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

photo of my book arrival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This week S-USIH posted a roundtable on *Runaway.” The first installment came from Lilian Calles Barger. Here’s the link:

The second installment came from Michael J. Kramer. Here’s the link:

The third installment came from Colin J. Campbell. Here’s the link:

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


Print by Cleo Chaney, age 15.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

anthology social music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Degrowth’s Light Touch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ghost Dancers Past and Present


“Big Foot, leader of the Sioux, captured at the battle of Wounded Knee, S.D.” Here he lies frozen on the snow-covered battlefield where he died, 1890. Still Picture Records Section, Special Media Archives Services Division (NWCS-S).

Having consulted the assigned materials, my students in the second half of the US History survey have no trouble supplying the basic information about the Ghost Dance. Introduced by a Paiute holy man named Wovoka and performed by groups of western plains Indians, the Ghost Dance was “a ritual,” “a ceremony,” “a belief,” “a superstitious behavior.” The dead warriors would come back, the game would return, the whites would be buried underground, and all that was lost would be restored. Some of the dancers wore “sacred garments,” “decorated with special symbols.” Some believed that when performing the ritual, bullets would not penetrate these garments.

Students go on being students. Most report dutifully and await for the next instruction. The Ghost Dance doesn’t seem to knock them in the head the way it does me. Of all the horrors that populate US History since 1865, few seem to me as unrelentingly sad. If one was ever tempted to see religious belief as an escape from reality, borne of the sheer desperation that comes from looking extinction in the face, what better evidence than the Ghost Dance might one find?

Therefore it’s hard for me to check the Ghost Dance off the items-to-cover list and leave it at that. I don’t want to leave the ghost dancers in the pathetic place that history seems to assign them. My reaction is not unusual. Let’s not depict certain classes of folk as victims all the time, it’s sometimes argued; let’s point out instances of defiance, of collective and individual agency. The losers of history aren’t always losers. Sometimes they resist power. Sometimes they fight just as nobly as the winners do.

In the case of the Ghost Dance, I’d like to try a different tack. I don’t want to think in terms of oppressors and victims, of winners and losers, but more generally of human beings and the kinds of things they do. The western Indians had tried everything. They tried resisting, and they tried assimilating. They tried signing treaties, and they tried giving up and asking for protection. If the Ghost Dance is where a people arrive when they’ve tried everything and nothing worked, they haven’t for a moment stopped being human. The Ghost Dance is the kind of thing human beings do.

And what kind of thing is that? It’s a ritual, a repeated act of patterned behavior, manifested and justified by a set of ideas. As such, it’s a form of expressive culture and not different in kind from many other forms of expressive culture. Expressive culture can be a way to process the most difficult and painful of contradictions. You are not who you thought you were. What you trusted has proven untrustworthy. Expressive culture creates space where incommensurable truths can stand side by side, where the logic of dreams is accommodated, and the living and the dead can converse. At this level of abstraction, the distinction between escaping reality and accepting reality begins to blur, along with the distinction between the winners and losers.

Now I can see the Ghost Dance as not so singular in its time. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, for instance, was also a piece of expressive culture, a ritual behavior, a choreography played out again and again. It, too, was built on a set of beliefs and involved the wearing of costumes and the inculcation of performers and audiences in a shared fantasy or dream.

Sitting Bull, incidentally, had his suspicions about both the Ghost Dance and the Wild West Show, and yet supported, to some extent, both. Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee includes a passage about Sitting Bull on his tour with the traveling show. His job was to display himself to the crowds. As a living relic, his presence added authority to the Custer’s Last Stand re-enactment that was the show’s major set piece. “He drew tremendous crowds,” Dee Brown writes.

Boos and catcalls sometimes sounded for the “Killer of Custer,” but after each show these same people pressed coins upon him for copies of his signed photograph. Sitting Bull gave most of the money away to the band of ragged, hungry boys who seemed to surround him wherever he went. He once told Annie Oakley, another one of the Wild West Shows stars, that he could not understand how white men could be so unmindful of their own poor. “The white man knows how to make everything,” he said, “but he does not know how to distribute it.”

What an interesting novel this could make, along the lines of The General in his Labyrinth: Sitting Bull reflects on the society and lifeways that have been lost while simultaneously getting a close-up view of the society and lifeways which have come to replace them. His thoughts follow this trajectory: The Ghost Dance may be a dance of defeat and a blatant denial of reality, but the dance of the Wild West Show denies realities, too. It denies the moral compromises, the betrayal of first principles, and all the ignoble acts of violence and painful contradictions that victory in the contest required. The Wild West Show is the fantasy spun by the winners in order to live with themselves.

Now that the victors and the victims are connected by the same pattern, we might connect ourselves to the pattern, too. The nineteenth century has no monopoly on escapist fantasies and denial. Coal continues to be extracted from the ground of Wyoming, Montana, and other western states. Oil continues to be pumped and pipe-lined across the Great Plains. For over two centuries we’ve been burning fossil fuels at an increasing rate, in exchange for the miracles of space travel, smartphones, and single-use plastics. What rituals aid us in living with ourselves?

As the threats of climate change have loomed larger, superhero movies have come toironman rule at the box office, it seems. Ironman dons his suit. Bullets can’t penetrate that garment–that garment of technological genius that is going to save us from all threats. We know the cinematic ritual. The dance ends the same way every time. The fate of the world has come down to a single bout between Ironman and his adversary. Throughout this protracted battle—all the getting knocked down and the getting back up again–all manner of infrastructure is laid to waste. Roads and bridges, buildings, innumerable cars. This is the most tedious and least dispensable part of the ritual. Here the contradictions at play achieve an almost seamless merger.

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


Ratargul_Swamp_Forest_Sylhet_Bangladesh by DM Rehem SMALLER

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

The more I meditate, the less I like to drive.

I’ll let that sentence stand for a moment, though I’m not yet ready to vouch for its accuracy. The causal connection is iffy, for one thing. I’m also stumbling a little on the terminology. Meditation is meant to ground one in the present. Yet “the present” is precisely where one wants to be when accelerating from a ramp onto a high-speed freeway, when even a lapse of a few seconds’ attention can result in a spectacular wreckage. I might put it this way: accelerating from a ramp to a high speed freeway is an embodiment of the cognitive restlessness that meditation aims to corral. Meditation may be making it obvious to me how unhealthy driving really is.

What’s the difference, I’ve lately wondered, between meditation and my time in books, my work, my scholarship? Both are exercises in focus. Both activities seem out of sync with time – if not in the sense of time as “the present,” then of time as the general current or flow. Meditation has been adopted by corporate culture as a practice that will lead to increased productivity. If that means more ticks on the slate of the Gross National Product, my hope is the opposite is the case. The 2007 collapse of the economy was good for the climate, it turns out. Fewer particles of carbon were released into the atmosphere than would have been otherwise. On the individual level, meditation and scholarship interrupt the flow. That can’t hurt, it seems to me.

In his long essay, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene (City Lights Books, 2015), Roy Scranton speaks of “the continuous press of the present” and the necessity of suspending it through a practice of interruption. As in any literature about the climate crisis, there is much to be gloomy about here. Our problems are large and wicked. In his first three chapters, Scranton surveys the various environmental catastrophes we face, information familiar to anyone who can stand to take it in. Still, as he discusses the “disciplined scranton learning to dieinterruption of social flows, the detachment of consciousness from impulse” as a “radical practice,” I begin to feel somewhat cheered. “We must inculcate ruminative frequencies in the human animal,” Scranton writes, “by teaching slowness, attention to detail, argumentative rigor, careful reading, and meditative reflection.” These are different ways to describe what he calls “philosophical humanism,” and which I understand as instruction and scholarly practice in the humanities. It’s a relief to be informed that what one must do to combat climate change is what one most enjoys doing and would likely be doing, anyway.

To be clear, Scranton isn’t offering this as a solution to the climate crisis, only advice as to how to prepare for what will come of it. When one practices interruption, one “practices dying,” he contends. There’s a point here. As terrible as the threat of climate change is, it hasn’t altered the death sentence for any of us–or for that of our civilization. Scranton knows, having been a soldier in Iraq, what it is to face death, but again his advice on this score isn’t particular to the environmental crisis, but a more general momento mori. This interruptive cultivation of the past and its wisdom is the best way to learn how to die, as it would be no matter what was happening ecologically.

In other ways, as I read, I wondered about Scranton’s ecological bona fides. In several instances, his descriptions of reality harken back to a Cartesian-Newtonian perspective rather than partaking of an ecological or systemic view. “If, like a god,” Scranton writes, “we could see every photon’s arc and each neutrino’s wobble, we would see past and future laid out in a single mathematical design: infinite, determined, perfect.” This registers awareness of the new physics but not of Heisenberg’s uncertainly principle and not of later theories of self-organization and emergence. Thus everything that is, must be, and was “laid out already” in the Big Bang.

There is much in the essay, too, of the combative stance and hard line drawn between “human will and natural force” which I explored a bit in my last post: The Man Steve McQueen facing off against The System. Scranton’s practice of interruption seemed at times to be a case for a modernist redoubt where classicists sit isolated, working and re-working our “seed stock” of “remembrance,” while the current civilization races toward its end. This is a Fahrenheit 451 for the climate disaster.

However, as with the notion of “the present,” there are terminologies here running crossways with each other. In other of Scranton’s passages, the subject is very much inside the system, suffering the “stress-semantic chains of social excitation” that seek us as circuits to pass through, re-energized. Today’s digital world of device-driven interconnection facilitates this channeling. “We live in networks, webs, and hives, jacked in to remote-controlled devices and autonomous apps, moments of being in time, out of time,” Scranton writes. “No longer individual subjects or discrete objects, we have become vibrations, channelers, tweeters and followers.”

The Web is an easy target. We all know its restlessness, its excitations and angry escalations. Still, I respond to those passages where Scranton merges the cognitive and the material. The interrupter doesn’t disrupt, he says at one point, the interrupter “ponders.” When we suspend our tendency to vibrate and pass along, flow backs up, current pools, as in a lowland woods. Of all the interrupters, each meditates alone. Yet even as I write that sentence something inside pushes back and brings this image to mind: a dozen persons across some public glade, practicing tai chi in slow, deliberate union.

This post also appears at the Society for US Intellectual History Blog, where I am a contributing author.