic experience has a way of re-wiring the brain.
This essay also appears at the Society for US Intellectual History Blog
 The phrase is physicist David Bohm’s, quoted in Best and Kellner, The Postmodern Turn (New York: Guilford Press, 1997), 215.
In connection to my ongoing research into systems thinking and ecological thought from the perspective of cultural and intellectual history, I read a lot of Arthur Koestler this summer. I read some about him, too. Koestler’s prose was good company. He had a gift for writing about ideas. I’m not sure I would have enjoyed spending much time with him in person.
One essay I returned to more than once was “The Yogi and the Commissar” from 1942. It’s a good example of Koestler’s ability to capture concepts in figurative language. He begins by imagining a device able to break down the spectrum of “all possible human attitudes to life” into bands of light—a “sociological spectroscope,” he calls it. At one extreme end is the infra-red, represented in Koestler’s scheme by the Commissar. The Commissar is the ideologue, willing to take bold action, including “violence, ruse, treachery, and poison,” to achieve the goals his doctrine prescribes. Representing the opposite ultra-violet end of the spectrum is the Yogi. The Yogi’s highest value is his spiritual attachment to “an invisible navel cord” through which he is nourished by “the all-one.” The Yogi “believes that nothing can be improved by exterior organization and everything by the individual effort from within.”
I attempted to describe a similar change-from-without/change-from-within confrontation between radicals in the late sixties in my book, Runaway: Gregory Bateson, the Double Bind, and the Rise of Ecological Consciousness. For illustration, I relied on Marat/Sade, Peter Weiss’s play of the period, but found many other contemporary attempts to express a similar argument. I’m almost certain I’d read “The Yogi and the Commissar” at some previous point, but by the time I got around to writing, I must have forgotten about it. How hard I worked to keep those sections light and swiftly moving! Koestler’s writing seems so effortless on the page that I can only shake my head in admiration.
If reading Koestler was easy, I was often made uneasy reading about him. Face to face, he could be competitive and overbearing. Sidney Hook said Koestler “could recite the truths of the multiplication table” in a way that made people angry. Then there was his treatment of women. Koestler was known for his “crude advances” and a “predatory belief that coercion added spice to sexual intercourse.” At least one woman accused him of rape. Certainly, Koestler had several long-term relationships, but he tended to organize the energies of the women who loved him in secretarial work to advance his literary cause. In his seventies, suffering from Parkinson’s and leukemia, Koestler committed suicide, and was joined in the act by his third wife Cynthia, who was healthy and fifty-five.
To sum up: When we turn Koestler’s spectroscope on his own sexual relations, we get a strong reading of infra-red. His ends justified his means, as they do for the Commissar.
The above impressions, as well as the quotes, are drawn from my reading of Michael Scammell’s 2009 biography. Scammell tells a good story, too. As for the rape charge, he doesn’t simply accept it at face value. He tries to place it in context; he airs a number of considerations. For instance: Koestler’s accuser did not speak immediately about the assault but waited for many decades to pass. She “seemed to have responded by pushing the incident to the back of her mind and accommodating herself to it.” Perhaps what Koestler did wouldn’t have been called rape then, Scammell suggests, but has only been described that way more recently. Koestler made no mention of the incident in his diary, though his diary was the place he regularly listed conquests. On the other hand, Koestler was drinking a good deal during this period, so it’s possible “he was so drunk he forgot all about it.” These considerations, read in light of the Kavanaugh scandal, land like punches to the gut.
In his 1942 essay, Koestler denied any smooth blending somewhere in between the ultra-violet Yogi and the infra-red Commissar. “Apparently the two elements do not mix”; all that “has been achieved so far are various forms of motley compromise.” Two decades later, however, when he brought his intellectual concerns to the sciences and to metaphysics, Koestler allowed himself to imagine a less motley merger. This becomes explicit in The Ghost in the Machine (1968), the last book of a trilogy that includes The Sleepwalkers (1959) and The Act of Creation (1964). Applied not merely to human behavior but to the nature of things in general, the attitudes of the Yogi and the Commissar become opposing “tendencies” or “potentials,” one integrative and the other self-assertive. At certain levels of systemic organization, where entities function as both part and whole, the integrative and the self-assertive occupy the same space, embroiled in “dynamic equilibrium.” Koestler belongs in a tradition of thinkers who sought a grounding for individual and public morality in a synthesis of nature and culture and who strived to describe the living world as a moral environment where the choices of individuals make a difference.
A passage comes in The Ghost in the Machine where Koestler raises “the moral dilemma of judging others.” He has developed an argument in which “the self-assertive, hunger-rage-fear-rape” emotions constrict “freedom of choice.” The loss of freedom in Commissar-like behaviors involve “the subjective feeling of acting under a compulsion.” “How am I to know,” Koestler asks, “whether or to what extent [a person’s] responsibility was diminished when he acted as he did, and whether he could ‘help it’?”
Was he thinking his own behavior here? And if so, was it merely an excuse, a self-serving dodge, or did it have an element of truth?
In Ronan Farrow’s reporting–a year ago, now–we find indications of compulsion in the actions of Harvey Weinstein. After one of his victims went to the police and subsequently wore a wire, Weinstein’s behaviors subsided, a former employee explained. “But he couldn’t help it,” she went on to say. “A few months later, he was back at it.” Donald Trump, too, is often described as having no impulse control. These men see themselves as absolute sovereigns of their worlds; they have severed “the invisible navel cord,” their connection to a larger relevance; they have ignored the pushbacks in their environment for so long that it’s now a habit they can’t break. The paradoxical outcome is a lack of control. Thenceforth, they can’t help but be destructive and vile.
As for “the moral dilemma of judging others,” I understand Koestler’s question, but I’m not sure it’s a useful one. Taking a systems perspective blurs boundaries, including those between self and environment, between us and them, between victim and victimizer, but it doesn’t follow that matters of justice be abandoned or that victimizers be let off the hook. Given time, I suppose, individual cases can be contemplated with scholarly dispassion, as Michael Scammell did with Koestler himself. As for now, it would probably be safer for everyone that the power addict’s power be removed.
A version of this post was published at the Society for US Intellectual History Blog.