Do Historians Have No Such Boxes?

kiss me deadly open case

Throughout the 1960s the anthropologist and systems theorist Gregory Bateson carried on an irregular correspondence with the historian William Coleman of Johns Hopkins. The topic was Bateson’s father, William Bateson, called W.B. (1861-1926).

William Bateson was a significant figure. By introducing the ideas of Gregor Mendel to British biology at the turn of the century and then pioneering a field of research he called “genetics,” W.B. made way for “the modern synthesis” of Darwin and Mendel in the theory of evolution. During that period, he was well-established among the Darwinist camp predominant in Britain. In his final days after the Great War, however, W.B. returned to research questions that had interested him as a young scientist, prior to his success with Mendel, and he struck a stance that put him out of favor with the Darwinists.

The historian Coleman was interested in this odd career trajectory and had been working on a journal article for some time. He’d approached the son, Gregory, for help with his research.

As Coleman honed in on his thesis and began to share pages, Gregory realized that Coleman’s take on his father would not be sympathetic. W.B.’s attention to morphology, his lack of an abiding interest in physics and chemistry, and his taste in art and literature all suggested he was unable to accept the strong materialism that the theory of evolution required. Rather, like the clerics and the romantics, he clung to the mystical. This exemplified, Coleman argued, “conservatism in science.”

Gregory Bateson didn’t agree with this assessment, but it didn’t surprise him. It only made him groan a little in fatigue. Bateson didn’t object to his father being called a romantic, as far as that went. He objected to the assumption that W.B.’s characteristic concerns somehow de-legitimized his inquiries as a scientist. As Gregory saw it, this was all part of an ancient binary, deep in the Western mindset, composed on one side of Democritus’s particles and on one other of Hericlitus’s flux. The post-World War II theories of information and communication had rendered this binary obsolete. By trying to operate outside it, W.B. had been ahead of his time. Coleman, in contrast, was stuck in yet another performance of the age-old conflict between atomism and holism. Such performances had stock moves and gestures. One was to posit some authorized science that was purely objective, against which any other science was a kind of fraud.

“I suppose whatever scientific figure one looks at,” Bateson wrote Coleman in a December 1966 letter, “one would find that the history of science is only superficially guided by scientific research and disciplined thinking. Behind this superficial façade there is always a heaving mass of inchoate mysticism which the scientific figures themselves never put into words. One thinks of the big wooden box, locked, in Isaac Newton’s rooms in Trinity College. In this box he kept alchemistic manuscripts, deistic tracts and other occult materials.”

Bateson closed his letter with this question: “Do historians have no such boxes?”

This passage is not unlike many others found in Bateson’s correspondence: lively, articulate, pointed. He had a light touch, and even his criticisms, his pushings back were delivered amicably and with charm. Bateson’s letters are often as rich in expression and enjoyable to read as any of his published work. Strictly speaking, he had few peers. How many other trained anthropologists were coding systems theory onto the life sciences in the nineteen-fifties and sixties? He never established a place for himself within an institution, so only in relatively short, intense periods did he have other thinkers of his caliber around him with whom to develop and exchange ideas. For these reasons, he was often most successful communicating with a lay audience. Here his gifts of expression were especially handy. To illustrate abstract ideas, he commonly drew from literature, from history, from philosophy and myth. These references carried weight but were not obscure or threatening, not to someone with a decent undergraduate education (back when having a decent undergraduate education meant a grounding in the humanities—see L.D. Burnett for thoughts on this transformation.

But I didn’t tell this story merely to praise Bateson’s style. The substance of the story interests me, too, this idea about historians and boxes.

The immediate question to ask is whether I have such a box, and if so, what’s inside it. In Newton’s case the contents were religious in character; did they have to be? According to Bateson the contents are things the scientists “never put into words” because to do so would be to put one’s status as a scientist and critical thinker in question. As a friend and fellow scholar stated recently on the S-USIH FB page, sometimes a historian in a circle of historians cannot be their whole self. At the same time, the suggestion is that the contents of the box speak deeply to the historian’s very motivation.

Of course, Bateson isn’t just talking about historians; he’s speaking generally about critical thinkers in the modern mode. This is a question of method, is it not? We begin with doubt and pretty much stick with it. When a piece of data rings so true it is experienced emotionally, that’s a signal to be wary. Critical thinkers keep the heart data out of it, because that data enrolls some stake we have in the way of things that obstructs our ability to reason. Heart data is to be set aside, tucked away perhaps in a secret box so that it won’t influence our direction one way or another.

In short, there are good reasons to be wary of the heart data, and reasons to keep what inspires it out of sight. I’m not sure I want to think too hard about what may be in my box, if I have one. I’m not sure I want to examine it too closely. I like Bateson’s phrase “a heaving mass of inchoate mysticism.” Mysticism is usually given a religious connotation, kiss me deadly box on fire 2but I’m not sure that’s necessary here. It might refer simply to all that we can’t know, not only because we aren’t smart enough, but because we don’t and can’t have receptors to transmit to consciousness even a fraction of everything that’s going on and of which we are a part. In Bateson’s construction, the contents of the box “which the scientific figures themselves never put into words” is continuous somehow with the “heaving mass of mysticism.” The contents perhaps speak to our relations with this heaving mass. From this perspective, how strange to be required to hide the box and its contents, to isolate the heart data, as they were irrelevant factors.

I don’t mean to suggest that there is anything novel in these observations. Hard work on the part of humanists on emotion and affect—including a call for a merger of history and brain science—goes back at least a couple of decades. Having only dipped my toe into this literature, I’m merely a little more secure in speaking openly about matters I hadn’t known how to speak about before. So far—and I hope to make progress on this thinking—the turn to affect that Ruth Leys and many others have written about strikes me as part of broad response across the humanities to recover, in a sense, from the shattering discoveries about complexity and interdependence that have been classed under numerous labels over the past fifty, sixty years.

In his biography of Gregory Bateson, David Lipset offers a vivid account of the day Gregory’s father, W.B., was on a train in 1900 reading a paper sent to him by a Dutch colleague It was a recently rediscovered 35-year-old article by the Austrian monk Gregor Mendel. W. B. saw in a moment what these findings would mean to evolutionary theory, what a huge piece of the puzzle they supplied. W.B. would look back on that train ride, Lipset writes, as one of the most “intensively emotional experiences of his life.” Later Gregory would describe how his father came to regret all the time spent with Mendel. There is little in the parts of this story that assure any generalization about the usefulness of heart data in critical inquiry, except perhaps that it’s useless to pretend it’s not there.


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.