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 the 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.
Reading 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 simple 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 growth 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 might 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.
Having consulted the assigned materials, my students in the second half of the US History survey have no trouble supplying the basic information about the Ghost Dance. Introduced by a Paiute holy man named Wovoka and performed by groups of western plains Indians, the Ghost Dance was “a ritual,” “a ceremony,” “a belief,” “a superstitious behavior.” The dead warriors would come back, the game would return, the whites would be buried underground, and all that was lost would be restored. Some of the dancers wore “sacred garments,” “decorated with special symbols.” Some believed that when performing the ritual, bullets would not penetrate these garments.
Students go on being students. Most report dutifully and await for the next instruction. The Ghost Dance doesn’t seem to knock them in the head the way it does me. Of all the horrors that populate US History since 1865, few seem to me as unrelentingly sad. If one was ever tempted to see religious belief as an escape from reality, borne of the sheer desperation that comes from looking extinction in the face, what better evidence than the Ghost Dance might one find?
Therefore it’s hard for me to check the Ghost Dance off the items-to-cover list and leave it at that. I don’t want to leave the ghost dancers in the pathetic place that history seems to assign them. My reaction is not unusual. Let’s not depict certain classes of folk as victims all the time, it’s sometimes argued; let’s point out instances of defiance, of collective and individual agency. The losers of history aren’t always losers. Sometimes they resist power. Sometimes they fight just as nobly as the winners do.
In the case of the Ghost Dance, I’d like to try a different tack. I don’t want to think in terms of oppressors and victims, of winners and losers, but more generally of human beings and the kinds of things they do. The western Indians had tried everything. They tried resisting, and they tried assimilating. They tried signing treaties, and they tried giving up and asking for protection. If the Ghost Dance is where a people arrive when they’ve tried everything and nothing worked, they haven’t for a moment stopped being human. The Ghost Dance is the kind of thing human beings do.
And what kind of thing is that? It’s a ritual, a repeated act of patterned behavior, manifested and justified by a set of ideas. As such, it’s a form of expressive culture and not different in kind from many other forms of expressive culture. Expressive culture can be a way to process the most difficult and painful of contradictions. You are not who you thought you were. What you trusted has proven untrustworthy. Expressive culture creates space where incommensurable truths can stand side by side, where the logic of dreams is accommodated, and the living and the dead can converse. At this level of abstraction, the distinction between escaping reality and accepting reality begins to blur, along with the distinction between the winners and losers.
Now I can see the Ghost Dance as not so singular in its time. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, for instance, was also a piece of expressive culture, a ritual behavior, a choreography played out again and again. It, too, was built on a set of beliefs and involved the wearing of costumes and the inculcation of performers and audiences in a shared fantasy or dream.
Sitting Bull, incidentally, had his suspicions about both the Ghost Dance and the Wild West Show, and yet supported, to some extent, both. Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee includes a passage about Sitting Bull on his tour with the traveling show. His job was to display himself to the crowds. As a living relic, his presence added authority to the Custer’s Last Stand re-enactment that was the show’s major set piece. “He drew tremendous crowds,” Dee Brown writes.
Boos and catcalls sometimes sounded for the “Killer of Custer,” but after each show these same people pressed coins upon him for copies of his signed photograph. Sitting Bull gave most of the money away to the band of ragged, hungry boys who seemed to surround him wherever he went. He once told Annie Oakley, another one of the Wild West Shows stars, that he could not understand how white men could be so unmindful of their own poor. “The white man knows how to make everything,” he said, “but he does not know how to distribute it.”
What an interesting novel this could make, along the lines of The General in his Labyrinth: Sitting Bull reflects on the society and lifeways that have been lost while simultaneously getting a close-up view of the society and lifeways which have come to replace them. His thoughts follow this trajectory: The Ghost Dance may be a dance of defeat and a blatant denial of reality, but the dance of the Wild West Show denies realities, too. It denies the moral compromises, the betrayal of first principles, and all the ignoble acts of violence and painful contradictions that victory in the contest required. The Wild West Show is the fantasy spun by the winners in order to live with themselves.
Now that the victors and the victims are connected by the same pattern, we might connect ourselves to the pattern, too. The nineteenth century has no monopoly on escapist fantasies and denial. Coal continues to be extracted from the ground of Wyoming, Montana, and other western states. Oil continues to be pumped and pipe-lined across the Great Plains. For over two centuries we’ve been burning fossil fuels at an increasing rate, in exchange for the miracles of space travel, smartphones, and single-use plastics. What rituals aid us in living with ourselves?
As the threats of climate change have loomed larger, superhero movies have come to rule at the box office, it seems. Ironman dons his suit. Bullets can’t penetrate that garment–that garment of technological genius that is going to save us from all threats. We know the cinematic ritual. The dance ends the same way every time. The fate of the world has come down to a single bout between Ironman and his adversary. Throughout this protracted battle—all the getting knocked down and the getting back up again–all manner of infrastructure is laid to waste. Roads and bridges, buildings, innumerable cars. This is the most tedious and least dispensable part of the ritual. Here the contradictions at play achieve an almost seamless merger.
A version of this essay appears on the Society for US Intellectual History Blog. https://s-usih.org/2018/02/ghost-dancers-past-and-present/
The more I meditate, the less I like to drive.
I’ll let that sentence stand for a moment, though I’m not yet ready to vouch for its accuracy. The causal connection is iffy, for one thing. I’m also stumbling a little on the terminology. Meditation is meant to ground one in the present. Yet “the present” is precisely where one wants to be when accelerating from a ramp onto a high-speed freeway, when even a lapse of a few seconds’ attention can result in a spectacular wreckage. I might put it this way: accelerating from a ramp to a high speed freeway is an embodiment of the cognitive restlessness that meditation aims to corral. Meditation may be making it obvious to me how unhealthy driving really is.
What’s the difference, I’ve lately wondered, between meditation and my time in books, my work, my scholarship? Both are exercises in focus. Both activities seem out of sync with time – if not in the sense of time as “the present,” then of time as the general current or flow. Meditation has been adopted by corporate culture as a practice that will lead to increased productivity. If that means more ticks on the slate of the Gross National Product, my hope is the opposite is the case. The 2007 collapse of the economy was good for the climate, it turns out. Fewer particles of carbon were released into the atmosphere than would have been otherwise. On the individual level, meditation and scholarship interrupt the flow. That can’t hurt, it seems to me.
In his long essay, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene (City Lights Books, 2015), Roy Scranton speaks of “the continuous press of the present” and the necessity of suspending it through a practice of interruption. As in any literature about the climate crisis, there is much to be gloomy about here. Our problems are large and wicked. In his first three chapters, Scranton surveys the various environmental catastrophes we face, information familiar to anyone who can stand to take it in. Still, as he discusses the “disciplined interruption of social flows, the detachment of consciousness from impulse” as a “radical practice,” I begin to feel somewhat cheered. “We must inculcate ruminative frequencies in the human animal,” Scranton writes, “by teaching slowness, attention to detail, argumentative rigor, careful reading, and meditative reflection.” These are different ways to describe what he calls “philosophical humanism,” and which I understand as instruction and scholarly practice in the humanities. It’s a relief to be informed that what one must do to combat climate change is what one most enjoys doing and would likely be doing, anyway.
To be clear, Scranton isn’t offering this as a solution to the climate crisis, only advice as to how to prepare for what will come of it. When one practices interruption, one “practices dying,” he contends. There’s a point here. As terrible as the threat of climate change is, it hasn’t altered the death sentence for any of us–or for that of our civilization. Scranton knows, having been a soldier in Iraq, what it is to face death, but again his advice on this score isn’t particular to the environmental crisis, but a more general momento mori. This interruptive cultivation of the past and its wisdom is the best way to learn how to die, as it would be no matter what was happening ecologically.
In other ways, as I read, I wondered about Scranton’s ecological bona fides. In several instances, his descriptions of reality harken back to a Cartesian-Newtonian perspective rather than partaking of an ecological or systemic view. “If, like a god,” Scranton writes, “we could see every photon’s arc and each neutrino’s wobble, we would see past and future laid out in a single mathematical design: infinite, determined, perfect.” This registers awareness of the new physics but not of Heisenberg’s uncertainly principle and not of later theories of self-organization and emergence. Thus everything that is, must be, and was “laid out already” in the Big Bang.
There is much in the essay, too, of the combative stance and hard line drawn between “human will and natural force” which I explored a bit in my last post: The Man Steve McQueen facing off against The System. Scranton’s practice of interruption seemed at times to be a case for a modernist redoubt where classicists sit isolated, working and re-working our “seed stock” of “remembrance,” while the current civilization races toward its end. This is a Fahrenheit 451 for the climate disaster.
However, as with the notion of “the present,” there are terminologies here running crossways with each other. In other of Scranton’s passages, the subject is very much inside the system, suffering the “stress-semantic chains of social excitation” that seek us as circuits to pass through, re-energized. Today’s digital world of device-driven interconnection facilitates this channeling. “We live in networks, webs, and hives, jacked in to remote-controlled devices and autonomous apps, moments of being in time, out of time,” Scranton writes. “No longer individual subjects or discrete objects, we have become vibrations, channelers, tweeters and followers.”
The Web is an easy target. We all know its restlessness, its excitations and angry escalations. Still, I respond to those passages where Scranton merges the cognitive and the material. The interrupter doesn’t disrupt, he says at one point, the interrupter “ponders.” When we suspend our tendency to vibrate and pass along, flow backs up, current pools, as in a lowland woods. Of all the interrupters, each meditates alone. Yet even as I write that sentence something inside pushes back and brings this image to mind: a dozen persons across some public glade, practicing tai chi in slow, deliberate union.
This post also appears at the Society for US Intellectual History Blog, where I am a contributing author.
In one sequence from The Trip to Spain, the latest in the series of “trip” movies by British actors Steve Cougan and Rob Brydon, the two are driving through some picturesque countryside, and one starts singing the great Michel Legrand tune, “The Windmills of Your Mind.” The other joins in. They both know all the words and sing the song in its entirety.
Round, like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel …
Some months back, I posted a piece called “The Ecological Imagination in Six Songs,” and I wondered if this one ought to have been included on that list. Being a song of the late sixties, it’s contemporary with the emergence of modern environmentalism. The song’s theme bears a connection, too. In the English lyrics, written by Marilyn and Alan Bergman, the interior workings of the psyche and the exterior workings of the universe are merged holistically. “Like a snowball,” “a carousel,” the seasons, the earth “like an apple whirling silently in space”— all are circles around which information runs. The song offers a fractal vision of the living world: inner forms echo outer forms and are nested within them. This is “the systems view of life,” as Fritjof Capra phrased it in his 2014 book, a view which heavily informs the ecological imagination.
“The Windmills of Your Mind” first appeared on the soundtrack for the film, The Thomas Crown Affair, for which it won the Oscar for best song. That was 1968, a year packed full of events which will mark in 2018 their fifty-year anniversaries. (The anniversary of the Tet Offensive, to name one, occurs at the end of this month.) Of course, 1968 is commonly identified as a “turning point” in post-1945 history, the decade’s “most iconic, tumultuous year,” the Long Sixties’ middle pivot, when the hope and optimism of the first half broke down and turned to disillusion. Having heard the song, I recently re-watched the film, wondering what it and “Windmills” had to say about their times.
Played by Steve McQueen, Thomas Crown is a young Boston Brahmin, rich and smart, who runs an investment company specializing in currencies. He’s one of those “Masters of the Universe” that would be held up for scorn by Tom Wolfe and Oliver Stone in the 1980s, but in this film, he’s the ideal. The film opens with Crown organizing and pulling off a complicated bank heist. This portion of the film pioneers a highly stylized multiple-screen technique that allows the audience to follow Crown as he sits at his desk and executes his many-faceted plan. He employs operatives in gray suits and dark glasses, strangers both to him and to each other. It’s the perfect crime, and Crown its godlike master, omniscient yet unknown to all, pulling the strings from his high-rise perch. The remainder of the film celebrates that mastery and asks whether it will go unchecked. Faye Dunaway plays the brilliant insurance investigator hot on his trail, a happy warrior with a liking for haute couture. The two are superior persons: equally beautiful and equally amoral, in need of no one, and therefore, perfect for each other.
What does all this have to do with 1968–or with the systems view of life, for that matter? Bonnie and Clyde, which came out a year earlier but took a while to gain attention, is often cited as the film that marks the sixties’ turn toward rising militancy, politics as outlawry, and the radical chic. One might argue that Crown is Bonnie and Clyde in a different milieu. Both are about young criminals seeking thrills, their robberies are attacks on the establishment, and Dunaway’s appearance in Crown comes on the heels of her role as Bonnie. Yet Bonnie and Clyde are nobodies, underdogs in the midst of the Depression. The elite Crown lacks nothing and is perfectly free. The only problem he has with power is that he has so much of it, its normal uses have come to bore him. Likewise, the film’s tone has little connection to 1968 as a turning point. It is all youthful exuberance, material abundance, townhouses and beach fronts, fine whiskey in snifters, sporty little foreign speedsters—the sixties prior to any turn.
Still, the scene that begins the third act offers the strongest evidence for a case that Thomas Crown is anti-establishment and of a piece, somehow, with the Movement. Here he admits to his motivation for the crime. “It’s not the money,” Crown says, “It’s me. And the system.”
It may take a little time travel to feel the word “system” as it was felt in 1968. For more than a decade, many words had been used to represent “the establishment.” In Howl, Allen Ginsberg spoke of Moloch. For Ken Kesey, it was “the combine.” Theodore Rozak would use the term, “the technocracy.” These usages were not identical in meaning, but they were all descriptive of a vast, threatening, multi-faceted structure against which one was to rebel. Of all these terms, “the system” may well have been the most common. To focus their protest and interrogate it intellectually, SDS leaders strived to “name the system” which could produce a war as insane as the one in Vietnam. The system had an inhuman, machine-like aspect–the turning of many complex and interlocking gears upon which students were urged to throw their bodies. So when Steve McQueen as Thomas Crown says, “the system,” he’s triggering in the audience of his time a particular set of ideas.
This word also points to a dynamic that interests me in relation to the film, its song, and the period. One of the difficulties of the ecological imagination—the affront, really, that it presents to modern thinking—is the way it subsumes persons into nature, blurs boundaries that define selves, and seems to put at risk the humanist’s stake in human rights. “The Windmills of Your Mind,” with its tone of continental melancholy, captures the sense of being caught up in forces greater than one’s own, of being as powerless against the cycle of seasons as to the mysterious recursions of fate. One isn’t outside the system; one is inside and can’t get out.
Here’s the dynamic I mean. Whereas the song seems to pull the listener in toward a systemic view, the actual plot of the film pushes back against it. Crown is neither part of the system nor controlled by it. He is separate from it, in contest with it, striving to master it. He sits on one side of the old, Cartesian line between the individual and the environment, not upon the new ways of grasping the permeability of that line. Crown is an isolato, completely self-contained. The Dunaway character, as the love interest, offers him a way out of his containment, as it were, a connection to life’s richer whole. Because she is also the investigator trying to catch him, that connection will come at a price: Crown will be held responsible for his actions. For those who haven’t seen the movie, I won’t spoil the end, except to say that the modern dream of mastery goes unchallenged here. There’s nary a whiff of the tragic end to that dream that the ecological imagination will struggle to apprehend.
I’ll end with a few thoughts and questions. It strikes me that, with the change I’m speaking of, toward the systems view of life, the very word “system” had to undergo some rehabilitation. It had to lose some negative baggage. It does seem that to speak of “the system” pejoratively, to mean the power structure or “the establishment,” feels dated today. But to speak of “the Man” in the same way—as in “stick it to the Man”–still enjoys some currency. Could it be that “the system” was in some sense replaced by “the Man”? If so, how and when? What are the archival materials, in addition to “The Windmills of Your Mind,” that could lead to an answer to these questions?
A version of this post appears at Society for US Intellectual History.
Marge may be the moral center of The Simpsons, but surely Lisa represents its active conscience. We have some chuckles at her expense when she moves into the tree to save it from logging. They are the tribute cynicism pays to sincerity.
Mr. Burns sits at the other end of this spectrum, and there the laughs are more satisfying. I’m not sure I’ve laughed more cathartically as when he contrived to block out the sun. Still, I’m not the first to note that Mr. Burns might have been onto something with his giant, sun-blocking device. Today’s geoengineers are proposing to seed the atmosphere with reflective bits of something or other, not to block the sun’s rays but to mirror back some of their light and heat.
In terms of ecological thought, as in much else, Lisa and Mr. Burns represent responses in polar opposition. But I’ll bet Lisa, who respects science and its technological legacy, and who in fact rightfully credits science with her understanding of human-caused climate change, might be willing to listen to the reflective bits idea. Others would urge her to stay up in the tree.
This is all to introduce, rather roughly and garishly, an essential point of contention in ecological thought demonstrated in two recently published articles. One, Peter Frase’s “By Any Means Necessary” appeared last August in Jacobin. The other, from The New York Times a few weeks back, is “The Climate Crisis? It’s Capitalism, Stupid,” by Benjamin Y. Fong.
The point of contention I’m talking about might be summarized this way: What will it take to face our climate crisis, wholesale systemic change or a more enlightened and more inclusive program of techniques–including those of geoengineering?
To be fair, both Frase and Fong are leftist critical scholars endeavoring to imagine a socially equitable, post-capitalist world. But within the immense difficulty of that project, old debates emerge. Because capitalism’s framing premises are the source of the climate crisis, Fong believes there are no piecemeal ways to deal with the magnitude of the threat. “It’s systemic change or bust,” he says.
Although he shares Fong’s etiology for climate change, Frase urges the Left to be more flexible in contemplating solutions. Certainly, rapid decarbonization is necessary, but the potential for remedies in geoengineering should not be dismissed out of hand. Human beings have long been geoengineers, Frase argues, at least since the agricultural revolution. To think we can suddenly change our ways and wait for the natural world to find its way back to some human-friendly homeostasis is not merely naïve, Frase claims; it’s bad natural history.
Students of American history won’t miss the provocation in the title of Frase’s article. “By Any Means Necessary” deliberately recalls the contrast Malcom X drew between the commitment to non-violent protest associated with Martin Luther King, Jr., and his own endorsement of greater militancy. Accordingly, Frase’s argument rests on the same realism used against pacifists in the civil rights realm or elsewhere. If good-thinking people sit out even a discussion of geoengineering, Frase warns, the field will be left open not only to “unaccountable private actors” but to “the apparatus of global neo-liberal government.” Forgoing action for moral reasons, in other words, amounts to surrendering to those who are unafraid to act. Action must be met with action, strength with strength.
These are compelling arguments. Less compelling is the way Frase sets up the problem in his first few paragraphs. The kind of apocalyptic warnings that support the call for systemic change are old hat, he charges, mere grist for the “mill of green moralizing.” Furthermore, they make “it is easy to abandon hope that political institutions can address the crisis in the time-scale it demands.” We need a “different political imaginary,” Frase says.
One might counter that the call for systemic change like the kind Fong makes is by definition a call for a different imaginary. That’s what makes it so frustrating and disturbing, so impossible-seeming, and such a target for ridicule. Maybe apocalyptic warnings are familiar to us now. But at least as familiar is the defensive character of the response to these warnings: their association with religiosity and scolding moralism; the charge that they only encourage hopelessness; the charge that systemic change is unrealistic. It seems to me that the critique on grounds of realism is the clearest sign of all that Frase is not offering a different imaginary but defending the old and dominant imaginary once again.
We might label that imaginary “liberal” or “modern”: it imagines that the key to human progress is the application of intelligence by agents free of received ideas and political oppression. Fong summarizes this as the dream that “intelligence will save us.” “The intelligence of the brightest people around,” he also states, “is no match for the rampant stupidity of capitalism.”
Fong doesn’t elaborate on what he thinks is stupid about capitalism in this brief article. He does mention in passing its “progressive nature.” In the recent book, The Patterning Instinct, Jeremy Lent uses a more descriptive term: “the self-accelerating treadmill of perpetual growth.” Lent shows how many aspects of late capitalism enact a Sorcerer’s Apprentice scenario: the insatiability of want and the planned obsolescence that support consumerism; the demand that corporations maximize returns on investment; the requirement for money to grow in order to insure its future value; the imperative, therefore, to progressively monetize all aspects of human existence. Gun violence and climate change are two more contemporary examples of positive feedback loops in runaway.
These are the systemic aspects of a systemic problem. Therefore, Fong argues, it does no good to blame individuals or even corporations for our predicament. “It is the system as a whole that is at fault.” Lisa Simpson would likely agree with that conclusion. But what can it possibly mean to say that the whole system is at fault and that intelligence cannot save us? What do we have but intelligence to intervene in conditions and to have some say over our fates? Such thinking seems to lead into the hopeless paralysis that Frase describes.
In the face of that paralysis Frase counsels – what else? More doing. Yes, we must decarbonize immediately, strike protests in trees, presumably, and we need to plan for geoengineering projects, as well. Frase’s “all of the above” approach echoes the way Obama articulated the need to fuel a stagnant economy in the aftermath of the 2007 collapse without ignoring climate change.
As commonsensical as this pragmatism is, it can be boiled down to the following: Why fool ourselves? This is who we are. We must keep doing because doing is what we’ve always done. If it hasn’t worked before, it still might work this time, if we can only do better and in greater amounts.
Permit me to direct your attention, at this point, to the paragraph above about the loops.
There is an understandable impatience with certain aspects of ecological thinking: its catastrophism, its moralism, its seeming gestures toward new age mysticism. We may be at the point, however, where the get-real response is the one more threaded with magical thinking.
Note: Peter Frase is an editor at and frequent contributor to Jacobin and the author of Four Futures (Verso, 2016), a smart book that gamely speculates on what might be expected in a post-capitalist, post-climate-changed world. It’s a useful book, brief enough and straightforward enough to be used on a course syllabus. Benjamin Fong is the author of the recent Death and Mastery: Psychoanalytic Drive Theory and the Subject of Late Capitalism (Columbia, 2016). I haven’t read Fong’s book, but it’s now on my list.
Note: This post also appears on the Society for US Intellectual History blog where I have been invited to become a regular contributor.