Saturday, October 9, 2021

Coming Clean

I shall regard this post as preliminary, in a way. I still don't think I have it in me to write my thoughts in any coherent fashion, but I also feel that I'm done with the sort of writing I've been doing. Hold me to it! Flat out, I'm simply not intelligent enough to be attempting what I'm attempting.

Here's an image to hold in mind while I work my way around to what I want to say today: Like many people, I've been broke and in some kind of panic about what I can do next, at various points in my life. My memory is dim about many of the particulars, but I'm remembering one time in California after losing a job that I was really good at (too good, in fact) I took some bait, fairly consciously, and "signed up" for this hiring event which had overtones of get-rich-quick.

As a young man, one of my older brother's friends cajoled me into hearing his Amway spiel. I remember being amazed at the proficient props he used, and at his relentless assurance that he could wear my any reticence down. I had never heard of Amway, so I had no idea what I was up against.

Not that different from an insurance salesman, really. The one who finally sold me seemed actually to enjoy sparring with me about what's wrong with insurance as a concept. I probably inherited that prejudice from my Grandaddy. And I have to confess that the salesman, who is now a one-percenter, and who I still sort-of like, won. I urge my daughters, please to start their life insurance policy. Now. 

Anyhow, I go to this place which is festooned with, to me, obviously quickly put together props, and desks covered with personalty that I know was cobbled together, and hallways built of portraits of the home office and home officers. Probably the former offices of a now bankrupt law firm or something. A temporary set now.

I knew multi-level when I saw it. But it was interesting. A kind of duelling match for souls, and I was astounded at how gung-ho so many of my fellow desperados, mostly much younger and mostly men, made themselves sound. 

So what I'm getting at is that I've been reading way too much peri-apocalyptic literature, most recently this lovely set of interviews by Anders Dunker (whose name I'm proud to have remembered, because I never could keep it in mind while reading). called Rediscovering Earth. It reminds me that there are plenty of really intelligent people working very hard to understand what might be the solution to the obvious fact that the earth is fucked, and that we humans, therefore, are even more fucked. 

Calling us "fucked" is not my usage, please, it's what they all say.

Anyhow, I rediscover Bruno Latour, and he calms me. He seems, to me, to have gone and gotten much further than anyone else. And he lays the framework for hope. I told him that to his face once, and he was taken aback. I guess he's used to being considered yet another doomsayer.

Oh, and please, I'm not trying to name drop. I just happened to be sitting behind him at what was called the Feverish Earth conference at the place where I used to live and work; Burlington, Vermont. And I just happened to have the nerve to comment to him when he looked my way after the presentation we were both witnessing. That would be highly unusual for me.

As I also recall, my nerve had been built sufficiently after that to go up to the Poet Laureate of the State to remember with him my selling him a bicycle on his twenty-first birthday. He was gracious and seemed genuinely grateful for my approach. He knew I'd remembered him because of his pretentious-sounding name, which was quite true. Chard deNord. Latour. DeNord. 

Whatever. The poet laureate's poetry and demeanor were surprisingly good, and I did feel bad about having made fun of him - made a story of my encounter in the bike shop with this white silk-scarf-wearing poser buying a bike, and with his gorgeous girlfriend. He told me that the girlfriend was still his wife. I can be so wrong about a person!

So anyhow, by way of Actor-network Theory - ANT - Latour, to my satisfaction, has provided a framework for hope, as I've already said. If one focuses on the web instead of the nodes, in just the way that McLuhan noted that the medium is the message, you might see the hope as well. 

It seems widely agreed among the non-sociopathic half of the Nation now that we are living in what is variously called the Anthropocene (I've tried to adopt the Donna Haraway better term, the Chthuluthene, but I can't hold that term in mind), which incorporates "The Sixth Extinction" (which as far as I know puts it in line with asteroids killing off the dinosaurs kind of thing), and that the Anthropocene poses an existential threat to life, the universe, and everything. 

Nobody seems to hold out hope that we can ever pull our shit together. Largely, that's because we all will continue to want what we want, and if we can get it we'll continue to go and get it. But my main point is that everyone thinks that thinking is the only way to solve this. And that leads to politics, by way of agency. We must be the agents of our own survival.

Bypassing the many uncomfortable conclusions that we need some sort of beneficent dictatorship, or that China is doing much better than the democratic West, I have a problem with our concept of agency, as though human agency were any different from what plants and animals do toward survival and the powering of evolution.

This is all a variation on that Jameson quote to the effect that it's easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. Most of us, who aren't evangelical or evangelically technophilic, same thing, know that it's capitalism which composes the root of all evil. 

But it's also capitalism which has allowed humanity to flourish, by and large. Many people point to the soulless wealthy folks sitting at the top of the heap, who maybe deserve to be coerced into distributing their wealth (to those of us who made it possible). But I also want to point to the folks toward the bottom who have no problem screwing over their fellow man for a chance at a Porsche, or at a Tesla, for that matter, or even just to eat. The ones who were bushy tailed in that weird hiring event that I attended.

You know, the ones who man the phones that spam you. Or the health insurance reps who take your call. Used car salesmen, they used to call them. 

Now if you've read anything that I've written, you know what I'm going to say. 

I'm going to say that those ANT web fibers/connectors are composed not only of physical matter and communications , but that they are also composed by emotive valence. And I'm going to say that it's this emotive valence that can change overnight, as it were, and furthermore that it's already happened once in history. Which is to say post-history, since in some sense history was jump-started by, or at least largely concurrent with, the very event of Christianity. 

Notice that I don't say 'event of Christ' since I doubt that the Man was quite real in the way that "true" believers think He was. I say event of Christianity rather in the way that Terry Eagleton talks about (writes about) The Event of Literature. I say even that without authority, since that's another book that I've excavated from my distributed stacks, but which, so far as I know, I have yet to read.

I'm also definitively distancing myself from the notion that emotion is some special province of humans. But the Anthropocene sure is. Just like communication is, emotion is a two-way street, and it doesn't exist unless you consider that it's both more and less than human (if you're into more or less). My Octopus Teacher.

Consider the acceleration of time, post Christ to now - the acceleration of history, if you wish, and even the acceleration of geography and geology - leading in a straight line to the industrial and scientific and now digital revolutions, and finally to the Anthropocene, which messes with geography and even geology as much as it does with biology. 

Here is the Anthropocene, full-baked, and it's been far less than the blink of an eye since we've become conscious of it. Like the systems at the power company that I was peripherally involved in which would cut power, when needed, in a tiny fraction of a wavelength as an improvement over the more mechanical fractions of a wavelength that were once sufficient. 

And still we have blackouts.

Anyhow, my claim is that all that is needed is for a change of heart, not a change of mind. I say this in full awareness that in the Chinese tradition, for instance, there hasn't traditionally been that distinction between heart and mind. The term in Chinese is all one. Like the color qing for the color of nature, or wen for any meaningful pattern, including literature; xin for heart-mind is whatever it is that is the primary core for definition of humanity.

Humanity's cosmic function is to bring the steadiness of the heavens down to earth, which can sound a lot like the mission of science or religion without the expectation of comprehensive finality of comprehension, and without confusion about agency.

My claim can be reduced to a change of heart, in Western English terms. Like what if we were all to 'see the light' and realize that our moral behavior at the microlevel will actually be what "saves" the Earth. 

If you have managed to deconstruct mind-body dualism, at least in your mind, haha, as I have, then you have to confess that the health of the Earth, about which so many thinkers among us are so worried, is also at least a reflection of the health of the human mind. I'd prefer to use a stronger word than reflection, but I'd end up saying something like the health of the Earth is an embodiment of the health of the human mind.

Of course the Earth doesn't need saving. It only needs good riddance to foul humanity. But we can say good riddance to foul humanity by ceasing to be foul, right?

Watch how quickly the Earth can reclaim, oh I don't know, let's say an abandoned shopping mall, and you'll see hope. 

Plastic is, of course, never reclaimed, but do we really need it? Really? We only need it to keep the germs away and to enshroud our complexities with an attractive cowling. An attractive skin. Plastic divides us from the rest of life. Wood does almost everything plastic can do, but better!

Mostly, plastic is for packaging. And anyhow, I ask you, why is it that an MRI of Alex Honnold's brain is more accurate than what you can see on the face of him? There is no mystery there, apart from what we invent. Right. His Amygdala doesn't behave like mine does. Surprise! I would never go climbing anything without a rope. Duh! And I'd be happy to do my shopping every day, the way most of China still does, so long as it was only a walk away to the nearest wet market social scene.

My original problem with insurance was that it furthers the capitalist cause of radical individualism. Like, not only can't you depend on your fellow man, but you shouldn't. Since the economy needs your participation, stupid! 

Nevermind radical individualism, any sort of individualism is, at least, a fiction. No matter what McKibben's buddy Kurzweil thinks, you're nobody all by yourself. And it's the body in nobody that counts here.

Well, we'll see if I can come clean. I'm simply trying to distinguish myself from people who would try to convince you what to do. I can't convince anybody of anything. Don't use Facebook! Don't Google! Don't believe that electric cars will change anything! Ban plastic bags! (wait, there's been progress on that one) Ban plastic! Ban pesticides! You get the idea. 

All we need is love. Love is all we need.

I know, I know. It's been said so many times it's beyond cliche. But what if it's true? I ask you.

Friday, October 8, 2021

The Very Large, and the Very Small

Notices fly by, but they are nearly all unrecoverable by the time I realize that they'd caught my interest. The new iPhone OS provides me a very promising tool to capture alerts and then to present them to me at intervals. And so I spend inordinate time trying to track why it, and other things on the updated phone, are not quite working. 

I hardly ever pay attention to social media, so that's a start. Perhaps our congress will catch up with my reasons.

But I'm really lazy. I just keep saying the same thing over and over. But today I write at a table, sitting upright, so that's a start. Plus I do read an awful lot. I hold in my hand most mornings this gorgeous piece of technology even though, along with lots of other techie types, I think the entire business model is disgusting. A metaphor?

My social security payments will start soon, if the government doesn't shut down, and anyhow it's somehow the first time in my life when I face nothing urgent or pressing. I have that thing that I've wanted all my life; a blank slate on which to do something. Another start.

I'm reading some Jonathan Franzen essays from the library. That's a help. Thank god he's not lazy. As far as I can tell, he never has been. Somehow he wants what we all want, which is recognition, and he goes and gets it. Of course, since he doesn't exactly hew to established norms for opinion, he also becomes an easy target for socially-mediated certainties. I guess he's big enough to deflect those. 

Yes, of course, my iPhone addicts me to the fascinations of the daily news. Franzen provides perspective. It's been awful for a while now, and it's not going to be getting better. He uses his fascination with birds as a kind of overarching metaphor. Filtered down to the local level anywhere, the birds are screwed, and thus we are screwed. Men shoot them wantonly in the Middle East, starting with armed Italian import hunters, because it's what they've always done and now they have MP3 birdcalls to deploy from iPhones, and really deadly firearms, and a fearsome mobility.

Americans have always been on the move with wheels, and we shall drive over the cliff that way, just like the Buffalo did when tricked. Our trajectories all combine to something that feels like near certainty that life on earth is in big trouble.

Franzen pokes holes in the current sets of socially-mediated obsession, especially including global warming and wokeness. That makes him a target, except that he's right. Global warming, in particular, takes the wind out of all the possible local sails which might power doing actual good. For birds, for underclasses, for the people whom wokeness should be serving, wokeness not being the same as action. Every little piece of social justice work is more effective than any amount of fretting toward slowing global warming. 

We spend so much time correcting one another needlessly, and in needless anger. Who are we making better? Lots of people who believe stupid things are doing good work.

I see no point in even barely trying to write as well as Franzen does. I miss David Foster Wallace, who had a gift with the written word that even, by my lights, his pal Franzen can't approach. I don't mean that as criticism. I really don't. Although the actual publishable critics can't seem to leave Franzen alone.

So, as I marvel at my white teeth in the mirror now, trying to detect what has to be the first deposit of stain from the type of coffee I drink, I wonder why I endure the truly hateful opinionating foisted upon me as I lie recumbent in the chair once every six months as mandated by insurance norms, and then the actual pain of the cleaning. The office takes joy, and I partake in it, in the Russian-descended woman's self-defined torture chamber. It will soon be decorated for Halloween, and I am disappointed that my six month span will miss it. Maybe I'll pay them a visit, when I inevitably have to remind them to submit my insurance claim again.

I have vague mental intimations that stain removal doesn't even matter to the longevity of my tooth enamel. Also, that it may even be harmful in at least the sense that leaving a clean surface must also be opening up the raw enamel for more staining. But that's not a system I can buck, or that I care to. Well, it hardly matters anyhow, since I and my enamel are way past their prime. I'm lazy, remember? I'm just taking advice, despite not really caring all that much if my smile isn't perfect. There is a poster there in the office, of a perfect female face with perfect teeth and I am mesmerized. Still, at my age.

So the purpose of this sitdown here today is to detail my own certainties, not socially mediated, just for the record, as it were. 

Along with, apparently, Franzen, and a very few others, I am not convinced that there is anything particularly awful about our current position in the cosmos. Ends are always a part of beginnings, and both are always traumatic. If I look in one direction - take sex trafficking for instance - I can't even begin to imagine how things will ever be made better. Like Franzen's birds, I suppose. 

I guess the difference now is that we really are awake to how we're all in this together, whatever this is.

But if I look in a different direction, more locally, I realize how very nice a certain segment of the educated white middle class did make life for a while, for a sizeable number of socially numb humans. Such life is mostly without excess and very pleasant, really. I imagine that Franzen and I both enjoyed a similar niche for at least a while, although I may suffer more guilt than he does. Which seems strange. 

But in my brief lifespan, we did move from where I personally could afford a nice apartment with space left over to acquire and rebuild a wooden sailboat and live aboard and sail it for a long long time. Even wood now is the exclusive province of the very wealthy, and "nice" apartments start way beyond my means. My point is that, until recently, I never had to mortgage my soul to do what I wanted. Well, of course I'm white and I'm male.

I would like to write stories or even a novel for the simple reason that I could get rid of the first person, apart from quotes - Franzen gives such advice for fiction writers. I will have to stop drinking for a very similar reason, which is simply because the physical feedback amplifies the actual pain of old age. I doubt that I will ever take any such advice. That's how lazy I am. I don't seem to have a novel in me. Consider yourself lucky, dear reader.

So here you go:

  • I am certain that globally universal time and position-keeping to atomic-clock precision is a more important metric than almost any other about where humanity is headed. (That doesn't mean that it can tell us anything about the direction, just that it's important.)
  • I am certain that what we broadly call 'technology' will provide exactly zero solutions to anything, even while it may exacerbate certain negative trends (like wealth concentration, global warming, toxic masculinity, WEIRD supremacy, hate mongering, sex trafficking, worker disempowerment, rhetorical vacancy, bird eradication, and on and on). That doesn't mean that we can't use technology to find solutions.
  • I am certain that there is something very important with the explosive proliferation of video, and the concomitant valorizing of visual perception. I suspect that has to do with how vision can discriminate, and thereby amplify difference. 
I am certain that:
  • Oil is a fated gift, and global warming was always part of the deal. We have to deal with it. We can't or won't stop it. The gift remains neutral in outcome. There has been plenty of good.
  • Red and Blue, Left and Right, both participate equally in the desacralizing of humanity. Religious belief to the anti-ironic extreme espoused by the Right (especially panderers of evangelical or Catholic certainties) enacts the identical godlessness of the humanist Left.
  • Ratiocination is neither the highest nor the defining factor for what it means to be human. (laughter is, haha! No, really, Aristotle said so.).
  • Belief is what gets suspended in play. Religious ceremony is a form of play. You aren't in the thrall of belief when you are in church, you have suspended it. Every child knows better than to claim that the play is more real than what's real. Play may be more important. Belief in what's inside the magic circle is important during play, but it doesn't help with life in the real except by actual improvements to physical and moral and rational accomplishment. Those are also possible.
  • Time's direction is not a physical quality.
  • Chance is never meaningless. Indeed, it is the basis for most so-called agency.
  • Love defines the direction for life's evolution (a series of chance interactions) in a way similar to how gravity (force/acceleration) defines physical motion and position after a certain threshold for aggregation of the very small - the subatomic "particles".
  • There is no certainty to be had by philosophy or science. Certainly no certainty for direction.
  • Love defines the highest aspiration for humanity, and composes its most difficult set of stepwise thresholds.
  • Ratiocination is as neutral as physics about which is the best direction for any individual or collective action.
  • Scientific or religious certainty is as futile as lead shielding to preserve privacy and moral integrity, useful though it may be to shield secret motives for militant purposes. 
  • Rationalization takes ownership of directions arrived at by chance, in just the way that our convictions can fool us about our motives.
  • Love is eternal, and so life is eternal. Species come and go not as failures but as fodder for love.
  • Apocalypse arrives just as does the death of a young child in the wilderness. It is just as tragic and needless.
  • Science and technology can move us toward or away from love.
  • Money is a virus on what we typically call the soul of humanity, and tends toward the soul's destruction if left untreated.
  • Capitalism as practiced first in these United States and as now a global infection, will surely bring us to apocalypse. Techno-humanists and evangelicals want the same thing in this regard.
  • Whether by collective death or by divine chance, we will disappear by embrace with the godhead. 
So we must rock on! For whatever random reason I recently watched the original Woodstock and Altamont (Rolling Stones) documentaries. These somehow bookended Bob Dylan's "Don't Look Back," even though Dylan's came first. The poles of rock and roll with Altamont marking the descent into commercialism spiraling down. The Dead pulled out. No shit.

Yes the earth is in the throes of terminal death. It ain't dead yet, but it ain't looking good. 

But I give credence to how much good is happening, and how humanity is growing up, by and large, and getting better at not being rapacious and awful. In many senses, the earth is at its prime. 

The messaging that its already too late empowers only the capitalist dead-enders, who will become ever more obscenely wealthy based on your embrace of their fevered escapism. They are all versions of Peter Thiel and Donald Trump, and they really don't believe that anyone else matters as much as they do.

It's not too late to wake up to the facts of life, which include the fact that all life must end somehow sometime, but what a shame that this life should end in this way and in this time. It is so unnecessary. 

I maintain that democracy is not dead yet, and that we can still build a truer democracy than the one we now suffer, which is a last gasp for Homo Ludens. Proof is in the agonistic opposition of two political parties, both in the thrall of neoliberal dead enderism. They are teams on a field. They have lost their religious responsibility to help us to suspend the belief that we shall destroy the earth. 

Our democracy can and will rebound when our elected leaders show, once again, that they understand what is really important and act on it. They will need to learn new certainties. Take mine, for instance. They aren't doing me any good.

I can understand almost any criticism of almost anything. What I have a harder time understanding is the anger that criticism now often seems to embody. I understand a coherent critique of Franzen and his privileges. I just don't understand disliking, or even hating, him for that. Where does that come from? I would say that it comes from "inside" the hater, and that hate is a bigger problem than to do whatever it is that one is trying to do with the criticism.

On the other hand, there is Mark Zuckerberg.

But, you know, on the other other hand I'm not too thrilled with Bill McKibben being friends with Ray Kurzweil. Like, I'm pretty sure that if you turned inside their circles, some of the Nazi brass were nice too. Shit, there I go crossing the line again. I suppose that Kurzweil is earnest in his beliefs, but so are the Monsanto chiefs who rationalize their need to patent nature because then enable us to get what we want. Ditto fossil fuel industry. They hide their truths from themselves for the same reason they hide them from us. Because we want the oil more than we want the truth.

These are the solutions to our despoiling of our planet, our planet's gene pool, and perhaps life in our cosmos that I can't, quite, abide:
  • Population control. Population is the symptom, not the problem. It is a measure of the extravagant success of capitalism, which is the root problem.
  • Transhumanism. That would be the same as conscious evolution, geoengineering, terraforming and the rest. Post-humanism is fine with me, but nobody's really proposing that
  • Infinite energy. Clean fusion, say, or whatever. All that can do is to power capitalism to eternity, which is to say to the devastation of the planet and the end of the story.
  • Reanimating extinct species. I agree with Kim Stanley Robinson, a cheap science parlor trick.
So what can I abide? 
  • Removing ourselves to cities, perhaps, provided copious gardens and lakes and streams. Even zoological curation there. 
  • Recognizing that equity and social justice and even universal basic income are more powerful than any imaginable rational eco-solution toward the goals of sustainable ecology.
  • Deconstruct the economy to disallow expropriation and enclosure of any and all commons, which are those things that all of us require to remain vital, which means most everything.
  • Rewrite corporate law. Socialism, anyone? Everyone?

Like, I don't really know anybody that wants to live inside a computer game, even though that is the only thing that I can imagine when people get excited about any supposed techno-future. Really, most people dread those futures, and think of them in Mad Max terms, and not in terms of the creature comforts we enjoy. Really, once you have HVAC, hot water, drinkable cold water, lights and plenty of relaxing entertainment, what more is there?  

The trouble with optimistic futurists - meaning really that they are blind to the obvious insolubility of the problems that we face - is that they too (like the religionists) have expanded the magic circle of game playing until it encompasses all of life. That is not reality, and never shall be.

Simply by turning our attention to providing all people everywhere with adequacy, we can solve all the other issues. But adequacy sounds like a come-down. Think of it more as what a cat or a monkey has gotten when it is perfectly content. I mean there is quite literally nothing that Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk has that I would like. Recognition? Pah! A nice nap in the sun is plenty.