About anthonychaney

I’m a scholar, educator, and author of "Runaway: Gregory Bateson, the Double Bind, and the Rise of Ecological Consciousness," from The University of North Carolina Press. My work investigates the semi-permeable line between nature and culture, via history, literature, and the arts.


Scenes of Houston, covered by floodwaters, resonated with another image on my mind this week: James Dean, drenched in oil.

dean giant oil sceneThose who’ve seen the movie Giant surely know the image I mean. I haven’t seen that movie for decades but the scene in question is a memorable one. The character Jett Rink, played by Dean–working class kid, shyly and awkwardly pining for the wife of the rich rancher who employs him–strikes a gusher on his own little stake of land. He rushes over to the wife with the news of his good fortune, still covered in the oil that he knows will make him–well, filthy rich. As I remember it, the character is transformed, and all that was hidden inside–all the frustrated desire and ambition, the sting of poverty and class shame–comes out in a sort of gloating dance of joy. From the speech and body language of a character we have sympathized with, we get a glimpse of a monster.

So transformed is Dean’s face that I didn’t recognize it at first in the still from that scene on the cover of Stephanie LeMenager’s book, Living Oil: Petroleum Culture in the American Century (Oxford UP), out in paperback last year. LeMenager is the Moore Distinguished Professor in English and American Literature at the University of Oregon and the co-founder of Resilience: A Journal of the Environmental Humanities. I had the opportunity to meet her this past summer and to hear her speak about her work at a National Endowment of the Humanities summer institute called City/Nature: Urban Environmental Humanities. The institute gathered a number of humanists from a variety of disciplines to share and explore how their research has focused on environmental issues and to understand where the emerging field of the environmental humanities stands at present, especially in regard to thinking about the living city. We read and heard from a number of guests, leading voices in this field, and LeMenager was one of them.

living oil menagerWe are all Houstonians this week, hearing from family and friends who live in southeast Texas and witnessing the plight of many other Americans who have suddenly lost the ability to meet the most basic needs of life. We are all Houstonians and have been for a long time, at least since the Spindletop strike of 1901, which ushered in the Texas Oil Boom and gave birth to Chevron, Texaco, and Gulf. Those conditions are what LeMenager calls “conventional oil,” the relatively easy-to-extract, abundant oil that shaped American modernity. That period is over, as we all must know, and the age of “Tough Oil” is upon us, and as bad as conventional oil was for our environments and our psyches, Tough Oil is worse. Made possible by the new practices of deepwater drilling and fracking, Tough Oil is “not the same resource,” LeMenager insists. All its costs are higher, ecological, social, and biological.

Climate change and the phenomena of petroleum culture overwhelm us with its geo-atmospheric and transnational scale. LeMenager’s critical practice, which she describes as “regional consciousness,” is an effort to overcome this difficulty. She reads regions, so to speak–the fictions and non-fictions, the performances and testimonies of the sites and capitols of our energy system, places such as Houston and the Gulf Coast. The Houston area has long been “deeply entangled with modernity’s most risky objects,” all the violent apparatus of oil extraction, refinement, and transport. More recently, it has pioneered the “ultradeep” experiments in Tough Oil extraction. The BP blowout of 2010 was one early disaster in that extraction, a “humiliation of modernity” that “localized a plethora of visible data.” The superstorm Harvey is doing the same thing today.

Drawing, too, on the practices of cultural studies, Lemenager addresses the “structures of feeling” involved in our attachment to oil. She employs the term “petromelancholia” to describe and explore our grief over the passing of conventional oil and thus of the end of American modernity as we’ve understood it to be. Because this grief is “unresolved,” it’s shot through with “contradictory emotions.” Our energy system is “charismatic” but “profoundly unsustainable.” Our attachment involves both “injury and pleasure.”

And why wouldn’t we be sad and confused about this? Petroleum culture shaped our built environments no less than as it has our imaginings of what it is to be alive. Each of us has our own ton of unorganized plastic floating out in the ocean to mark the significance of our vitality. Cheap energy shapes the structural violence of today’s national and corporate powers; relatively recently and on a smaller scale, planes and cars have become weaponized as the politics of climate change intensify. We live oil, as LeMenager encapsulates in her book’s title. Even if we were to cease burning fossil fuels immediately, extracting oil’s remnants from our semiotic stock would be a task more daunting still. Live fast and leave a beautiful corpse! James Dean embodied that idea in life and on film, aided by an assortment of automotive and petrochemical products, including film itself.

baby driver.jpgPetromelancholia and “carbon masculinity,” another of LeMenager’s terms, were in my mind while I sat in a theater this summer and watched the movie Baby Driver. The protagonist is a baby-faced young man who drives the getaway car for a local crime boss. The film is part of a long tradition of movies that feature car-chase set pieces, that are about car racing, or that focus solely on people driving cars recklessly and fast. What makes Baby Driver different is that every high-speed turn, every spinning skid, every crash and pursuing gunshot is synchronized with a musical moment in the soundtrack. There’s a cultural provenance, too, in the film’s gendered tropes. Cars and trucks are boys’ toys, as are rockets and guns. What is it about fast cars and guns that appeals to the masculine imagination? That these are tools that encourage the illusion of reaching an objective at lightning speed? That these machines built to enhance control must be used to put that control at ever-higher risk? (See my last blog post at S-USIH about paradox.)

By the time I saw the movie, I’d met LeMenager and heard her presentation, but I hadn’t yet read her chapter on petromelancholia or understood her argument in its depth. Nevertheless, as I watched the film, even my superficial grasp of her critique made me interrogate the movie more deeply than its makers likely intended. Why must these cars be driven so madly? Why must they be jerked around this way and that? This nagging insistence on moving bodies quickly through space portrayed not an adult’s mindful composure but a baby’s wise blool hazerestlessness and anxiety. The Monkey Mind was at the wheel. The line Flannery O’Connor gave the preacher Hazel Motes in her novel Wise Blood became relevant: “Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to was never there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it.”

These were searing, chastening insights. They interfered not at all with my deep enjoyment of Baby Driver, as I’m sure LeMenager would understand.

There is No Power in Flowers


photo by Mathias Degen

Emmett Grogan called it “the love hoax.” He was referring to the way a group of Haight-Ashbury business interests were branding the local phenomenon of 1967. The group of scenester-merchants called itself HIP, the Haight Independent Proprietors, and framing the oncoming summer as the “Summer of Love” would be a marketing master stroke. Big-hearted but intensely competitive, Grogan was annoyed at how HIP and others had co-opted the ideas of his organization, the San Francisco Diggers. Even the procedure known as “tie-dye,” to hear Grogan tell it, had originally come from the Diggers. It had been a creative solution some of the Digger ‘old ladies’ had come up with to solve a concrete problem. Now HIP was using it to promote their pop-up head shops and mimeographed weeklies. The Diggers were partly a troupe of agit-prop street artists and partly a community service organization. One of the Diggers’ most ingenious tactics of subversion was to place goods and services in typically commercial contexts and then offer them to the public for “free.” Food, clothing, health care. Experiences. “It’s free because it’s yours,” was the Diggers’ pithy phrase. That HIP could make a buck off the concept of free must have been particularly galling to Grogan.

Another way to say this would be to say that Grogan foresaw in a moment how his and his cohort’s critique of the hegemony would be cannibalized by that very hegemony. Sears and J.C. Penny would be selling striped bell bottoms in no time.

Grogan was too harsh. The members of HIP were as worried as he was about becoming victims of their own success. The Human Be-In in January had been a scene peak—both high energy and relatively hassle-free. By presenting Haight-Ashbury to mainstream society in a positive light, the Human Be-In was also a public relations coup. The consequence, however, was only to accelerate the number of youth who were moving by the week to the neighborhood. Between fifty and two-hundred thousand newcomers were expected after Memorial Day and the closing of the school year. Many would be runaways, arriving with nothing; many would wind up street beggars or acid casualties. The Haight had already surpassed its carrying capacity. The Summer of Love was, therefore, HIP’s way to harness some of the Be-In energy and to keep the mood upbeat.

ringolevioBy charging HIP with hucksterism, Grogan may have been dabbling in a bit of projection. He was an interesting person—the sort of LSD enthusiast who saw himself as a realist. From Grogan’s perspective, the members of HIP were cynics because they were in it for profit. At the same time, someone like Timothy Leary, someone who provided the intellectual rationale for the love hoax, was a “cloud-dweller.” The hippies, too, were “cloud-dwellers” to Grogan, gullible naifs, “experimenting with hunger.”

Grogan was not the only one to look askance on the hippies. Like the Beats before them, they were easy to make fun of. Their clothes and hair styles, their slang terms and fuzzy pronouncements. Their embarrassing sincerity and utopianism. Reagan of course mocked them, but I’m talking about persons one would expect to be more favorable. In his featured address to the Congress on the Dialectics of Liberation, going on in London in July, Herbert Marcuse took pains to point out to his audience—many of them young Americans–that there was no actual power in flowers. Todd Gitlin, a leader of the righteous and sober Students for a Democratic Society, was not sympathetic with the social program of the self-styled spiritual generation. He summed up the hippies’ fatal flaw and delivered it in his great book, The Sixties: “Love should be ashamed when it was founded on privilege.”

perry haight ashburyYet love as a concept was in the movement’s DNA. The Berkeley Barb described the Be-In as “the union of love and activism.” The San Francisco Oracle championed “a Renaissance of compassion, awareness and love in the Revolution of the unity of all mankind.” These folks were interested in religious matters, and according to Leary’s colleague Richard Albert, “the God of the New Age was Love.” In his week-by-week history of the Haight between 1965 and 1968 (where many of these quotes come from), Charles Perry tells of a sit-down with the local police, called by scene leaders early on. Listening to them articulate their hopes and concerns, the department head himself seemed calmed. These concerned if odd-looking young people struck him, he said, as “the love generation.” It was a sobriquet friendlier than Grogan’s.

But I’d like to go back to Todd Gitlin’s verdict. “Love should be ashamed when it was founded on privilege.” Clearly, this was Gitlin’s way of making a case for the hard work of rigorous analysis and political organization. He was agreeing with Grogan and Marcuse. There was no power in flowers. To think otherwise was cloud-dwelling. But we might raise another question: what about love not founded on privilege?

Very few spoke publically about love more often than did Martin Luther King, Jr. In 2016, Cornell West edited a collection of King’s writings, sermons, and speeches. The volume was meant to disturb King’s image as a bland icon and to emphasize his economic and religious radicalism. The works West chose for The Radical King are heavily weighted to the final years of King’s life, 1967 and 1968. In the spring of 1967 King came out against the Vietnam War. But throughout the year, he was particularly engaged with a challenge to non-violence from voices within the movement such as Stokely Carmichael’s. King’s book Where Do We Go from Here? is a record of that engagement.

To defend nonviolence, King defended the deeper, underlying concept of love as a spiritual principle. “We’ve got to get this right,” he told a group of SCLC leaders in August of 1967, after working and re-working his language about love throughout the year. Many of his articulations were structured around the binary of love and power. Love was “identified as a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love.” But it was wrong, King argued, to see love and power as opposed. Rather, he aimed for a merger. “What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.” He heard the arguments of the militants. He granted the points made by the postcolonial critiques. Economic structures required transformation and rebuilding, as did the psyches of the colonized and the poor. Yet King’s still believed in nonviolence as “a tactical program” because it was grounded in his theology. “I have decided,” King said, “to stick with love.”

King’s difficulties in making his case for love and his inability to keep the movement from fragmenting may have less to do with sound theology than with his underlying semiotic. “When I speak of love, I am speaking of a force,” King said in a sermon earlier in the year. In one of his favorite constructions, he described love as the “key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality.” The basic metaphor is mechanistic. The new physics were almost a century old, but King still lived in a Newtonian universe in which linear force and impact were the “ultimate reality.” Power has the advantage in the binary of love and power. Love is the junior partner in that binary, so to speak, and has to rise and merge with power to achieve some of the authority power already enjoys. This is still our underlying semiotic. There is still no power in flowers. Until we can conceive of love as totally divorced from a binary with power–apart from force, from a means to an end, from getting something done in the world –we may be stuck no less than King was. But that’s just my own interpretive fixation.

My main point has to do with HIP and their preemptive branding. I suggested that “Summer of Love” was successful marketing, and what I meant was successful in the long term. It’s hard to say whether the brand worked to ward off the neighborhood’s rising paranoia as the influx of newcomers continued. With an over-numbered, under-resourced population, things got tense on the street. It turned out meth was a better drug than LSD for negotiating the daily grind, and then heroin was required for numbing the crash that followed the meth. These were new economies of addiction, less forgiving than the old ones. Grogan himself succumbed. In the long term, however, the Summer of Love as branding brought forth a set of ideas and images that have persisted. It has claimed, to a large degree, the whole of the Haight-Ashbury phenomenon and much of the greater bohemian resurgence. Its ideas and images are relatively shallow and harmless, still easy to make fun of, still more about style than substance. In the mainstream imagination, the phrase has claimed not only the summer of 1967 but has pushed many of the other events of that momentous season into the background: race-rioting in Newark, Detroit, and other cities; the Six-Day War; the Congress on the Dialectics of Liberation in London; court cases legalizing mixed-race marriage in the US and homosexuality in England; Vietnam Summer. It claims more territory, too, than does King’s intellectual struggle with the concept of love.

As we near the end of the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love, and draw nearer to the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination, we might note once again what was lost in the latter event. Surely today there are scholars of Affect Studies thinking hard of ways to give love its due. In the post-Trump manifestos associated with Tikkun Magazine, love is given a central place in political strategy in a way similar to King’s. But I think we can say with confidence that there is no figure as influential as King in our public life today who can speak the way he did about love. He was able to do what those of us with more secular minds have trouble doing, to see love as something not only real but integral to the material structure of the world. When King spoke of love, he wasn’t speaking metaphorically. He wasn’t being merely rhetorical. King believed that radical love was a way of knowing the world that had actual influence in the world. Recently on S-USIH’s Facebook page, an accomplished and highly-regarded scholar posted a brief and powerful response to a challenge from the right for the left to state its principles. Among the principles this scholar stated was that “human rights are practicable if not verifiable.” I support this sentiment. But for King human rights were both practicable and verifiable due to his theology of love.

As a coda, a couple of random points:

  1. These arguments over the meaning of love had some place in the Houseboat Summit, a long conversation between Alan Ginsberg, Allan Watts, Gary Snyder, and Timothy Leary in February of 1967. The full transcript was printed in the Oracle—and in a way as to be practically unreadable. Lots and lots of words, in a tiny font size, sometimes white on black, sometimes black on white, and with the margins curved on some of the pages to form interesting shapes. Ginsberg, Snyder, and Watts were a little hard on Leary that day. They ganged up on the arriviste a bit, perhaps deservedly so.
  2. The Houseboat Summit was also part of the debate on the nature of revolution that I touched on in my last post. It was the same old contest between love and power. That debate, I wrote, was “fraught and agonized,” and in response a colleague tweeted, “as always.” That made me think of the recent, brilliant album by Childish Gambino called Awaken, My Love. Here the debate on the nature of revolution–in direct association with Black Lives Matter–is played out in a way that puts emotional data to the fore. Varieties of love that philosophers and theologians parse with precision—carnal love and the love consciousness that inspires political activism—are placed along a love continuum. Both, especially the first, can be blissful. The singers long to lose themselves in it. Yet the conscious component of love consciousness—the socio-cultural part, the being “woke”—can make those who happen to possess black bodies very paranoid, indeed. One of this album’s songs, “Redbone,” figures prominently in the film, Get Out, and for good reason. A highly recommended listen.

As Deep a Question as Ever

cross as ginsbergAllen Ginsberg first heard about global warming during the Summer of Love. He spent the bulk of the summer of 1967 not in San Francisco but overseas. In Swinging London, he partied with the Beatles and the Stones. This must have been a heady experience. Ginsberg had charisma but not like these pop stars did. Nor was he as young, as handsome, or as lithe. Ginsberg was a half generation older, balding with horn-rimmed glasses, a rabbi’s thick beard, and still something leftover in his body from the fifties of the sexually-repressed, neurotic New Yorker. Part of Ginsberg’s charm was that he carried these physical attributes unashamedly. Film clips of him at the Human Be-in, held in January in Golden Gate Park, cement a particular image of him as a sixties icon: white kurta, finger-cymbals, ecstatic smile. It’s the image played by David Cross in his turn as Ginsberg in Todd Haynes’ brilliant Dylan meditation, I’m Not There. Here’s my point: by the end of July, he had less reason to smile.

Ginsberg spent most of July attending a gathering in London called the Congress on the Dialectics of Liberation. Organized by the “anti-psychiatrist” R. D. Laing and his colleagues, this forum brought together radical writers, artists, social scientists, and political theorists, including Herbert Marcuse; Paul Goodman, the author of Growing Up Absurd; and civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael, who’d spent the previous year stirring up audiences on the topic of Black Power. The US involvement in Vietnam was then almost two years in escalation, urban riots were in progress in Newark and Detroit, and the crowds attending the Congress’s many programs featured a large American contingent. They were drawn, at least partly, by the big-name speakers, but also by the goals Laing and his colleagues had advertised for their event: “to demystify human violence in all its forms” and “to explore new forms of action.”

The cultural moment, however, called for a somewhat different agenda, and the gathering in London became a site for the age-old debate over the nature of revolution. Dissent was surging. New Left activists and members of the self-described “spiritual generation” were coming together in new coalitions. What would be their program for change? Would it be built around love consciousness, or was it about power–claiming it and taking it through militant struggle, “by all means necessary”?

The debate was activated to some degree by Stokely Carmichael in an incendiary speech on the gathering’s second day. Drawing on Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, Carmichael spoke of institutional racism and called for a politics of racial identity. He told of how he’d dreamed as a child in Trinidad of coming to London to burn it down. On the following Saturday, at the Congress’s marquee event, Carmichael again took the stage as part of a panel that included Laing, Emmett Grogan of the San Francisco Diggers, and Ginsberg. Carmichael dominated, baiting the hippies in attendance without mercy. “People of color” in US cities, in Vietnam, and elsewhere were fighting for their lives, Carmichael said. The “white boys” were only playing at revolution and would soon return to their middle class lives. People could talk all they wanted about “leaving the money wheel,” as Ginsberg put it, but real revolution was no game. This pragmatic message articulated by Carmichael and others won the day at the Congress on the Dialectics of Liberation, and it put representatives of the spiritual generation, Ginsberg among them, on the defensive.

The debate over the nature of revolution was fraught and agonized, and the news about global warming came as an intervention upon it. That news came from Gregory Bateson, a 63-year-old British-born anthropologist and systems theorist then based in Hawaii. Bateson had given a talk on the Congress’s first day, and during the question and answer session, he mentioned “the greenhouse effect.” The phenomenon had been a concern of atmospheric scientists since the late 1950s. More recently it had received a brief mention in Barry Commoner’s first book, Science and Survival, published the previous year. A June article in the journal, Science, had used the term. Bateson’s talk at the Congress on the Dialectics of Liberation, however, may well be the first instance of climate change being discussed before a lay audience.

During the last days of the Congress in London, when Ginsberg made a speech of his own, it was Bateson and the greenhouse effect that was topmost in his mind. Bateson had impressed him, Ginsberg said, by articulating “the scientifical apocalyptic aspect of the anxiety syndrome that we’re suffering from.” Humankind’s large-scale burning of fossil fuels threatened a change in the earth’s climate, a melting of the polar ice caps, and a rising of sea levels worldwide. Comparing “White Power,” “Black Power,” and “Porpoise Power,” Ginsberg speculated that it might be inevitable and indeed, the best possible outcome, for the latter to prevail: “The universe doesn’t need our exorable yowling for the continuance of its own life.”

Ginsberg’s comments were posthumanist gestures of a kind that would soon become more widespread. They strain for a glibness that is familiar, too—a typical mode of heading off unpleasant information. But I think it’s important to pause and appreciate their pathos. The universe doesn’t need our exorable yowling, our outsized numbers, our mountains of waste, our brazen and continuous predation of its resources and of each other. Who hasn’t felt what Ginsberg felt at least once in their lives? I daresay many of us feel it at our shoulder all the time, this nagging consciousness as Americans of our utter dependency upon our environment coupled with the recognition of ecological profligacy as a cultural default position. Ginsberg’s emotional response was such that he immediately moved to first principles. This was, he said:

‘To be or not to be?’ which is as deep a question as ever, you know, do you want ‘to be’ or not? I don’t know, sometimes I don’t want to; I don’t give a shit, I’m going to die anyway. Which everybody feels occasionally, from Shakespeare on down to the lowest chimney sweep in Blake.

Ginsberg should be commended for putting it so plainly. Just as importantly, however, he doesn’t entertain the question for long. He bounces back, as from a trampoline. He hastens on as if the answer were self-evident: “So, assuming that we’re willing to suffer more and continue our existence on the planet, on to more pragmatic things.” This is understandable. Half of the mission of the Congress on the Dialectics of Liberation was to “explore new forms of action.” Ginsberg knew that the surging youth nation was tiring quickly of platitudes. Their minds were right. Now they needed a program. The one Ginsberg offered in his talk was little different from that which he’d articulated throughout his career: Moral purpose had its endpoint in atonement, in “unitive experience,” and the “friendly extension of self outwards.” To achieve that Ginsberg recommended aesthetic craft, Eastern religious practice, and experimentation in the routines and rituals of “tribal wisdom.” In fact, Ginsberg practiced what he preached and followed up the next month with the production of one of his most anthologized poems, “Wales Visitation.” The poem came, Ginsberg explained later, from a new “ecological perspective” Gregory Bateson had triggered in him.

But I want to stay for a moment with the speed at which Ginsberg bounces back. That’s understandable—it’s the most human thing. Hopelessness isn’t pretty. It’s disturbing. It might be described as rude. We keep up hope for each other’s sake, and if one of us abandons it, they let the rest of us down. It’s as if we have an obligation to hope, especially when hope seems least justified. The calculation is paradoxical and aptly applied, as in Ginsberg’s case, to runaway climate change. Brave and clear-eyed writers wade into this material, reflect on it, summarize it, and share their findings in books. These books usually end on notes of hope. Being otherwise so grim, how could they not?

These are some of the books I’m thinking of: Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything; Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement; Christian Parenti’s Climate of Chaos–just to name a few. It would be an interesting inquiry to closely read the endings of these books and compare the ways they craft their obligatory notes of hope.

A writer whose mode is more narrative than analytical can more easily disguise the obligation. I’m thinking of George Packer’s The Great Unwinding, winner of the National Book Award. This is a book about the failure of postindustrial capitalism, which also makes it a book about climate change. Packer traces the stories of numerous characters at various levels of society, but he begins and ends with Dean Price, a déclassé North Carolinian entrepreneur driven by ideas and a belief in his own destiny. Hurricane Katrina is a “come to Jesus moment” for him; later he’s persuaded by the concept of “peak oil.” His passion becomes the production and marketing of biodiesels. After suffering the vagaries of economic instability, political dogmatism, unreliable partners, and finally, the Great Recession, he’s reduced to driving around in a rusty old Honda, trying to convince local restaurant owners to sell him their used cooking oil. His new business model includes a funding stream directed to neighborhood schools. Price remains an individualist and an entrepreneur, but his definition of success has evolved. It has become recursive and communal and hinges on a decentralized politics. He’s at odds with the reigning paradigm, but he still has hope. By implication, so should we.

In the way I admire Packer’s nuance and indirection, I admire, too, those writers who stave off the obligatory note of hope until the last possible moment. Annie Proulx’s long novel, Barkskins, tells a tale of the ruthless destruction of North America’s forests through multiple generations of two logging families, one of management and the other of labor. In the book’s final pages, an ecologist, descendant of a 17th-century French peasant woodsman and a Mi’kmaq healer, views in horror a collapsing pit of melting polar ice. She has dedicated her life to repairing the ailing forest, to planting trees and restoring soil, but this sight makes her so dizzy with despair that she wonders whether her efforts are in vain, whether it wasn’t “already too late when the first hominid rose up and stared at the world.” The universe doesn’t need our exorable yowling. Proulx then ends her book with a series of nature images, absent the human, and finally of sea swells “lifting … toward the light.”

Numerous comments at an online reader’s site expressed an objection to the abstract character of this ending. They loved the book but found the last few paragraphs puzzling. To my mind, Proulx’s gesture was obvious. The polar ice experience that she gave her last character forced her, as Ginsberg was forced, back to first principles. To answer as deep a question as ever—and to answer it in the hopeful way that is called for–she takes recourse in the moon and the tides. If the move smacks just a bit of desperation, given the centuries-long parade of destruction that Proulx has led her readers through, it’s a desperation well-earned.

Still, there’s a formalist, maybe even a kneejerk quality to all this. What would happen if we simply refused to heed the obligation to hope? What if we took on the unpleasantness that would follow? When the wizards and witches in the Harry Potter series want to protect something valuable, they put some scary monster in front of it as a guard. What if the hopelessness we dare not for a moment entertain was one of those monsters protecting something of value to us now? After witnessing the melting polar ice, Proulx’s ecologist reaches out to a former lover for encouragement. He offers none, saying, “Some broken things can’t be fixed.” I have a feeling Proulx might have preferred to end here, or that maybe I misread her ending as hopeful. It reminds me of the ending of Manchester by the Sea when the character played by Casey Affleck admits to his failure to conquer his grief. How un-American! The movie was bracing; it was a bummer; it hurt. It does not bounce back; it “stays with the trouble,” as Donna Haraway has advised. This may be the sort of thing we need.

The Environmental Imagination in Six Songs

In his book, The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh charges the modern novel as incapable of dealing with a problem the scale of climate change. But what about songs? An argument might be made that songs have surpassed long-form fiction or even movies as the West’s primary genre, which is to say, the form in which the cultural imaginary is developed and explored.

joniSongs, of course, are limited. They can handle some topics better than others. If you sat down to write a song about, say, a bad love experience, you would find yourself on very comfortable terrain. Writing a song about the effects of suburban landscape on the psyche might prove to be rockier ground. Songs are often crushed under the weight of self-importance, and ecological concerns are heavy topics, to be sure. You would certainly be on safe ground using the phrase “bad love” in a song about bad love; if you were writing about your ecological consciousness, you might want to avoid that term. In 1971, Marvin Gayle famously released a song about “the ecology,” but he didn’t use the word ecology or any form of the word in the song. In fact, he barely used the term in the title, tucking it inside parentheses, and gave the song its official and more palatable title, “Mercy Mercy Me.”

Limits are for stretching. Given that, and given that the song is perhaps our primary and certainly most democratic genre, what are some of the other songs that have expressed and developed our ecological imagination? Here are six that came to mind, three from the period of the emergence of what historians call modern environmentalism, three of a more recent vintage.

  1. “Dolphin’s Smile.” The Byrds, (January, 1968).

This song from The Notorious Byrd Brothers is not The Byrds’s finest hour. It’s a throwaway tune on a good but not historically significant record. I include it here because it addresses one of the several sub-contexts from which the ecological imagination would emerge: the dolphin mystique.

Formerly mysterious, only recently held in captivity, dolphins were perceived as beautiful, graceful, playful animals whose upturned grins made them appear to be continuously happy. Familiar during this period were news reports of dolphins who sought out human beings for special friendship or for aimless frolic or who rescued someone drowning at sea. John C. Lilly published popular books and articles about teaching dolphins to communicate; meanwhile, in the popular TV program Flipper, a dolphin was a loyal and intelligent friend. Karen Pryor, a pioneer in dolphin training at Sea Life Park in Hawaii, was one of the first to appreciate the appeal of dolphins to the public and to the numerous young people who volunteered at the park as aides and trainers. Dolphins were “floating hobbits,” she said, “like aliens from space” who had descended to earth and loved us. They were as smart as we were, or maybe even smarter, since they were not at war with each other and hadn’t manufactured any atomic bomb. How nice it would be to live like the dolphins! This is what “Dolphin’s Smile” asks us to do. The song celebrates dolphins as care-free, socially-evolved creatures whose smiles–tranquil, sunlit, “free from fear”–suggested a kind of non-stop high.

The less romantic chuckled. That wasn’t a smile on the dolphin’s face that was anthropomorphic projection onto the physiognomy of a foreign species. As for the media reports–what about all the instances when dolphins did not help humans in distress, when they may even have added to that distress, thus eliminating any source for a news story? Still, components of the ecological imagination are present in the dolphin mystique: the acknowledgement of a continuum between humans and other species, between culture and nature; the notion that animals are intelligent and might have something to teach us about living on the earth and with each other, something we very much need to learn.

  1. “Big Yellow Taxi.” Joni Mitchell, (April, 1970).

Mitchell famously missed Woodstock but then wrote the song about it. “Big Yellow Taxi,” which precedes the song “Woodstock” on the album, Ladies of the Canyon, is about the garden, too. It’s the common declensionist narrative: once we lived in paradise, but we lapsed and paved it over. There’s an implicit shout out to Rachel Carson in the verse about DDT, but what most marks this song, in terms of the emerging ecological imagination, is the sanguinity of its mood. The singer is fun-loving, playful, a little goofy. The songs ends with a laugh. Yes, human beings have a tendency to destroy the good that they have, but if the listener is tempted to feel bad about that, the song’s third verse undercuts the temptation. The taxi in question is the one that took the singer’s “old man” away. Presumably, Graham Nash had to go play a gig with his new singing group, and darn it, if she doesn’t miss him, too.

It wasn’t as if Mitchell was afraid of taking on serious topics—far from it. She wasn’t afraid to preach. “We’ve got to get back to the garden,” she sings in “Woodstock,” but neither in that song nor in “Big Yellow Taxi” is there the notion that we aren’t capable of regaining paradise in some form or another, or in any case, doing better than we’re doing now. Both “Dolphin’s Smile” and “Big Yellow Taxi” are lacking in the agony over environmental destruction that would mark many songs to come. Neither evoke the prospect of apocalypse; neither are the least bit resigned to some eventual collapse into dystopia. Whether they learn from dolphins, travelers along the road, or just good common sense, human beings are redeemable.

  1. “Out in the Country.” Three Dog Night, (August, 1970).

It shouldn’t be a surprise that two songs from this list, “Big Yellow Taxi” and “Out in the Country,” were released in 1970, a seminal year in the history of American environmentalism. The first Earth Day was celebrated that year. It’s the year Nixon signed the bill that created the EPA. But again, given the times, the 5-month gap between the two releases is noteworthy. Every month marks a further deterioration in the hope associated with Sixties-era activism, every month an increase in disillusionment. “The dream is over,” John Lennon sang in a song released in December of 1970. He was singing in reference to a band he used to play in, but he might as well have been speaking of the era in general.


So note the difference in mood between “Out in the Country” and “Big Yellow Taxi.” The former is mournful, elegiac, a mood gorgeously stated in the keyboard figure that introduces the song. Paul Williams was one of the great pop songwriters of his time, and he captures the cultural moment with precision. The city is deteriorating; it’s polluted, full of smog; overcrowded, politically fraught. When the state of the city gets to be too much of a downer, the singer heads out to the country for some peace. Note, too, that a degree of resignation has set in. The singer is going to the country “before the breathing air is gone, before the sun is just a bright spot in the night time.” There’s no question but that the air will become unbreathable and the sun will be blotted out by the smog or perhaps some nuclear winter. Some form of nature therapy has been a part of American thinking at least since the transcendentalists. But this near-hopeless resignation, this retreat to private solutions, mark a particular turn in the times. We once thought we might figure out a way to be like the dolphins. That seems like forever ago.

A few years later, the film Soylent Green would depict the city when there is no country left to retreat to. Rather, when life becomes unlivable, you can purchase a comfortable suicide. You’ll get a comfortable seat in an auditorium and be shown, during your last few moments, beautiful images of a nature that’s gone. The character played by Edward G. Robinson (in his last film) buys one such suicide, and his eyes fill with tears, remembering the way the world used to be. He might have been a small child back in 1970 when the Three Dog Night song came out. Now its chorus has proved true. The breathing air is gone, and the sun has just about disappeared behind a carbon blanket that retains the sun’s heat but renders it nigh invisible.

  1. “Dirty Harry.” Gorillaz, (2001).

A lot of time has passed since “Out in the Country” and Soylent Green. Resignation to environmental collapse has reached a degree of density and mannerism in the works of expressive culture. Dystopian visions have been detailed and refined. The Mad Max films (1979, 1981, 1985) have provided an enduring iconography: people living in the desert, the failure of infrastructure made visible. Nothing new is being made; nothing is being replaced; all innovation is innovation of scavenging, maintenance, and repair. In short, it’s a patched-together world of souped-up hard terrain vehicles and make-do weaponry. Generations have arisen who have no memory of the world before the collapse. Some of them have formed a band called Gorillaz. (Gorillaz is a virtual band consisting of animated figures who appear in videos online.) They are cute and cool purveyors of post-apocalyptic chic, with pug noses and bad teeth. Their eyes glow with the chemicals they’ve ingested, deliberately or otherwise. They make music together when they aren’t battling some enemy tribe. They’re damn good!

This is a step beyond resignation. Not knowing the old world, these kids don’t mourn it. Unaware of the old myths, they live the new ones. David Byrne hinted at the new skills necessary in “Life During Wartime.” Gorillaz have perfected these skills and then some. The singer in Byrne’s song didn’t have any records to play, but Gorillaz found some records and instruments in the ruins; they jerry-rigged some amps and a record player. This is the world we live in, the song says. It’s a world where the survivors are the ones who never falter in their vigilance. Because no one never falters, “we don’t have a chance.” It’s not a world where dancing makes sense anymore, and yet the singer can’t help it: “All I do is dance.” The younger sand urchins love it. They look on and learn. Resignation here is not privatist, as in “Out in the Country,” but social. The implication is: we are tough and flexible. We will find a way to survive.

  1. “The River in Reverse.” Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint, (2006).

This is the title song from an underrated record about the politics of climate change. The song admits to a sobering truth: we don’t have to imagine Mad Max scenarios anymore. Those scenarios are coming true. They are coming true in the experience of weather events once deemed unprecedented and abnormal. They are occurring mostly and most regularly in a broad swath around the planet corresponding, more or less, to the equator. In this swath are clustered nations of the “undeveloped” world. The people of color who live in these nations have been suffering the consequences of empire for generations. The latest of these consequences now comes in the form of climate change. These people are the ones both least responsible for the carbon particles in the atmosphere and most victimized by their effects. Scholars and researchers call this the global south. If we were to look for something equivalent to this dynamic in the continental United States, we would immediately point to New Orleans and Katrina, which is the setting for Costello’s and Toussaint’s record.

An environmental historian recently described to me the basic situation as he perceives it. First, there is a way of thinking that favors modernization, control, growth, and development. This thinking represents all the components of industrial capitalism from its beginnings to the present day, an economic order based on the profligate exploitation of resources, both organic and non-organic, both human and non-human. Second, there is an alternative way of thinking that has been around just as long. This way counsels humility, austerity, and economic restraint. This way advocates for egalitarian social arrangements and respects the living world in all its forms. In an American context, this way follows Thoreau, George Perkins Marsh, Alice Hamilton, John Muir, Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, and more. The problem is that this way of thinking is a tiny, weak rivulet in the cultural imaginary, and the other way of thinking is a pounding, gushing river. When Costello asks, “What do we have to do to send the river in reverse?,” this is the river he means.

  1. “Don’t Carry It All.” The Decembrists, (2011).

This is the opening song on the Decembrists’ biggest album, The King is Dead. Most of the chatter about this record was about the band streamlining their sound, about songwriter Colin Meloy turning his attention away from English folk music and turning instead to American roots. There was a lot of talk about how this record sounded like REM, about how it was as if Peter Buck had become, for this record, a virtual member of the band. I saw the whole record as one about the ecological imagination, and where it is today.

Much came together to give me this impression. The band is from Portland, Oregon, first of all. It was recorded it out in the country, and the cover features a line of evergreens, king is deadtypical of the Pacific Northwest. Behind this line of trees, the sky is yellow, suggesting a fundamentally altered climate. The record’s title and the band’s name appear in the middle of this sky in the shape of a dominating sun. Nature imagery dominates the songs; several of them seem to be exploring a near-future, after the existing economic orders have collapsed. The king is dead. The river has not reversed, but it has dried up completely, in both a literal and a metaphorical way. Big-hearted former Portlanders—real people, not animated–are finding new ways to live. Their politics have become radically decentralized, with all the tedium and challenge that brings. While certainly no paradise, it is a way of life in which people are less alienated, one might say, from the material world that sustains them.

Did I take my interpretation a bit far? Maybe–but not too far! Good songs are ones that can bear a plurality (but not an infinity) of interpretations. Listen to “Calamity Song,” “Down by the Water,” “This is Why We Fight.” Listen to the opening song, which to my mind, lays out this basic theme. Changes are occurring now, and bigger changes are coming. It feels overwhelming; it’s a lot to carry on a pair of shoulders. Yes, we are, each of us, responsible (and certainly Americans a lot more than others). At the same time, we are not–not any one of us–in control. Even if we could act collectively, that collective wouldn’t be in control. That reality is a lot to bear. But when the agony of ecological consciousness gets too heavy, don’t escape it in the direction of denial or resignation. Rather, carry it, keep carrying it, but don’t carry it all. The desperate desire to do some world saving can be a species of hubris all its own. Therefore, the song offers, if not hope, heart. I take from this song the same slim but substantial comfort that I take from Arne Naess’s reminder that, when it comes to environmental activism, “the front is long.” You can’t do everything. Do what you can.

Climate Change as Tiger and as Wicked Dilemma

great derangement bookOne of the review blurbs on the jacket of Amitav Ghosh’s 2016 book, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, comes from Elizabeth Kolbert, whose coverage of the global warming beat for The New Yorker has resulted in a couple of her own well-received books. Kolbert’s praise of The Great Derangement includes the claim that it “spares no one.” I think we know what she means. Ghosh analyzes the crisis of climate change and the paralysis that has characterized the response to it in the English-speaking world, and his analysis leads to condemnation and the distribution of blame. What Colbert means when she says he spares no one is that all receive a portion of blame, both those we expect to receive it, and those we don’t necessarily expect. Of this latter group are the writers and artists of the Anglosphere as well as its political progressives.

Climate change is a great re-classifier. Ghosh’s book may leave progressives smarting a little, not so much from being assigned some of the responsibility for the climate crisis, but by the way Ghosh groups them alongside their arch-enemies, the so-called neo-liberals.

Ghosh’s claim is that the moral-political judgments of progressives and neo-liberals rest alike “on that distinctive fusion of economic, religious, and philosophical conceptions” that centers on individual conscience and agency. He’s reaching down, in other words, to the roots of the modern West. Descartes’ dualism is a familiar target in charges of this kind, but as Ghosh sees it, the Scottish Enlightenment fine-tuned the West’s commitment to individualism. Within the Anglosphere especially, cultural identity was built on the belief that “the free pursuit of individual interests always leads to the general good.”

Is it fair to paint progressives with this broad brush? Many would surely object, though on what grounds would be an interesting question. In any case, grouping progressives along with neo-liberals allows Ghosh to explain something exceptional about the Anglosphere. It is in this sphere that we find the world’s only significant degree of denial of climate change. It is also in this sphere that we find “many if not most” of climate change activism’s most prominent voices. As a practical consequence, the response to global warming from our part of the world has been marked most by paralysis, a continuing oscillation between the poles of debate that results in no significant change.

In general, this is not a new critique to those familiar with assaults on the Enlightenment coming from the Frankfort School and elsewhere many decades ago. Numerous strains of postmodernism and posthumanism have cultivated a similar point of view. Yet there is little indication in today’s blogs and social media, for example, that the ongoing contest between progressives and neo-liberals is understood by participants as an internecine battle. Surely few would disagree, however, that these contests are anything if not maddeningly static.

For many of us, the experience of accelerating climate change comes in the proliferation of weather events–tornados, hurricanes, heatwaves, floods–deemed improbable and unprecedented. Ghosh himself was caught in one such event, a “freak funnel-shaped whirlwind” that rolled down the streets of north Delhi–“the first of its kind,” the newspaper said. Ghosh calls on Freud and Heidegger for the adjective “uncanny” to describe how he felt that day. He likens it, too, to a recurring moment in South Asian literature, specifically to depictions of tiger attack in the dense forests of the Sundarbans. According to this trope, on the verge of the tiger’s lunge, the human victim experiences a complex recognition. Part of it is the realization that the tiger has been holding the human in its gaze for some time while the human has gone unawares. Part of it is the acknowledgement of the presence of a non-human intelligence over which the human being has no access or control. Ghosh presents it as a communicative encounter, and yet also one in which human agency is undone. “At that moment a shock courses through you and you are immobilized, frozen,” he writes.

tiger in apocalypse now

For Ghosh, the tiger is the rapidly changing climate, the non-human intelligence now communicating with us, intervening on our own thought, and our experience of the consequence is both uncanny and paralyzing. What we require to process this experience, Ghosh contends, is to imagine past a vexing dilemma: the improbable was never really improbable. The tiger wasn’t there; the tiger was always there. Our cultural identity is based on a fundamental error. Alas, Ghosh argues, the modern literary genres, which we would expect to do this imaginary work, are constructed to conceal rather than confront this dilemma.

This is especially the case with what has been our most prominent genre, the modern realist novel. Ghosh offers a historical explanation. The modern novel arose during the same period when statistics were becoming the foremost analytical tool for organizing human action. The statistical calculations that so improved the ability to predict represented a vast increase in our sense that we could executive plans and realize control of our surroundings. Reality came to be defined by what was likely to occur. Meanwhile a similar process of definition occurred in expressive culture. Novels began to anchor the literary imagination in “the regularity of bourgeois life.” That regularity was, in turn, made possible by the reliability of concentrated energy in the form of coal and oil. Thus, “probability and the modern novel are twins,” Ghosh writes, “born at the same time, among the same people,” who were simultaneously building the carbon economy.

This modernizing process within literature was largely a matter of favoring and authorizing certain techniques over others. The techniques of epic poetry and myth, staples of world literature, were deemed hopelessly primitive. Speculation, alternative worlds, and the merely plot-driven were ghettoized into outlying genres. In so-called serious or literary fiction, the improbable events upon which all narrative depends were obscured by pages and pages of descriptive filler. This re-creation of the quotidian became the only magic authorized to conjure suspended disbelief. “If this were a novel, no one would believe it.” That familiar observation sums up Ghosh’s argument succinctly.

One thinks of Philip Roth’s famous claim, in a 1961 essay, that the arbitrary and outlandish character of real events had outstripped the novel’s ability to contain them. Roth caught a glimpse of the tiger, in other words. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published the following year, and it gave a lot of people a glimpse of the tiger. It stupefied them, to use Roth’s verb. Ghosh doesn’t reference Roth, but he mentions Roth’s counterpart, John Updike. A book by a South Asian novelist so disturbed Updike (the book had relied too heavily on pre-modern literary techniques) that he insisted it wasn’t a novel at all. The modern novel was about “individual moral adventure,” not humankind “in the aggregate,” Updike wrote in his review. Novels were, in the other words, the sort of works that he and Roth created, over and over, with such brilliance and skill. But if this is the case, Ghosh asks, if this is what the modern realist novel is in its essence, how can it hope to address a problem as extra-human and aggregational as climate change? Simply put, the scale—or range—is not equivalent. The inability to respond to global warming becomes, therefore, not merely a problem caused by the financial interests of corporations and of those others historically invested in the carbon economy, but by a lack of imagination among the artists and writers of the Anglosphere, whose range is proscribed by a deeply cherished individualism. And of course it is this same deeply cherished individualism that frames and justifies the carbon economy and that patterns our desire for a certain kind of lifestyle, for particular possessions and places to live.

barkskins bookObviously, there are exceptions, and Ghosh allows for them, though he mentions few names. One thinks of Margaret Atwood, a writer who has resisted the partitioning of her more speculative fiction and whose star has risen as the politics of the Anthropecene have become more agitated. I immediately thought of the recent novel Barkskins by Annie Proulx. Barkskins is a multi-generational tale of two families, from their beginnings in the New France of the seventeenth century to the present day. Both families work in logging, one as labor, the other management. With such a sprawling story, such a wide cast of characters, it’s hard to stay long inside the head of any one human being or to dig too deeply into any single psyche. In this and in other ways, the book has an old-fashioned feel. The laboring family are primarily Mi’kmaqs, a tribal people, soulful and humane, who seem to have inhabited a kind of Golden Age prior to the arrival of the cruel and profit-hungry Europeans. The story, in other words, is not a new one. But can we blame Proulx for not offering something more provocative? When the evidence presents itself so plainly, it’s dishonest to avoid a declensionist narrative, no matter how unfashionable it might be. The story, precisely because it spans so many years, is full of historical information and insight into the growth of capitalism, its tools and organizational innovations. A good deal of this exposition comes in the form of dialogue, unfortunately. But even if this is a little teacherly, it is something different from “individual moral adventure.”

Familial moral adventure may be a better description. The Mi’kmaq family live intimately with the forest and with each other, and it is these relations that sustain them, despite centuries of unending blows. This contrasts starkly with the family of empire builders. One of the central stories, itself repeated over generations, concerns the ongoing difficulty in finding an heir to leave the empire to. This family’s relations, like their relations to the forest, are rationalized. Ties fray and connections wither even as the wealth of the corporation expands.

Is love of family, then, the supreme motivation, humankind’s saving grace? Even the sins of the sorriest gangsters can be romanticized by devotion to family. Proulx is too good a writer to resort to this hackneyed reductionism. Motivation is plural, as it is in life; it can’t be reduced to gene preservation or hunger. One of the things she captures about her characters, from both the working and the capitalist lines, is how almost each of them rises up against the threat of loss. Often this overrides all other concerns.

Here Barkskins resonates with Ghosh’s argument. What the book traces is a slow learning on the part of humans that the vast forests of the North American continent are not limitless and eternal, after all. We anchor reality in our material environment, and yet that environment can be lost. In the book’s final pages, an ecologist, descendant of a French peasant barkskin and a Mi’kmaq healer, views in horror a collapsing pit of melting polar ice. She suffers “a full-force shock of recognition—the coming disappearance of a world believed immutable.” Her instinct is to resist the crush of futility but “her voice froze in her throat.”

Ghosh brings a great deal to the concerns of an Environmental Humanities, a relatively new research field investigating the relationship between the humanities and environmental crisis. Much of this has to do with his background. He’s a South Asian writing in English, first of all. As a member of a generation of non-Western writers whose work gained attention at least partly because of the merger of politics and identity in the West, he’s a hybrid figure, with insights into both worlds. He’s conversant with modern literary movements and in tune with pre-modern forms of fiction in Asia and elsewhere which do not share the modern novel’s individualist bias. Finally, he comes from India and more specifically, India’s coast on the Arabian Sea, where the consequences of climate change are more immediately threatening than they are for most of us–or at least harder to overlook.

It is, in sum, his postcolonial perspective that brings Ghosh to stress this conclusion: climate change can’t be understood apart from capitalism and neither can it be understood apart from empire. Writing prior to the unexpected turns of the 2016 election, Ghosh dreaded that the Western nations would adopt an “armed lifeboat” policy of stockpiling weapons, firming up borders, and closing the door to refugees. (Ghosh is drawing here on the work of Christian Parenti in his 2011 book, Tropic of Chaos.) Obviously, this is what we see coming to pass with Brexit, the Trump administration, and the near-miss of La Pen in France last spring. What is less clearly understood is that the current unrest and refugee crisis is a manifestation of the carbon economy and its legacy of empire. Trumpism and its equivalents in the nations of Europe are precisely the politics of climate change. If political paralysis is almost impossible to overcome now, how much harder will overcoming it be as climate threats become more direct and explicit?

Ghosh’s reference to global warming as a “wicked problem” put me in mind of the concept I’ve traced in my own work: anthropologist Gregory Bateson’s double bind. Bateson’s concept came out of the new post-World War II theories of information and communication which Bateson applied to the life sciences. Bateson was trying to understand schizophrenia as a disease not of individual bodies but of families and environments. Families whose ways of communicating were distorted by an inability to confront contradiction found themselves paralyzed by the continuous oscillation between disturbance and the concealment of disturbance. Bateson described this paralysis as a bind to emphasize how it fed on traditional and commonsense efforts at solution.

Climate change is a wicked dilemma because it too seems to feed on traditional solutions. It seems designed to refute, as Ghosh puts it, “our most treasured ideas.” That we will innovate our way out of the problem, as many of the less alarmed predict, may be one of those ideas. “Be the change you want to see,” Ghosh warns, may be another. The abandonment of ideas so fundamental to our best conceptions of ourselves may be required to escape “the individualizing imaginary in which we are trapped.” But how? The actual act of abandonment is what seems so impossible to imagine. In the same way Gregory Bateson defined the double bind as inescapable, so seems the trap of an entrenched “imaginary.”

Ghosh’s topic is bleak, obviously. Because he’s a human being, he’s perhaps obliged to end on a note of hope. Ghosh finds hope “in the increasing involvement of religious groups and leaders in the politics of climate change.” Again, we have to look outside the Anglosphere for much of this activity. Pope Francis’s Laudato Si (2015) is a touchpoint. Ghosh cites rising concerns in the politics of climate change among Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists, as well.

Here is another insight of benefit to the secular progressives of the West. If internet chatter is any indication, religious faith runs a close second to neo-liberalism on the progressives’ enemies list. No doubt there are good reasons for this. Denial of global warming and its causes is strong among American nationalist evangelicals, as if it were blasphemy to even speculate that God would create an atmosphere vulnerable to despoliation by mere human beings. Furthermore, nationalist evangelicals support the arming of the lifeboat. A lifeboat is only so big, after all, and no individual secure inside it is alone responsible for the ship going down. Secular progressives may be stifled by the power of this logic unless they can come to accept and embrace as political partners the religious in both its non-nationalist Christian and non-Christian forms. Without this merger of the secular and the religious, it is difficult to perceive, at least within the United States, any reservoir of good faith deep enough to stave off the immediate recourse to desperate measures of self-preservation.

An Expressway Runs Through It

urban renewalHow long has “silo” been used as a verb? Someone will have to school me about that. I’ve been hearing the word more and more in the conversations, written and spoken, of smart people talking about things important to me. Silo may be one of those fashionable usages that gets annoying rather quickly. But as for now, I’m not complaining. I’m just curious how far I am behind the curve.

A practical need bears on usage, surely. Silo must evoke an image people find useful these days: that of institutions, groups, persons, and bodies of information organized into separate containers (“silo-ed”) for isolation and protection. The connotation is negative, like that of “echo chamber,” which refers to the ping-ponging of information within silos. (Once one starts speaking figuratively, the mixing of metaphors becomes hard to avoid.) Open exchange and interdisciplinarity are preferred. Not to silo is preferred. The impulse is holistic.

Because the usage is new to me, the effect is particularly visual. People say silo, I see silos in my head. I grew up in the Midwest; that’s expected. Last night I went to the Texas Theater to see a new documentary and to hear the panel discussion that followed. The panelists used the word silo three or four times. I heard the word, but I was no longer seeing silos. Now I was seeing rows of the high-rise, low-income apartment projects of 1950s- and 60s-era urban renewal.

Citizen JaneThat’s easy to explain – it was a Jane Jacobs documentary called Citizen Jane: Battle for the City. The film revolves around Jacobs’ battle against Robert Moses, the powerful city planner, and her victories in saving Washington Square in particular and lower Manhattan generally from having expressways run through them. This had happened in poor neighborhoods in Manhattan and the boroughs. Dual perceptions–one, that poor neighborhoods were like cancers on the city, and two, that the city needed to adapt to the postwar automobile culture–were combined to create a policy of destroying poor neighborhoods, replacing them with freeways, and relocating displaced people into the quickly and cheaply made high-rises. This approach fulfilled the fantasies of Le Corbusier-influenced modernists who wished to create the rationally designed cities of the future, and it made developers and city insiders a lot of fast money. But the freeways separated particular sections from the more vibrant and economically viable parts of the city, and the people were siloed into soulless monstrosities–isolated from the rest of the city and, as one inhabitant put it, “left to die.”

The thinking that supported Jacobs’ dissent, which she articulated in her classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities, was based on a natural history approach to understanding city life. The real city were not the buildings and streets, Jacobs observed, but what inhabited the space they created. Within that space were the interactions of people and their habits of relationship established organically over time. From above, the real city might look messy and chaotic, as Paris did to Le Corbusier as he flew over it in an airplane. But there was an underlying order, a living fabric of interdependencies—an urban ecology. It must be noted that Jacob’s book came out a year before Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and speaks as soundly as Carson’s book did to an ecological consciousness. I say this because of Jacobs’ insistence that the order underlying the city’s seeming chaos was not ultimately graspable by the human mind. Although change was inevitable and ongoing, it could never be wholly managed. But the fabric of interdependencies and the spaces they inhabited required the kind of respect and protection that we reserve for sacred things. Bottom-up responses were more trustworthy than the top-down approach of the modernist designers who dreamed of mastering and controlling urban space.

Much of the inner-city deterioration and the shortage of low-income housing today is the result of the spectacular failures of modernist urban renewal. Nevertheless, the approach continues to appeal. A case in point is the long-running conflict here in Dallas over how to make use of the Trinity River floodway. Central Dallas lacks green space, and Dallasites have long seen the floodway as the potential location of some vast, useable park. Ongoing efforts to realize that goal have meant battling the same components Jacobs faced: freeway bills packaged in top-down, self-gratifying modernist abstractions. The only way we can afford a park is if we run a six-lane tollway through it. More recent plans bear the influence of thinking sympathetic to Jacobs’ observations, and yet tomorrowland excess and the inclusion of a toll road have been difficult to peel away.

Those who attended the panel at the Texas Theater surely had these matters in mind. In honor of Jacobs and of the role of women in the history of both environmentalism and environmental justice, the panel consisted entirely of women, all of them serving in prominent positions and involved in city planning and the advocacy of sustainable urban design. It was good to see this representation of city players, but their positions of power curtailed somewhat the possibility of the kind of fireworks that typified Jacobs’s activism. All were careful not to say anything impolitic; all were careful to remain upbeat. The endnote was predictable: the citizens of Dallas needed to be more engaged and to let their voices be heard.

village activistsIt occurred to me that the very thing that Jacobs and her co-activists were protecting was the very thing that facilitated their success: a unifying urban space. This space brought together the lives of its inhabitants into one fabric. They were, in other words, protecting relationships that were already woven into their lives, and these relationships facilitated resistance against its destruction. Those of us, in contrast, who prefer a more Jacobs-like, organic model, are endeavoring to create space and interrelations that do not presently exist. Neither, in turn, do the space and interrelations exist for the kind of civic engagement that the panelists predictably encouraged. This is a significant disadvantage.

Yes, we have tools Jacobs didn’t have. A lot of hope has been placed in the internet to facilitate political organization. The Oak Cliff chapter of Indivisible, for instance, might email me today about a call-to-action, a gathering at the airport or in front of Ted Cruz’s Dallas office. An email might come today to remind me of a monthly meeting where we’ll earn a certification to register voters. Our chapter meetings are held at the Oak Cliff Unitarian Universalist Church, and I’m grateful that the church provides us this space. But that church isn’t in my neighborhood. It’s a good deal further south, along a road with few lights and no sidewalks, in a much more suburban setting. I have to drive there, find a parking place; getting there and back adds the better part of an hour to the time I have to devote to civic engagement–an hour spent siloed, one might say, in my car.

My point is to take seriously the disadvantage we’re under, in comparison to Jacobs and her co-activists in the village. They operated within a frame of order that reinforced an order already in place. We operate within a frame of order that reinforces the opposite of what we wish to achieve. Jacobs fought against the siloing effect of urban renewal. We’re trying to find a way out of the silos that have contained us for a very long time.

Seattle this summer

neh photo Sharing some good news — I’ve been selected to participate in an NEH summer institute in Seattle called “CITY/NATURE: Exploring the landscape of the urban environmental humanities”– in other words,  my grant application was accepted …



City/Nature: Urban Environmental Humanities

An NEH Summer Institute for College and

University Teachers

Hosted by University of Washington, The Simpson Center for the Humanities, and Supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities

neh cropped-IMG-1_FotorThe program will explore the emerging landscape of the urban environmental humanities as it informs scholarship and teaching. Such an examination opens the door to a more complex understanding of how scholars conceptualize cities and nature and in turn, expand the potential of collaborative thinking across the humanities and sciences.

Evolution of a blurb

I signed a book contract and announced the news a few days later at a party. I suppose I should have known that someone at the party would ask me what the book was about.

Oh, I suppose I did expect it. Maybe I even prepared a little. But it might as well have come as a complete surprise since I made such a mess of it. An answer of sorts spilled out, awkward and halting – all over the place — and a sharp friend who thinks fast on her feet said, “Man, you need to work on your elevator pitch.”

No doubt she was right. The elevator pitch is Marketing 101. If you have a book, a screenplay, a creative project of some kind, and are entering into a marketplace glutted with such items, you must be able to say what your project is about to someone on an elevator as the two of you ride from one floor to the next. Whether or not you can do that, and do so in a way that the eyes of the person in the elevator don’t immediately begin to glaze over, speaks to the basic viability of your project.

Here’s the problem: throughout the process, from writing the first few notes to proofing the last pages for the publisher, nothing has made me go tongue-tied faster than being asked the “about” question. Because the book was developed out of my doctoral thesis, some of this may amount to dissertation committee PTSD. One of the members of that committee, never sympathetic to my topic, or maybe just providing what he saw as the academic version of tough love, kept asking me, from as many directions as he could manage, what the hell was the point? Who was Gregory Bateson and why is he significant? Here’s one construction that became very familiar to me: “How would the world be different if Bateson had just stayed home and tended his garden?” Nothing I said in answer seemed to satisfy him, and his dissatisfaction fed my anxieties and doubts.

I went to songwriter’s workshop once, and the facilitator, a professional songwriter, said that she liked songwriting as a creative outlet because the risk was so low. If you write a song and it’s no good, what did you lose, a few hours, a couple of days? She felt sorry for her friends who were book writers. If you try to write a book that eventually fails to find a publisher, or that even if published fails to connect, what did you lose? A few years? A decade?

With this risk of colossal waste as a backdrop, I would often pause to interrogate my motivations for pursuing the project at all. What was it about, really? All the most important things, it seemed. Climate change. Fear of climate change, despair over it. The seeming inability to do anything that didn’t somehow make the problem worse. What’s in store for my children? And are we really alone in the world? If I had answered my committee member’s questions this way, it wouldn’t have strengthened my case with him. Yes, Bateson was one of the first ones to speak of global warming to a lay audience. But he didn’t discover the greenhouse effect; he just read about it once in a science journal and happened to mention it to a group of hippies and radicals in London in 1967. This wasn’t the sort of significance the committee member was insisting upon, which is to say, this wasn’t the kind of significance that warranted a book-length work.

At the party, at some point in my botched rambling, I mentioned that Bateson had once been married to Margaret Mead. “Oh, he was married to Margaret Mead!” the friend concerned about my elevator pitch broke in. “That’s your in. You should have started with that.” Grab people’s attention with something that they know, in other words; don’t scare them off with unknown stuff. Many more people have heard of Margaret Mead than they have of Gregory Bateson.

It occurred to me later that her response had something in common with that of my committee member. If I’d been doing a dissertation on Mead, the questions about significance would have likely been different. Of course, he knew of Margaret Mead. He’d never heard of Bateson.

I once came across an article in the New York Times where the writer referred to Bateson as “one of the lost giants of twentieth century intellectual history.” I was excited at first, thought about showing it to the committee member. But then I realized it wouldn’t have cut much mustard with him because the writer who made the claim was not particularly significant. I would need a whole dossier of such claims, and I would need to work them into the dissertation. Certainly, that could be done — quite a hefty dossier could be put together — but this wasn’t what the project was about.

If not that, though, then what?

Here’s the good news: lately, it’s gotten easier. I’m beginning to think that a boiled-down and stand-alone articulation of an answer to the about question was not wholly possible until well past the end of the writing, after the book contract was signed, after the editorial work was done, and all the parties – editorial, marketing, and myself – had settled on a title: Runaway: Gregory Bateson, the Double Bind, and the Rise of Ecological Consciousness. Sometimes I’d sit down and an answer would come out all of a sudden. I began to collect those notes in a file. Sometimes I’d imagine them in the form of a gambit, the first few sentences of an elevator pitch. Other times they’d take the form of book jacket blurb. Here’s one of them:

Conventional science could readily explain why things fell apart. But what held things together? What explained, in other words, the mystery of form? In the years after World War II, the anthropologist Gregory Bateson proposed a fundamental reorientation of the life sciences, away from the old myths of linear force and around the new postwar concepts of circulating information.

Writing these words, especially the last sentence, was followed by a feeling of deep contentment. Yes, this was it. This was both very significant and a fair articulation of what I’d discovered. Yet still so dense! Would this make sense to anyone who hadn’t been absorbed in the material for years? Would it make the sort of immediate sense that was necessary on an elevator or book jacket? Here’s another example from the note file:

In the years after World War II, anthropologist Gregory Bateson participated in the Macy Conferences on Cybernetics, where a group of mathematicians, engineers, and social scientists laid the theoretical foundation for the information age. “Runaway” was the term they used for what happened when a computer met a paradox in its programming. Bateson applied this concept to the life sciences and called the paradox the “double bind.”

This one was less fluid than the first and did nothing to reduce the density. Its strengths were the attention it paid to the keywords in the title: runaway, double bind. It was hard to imagine how these terms might be defined and connected more concisely than in these two sentences. Double bind was the important concept. In an important sense, the book was about the career of that idea. Bateson coined this term in 1956 in a paper that speculated that schizophrenia might be seen not as a disease coming from inside the victim’s body but some pathology of communication in the victim’s relational field. In the victim’s environment, in other words. My book ends in 1967 when Bateson evoked the double bind in the way it’s typically used today in the discourse of environmental crisis. There it’s used to describe how humanity is caught up in an environmental dilemma, how that dilemma seems to get worse, and how its conditions seem to accelerate the more human beings try to extricate themselves from it. It was in connection to this in London that Bateson mentioned the greenhouse effect.

I was pleased by the way the two sentences connected runaway to double bind. Yet the meanings they conveyed were still obscure. They didn’t provide the sort of immediate understanding that was necessary on an elevator. Knitted brows were preferable to glazed eyes but only slightly.

Another thing I noticed was how often methodology crept into my descriptions. Here’s an example, from an imagined book jacket blurb:

The widespread consciousness that emerged in the 1960s of a human ecology out of balance was, writes author Anthony Chaney, “a learning that hurt.” That hurt remains today and obscures our ability to contemplate actual conditions. Chaney addresses current apprehensions with a story about the thought and life of anthropologist and systems theorist Gregory Bateson.

It was good to be able to articulate my method. Anything can be borne, if you can tell a story about it. This paraphrase of a quote from Hannah Arendt, I think, had been a guiding sentiment for me throughout the project. It was hard to confront climate change — it was just too painful. But like many realities that must be faced, a lot of the discomfort is wrapped up in the avoidance. On the other side of avoidance, much of the pain falls away. Narrative was the avenue for getting past that first obstacle, and its path allowed a prolonged gaze. Bateson himself had never been the point. The Bateson story was the avenue to the point: to face at length a topic that called out to be faced and yet was surrounded by obstacles.

Rather than bring methodology to light, I thought I might carry methodology into the pitch/blurb itself. Ignore the concepts. Any attempt to explain them in shorthand would only create confusion. So let them stand as they are. Rather, introduce the main character of the story, and then boil the story down. Maybe something like this:

The anthropologist Gregory Bateson has been called a lost giant of twentieth century intellectual history. In the years following World War II, Bateson was among the group of mathematicians, engineers, and social scientists who laid the theoretical foundations of the information age. In Palo Alto in 1956, he introduced the double-bind theory of schizophrenia. By the sixties he was in Hawaii studying dolphin communication. Bateson’s discipline-hopping made the experts wary, but he found an audience open to his ideas in a generation of rebellious youth. To a gathering of counterculturalists and revolutionaries in London during the Summer of Love, Bateson was the first to warn of a “greenhouse effect” that could lead to a climate in runaway. Surrounded by voices calling for liberation of all kinds, Bateson spoke of limitation and dependence. But he also offered an affirming new picture of human beings and their place in the world — as ecologies knit together in a fabric of meaning “which we might as well call Mind.”

Discourse Community, The Big Night, and Fernandez-Armesto

big-nightI wasn’t expecting to teach a Comp/Rhet course this semester, or ever again actually, but I’m teaching one. Over the many years since I taught a writing course, I’ve done a good deal of writing but not much thinking about how to teach it. Now having been introduced to the new syllabus, I can see that I’ll have to make some adjustments. The English department I’m working for requires attention be paid to a host of meta-concerns, and these are the topics to be read about, taught, and discussed in class. The concept of “discourse community” is one example. We are to convey to our students how these communities are plural and how they are differentiated by the vocabulary and formal conventions in the way participants communicate. The general approach to the course was characterized for me this way: “In biology class they talk about biology. In writing class let’s talk about writing.”

I had to take a moment with that. The last time I taught writing, almost a decade ago, it seems like I was always trying to avoid talking about writing. Rather I was trying to get students so interested in something other than writing that they would then be compelled to resort to writing in order to satisfy that interest. I took a moment with the alternate approach, but just a moment. My indirect approach of long ago didn’t automatically produce stellar writers, not by a long shot. I’m open to trying something different.

I’m intrigued, too, by the institutional goals that this writing syllabus reflects. We serve an urban population of diverse students, many of whom are the first in their families to attend university. Students like this can be hard to retain not only because a university environment is alien to them, but because there are so many other conditions, material and cultural, stacked up against their staying in. One writing project on the syllabus requires students to enter into a discourse community “to which they do not belong” and to produce a piece of writing that adheres to its rhetorical conventions. For many of these students, academia itself is foremost among the alien discourse communities that they are being encouraged to join. It’s also one that, let’s face it, may hold little appeal to students in our current cultural climate, where the utility of education beyond vocational training is suspect. It’s also one that joining may feel to them — with regard to the members of the non-academic discourse communities to which they presently belong — something like a betrayal. In the street sense of the term, the academy isn’t a place that’s quite “real.”

Pondering these concepts and plotting out how to apply and shape them into a day-to-day course of study, I kept thinking of a scene from one of my favorite movies, The Big Night. It is a film about two Italian immigrants, restaurateurs who are struggling to succeed in one of the boroughs of New York. One brother, Secondo, is eager to change his life, to seize the opportunity and to rise economically. The other brother, Primo, is an artist of the fine cuisine that has been passed down to him over generations. Like fine art, it’s the sort of food that the common American has to acquire a taste for, and so their little restaurant is barely hanging on. Secondo loves his brother, but wants him to loosen up his standards a little. Primo wants to conserve and protect those standards.

In particular, the scene I had in mind is the climactic one. On the corner down the street is another restaurant, a wildly successful one, owned by another immigrant. This older man, Pascal, has been there longer than the brothers. Pascal serves his vulgar American customers heaping bowls of spaghetti and meatballs and envelops them in a dolce vita party atmosphere. His food is not in the same class as Primo’s. But Pascal is more a salesmen than he is a chef, and he’s selling himself, his winning personality. Primo despises Pascal: “He should be in prison for the food he serves.” Secondo agrees with his brother in principle, but also admires Pascal’s success, and this mixture of disdain and envy finds expression in the affair Secondo is having with Pascal’s wife. All of this comes to a head at the end in a confrontation between Secondo and Pascal. My brother is a great artist, Secondo says to Pascal, and in comparison, “You are nothing.” Pascal, with some dignity, responds, “I am a business man. I am whatever I need to be whenever I need to be it.”

The movie wants us to see Pascal as the villain, mostly, but I wondered if he might be seen as a hero, an artist himself, an artist of fluidity. He may be shallow, but he’s not afraid of change. He’s not afraid of entering into any number of situations – any number of discourse communities, if you will — and making the best of the (economic) opportunities they afford. He’s not like Primo, a delicate orchid, beautiful but dependent upon a specialized environment; he’s a weed, tough and ugly, capable of flourishing anywhere. Doesn’t change does require this sort of experimentation with fluidity, a loosening up of things that were fixed, especially when you are learning a language, and especially in the competitive atmosphere of the market? And isn’t education – when it really happens – a process of change? Our job wasn’t to train our students to be delicate flowers capable of blooming only in in protected environments but to be bold, brave, wide-ranging weeds.

I didn’t like the way this metaphor was going. The flower/weed comparison put me too much in mind of “creative destruction” and “disruptive innovation,” concepts championed by the meta-Pascals whose job is selling the salesmen.

In his recent book, A Foot in the River, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto argues that what makes humankind differ from the animals is not, as has often been assumed, culture. We know now that many animals are cultural, too, which is to say, they pass down information and behavior in extra-genetic ways. They teach, they learn; it isn’t all instinct. Rather, what makes humankind distinct, says Fernandez-Armesto, is its degree of cultural divergence, which is vast compared to any other species. In fact, human societies suffer from a sort of acceleration of cultural divergence. One consequence, I suppose, is that we will have many jobs in our lives; we must be continual learners of new languages, new discourses; ever mobile, ever flexible, never devoted to any particular locale, or to any particular anything, at least not for long. This is the future that today’s post-secondary educators are told to prepare their students for: the mad race to outrun the systems of automation that are coming to take our means of livelihood. The design of the writing class aligned with that directive.

If this is what makes us human, is it anything to celebrate? I doubt someone like Wendell Berry would think so. His overarching theme is that of affectionate devotion to one practice, one art, and to the kind of learning that can only come from the inherited stewardship of a particular piece of land. This would require, Fernandez-Armesto’s argument seems to suggest, a willed remoteness. Those most long-lasting, which is to say, most durable of human societies are not those Eurasian societies that have risen and fallen over thousands of years but,  Fernandez-Armesto points out, “the San or Bushmen of Africa, the Australian aboriginals” or some “rarely encountered forest peoples” (222). Exposure to cultural diversity drives further cultural divergence, and if a society lacks that runaway divergence, it is a consequence of being so far off the beaten track. The accelerating condition that we are so familiar with may be accounted for, finally, by natural history, to the fact that there are so many more of us than ever before and to the fact, in turn, that our exposure to each other is ever greater. Natural history, the multiplication of human beings on the face of the earth — these are matters that have long given thoughtful people grave pause over long-term human prospects. I think of the film Koyaanisqatsi and how its time-lapse camera techniques so chillingly captured this mad acceleration and made it seem like some kind of spreading disease. Near its finale is a sequence of what appears to be a slow-motion explosion that never quite comes to an end.

The chilled feeling is familiar to the ecologically aware. “The pace precipitates panic,” as Fernandez-Armesto put it. Fear and panic ward us off from pondering matters of environmental crisis and has inspired a multitude of dystopian books and films. Fernandez-Armesto, with a few others at Oxford in the early seventies, were pioneers in what is today called environmental history – “historical ecology,” they called it  — but Fernandez-Armesto himself doesn’t share in the assumption of decline and decay that so often accompanies ecological consciousness. Durability – we might say, sustainability – should not be our measure of success, he writes in another book. Better to take part in “a sort of cosmic binge – a daring self-indulgence of the urge to civilize.” Success is measured, in other words, by civilization itself, defined as what can be shaped and constructed out of our continuous struggle against nature. Why make some homeostatic harmony with nature our ideal when “it will all surely perish anyway” (Civilizations, 34)?

I suppose it will if we behave as if it will.

fullsizerenderI strayed too far. I let my associations get the better of me. This may have something to do with the times. “What can we do?” my 13-year-old daughter asked, anxious about the outcome of the late election, and the actions taken by the incoming administration during its first week. We can improve our minds, I thought to answer. We can read serious books, old ones, new ones. Train ourselves to engage in the conversations of serious learned people. We can study languages. Chinese, yes, but why not also Latin and ancient Greek? This course of study, the humanities – not engineering — may be the best preparation for a future whose threats to stability are accelerating and largely unknown.

That’s not easy, of course. This is a mode of resistance, resistance to the general flow. It came to me that here is where the two ends of the Primo-Pascal spectrum meet. Acquiring a taste for Primo’s fine food requires that flexibility that learning requires, and the result is to become something new, an aficionado of fine cuisine. This conclusion seems facile, too pat. But convincing students not to be afraid of the change that real learning will result in seems half the battle sometimes. I know that because I know how I have avoided change and because I know how learning has changed me.

McKenzie, Robinson, and a January drive


Three items that came with the beginning of the year are resonating these last few days. The first involved burying my mother. She died in November, and on the third of January, we held a memorial brunch for family and friends and then a brief graveside service at the cemetery in Alexander, Texas, a little town eighty miles southwest of Fort Worth, where my father and his parents are buried. One of her requests was that a portion of her ashes be spread over the graves of her own parents, who are buried another hour’s drive further in the same direction, outside the town of Mullin, where she’d grown up, raised by an aunt, and where her father had operated a filling station. So after the service at the Alexander graveside, a bunch of us caravanned to the Mullin cemetery. It was a breezy day, nippier than was forecast, but the sky was mostly clear, blue and brilliant behind the charcoal-colored bark and dark green glittering leaves of the live oaks and the yellow winter grass.

The vistas I witnessed along this midday drive — big skies and flat earth, stark and plain, lonely and little-populated — came back to me a few days later when I watched the move, Hell or High Water, a modern-day western with Ben Foster and Chris Pine as the outlaws and Jeff Bridges as the old ranger on their trail. Director David McKenzie makes much of use of these landscapes, but he’s careful to include other sights, too. The outlaws and their pursurers do a lot passing through small towns, and not one of these passages goes by without some illustration of economic despair: boarded up businesses along the main road and the squares, “For Sale” and “Closing Down” signs, angry graffiti on cinder block walls. McKenzie is plying this theme: one hundred and fifty years ago the Anglos had won this territory in violent struggle from the Comanches, the “Lords of the Plains,” a phrase repeated numerous times. Now the Anglos have themselves been conquered, this time by globalization and the vagaries of the fossil fuels industry. McKenzie’s heroes resist with brazen acts of violence; they rob the cash trays of several regional bank branches, one after another, like the raiding parties of old. McKenzie lays his genre tale against a climate of desperation; everyone is depressed, hostile, anxious; all the townspeople are heavily armed and eager to discharge their weapons as if to refute the fact of their powerlessness. On our drive, we passed through many small towns, too, and saw the blight, the defeat, and unless I’m over-imagining, also felt the hostility.

This brings me to the third item of resonance. I’ve been working my way through Marilynne Robinson’s most recent collection of essays, The Givenness of Things. She writes a good deal about the current resurgence of tribalism here and abroad. Robinson was writing before the presidential campaign of 2016, but she saw clearly “the excitements that stir when certain lines are seen as important because they can be rather clearly drawn.” What she calls “excitements” here, elsewhere she names more bluntly fear — fear of losing out to others in the struggle for economic dominance. This fear is unreasoning, Robinson argues, both because it’s blind to the country’s real cultural strengths and history and because economic dominance itself is an empty goal. This isn’t anything new, of course, but simply, she writes, “humankind going about its mad business as if it simply cannot remember the harm it did itself yesterday.” The winner of the election was a nominee who enflamed the fear Robinson speaks of, who encouraged Americans in the “mad business” of tribal thinking, and whose trophy wife, golden penthouse, island enclave, and vulgarian manner are flashing sirens to the emptiness of placing economic dominance above all.

Robinson’s essays, in this and in her other collections, are often defenses of the lost Calvinism of her Presbyterian-Congregationalist tradition. Like the characters in Hell or High Water, she’s looking back a hundred and fifty years, too, when Americans were swayed by the sort of base Calvinism that would make a sentiment like the one in Lincoln’s second inaugural address not merely intelligible but the expression of “indubitable truth,” that the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether, and that all of us are culpable and held responsible for injustices far and near. The events of this year provide further evidence that, as Robinson puts it, the American Civil War, “has really not ended yet.” Both cemeteries where I stood that day were festooned with confederate battle flags, as were, more disturbingly, not a few of the residential porches, driveways, and front yards of the houses we passed along the way. These porches, driveways, and front yards were not golden. Mostly they were littered with the detritus of poverty or the abandonment of keeping up appearances. They may have been raised up in angry pride, but taken alongside what surrounded them, they flew like the flags of ships in distress.