remaining animal

Posted in Essays on May 16, 2017 by Christy Rodgers

This essay first appeared on the CounterPunch and Dissident Voice webzines.

The philosopher David Abram wrote a book called Becoming Animal (2011), which was, in part, an exploration of shamanism and an attempt to understand what that means from outside a culture in which that term and practice are still central to human life.

What he found was that our fascination with what we call magic in Western civilization is utterly rooted in the mysterious (to us) transformations that take place in quotidian fashion in the living world. He described how our perceptual and cognitive apparatus hinder us from knowing that world intimately, as full participants, and yet give us a unique window on those transformations: imagination.

In the wake of a first-ever mass march to defend and elevate the scientific method, the most transformative legacy of the fading Enlightenment, it seems worth remembering that the person held up in the contemporary world as the epitome of the Man of Science told us that “imagination is more important than knowledge.”

He made a lot of other pithy statements too, some of them about socialism, also an Enlightenment project whose rationalism has underscored the depth of our irrationality, and whose implementations have shown the inadequacy of mechanistic models to do justice to human existence in a dynamically complex living world.

If we still recounted our history in mythic terms, Einstein would be a highly ironic progenitor god or hero: he believed that the whole universe was governed by rationally intelligible laws, but his theories produced a model of nature that is radically discontinuous and breaks down when we attempt to unify it. He believed in the peaceful coexistence of peoples – and gave us the most viable means we have had to annihilate ourselves through organized violence since there were less than a hundred of us shambling across the savannah, occasionally clubbing one another to death.

His equations give us transformations that appear magical too: mass becomes energy, light becomes time, time becomes space. But where do we humans live in that world, which looks nothing like our own? It is a world in which our life – or any life – is a kind of freakish little side show, and elegant mathematical equations are the sine qua non. Einstein did not overthrow Newton’s clockwork universe; he gave its clocks a Dalian ability to melt and morph and finally vanish, but in that timeless universe experienced by a beam of light, there is no life, no possibility of biology at all.

Such a faith in the universal primacy of reason now seems increasingly desperate, considering the unintended consequences. Without emerging from the nuclear shadow, the new millennium has deepened its dystopian shades ever since its first regressive year: when those two great pillars symbolizing its triumphant mercantile economic system were toppled in minutes (an image straight out of the Major Arcana) by men wielding the crudest of weapons. And the empire began the historically inevitable and endlessly vitiating process of striking back. As a counterweight to these times, I recently picked up David Jennings’ book Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism (2016), about the wave of utopian social experiments that swept the nascent U.S. beginning in the late 18th century, another age of apocalyptic fervor in the West.

I was struck by those contradictory creatures, the Shakers, who hated and feared our animal nature, epitomized in sexual congress, and yet believed passionately in gender equality, communalism, pacifism and good craftsmanship. Besides producing the furniture and structures for which they are still famous, they also became expert seed breeders, elevating the power of sexual reproduction in plants even as they despised it in humans. Their experiment was ultimately self-limiting: it was driven by end-times fever, but the world did not end, not even after the culminating slaughter of the Civil War. Jennings quotes a later commentator of Marx (who was critical of utopian socialism) to this effect: the 18th and 19th century millenarians “mistook ‘the birth pangs of capitalism for its demise,’” and misread industrialism’s ravages of landscapes and social norms as signs that the establishment of the New Jerusalem was nigh.

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the door

Posted in Concerning literature, culture shifts, Transformations on March 3, 2017 by Christy Rodgers

This is the story arc of our species: we have traveled, although with many meanderings, a single traceable path from wild to domesticated to mechanized beings. We still carry our past with us – sometimes it is expressed, sometimes only potential, but it is not entirely (never, thus far, entirely) lost; it is embodied in us. So there are still groups of human beings who have more wilderness in them, many more who are fully domesticated but not (yet) mechanized, and some – in fact, considered the most privileged in contemporary civilization – who are being positioned for, and now, like good domesticated creatures, actually trotting faithfully towards, machine-life. Clutching essential contrivances to which they have outsourced their memory, sociability, wealth, intellect, and imagination. The next step on this path is to further incorporate (embody) our machines: first to wear them, then to implant them, and finally to become them.

Robert Macfarlane’s book Landmarks made me realize children are the throwbacks. Domesticated children held the wild in them, released when they went outside to play; machine children will probably still hold the domestic, creating farms and households and schools on their virtual reality playgrounds. All children have held the body, the physical, preeminent – a physicality in constant motion, irreducible because it is alive at all levels, seen and unseen. What adults abstract to a separate and imaginary realm, the metaphysical, is merely a single reality that is alive throughout. This is the world of children.

It was the children who perceived, as Macfarlane says, doors everywhere in the landscape, the children who could slip between worlds without difficulty, just as they can speak in different languages without interposing translation, or express paradoxical ideas without a sense of contradiction.

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reassurance and empire: a litany for january 20, 2017

Posted in Transformations on January 20, 2017 by Christy Rodgers

I am not reassured by the idea that life might have been different.

I am not reassured by the idea that life is exactly as it should be.

I am not reassured by human imagination and creativity.

I am definitely not reassured by human adaptability.

I am not reassured by the solidity of the built environment.

I am not reassured by loyal animal companions.

I am not reassured by the vulnerability of children.

I am not reassured by algorithms.

I am not reassured by the fact that I am healthy, fed and clothed.

I am not reassured by the idea that everything will go on without me.

I am not reassured by the idea of individual or collective agency.

I am not reassured by the meaninglessness of the individual or the species in the great scheme of things.

I am not reassured that we have made it this far.

In the swirl of clouds sweeping off the ocean, and the smatter of rain from the oncoming squall, i saw how active and many were the birds in the untended wall of flowering broom growing beside the concrete stair. I would have called them happy, if i dared. Let us just say lively. I watched them till they dispersed, and then looked far out to the slice of cliff-bound shore i could see from there, and the ocean waves in motion at its base, white and tremendous, though they were miles away on the other side of the Golden Gate.

Then i started back. And just as i turned the corner of an empty street, there was the rainbow, vaulting over all i could see. I laughed out loud at the aleatory kitsch, knowing it wasn’t there for me, or for anyone, at this moment or any moment, knowing its shimmering indifference was precisely its monumental promise, was the only message human beings were meant to read in it, that we lived in a world that made such things for itself, and would ever as long as there was air, water, and light in it – and so to love it, as it was, love a world of such marvels that exists without love or hate for us, and yet is us, all we are and (i hope) will ever be. The house we have not built has no love or hate for us either, but in it we live. But of course, we are constantly tearing down well-built houses and trying to build better ones. I withdraw the analogy.

This rainbow shone on and on, its colors at the base fat and glossy beyond any i could remember seeing anywhere for years. It spanned the city that tried to take those colors down from the sky and brand itself with them forty years ago, making me laugh harder, if somewhat bitterly. With no one else in sight, i felt dared to succumb to pathetic fallacy by something that seemed like a great, clownish wink.

I was not exactly reassured by the rainbow, though i loved it, and it made me laugh. I was reassured by the rain-filled wind in my face as i walked, the tangled complexity of a tiny patch of soil at my feet at the top of the stair, and that tumult of bright, dark and singing birds. I was reassured by the momentary feeling of being immersed at every point of my being in a shared medium with them, and even though some day it would dim and die for me, everything i was would remain in intimate participation in that medium, without even the illusion of isolation anymore, unconcerned forever by its unconcern.

a massacre in the rear view mirror: el mozote at 35

Posted in Essays with tags , on December 18, 2016 by Christy Rodgers

This essay first appeared on the the Dissident Voice and CounterPunch webzines.

In three days, from December 11-13, 1981, U.S.-trained troops in Central America’s smallest, most densely populated republic, El Salvador, rounded up and killed over a thousand unarmed civilians in the hamlet of El Mozote, in Morazán province, near the Honduran border. This massacre, I believe, still has the dubious distinction of being the largest mass killing of civilians by state forces in the Western Hemisphere in the 20th century.

Most people who know anything about the Central American civil wars in the last decades of the Cold War know that they were U.S. proxy wars, the Reagan Administration’s “line in the palms” against Soviet expansion. In Weakness and Deceit, then New York Times foreign correspondent Raymond Bonner carefully exposed the bloody fingerprints of the administration on that massacre and the years-long cover-up that followed, and was exiled from the paper for his pains.

El Salvador’s twelve-year civil war ended in a negotiated settlement, after displacing a fifth of the country’s population of five million and killing over 75,000. And after billions of U.S. tax dollars were poured in to prop up its army and political class by Carter, Reagan and Bush – El Salvador was at one time the third largest recipient of U.S. military aid in the world, after Israel and Egypt. The war was followed by fifteen years of right-wing dominated plutocratic governments that institutionalized denial, and pushed through a craven amnesty for all military and political figures implicated in war crimes, while they continued (a little more discreetly than before) looting the country. A few triggermen were prosecuted for death squad activities but by and large, the major perps walked free, some of them settling comfortably in the U.S. A lot of other Salvadorans ended up in the U.S. as well, but the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service worked diligently to ensure that none of those who had fled government repression were given political asylum.

El Salvador’s guerrilla army, the FMLN, had taken swifter, if limited, justice: in 1984, they lured the massacre’s engineer and top commander Colonel Domingo Monterrosa into a booby-trapped helicopter by letting him think he had captured the transmitter for the guerrilla radio station, Radio Venceremos. They blew him up in mid-air. A pretty good film, Trap for a Cat, made by a Venezuelan filmmaker sympathetic to the struggle tells this as a story of poetic justice, with some dramatic license.

In 1991, on the tenth anniversary of the massacre, I stood with a tiny group of people in the tall dry grass of the empty place that had once been the busy market town of El Mozote. A majority of its residents had been conservative evangelical Christians who had refused to support the FMLN – and so the initial story manufactured for the cover-up was that the massacre was a reprisal by the guerrillas. That story eventually sank under the weight of the facts – in no small part because there had been at least one surviving witness to the attack.

That was Rufina Amaya, widow of a smallholder who was killed in the massacre, and she was standing with our group in the susurrus grass of that depression in the barren hills where there was absolutely no structure, whole or partial, remaining to indicate the former town. She began to speak about what she had seen and heard on that day in 1981, when she hid in the bushes as the army marched in and began rounding up the townspeople.

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the power of nightmares: notes from the mythic year

Posted in Essays on November 5, 2016 by Christy Rodgers

All Hallow’s Eve has come and gone, and so has the day when the dead come back for a visit, but we’re not out of the dark woods of our self-inflicted nightmare yet. The days are still getting shorter, the nights longer, as we edge toward the spooky haunted house of a national election marked, more than any in my memory, by an overwhelming sense of dread.

The obsession with the Witches’ Sabbath in a culture as denatured, as stripped of meaningful and time-bound ritual as ours is something that seems particularly perverse to me these days. Cheesy decorations started going up in the upscale neighborhoods of San Francisco in mid-September. What was that about? Why this holiday, far more than the return of spring and the celebration of human labor in May, or even the birth of the new year in the northern hemisphere at the winter solstice, the magical child, all that? It’s bizarre, and yet when you think of how much we love to terrify ourselves, how rabidly paranoid and easily spooked we are as a culture, maybe not so much.

And when you think how this year in particular, the actual shocks have mounted: from first-person mall shooters to killer cops, killer candidates, and even killer clowns… we have not made Christmas last throughout the year, as the transformed Scrooge was said to have done, instead we have come damn close to making our lives a permanent Halloween.

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interview at the crossroads

Posted in The Undoing: Tales from Elsewhen on August 2, 2016 by Christy Rodgers

I will try to tell you what has happened to you, says the Companion.

But before that, I’d like you to—your surroundings, your daily life; could you describe them for me? Take as much time as you want. It’s important that you remember now, even though you will see that the idea is to forget, eventually. I think the reason will become clear in time. For now, just tell me about your—self, anything you like. Anything you remember.

Eva shakes her head slightly, a twitch, as if to clear it. She reaches up with her hand, puzzled.

My hair—is loose now—I wore it—up, there… (Touching the locks that fall about her shoulders.) I had it—done, that’s the word—at a place, the same place. For a long time. In a—building. There were many of them. Long rows…

Yes, yes. Good. What else?

The buildings were tall, and made of stone and metal. And glass. There were these—engines, many of them! I moved around in them—I mean, from place to place—they took me from place to place—to get my hair—a man named—what was his name? He had very short hair himself. He did it. He said things that made me laugh. It felt good to go there. The noises were all different there: sharper, longer, louder. That was—Downtown, it was called.

Yes. And were there any birds? Did you ever hear birds?

Oh yes, I heard them. We ate them, too—not the ones we heard, I mean—there were not so many of those. Where I lived (not Downtown, a place—outside it, with smaller buildings) there were some birds. They sang. And actually that was how it first, how I first—because they were singing about—no, that isn’t right… What they were singing was here.Wasn’t it? What I mean is, it was in their singing, this place, where I am now. Because when I first began to listen…

Yes, yes…?

Not the ones we ate. They were dead too.

Yes, quite right. Well, dead, you know—isn’t exactly—we don’t—that’s to say, we just call it “other.” Because we truly don’t know about that.

Eva falls silent; birdsong and the chirring of insects pour into the stillness between her and the Companion. She looks at her surroundings: trees, shrubs, grasses, moved by the wind, gently, constantly. Clouds float above; the sky is vibrant. Its color is so intense it seems to be made of some substance other than light and air.

I can hear so many birds here, she says, wonderingly.

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the saddest prison in the world

Posted in a person, Transformations on July 8, 2016 by Christy Rodgers

Today I got my release papers from the Castle. Twenty years I served behind its shimmering walls, day after beautiful day, eating the finest food, drinking the best libations. Walking the silent parks under the great, dark trees. Each long, quiet day was an eternity. I was filled with dread and despair, and yet somehow I felt I would not die here. But I had begun to fear that the reason was that I had already died, and forgotten it somehow. And this was the afterlife, what some called “heaven,” and it was forever. Or perhaps I had never been alive.

But that’s what the Castle does to your mind. You stop being able to tell the difference between the living and the dead. There are others all around you, but most of them can’t see you most of the time. If you try to speak with them they frown and wince, as if there were a whining insect in their ear, or some other unpleasant thing. After a while you stop looking at them, because the blankness in their eyes is impenetrable. You stop trying to get any acknowledgment as you pass close to them in the street. I began to fling out my hands to ward them off when they came straight toward me, but my hands just passed through air.

I once read a story of a scientist who tortured a dog that he kept in a laboratory: every time it tried to leave its cage when he opened the door he would give it an electric shock. Finally when it had been shocked a thousand times or so he could leave the cage door open all the time, and the dog would simply lie inside the cage, its head on its paws, looking at the door, and never move. He left it for days without food and water, still it would not move. He had broken it. (I believe the scientist received some kind of military award for his work.)

The people in the Castle act in that way upon one another. They make you give up. Love, companionship, even the mildest amity – you can look and look but you won’t find it among them. You might as well try to befriend a rubber ball.

Whatever else you want, though, you can have. The Castle provides many pleasures. Every vista is a feast for the eyes. The air from the sea is sweet and fresh. And those pleasures are free. There are pleasures available at every price in the Castle, from low to infinite. The pleasures are all as light as air, and do nothing to make you feel alive.

I had long ago forgotten how or why I had come to the Castle. You never intend to come; you just end up here. I don’t remember now how old I was or what I was doing. The trick is that from the outside it just looks like a pretty place, where anyone might want to live. You wander in, intrigued, not realizing the Castle is built like a Venus fly-trap, and once inside you won’t find it so easy to leave again.

But I knew I would be able to leave one day. I understood it was a question of money; it’s always a question of money.

I served, I endured; I knew better than to seek release in pleasure, and so did not waste my time trying to alleviate the dullness of my existence with drugs or purchases. Every empty second yawned into eternity, but I piled them up, second after second, hour after hour, day after day, for twenty years. I grew older; everyone grows older in the Castle, although perhaps more slowly than outside. You don’t notice much outward change, you simply wake up one morning and realize that the time is gone – the time for romance, love, adventure, whatever you might have imagined life would bring. The Castle takes your time away so gently you don’t even know until it’s gone, as if your blood were being drained so gradually that all you felt was a slight fatigue that increased incrementally over time.

Then just the other day, the message came: we’ve gotten enough from you; you can leave now if you want to. Expect your papers soon.

I felt an indescribable sensation of pure joy, for one brilliant moment. And when I felt that, I knew I was still alive.

Almost immediately afterwards, however, the terror set in. Leave and go where? To do what? I knew the Castle, and how things worked here, and I was comfortable in every physical sense. I knew what each day would bring. I worked, and my work was dull, but I didn’t have to work very hard. Other than the pain of loneliness, my life was free of pain. Who was to say I wouldn’t be just as lonely outside, and suffer physical pain and deprivation too?

What would I find out there? Where would I live? How would I survive?

And today the papers arrived. I have them in my hand, and I know that if I’m to leave, I’ll have to walk away, just walk away from this place I’ve lived for twenty years, leaving everything behind, never to return. Just walk away with nothing, into an unknown world.

Now I’m standing in the doorway, with my freedom in my hand, but I can’t bring myself to step outside.

I feel only a surge of hatred for the scientist, and pity for the dog.

Or is it the other way around?