True Grit at Fifty: American Exceptionalism Interrogated

wayne and darby in true gritBy 1968 John Wayne was as politically polarizing a figure as he would probably ever be. In June of that year, he released his Vietnam movie, The Green Berets. He was a vocal supporter of the war, and the film had been made with the full cooperation of the Department of Defense. It presented the US mission in Vietnam as a stand for freedom and justice and blamed America’s difficulties there on a sapping of nerve perpetrated by an unpatriotic press corps. That message might have played less divisively a year earlier, before the Tet Offensive, before Lyndon Johnson’s announcement he would not run again. Screenings drew antiwar protests; reviewers pilloried the film. “The Green Berets became the focus of a divided America,” writes J. Hoberman in The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties. “LBJ’s abdication left Wayne the lone authority figure standing.”

Nineteen sixty-eight was also the year Charles Portis’s novel, True Grit, was serialized in the Saturday Evening Post and then released in book form. A movie version came out the following year, starring John Wayne in the role of Rooster Cogburn. As Rooster, Wayne projected no less self-regard than he had as the super-competent, fighting Marine Colonel he’d played in The Green Berets. In other ways, however, Wayne in the Rooster Cogburn role was somewhat reduced: fat, drunk, and with an eye-patch. Wayne embraced the role, was embraced in it, and it came to represent the last phase of his career.

One can’t talk about True Grit in its times without talking about John Wayne, but it’s in the manner of clearing brush from the path. Wayne’s cultural and professional stature shaped the film, focused the story on himself, and thus shaped the way people understood it, especially if they never got around to reading the book. So we need to move Wayne and the film out of the way. True Grit the novel isn’t Rooster Cogburn’s story. It belongs to its narrator, Mattie Ross.

“I was just fourteen years old,” goes the novel’s second sentence, “when a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down in the street in Fort Smith, Arkansas and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band.” The year is never named, but a history buff with basic math skills can figure it out—1878. Fifty years have passed since the murder, Hoover has been elected president, and a fully grown Mattie is looking back on how, at fourteen, she hired a U.S. marshal (Rooster) to track the killer into Indian territory, to catch him and exact her revenge. Her supreme confidence in the righteousness of her cause burns even brighter than does Wayne’s and his cohort for the cause in Vietnam. Mattie’s mission, too, is one of justice in the territory, as it were, in the wild.

It may seem absurd to read True Grit as a Vietnam novel. Certainly none of the reviewers blurbed on my copy of the 1969 paperback made that association. They didn’t see the book as divisive, in the way so many events and other cultural items of the period, such as The Green Berets, were divisive. On the contrary, True Grit “should be enjoyed by people of all ages” said the Cleveland Plain Dealer; it was a pleasure “regardless of age, sex, class, color or country of origin” (Newsday); it spoke “to every American who can read” (The Washington Post). If Vietnam and everything else was dividing Americans, here was a book that could bring them together. That commentary itself is a commentary on the times.

Even so, if we broaden the focus a little, we can find a more significant connection in the book’s themes. Explanations for the Vietnam War and other of the United States’ brutal foreign adventures are typically found in a complex of ideas—religious, philosophical, political, economic. According to these ideas, not only providence but a certain economic ruthlessness entitle America to assert its will. So it is with Mattie Ross, with her cause and with her character. In this way, True Grit can be credibly read as a critique of American Exceptionalism at the very time when American Exceptionalism was under a bright lamp of interrogation.

A friend once read the novel on my recommendation and half-dismissed it as mere fable. He couldn’t get past the fact that a fourteen-year-old girl would be permitted along on the hunt. “That would never happen,” he said. But to reject this plot point is to underappreciate who Matte is. She bullies Rooster into taking her with him, just as she bullies everyone who gets in her way. A good deal of the book’s humor comes from the fact that Mattie doesn’t realize what an insufferable hard-ass she is. Rather, she sees her way as the way of things, which she constantly justifies, sometimes with platitudes of the Protestant work ethic, sometimes outright with verses of scripture, but mostly with the logic of the market.

“When I have bought and paid for something I will have my way,” Mattie tells Rooster. “Why do you think I am paying you if not to have my way?”

The authority of money and the authority of scripture: Max Weber made that connection a long time ago in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. For a more contemporary take, I read William E. Connolly’s 2010 essay, “The Evangelical-Capitalist Resonance Machine.” There Connolly describes a self-perpetuating “assemblage” of “cowboy marketeers” and Left Behind series enthusiasts. What energizes this assemblage, he wants to know, what makes it so angry and so drawn to retributional violence? Connolly attributes these characteristics to the displaced venting of existential resentment. One side resents the future, that it requires a check on present-day greed; the other side resents those whose alternative faiths saddle their own with uncertainty. These anxieties reverberate, their “electrical charges resonate back and forth,” so that

its participants identify similar targets of hatred and marginalization, such as gay marriage, women who seek equal status in work, family and business; secularists, atheists, devotees of Islamic faith, and African American residents of the inner city who do not appreciate the abstract beauty of cowboy capitalism.

Evidence of what Connolly was talking about can be found in our current president’s obsession with strength and his eagerness to express it through cruelty. A certain segment of the population was looking for someone to deal with immigrants, uppity women and people of color as John Wayne would a desperado in the territory. They were looking, as Mattie was, for someone with grit, so as not to dilute with mercy the righteousness of their revenge.

Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross in the 2010 film version of True Grit.

But these are harsh readings of Portis’s novel and probably not the best ones. They fit better other fictional characters we’ve come to know: Captain Ahab, Noah Cross, Mr. Potter, Daniel Plainview. We despise these characters, and rightly so. In contrast, Mattie Ross has our sympathy and even our affection. The “I will have my way” line quoted above comes during a contentious argument over whether she and Rooster will join forces with the Texas Ranger who is also tracking Tom Chaney for another crime, and whether Chaney will be taken alive. Mattie is adamant, insisting on exactly the revenge that she’s paying for. “You are young,” Rooster tells her. “It is time you learned you cannot have your way in every little particular. Other people have got their interests.” Mattie reports this dialogue but pays it no heed. The reader chuckles. Rooster’s assessment is very accurate, indeed.

Both film versions of True Grit have much to recommend them. Neither do justice to the book. Neither find it possible to dramatize Portis’s heart-breaking handful of final paragraphs. This is where the reader grasps the true price Mattie paid for her revenge, and that it was bigger than the one she reckoned. Now in her sixties, she’s a rich and powerful business woman, a personage in her community, with a finger in many pies. She’s also bitter and loveless, a character people fear but make fun of behind her back.

They say I love nothing but money and the Presbyterian Church and that is why I never married. They think everybody is dying to get married. It is true that I love my church and my bank. What is wrong with that?

To answer Mattie’s question, nothing is wrong with that, not on the face of it. But again, in these final paragraphs, Mattie reveals something she doesn’t herself see. She never learned what she needed to learn about other people’s interests, and that makes Portis’s great comic novel a great American tragedy.

This essay also appears at the Society for US Intellectual History Blog.

Beto Watch

crowd beto from behind at openingWe were walking, my wife and I, from our parking space to the door of the Beto O’Rourke campaign office in south Dallas on the evening of its official opening celebration. Beto, running to unseat Ted Cruz in the US Senate, was scheduled to appear. Even before we got to the door, we could see a crowd of people around it and more like us converging from their own parking spaces. Coming up alongside us was Daniel, who I recognized from numerous other political events.

I recognized him, in fact, from that first meeting of the Indivisible chapter that had formed in the central Dallas neighborhood where I live not long after the 2016 election. The Unitarian church offered a space, and about forty people had gathered, all of us still shell-shocked and raw. People were standing up, speaking out, expressing their pain and dismay. “But what can we do?” was the predominant message. Daniel made one of those speeches.

After that first meeting, I committed to becoming credentialed to register voters. Daniel was the other person who showed up at the county office for training. In the following weeks, on several Saturday mornings, we set up registration tables in libraries. At the university where I teach, I let folks know I could register them, and I got a handful of takers. All told, I probably signed up a couple of dozen. Although the weekly news kept bruises fresh, I let the business of life take precedence, and my interest in the nuts-and-bolts part of the work waned.  At first I was showing up at everything, then about half of everything, and then being too busy became an acceptable private excuse.

Daniel followed a different trajectory. I’d read in a Facebook post that he was racking up the registrations. Greeting him there on the way to the Beto office opening, I asked how many he’d filed.

“Six hundred,” he said, and then added, “This year.”

What?! I remembered those mornings in the entranceway of the local branch, people ignoring us, hardly anyone stopping by. He must have figured it out. I asked him, “What’s the secret?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “Last night there was a line of people waiting to get into the Bomb Factory to see a show. I got twelve.”

Daniel was diligent. Also maybe it had gotten a little easier. The three of us threaded through the crowd at the door and into a large room packed tight with people. Beto had not yet arrived. People were waiting as, up on the stage, a local Rolling Stones cover band was playing “Let’s Spend the Night Together.” The guitarist was an old bandmate of mine. He’d been at that first Indivisible meeting, too, as had his wife, whose activism ever since had been Daniel-like in its intensity. In fact, as I looked around I noticed several, sprinkled here and there, who’d been at those first few Indivisible chapter meetings, when hope was in such short supply. Now they were outnumbered fifty or sixty to one, and hope was running in a current, lifting us all a few inches off the ground.

Maybe Texas, I let myself think, was going to have its blue wave, after all.

god save texasLawrence Wright’s book, God Save Texas, came out last spring, and I read it not long after with great pleasure. Wright is a staff writer for The New Yorker. He won a Pulitzer for his book on 9-11, The Looming Tower. A baby boomer, Wright grew up in Dallas and has lived in Austin since 1980. In this latest book, he covers all the important aspects of his home state– its cities, its regions, its history and music– but his main topic is politics. Texas politics have always had a “burlesque side,” Wright acknowledges, a “recurrent crop of crackpots and ideologues,” and now it’s as bad as it’s ever been. The problem is that the state’s size renders it especially influential. “Texas has nurtured an immature political culture that has done terrible damage to the state and to the nation,” Wright believes.

Whether it’s because of this influence or despite it—that’s unclear—but Texas is not all that different politically from the great middle bulk of the nation these days. In the 2016 election, Wright points out, its party margins mirrored those of Ohio. When he looked at vote distribution, “it was hard to see where Texas ended and the rest of the country began.” Yet the state’s right wing zealotry is misleading, Wright argues. It isn’t representative of “the actual political demography of the state.”

I took heart at this, but is it mere apologetics? Wright doesn’t downplay the bad in Texas. The state ranks near the bottom in education achievement and spending per student. It’s near the bottom, too, in upkeep and condition of its infrastructure. For a state that that “is projected to double in population in thirty years, Texas has done little to prepare itself,” says Wright. “The refusal to face these challenges head-on seems to me not only imprudent but decidedly un-Texan.”

Un-Texan? That’s what I mean by apologetics. How will non-Texans take that last sentence, I wonder? Hiking one evening this summer in a park in Quebec, my wife and I got turned around, and a couple from Montreal helped us. We walked along with them for a while until the conversation turned to where we were from. My wife told the truth before I could stop her, and the couple sped along pretty quickly after that. Part of being a Texan is never being sure just how much contempt those outside the state hold for us, whether it’s more than we think they do or less.

I’ve been an apologist for Texas culture at times in my life. It was always a strain, but I gave it up completely about the time George W. Bush became president. To be honest, I’ve had a hard time feeling at home here with the ascendency of the current state leadership, who, it’s often remarked, make W. look Lincolnesque in comparison. W. and I reside in the same city, and once in a while I hear of sightings, all of which betray a grudging fondness. The smirk and the swagger have evaporated. The man now exudes humility, I’m told. Characteristic of this is the fact that he’s content to devote himself to painting without pretending to have any talent for it. Oh, I’m sure I could generate some of the old scorn with only a few reminders, but there’s so much more to be concerned about now.

Waiting for Beto, the crowd continued to grow, and the AC wasn’t up to the challenge. The bald pate of the man in front of me ran sweat in rivulets. Seven-by-five handouts were going around, slick cardstock, printed in full color, with photos and platform points of special interest to south Dallas. Immediately they were everywhere flapping, employed as fans. As The Stoners played “Satisfaction,” Beto came into the room through a rear door. A local hopeful introduced him, and he took the stage.

Self-effacing and affable, warming up to make his pitch, the candidate made a big deal about the band. “You know if this Senate thing doesn’t work out,” he said, “I might ask if the Stoners need a fifth member.” There were a few laughs, some clapping, but the comment was not well received overall. In this climate, this close to the election, people didn’t want to contemplate a loss.

“It’ll work out!” someone yelled.

“Ted Cruz can be the fifth member!” another shouted.

beto speaking at openingWhat was Beto like? What did he do and say? I won’t belabor this much further. You can get a look at him and hear him speak in any number of settings—the video links on Youtube are legion. His answer to a town hall question about kneeling during the anthem has recently gone viral, for whatever that’s worth. This was my third time to see him live, however. The first time was on a corner at a march in support of immigrants, before many knew who he was. The second time was well into the race, in the Texas Theater, the old movie house where they arrested Oswald, and there was a line down the block to get in. So how did this third time compare?

He led with his more radical positions—the ones listed on the 7-by-5 card: ending the school-to-prison pipeline; legalizing marijuana and expunging the records of those formerly jailed for the offense; a living wage and health care for all. His voice was hoarse, and yet he spoke with more volume. This may be a matter of calibration. The election is not that far away.

I’ll end with a passage from Wright, one where he demonstrates his attention to history.

Texas leads the nation in Latino population growth. Latinos account for more than half the 2.7 million new Texans since 2010. Every Democrat in Texas believes that if Hispanics voted at the same rate in Texas as they do in California, the state would already be blue. ‘The difference between Texas and California is the labor movement,’ Garnet Coleman, a Houston member of the Texas House of Representatives, told me. In the 1960s, Cesar Chavez began organizing the California farmworkers into a union, which didn’t happen in Texas, a right-to-work state. ‘Labor unions create a culture of voting and political participation,’ Coleman observed. In Texas politics, Coleman believes, ‘everything is about race. It’s veiled as public policy, but it encourages people to believe that their tax dollars are going to support lazy black and brown people.’ Political views have become more entrenched because of redistricting, and yet the demographic majority in Texas is far more progressive than its representatives. Coleman predicts a showdown. ‘This is the battle about the future of the country, based on a new majority, and we have to have this out.’

We left the Beto event feeling part of the new majority. The people in that room are ready to have it out.

My response to the S-USIH roundtable on *Runaway*

photo of my book arrival

The following is my response to a roundtable published at the Society for US Intellectual History Blog. Links to the essays in the roundtable can be found here.

Not long before going into the room to defend my dissertation, I was advised by a mentor–and I’m paraphrasing–“This may be the only time your scholarship will ever receive such close attention. Enjoy it.”

I’m just going to give anyone who’s ever defended a dissertation a moment to reflect on these remarks, to savor their layers of meaning, and maybe to chuckle at them a little ruefully, as I did in that small part of my brain where, at that point in my academic career, I still had room left to entertain a complex truth.

Because, I want to say, this was indeed honest advice, full of plainspoken wisdom, and yet the prediction it contained turned out not to be accurate, after all. Here at the S-USIH Blog, three scholars have weighed in on my book, Runaway: Gregory Bateson, the Double Bind, and the Rise of Ecological Consciousness. I share the anecdote above as way to tell these three, Colin Campbell, Michael Kramer, and Lilian Calles Barger, how grateful I am for this roundtable and for their engagement with the book–and how I don’t take it for granted even a tiny bit.

Each of these reviewers offers summary statements so concise and so accurate as to make an author teary-eyed. More productive, if less wholly pleasing, is the feedback these readers bring that pertains to what was left out of the book, what I might have explored further, or more critically, what I raised as a central issue but did not make fully clear. These are the matters I’ll focus on here.

First, however, a few brief summary statements of my own may be necessary. Michael J. Kramer does the book a service by clarifying its central concerns: the double bind concept, the related concept of systemic runaway, and the moral implications that a systemic orientation raises, which Bateson would capture in the phrase, “the riddle of the Sphinx.” These concerns, in turn, provided a ten-year narrative arc the book loosely follows: the construction of double bind theory in 1956 through its application to the discourse of ecocatastrophe at the Congress on the Dialectics of Liberation in the summer of 1967–and in what may be the first discussion of global warming before a lay audience.

That audience, of course, is vital to any contextual understanding of these concepts and events. As a scholar who has done so much work in the cultural history of the 1960s, Kramer knows that audience well. It was one raised to oppose, as if by instinct, totalitarianism in all its forms and to exalt individual free expression. How to square this with ecological holism? In raising the whole above the parts, didn’t one run the risk of inscribing morality into nature, and succumbing to, as one of the historians Bateson corresponded with put it, “the siren to be feared”? Fascism, with its naturalization of the body politic, had only recently been defeated, perhaps only temporarily. Kramer puts his finger on a concern that would become more salient in the seventies, the eighties, and beyond: Weren’t those persuaded by systemic thinking now vulnerable to neoliberalism and its trust in the free market as a system and, as Kramer puts it, “ultimate balance by the invisible hands”? If I could continue the path this book opens, and follow Bateson’s thought into the next decade, this would be one of my guiding questions.

Still, I think a response to the question is present in the book. Yes, according to a systems view, the free market is a system over which no individual or group has control. Like all systems, it processes information running in circuits, reinforcing basic premises, conserving ‘sacred’ truths. If those truths include the belief that human beings are creatures whose survival necessitates the maximization of self-interest, an economy dependent upon endless capital accumulation and reproduction is the sort one would expect to get. As early as 1958, Bateson described a culture in a double bind. “From its own point of view, the culture faces either external extermination or internal disruption, and the dilemma is so constructed as to be a dilemma of self-preservation in the most literal sense” (254). We might apply this description to our present-day economic system. To preserve a self dedicated to full individuation means extinction at the cultural level. Preserving the culture means disrupting if not extinguishing the fully individuated self.

Colin Campbell might put the situation a bit differently. It was especially challenging for me to think through his request for greater coherence as to the “battle of ideas” at the core of the book. Campbell identifies this battle as a battle between atomistic and holistic epistemologies as illustrated by Mary Catherine Bateson’s left (atomistic) and right (holistic) columns, which she produced in the thick of the conference her father led in Austria of the summer of 1968. This is an accurate breakdown, as far as it goes. I wasn’t thinking, however, quite so schematically. I didn’t draw so close an equivalence between Batesonian epistemology, as I summarize it in the introduction of the book, and Mary Catherine Bateson’s right-hand column.  Nor do I see as automatic an equivalence between the right-hand column and the position of the “mindblowers” at the 1967 Congress on the Dialectics of Liberation in their contest with the politicos on the nature of revolution.

In short, I may be working a little closer in than Campbell would prefer. As I see it, this wasn’t a single battle of ideas; it was several battles. They were related, to be sure, but distinguished from each other by an ever-changing historical context. I do think Bateson believed his more process- and relations-oriented epistemology to be superior to and should replace an obsolete, “thingish” epistemology (3, 78), simply because it provided a more accurate view of nature and of ourselves. But because I didn’t draw the initial equivalences that Campbell draws, that isn’t the same thing as saying that Bateson believed that Mary Catherine’s right column ought to “eat” her left one.

Yet Campbell’s request for more coherence on this central question is a valid criticism. Does Bateson’s thought transcend or merge the left column’s straightforwardness and the right column’s complexity, and if so, how? This is the million-dollar question, and Campbell’s elucidation of the simplicity/complexity dichotomy was excellent in posing it clearly. I benefited, too, from his detailing, through examples, of the “intra- to each side.” His application of Virginia Satir’s quadrant sharpened the theoretical focus even further.

I would only ask whether this analysis takes us any closer to the merger of left and right sides that we desire? I tend to think not. I resist a rhetorical closure on the question in favor of a contextually rich historical depiction. When we concentrate on the ideas alone and lose the messy story, the picture becomes less accurate, if less satisfying in terms of a conclusion. The dilemma captured by the double bind concept is the merger, it seems to me—or was, anyway, in the summer of 1967. Thus, as Campbell recognizes, the question remains open, as I think it must: How do we stand meta to the dichotomy? I’m informed by Campbell’s bio that he’s working on a couple of studies of Bateson’s thought that I expect will offer a more decisive interpretation. I’m looking forward to reading them.

The merger that Bateson sought to capture epistemologically ran parallel to other similar projects across many registers and bodies of knowledge during the period in question. Sometimes the merger was called a “third way” (239, 249) or, as Lilian Calles Barger puts it in her reflection, “a higher synthesis.” Barger’s book, The World Come of Age, traces this project among liberation theologians in the 1960s and 70s. It isn’t surprising, then, that Barger would call attention to “the mystical Bateson,” another aspect of Bateson’s thought that is raised in my book but not as thoroughly examined as it might have been.

Certainly, the tensions between spirituality and secularity were never far away from the story I tried to tell. Throughout the modern age, but after Darwin especially, liberal theologians found ways to accommodate religion to the rising authority of science: this was the modernist model. What was essentially postmodernist in Bateson’s thought, as I see it, was its reversal of this trend. He argued for an accommodation by science to the religious impulse, broadly understood. As a trained anthropologist, for whom the line between nature and culture was permeable, he read religious behavior as part of humankind’s natural history. As a scientist for whom no area of investigation was separable from its contexts, he concluded that all human investigation of the surrounding world was reflexively an investigation of the human. Here the religious and scientific impulses were on a par.

Much of Bateson’s lay audience grasped this intuitively. Bateson would reject the status of “guru” even though many wished to see him that way. This rejection, another of Bateson’s great refusals, was complicated by the fact that New Age-ish institutions provided aid to him during the trials of his final years. Also, starting in the 1970s, Bateson’s thought was often lumped with the thinking of a less-rigorous body of enthusiasm. The marginalization of much of what I would call postmodern science is a story that bears investigation. Again, if I had the chance to continue my contextualization of Bateson’s thought after his emergence as a public intellectual in 1967 and through the remaining years of his life, this story would be included.

In responding to issues raised by my reviewers that were not fully explored or resolved in the book, I’ve pointed in each case to the following period, after the 1967-68 turning point, to the other side of my narrative arc. That’s a little embarrassing. If I’ve given short shrift to all I did include, my reviewers mentioned a good bit of it, and again I want to thank them for that. But I also want to make one last point. I alluded above to working “close in.” In writing this book, I tried to stand meta to an analytical/aesthetic dichotomy, too. Part of that meant drawing boundaries. Some stories just can’t be told in one volume, not the way they ought to be, anyway.

A version of this essay appears at the S-USIH Blog.

The Society for US Intellectual History’s roundtable on *Runaway.*

This week S-USIH posted a roundtable on *Runaway.” The first installment came from Lilian Calles Barger. Here’s the link: https://s-usih.org/2018/07/batesons-great-refusal-a-reflection/

The second installment came from Michael J. Kramer. Here’s the link: https://s-usih.org/2018/07/cherish-your-exceptions/

The third installment came from Colin J. Campbell. Here’s the link: https://s-usih.org/2018/07/bridging-the-gap/

Sarah J. Ray on Coming of Age with the Climate Change Generation

CLEO PRINT

Print by Cleo Chaney, age 15.

No one was forcing them to believe in anything, these fifteen-year-old Unitarians, taking their turns at the pulpit. They were delivering “spiritual reflections” to their parents and friends on a recent Saturday evening. Their speeches were the culmination of a year’s worth of coming-of-age classes they’d attended, a formal summing up of what they’d learned and where they stood. They were an impressive and articulate group, and I’m not saying that just because my daughter was one of them.

What a pluralistic exercise it was–each speech a nuanced and individual expression. Still, if I were to perpetrate some analytical violence on the reflections as a whole, I might divide them into three categories. The first group, when facing the big questions, turned to science. If science couldn’t explain or solve everything, it offered the best method of investigation, the best source of solutions to be found. The second group had arrived at a kind of working dualism. They, too, deferred to science but allowed for a realm not reachable through its procedures. A few placed God in that realm, though they did so with understandable diffidence. The third group restricted their comments to practice. “What’s the use of putting beliefs into words?” they implied. Even the vaguest metaphysical statement lands somewhere on the dogma spectrum. What’s important is tending to our relationships, enjoying them, nurturing them, caring for them. I’ve always admired third-category people, but I suppose I’m too fond of categorizing to ever count myself among them.

These three groups are not novel in any way. In fact, my impression was, despite constant and ever more rapid technological change, how very little the basic questions and options have changed. It was also my impression that the largest group was probably the first one. Again, no surprise. The dominant American culture is secular. The liberating effect of scientific knowledge and technological innovation is its creed. The cult of progress seems undimmed, even against the prospect of climate change. Indeed, the belief in salvation via technology seems to take its purest form when that prospect is most directly confronted.

David Wallace-Wells’ lengthy article of last year, “The Uninhabitable Earth”–the most-read of any published in the history of New York magazine–expresses what I mean. As its title suggests, the article was a lengthy survey of worst-case consequences for a planet predicted to warm by several degrees. In his conclusion, Wallace-Wells remarks on the fundamental optimism of the climate scientists he’d interviewed: “They point to the Apollo project, the hole in the ozone we patched in the 1980s, the passing of the fear of mutually assured destruction. Now we’ve found a way to engineer our own doomsday, and surely we will find a way to engineer our way out of it, one way or another.” Wallace-Wells identifies this as “a strange kind of faith.”

Sarah J. Ray is a professor at Humboldt State University and the coordinator of its environmental studies program. The environmental humanities journal, Resilience, sent out a notification about a talk Ray gave at Swarthmore College called “Coming of Age at the End of the World: Eco-Grief, Effective Resilience, and The Climate Generation.” A transcript of the talk was posted online, and I read it with great interest. Ray described the typical student in her program and their “emotional journey” through its curriculum. Students enroll in environmental studies at Humboldt because they are concerned about the environment, specifically about climate change, she explained. Many saw An Inconvenient Truth when they were children, “a major watershed moment for them.” In the time-honored way of young people, now they want to be part of the solution.

I can see some of the young people in my daughter’s coming-of-age class making the decision to go to Humboldt or some place like it in a few years, especially those in the first group. In fact, a number of Ray’s students start out in environmental science but then first-year botany does them in. Too dry? Too demanding? “They want to understand the human element,” Ray said. “They want to think about power and politics and economics and history and religion and literature.” I can sympathize. At this point, some shift to environment studies. There they get more liberal arts but it’s also, “in some ways, emotionally more difficult.”

How so? Ray described the next part of her students’ journey as “various rugs being pulled out from underneath” them. By the second year at least, they’ve begun to grasp the scale of the problem. There is no straightforward fix, they learn. Experts and education aren’t reliable. They’ve considered the social construction of words like “nature”–the basic concepts we employ to orient ourselves in the world. They begin to see how deeply sunk are the causes of our climate predicament, not only in the way we live but in the way we organize perception. “They become fatalists in the face of no easy solutions and immobilized by a growing awareness of their pervasive complicity in the problems.” Their faith, one might say, has been shaken. Not a few of them wind up in her office in tears.

Ray calls this “climate trauma” and “ecological despair.” My ears perked up at these phrases. In my book, Runaway: Gregory Bateson, the Double Bind, and the Rise of Ecological Consciousness, I tried to approach this trauma historically. I looked at the interface between systems thinking and the emergence of modern environmentalism in the late 1960s. I didn’t use Ray’s terms but one from a quote of Richard Falk’s–“the apocalyptic encounter.” The apocalyptic encounter is to confront the depth of our pervasive complicity, to grasp that our predicament isn’t an engineering problem to be solved by better engineering, but about who we are, what we do, and how we know. Whether this is a formal and prolonged encounter, like the one Ray’s students undertake, or whether it’s a glimpse only momentarily bearable, the response can be a crisis of faith. To conceive of this response in the pattern of what Bateson called double bind is to see it as an urgent act of retrenchment of the very faith that the encounter indicts. That retrenchment is again undermined by evidence, and the pattern repeats itself. The oscillation between undermining and retrenchment results in immobilization and pain. It’s an “urgency plus inability equation,” in a phrase of Michael Maniantes, one of the scholars Ray cites. It’s what her students are feeling.

Ray eventually realized that her office was not the place to deal with her student’s climate trauma, that she was not trained to handle it, that it was taking time from her other duties as a classroom instructor and administrator. It got in the way of her research agenda. With encouragement from another scholar and friend, Ray changed her agenda to focus on the trauma itself. She wants to learn about it, understand it, and develop ways to bring it into the classroom. She wants to use the curriculum to build “new muscle” in her students so that they develop “emotional resilience.” Ray is working on a book on this topic. She has some ideas and offered several of them in her talk. They include making the emotional content of classroom material more transparent. They include affirming self-care. They include study of the history of social movements and of theories of social change.

Ray’s talk and ideas set my mind off in so many directions that I can’t take them all up in one post. For the time being, I’ll conclude with one obvious thought. We’re all Ray’s students, are we not? We may not be doing their assignments, but what they confront, we confront, too. We’re experiencing the trauma, we’re coming of age–but how healthily, I wonder? I think about all the anger and blame I feel toward those who deny climate change complicity per se. Yes, when I think about these folks, the stance of the current administration, the disposition of today’s EPA—I want to shake my fist, I want to cry. As if fixing them will fix the problem. Surely the anger I feel is legitimate and necessary. At the same time I wonder if it isn’t a kind of denial all its own.

A version of this post appears at the Society for US Intellectual History Blog.

Who’s Singing Over There? Ballads, Social Music, and Songs

anthology social music

Every six weeks or so, my wife and I meet with several other couples for “Record Club.” Whichever couple is hosting that night provides dinner and chooses a theme. Everyone comes with music, and we go around the circle, listening to the songs we brought and relating them to the theme. Tonight’s meeting will be at our house, and the theme is “Ballads, Social Music, and Songs.”

In 1952, the Anthology of American Folk Music was released on Folkways Records, compiled by the artist, experimental filmmaker, and all-around New York eccentric Harry Smith. The anthology consists of 84 recordings taken from Smith’s collection of 78s, all made between 1927 and 1932, the first boom in commercial recordings aimed at a general audience. Smith organized the selections into three categories of two discs each. His categories were “Ballads,” “Social Music,” and “Songs.”

When I first studied the anthology years ago, Smith’s categorization fascinated me. I was delighted that “Social Music” meant religious music and dance music. It seemed altogether fitting that these two types of music were classed together, though I’d been raised to believe they were on opposite ends of the moral spectrum. Of course, even among Protestants, there is disagreement on this question. Some sects let the music move them; others don’t allow any music at all.

The “Ballads” category was also unexpected. By ballads, today, we mean big, slow love songs, with the emphasis on melody rather than the beat. I like a good ballad as much as anybody, but if you’re playing in a bar band, you don’t want to put too many ballads in one set. But Smith wasn’t referring to tempo or melody or even to subject matter. He meant narratives, story songs, most told in the third person. Many of his anthology selections were American versions of the so-called “Childs ballads,” a group of centuries-old sung stories from England and Scotland that had first been chronicled by Francis James Child in 1860. Others had a strictly American provenance, including African-American (“Gonna Die with My Hammer in My Hand,” “Stakalee”), though Smith, a forward-thinking individual, made no racial distinctions in the liner notes of the accompanying booklet. Americans were Americans, when it came to making music, which is pretty much the way musicians look at it.

The “Songs” category was the most intriguing. Song is the generic term for all such music–at least when there are lyrics involved. So how could it be a sub-category? Greil Marcus helped me out with this. In his 1997 book, The Invisible Republic, he writes:

Songs are ‘folk-lyric’ songs, made up of verbal fragments that had no direct or logical relationship to each other, but were drawn from a floating pool of thousands of disconnected verses, couplets, one-liners, pieces of eight. Harry Smith guessed the folk-lyric form came together sometime between 1850 and 1875. Whenever it happened, it wasn’t until enough fragments were abroad in the land to reach a kind of critical mass–until there were enough fragments, passing back and forth between blacks and whites as common coin, to generate more fragments, to sustain within the matrix of a single musical language an almost infinite repertory of performances, to sustain the sense that out of the anonymity of the tradition a singer was presenting a distinct and separate account of a unique life. It is this quality–the insistence that the singer is singing his or her own life, as an event, taking place as you listen, its outcome uncertain–that separates the song, from which the singer emerges, from the ballad, into which the singer disappears.

Marcus gives us a lot to chew on here. If ballads tend to be in the third person, songs tend to be in the first. If the singers disappears into the ballad, the singer steps out in theinvisible republic song. What ballads shared, Smith suggests in his notes, is their “narrative unity.” This posits some distance between the making of the lyrics and the singing of them. A story not only occurs in a distant time, it must also be prepared, its beginning, middle, and end worked out, prior to its performance. Songs may be no less prepared, but the impression they are meant to convey is one of immediacy. This song is “taking place as you listen.” The singer’s individuality and the immediacy of the performance are the point. The singer is the center of the song, the chief character who feels the song as it’s performed, and who the listeners are urged to identify with so to experience their own individuality.

What strikes me about this passage is the way it underscores Smith’s project not only as ethnography but as history. His categories become analytical tools to historicize the development of a genre that is ubiquitous today. The song is arguably the most prominent genre we currently have to express what it is to be human, and if not the most prominent, surely the most democratic. One doesn’t have to be a trained musician or even all that talented to create and perform a two-minute song. And given that Smith’s ‘song’ category–a performance that conveys individuality and immediacy–is practically the present standard, the history of that genre is worth contemplating. Such contemplation leads one to realize that the performance of music wasn’t always like that, that ‘songs’ weren’t always songs as we know them, and that this genre, with its essential individualism, is therefore particularly modern.

If it’s true that songs, as I’ve used the passage in Marcus to help me describe them, did not exist prior to the modern, then their emergence must have been accompanied by the discomfort we typically associate with a dawning modernity. It’s the discomfort of moving from the accepted pronouns “we” and “us” to the more audacious “I” and “me.” In ballads, what’s important are the stories we’ve inherited as a folk. Their spacious and oft-repeated renderings allow for the variety of interpretations that tell us who we are, collectively, and that help us understand the roles we’ve been assigned to play. In social music what’s important is that we’re all together, relating to each other in ritual movements, or performing the same liturgies together and proclaiming the same doctrines of belief. That’s the ballad; that’s social music.

But songs? They must have come as an affront. What does it matter who you are and what you’re feeling right now–apart, that is, from the rest of us? I can’t find my copy of Blues People just now, but I seem to remember Leroi Jones making a similar point about the development of blues–how it was foremost an expression of individualism, apart from the community-made musics of the church and the field. What I’m describing here are the growing pains of the individual emerging from community, a hallmark of the modern if there ever was one.

Aside from discomfort, such a performance must have been imagined, desired, and felt as somehow necessary before a genre existed to enact it. I can imagine the most progressive folk artists feeling this need, reaching for those fragments of lyric Marcus mentions: “I’d rather be in some dark holler, where the sun refused to shine.” “My name I’ll never deny.” “Forty dollars won’t pay my fine.” These fragments were used as place-keepers perhaps, while the tropes and conventions we have since come to know were developed over time.

Smith’s anthology was received and had its greatest influence during that particularly hairy stretch of the Cold War when what was considered the most popular music was the escapist soundtrack of domestic containment. The anthology offered an alternative. It offered a source of inspiration and material to the folk and blues revivalists of the fifties and early sixties. “In that music is the only true, valid death you can feel today off a record player,” said Bob Dylan in a quote cited by Marcus.

Bringing up Dylan again raises the issue of the song and its evolution. As politics, the folk revival was a call for collectivity. It directed attention to social problems, advocated for civil rights and peace, and eschewed the commercial as corporately designed to distract us from the troubles we share. Dylan tipped his hat to the collective and gave the movement two or three of its greatest anthems, but then got busy advancing the song in the direction it had been going for a least a hundred years: the ego in the moment. Dylan, it shouldn’t surprise us, may have been listening more closely than most to the actual music in Harry Smith’s compilation–in any case, to the two discs of “Songs.”

A shorter version of this post appears at the Society for US Intellectual History.

Degrowth’s Light Touch

degrowth posterReading in the literature of degrowth, I find much to be charmed by, not least the following quote from In Defense of Degrowth, the 2017 collection of writings by degrowth scholar and advocate Giorgos Kallis. The quote–and I’ll get to it in just a moment–comes from a passage in which Kallis is speaking of degrowth’s “call for sobriety.”

We should note, first off, that it isn’t the call for sobriety itself that’s unusual. We know that call. We must shrink our carbon footprints, fly less, walk more, eat less beef, and so on. We also know how easily an agenda of this sort can be dismissed as backwardness and nonsense. People simply aren’t going to give up their … well, their anything. That’s the argument against sobriety, more or less, and it’s just about rock solid.

No, what’s striking about the call for sobriety from this degrowth perspective is what we’re being asked to give up. “Our claim for sobriety,” Kallis writes, “is based on the premise that finding the meaning of life individually is an anthropological illusion.” What charms me about this quote, and about degrowth in general, is how it engages not only our material but also our semiotic modes. This isn’t about giving up air conditioning and cars. It’s about giving up what many have called the very point of it all.

Degrowth is a body of critical theory and a research agenda. It responds to two simplein defense of degrowth cover realities: 1) the conditions of our environment are rapidly deteriorating, and 2) the ‘grow or die’ imperative, which practically all economists and politicians accept as the solution to our problems, is in fact the primary cause. Degrowth is also an investigation and a provisional encouragement of those local and regional experiments, going on in various parts of the world, in exiting the growth economy. The degrowth perspective is organized around the values of sufficiency, simplicity, conviviality, and sharing–not the value of individual material accumulation.

Nor of semiotic accumulation, as it were. Degrowth insists that meaning is collective, and that decisions about “the meaning of life” are not merely private decisions made by individuals, but collective, political decisions. I read it this way: It’s not the individual’s responsibility to grow and dispense with their own economic surplus. Nor is the individual responsible for securing their own answer to what’s it’s all about. The environment can’t sustain the former, and the psyche can’t sustain the latter. In which case people ought “to take themselves less seriously,” Kallis writes, “and enjoy living free from the unbearable weight of limitless choice.”

I’m a little uneasy, in regard to those who haven’t heard of this movement, introducing it in this way. The quote I selected doesn’t reflect the central focus of degrowth thinking. The passage it was taken from–only one of many that set my mind turning–was something of a digression, in fact. But so many of the questions in my own work concern the power of the dominant imaginaries, as well as where, how, and whether they might be challenged. How lightly, I thought, does this degrowth perspective toss off the modern quest for meaning!

And make no mistake–it’s a lot to toss off. Having assigned my World Civ students an excerpt from The Communist Manifesto, I dipped into a book I hadn’t read since the eighties, Marshall Berman’s All that is Solid Melts into Air, the 1982 classic on modernization and modernism which takes its title from the famous passage in the Manifesto. What stood out to me, even more strongly than when I first read it decades ago, is how Berman both praises and bemoans “the development ideal” as the driver of modernization. By development, he means growth, that perpetual churn of destruction and renewal that Marx and Engels identified as the dynamic of the bourgeois revolution.

Yet as he reads Marx and Goethe as modernist texts, Berman hastens to characterize that all that is solid melts covergrowth as an aspect of something more general. Humankind’s “insatiable desire for growth” is “not merely for economic growth but for growth in experience, in pleasure, in knowledge, in sensibility.” That defining insatiability drives us ever upward and onward. Granted unlimited powers by Mephistopheles, Goethe’s Faust quickly burns through the thrills of hedonism, destroying the lives of those he loves along the way. Faust then commits those powers to bettering society with a massive Robert Moses-like makeover. He sets out to become the kind of hero Ayn Rand would later champion in a lower literary register: a builder of great projects of infrastructure. When human insatiability takes economic expression, growth for growth’s sake is the inevitable consequence. Now it isn’t just a few loved ones who are destroyed. Now whole societies and ecosystems are bulldozed and shoveled over, mobilized, reintegrated, and then bulldozed and shoveled over again.

Berman wants to see human expansiveness not only as instinctive but as fundamental. Constant metamorphosis, driven by insatiability, is being “more alive.” In Berman, and in our dominant modern imaginary, the dynamic of modernization is justified by perceiving it as but an expression of the dynamic of the life process itself. “To say that our society is falling apart is only to say that it is alive and well.” This is the modernist insight. There is no endpoint to growing, and there is no endpoint to knowing, and so the modern search for meaning becomes an endless quest. Valorized in this way, human insatiability reaches the level of tragedy. The “deepest horrors” of modernization spring from our “most honorable aims” and our “most authentic achievements.” Yet they lead to a condition, both material and spiritual, in which all that is solid melts into air.

Melt may not be the right verb, however. As the economic reinforces the semiotic, and the semiotic reinforces the economic in turn, burn or combust may be more fitting. I keep flashing on the recurring image of explosive flames, roaring and filling the screen, that I remember in David Lynch’s film, Wild at Heart. I read this image as unconstrained vitality. Life is a wild, broiling churn at its heart, driven by desire, dangerous and free.

This is dramatic, but is it accurate? Sure we have dreams of expansiveness, but we have other dreams, too: of peace, justice, laughter, generous relations, and communities of calm and sustained prosperity. So why not, as an image of core vitality, a recurring one from a later film: the shimmering, slowly turning, three-dimensional cosmos of light in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life? This would represent not the combustion of order, but its opposite–a set of ordering principles, perhaps.

The degrowth folks might, as I do, prefer the latter image. On the other hand, if they found Malick’s aesthetic a tad too heavy, they certainly wouldn’t be the first. They mightdegrowth march in bonn instead reach for something more transparently convivial. Berman believes “the wounds of modernity can only be healed by a fuller and deeper modernism.” “Modern men and women must learn to yearn for change,” he writes, but his construction doesn’t allow them any objective for change except to better surf the same wave of endless development. Is there no exit from this central, self-reinforcing dynamic? “Sure, there is!” the degrowthers say.

We can get into the nitty gritty of their ideas, but what’s the secret of their lightness? Maybe it comes from the lack of strain it would otherwise take to avoid, as the vast majority of others avoid, the obvious fact staring them in the face, supported by a body of evidence before them like an immense leviathan lying dead on the beach: perpetual growth as an ideal is absurd. Magical thinking takes a lot of energy! Yet it’s that thinking on which the world now turns and which is driving our economic and semiotic ways of being into runaway.

A version of this essay appears at the Society for US Intellectual History Blog.