Ratargul_Swamp_Forest_Sylhet_Bangladesh by DM Rehem SMALLER

Ratargul Swamp Forest, Sylhet, Bangladesh. Photo by DM Rehem

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 scranton learning to dieinterruption 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.

The System and the Man

Soundtrack - The Thomas Crown AffairIn 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.

mcqueen with gliderPlayed 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. Tthomas crown duo colorhe 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: dunaway in hat crownCrown 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.