the end of the enlightenment: a fable for our times

Posted in Essays on January 29, 2016 by Christy Rodgers

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

Literary scholar and critic Walter Benjamin said that for human social progress to occur it was necessary to “dissolve myth into the space of history” but he was wrong. From the vantage point of the early 21st century, myth is back, and badder than ever. It is the ultimate Ghost in the Machine of the Scientific Revolution. And I’m going to suggest that not only will we not rid ourselves of the mythic worldview in any conceivable social formation that might actually be thought of as progress, but that it has been a great mistake even to try.

Benjamin applied a profoundly poetic insight to the critical appreciation of imaginative literature, one of the major narrative traditions that emerged from ancient myth. But he was also a follower of Marx and thus a materialist. As such he was a late product of the European Enlightenment. If any records or scholars to analyze them survive in, say, three hundred years, I believe they will determine that the Enlightenment ended sometime around the turn of the 21st century (and Benjamin’s quixotic life and death under the shadow of European fascism may provide an interesting sidelight to its demise).

The Enlightenment was thoroughly and inevitably Trumped (a term that – for now – has the resonance of a fable) largely by the unintended consequences of the work of three of its final, and greatest, heroes. Perhaps a Ragnarök analogy is not out of place here.

What I’m about to do is present our recent history to you as a mythic fable. Bear with me, and at the end I will tell you why.

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the messengers

Posted in the city, Transformations on January 27, 2016 by Christy Rodgers

I went to Ocean Beach and it was gone. In twenty years i had never seen this: the surf line crashed directly against the base of the great dunes that buffer the shore, behind which the Great Highway runs. The shoreline road was empty for as far as i could see, preternaturally so at midday, until i realized that it might have been closed because of flood risk from the king tide, or blowing sand from the wild winds.

I stood atop the dunes, where one or two other solitary persons pensively regarded a deep, multilayered line of storm clouds roiling landward, a study in pattern formation. The wind exhilarated me; it was full of high portent. This is only the beginning, it said. Go and hide inside a world of pixilated screens for as long as you think you can: put on those chintzy goggles, strap computers to your wrists, stuff headphones in your ears, or infuse the physical world before you with algorithmic animation projected onto a piece of expensive eyewear – but I will be howling outside through every crack in your shoddy sand castle walls, and you haven’t yet seen the least of what I can do.

It wasn’t speaking to me personally of course. (That’s madness.) It was speaking to the ages to come; I’d be long gone before the prophecy it whispered was fulfilled:

When the wind blows
The cradle will rock
When the bough breaks
The cradle will fall

How well everything works now! I thought as I rode back on the streetcar docile and omnipotent. The massive cranes moving up and down atop the new high-rises. The lights come on, go off, in sequence, as other machines tell them to. My credit card! Food, medicine, plants for my garden – i got all these with a promise made upon a small piece of plastic-covered circuitry. All these people i’ve never met from all over the globe are providing me with everything i need for a comfortable life, instead of storming the gates of their rulers’ palaces, to get back some of the wealth they are hoarding, most of which exists only as two digits, zero and one, in a dimensionless realm of similarly insubstantial promises. The Emperor’s New Stock Options…

The faces along the bar
Cling to their average day
The lights must never go out
The music must always play –

Lest we should see where we are
Lost in a haunted wood
Children afraid of the dark
Who have never been happy or good.

But i was happy walking home in the soft rain. It felt like a blessing – rather this gentle, dark rain is what priestly blessings were invented to imitate and supersede. Then across the street and a little way behind me i heard a shriek – an unearthly sound. I glanced back and a man stood there with something strange in his stance. I couldn’t see him well, half hidden behind a parked car. But as i looked he turned his face towards me and it was young and impish, filled with a hideous, staring grin, the eyes wide and white as boiled eggs on a brown plate. He seemed possessed of a dreadful joy. He shrieked again, an indescribable sound. And then he began to cross the street toward me, in the midst of the roaring traffic. He loped as if his uncontainable joy were forcing him to dance. Cars swerved to avoid him.

There was a boy
A very strange enchanted boy…

I turned and walked on as fast as i could, breathing in panicked gasps. I heard his shrieks intermittently behind me; no matter how quickly i moved, I couldn’t get them to sound any farther away. I was almost running, scrambling up the steep hill. I didn’t dare to look back.

I was nearly home before i couldn’t hear the shrieks anymore. I kept thinking i would turn around and see him loping after me, desperate to give me the message with which his madness filled him. Here, this is for you.

The next day a mild sun shone; i went out to take a walk. I walked down the hill, stopped at the store, came out and there he was at the bus stop. He beamed with joy, and shrieked.

Only the beginning.

listening to the radio in the garden

Posted in culture shifts, Transformations on January 24, 2016 by Christy Rodgers

The neuroscientist is talking about the difference between default perception – a kind of cognitive shorthand, a convenient fiction provided by the brain, using a mental construct built from previous experience (on a sunny day the sky is [fill in blank]) in order to deal efficiently with the constant stream of sensory information the brain is receiving without having to analyze each element individually – and the enhanced perception experienced at moments when a fuller awareness is required. In such enhanced perception, moments seem to extend beyond the constraints of measurable time, and minute details are revealed to have previously unperceived levels of complexity and connection to other elements of perception. Perception acquires capabilities of recognition that are almost incommensurable to the default mode. There is clearly a survival benefit to having both types of awareness.

And as i am working in the garden, i am thinking of the people who know plants well enough, after many instances of enhanced perception perhaps, to understand them as sentient beings. And therefore move through a garden or grove as you or i would move through a room crowded with people we recognized and knew intimately, most of whom we truly loved, all of whom we respected (i suppose most people’s rooms today would be quite small) hearing each one speaking to you of its current condition of life in its very particular voice.

And for just a moment – but it feels capacious – in the spangled sunlight of the quiet green space, enriched by all the beneficent molecules these speechless, unambulatory but not immobile beings are releasing invisibly but not imperceptibly into the air around me, i feel as if it might be possible to be who and what we are only and yet come to know a thing worth knowing.

the idea of order at key west or elsewhere

Posted in Concerning literature, culture shifts, Transformations on January 14, 2016 by Christy Rodgers

If we try to use language transparently, are we doing ourselves a disservice? Perhaps Wallace Stevens was right: if we can’t experience reality directly, and if there is no transcendent level to experience anyway, why not just revel in our own invention? Those fantastical filigrees of forked lightning flashing inside the crystal sphere at the center of our heads. That lovely Blue Guitar plucking out the tune; that jolly Emperor of Ice Cream leading the dance. But Stevens might have been wrong about a couple of things: one is that there is in fact already order in nature, elegant, fiendishly complex order that we have nothing to do with creating – the more science advances, the more it confirms this. Poetry – since Stevens, anyway – seems rather slack-jawed by comparison.

Humans are not the sole artists of creation, the unique imposers or creators of elegant and sophisticated order out of nature’s slovenly, fanged chaos – at Key West or elsewhere, by placing jars in Tennessee or elsewise. In fact, we are the generators of a uniquely inordinate amount of entropy by comparison with other species or systems in the unbuilt, living world.

We can love our words, as Narcissus loved his rippling image in the silken pool, but the world can still reach up to drown us with a single, silent wave.

floating in america

Posted in Essays on December 29, 2015 by Christy Rodgers

This essay first appeared on the Dissident Voice webzine. It was later re-published on Counterpunch.

Remaking authentic communities into packaged forms of themselves, re-creating environments in one place that actually belong somewhere else, creating theme parks and lifestyle-segregated communities, and space travel and colonization—all are symptomatic of the same modern malaise: a disconnection from a place on Earth that we can call Home. With the natural world—our true home—removed from our lives, we have built on top of the pavement a new world, a new Eden, perhaps; a mental world of creative dreams. We then live within these fantasies of our own creation; we live within our own minds. Though we are still on the planet Earth, we are disconnected from it, afloat on pavement, in the same way astronauts float in space. –Jerry Mander, In the Absence of the Sacred

If you want to understand the United States of America at the turn of the millennium from whose pinnacle of power we are now beginning our descent – or at least, if you want to understand why you can’t understand it – you need to take to the Road.

First, let’s dispense with the idea of the Road as that mythic place of freedom seekers, pioneers, beatniks and iconoclasts. The Road I mean here is the one most Americans experience on a daily basis, and it doesn’t go all that far.

Here’s the paradox: even though on the average, each adult American spends much of his or her year behind the wheel of an internal combustion machine capable of circumnavigating the planet several times non-stop before its engine wears out – most of us aren’t really going very far. The average length of our collective car trips is just 10 miles. Over 60% of trips over 50 miles long are still within the driver’s home state. Most Americans don’t ever travel outside the country: less than half of us have passports. (And the number of those who do is greatly enlarged by first-generation immigrants.)

In 1903, when Horatio Nelson Jackson, the first man to cross the country in an automobile, took his famous trip, most Americans had never been more than twelve miles from their home. Since then, we’ve become infinitely more mobile, and yet overall, we haven’t gotten much further.

That open road thing, the myth of restless movement: it’s the restlessness of the gerbil on the wheel.

we’re on a road to nowhere
come on inside
takin’ that ride to nowhere
we’ll take that ride

The Road Denies Us Context. The great sadness in our constructed landscape is its expression of contextlessness. The reason why people romanticize San Francisco or small town New England is that there are buildings in those places that have come to seem somehow connected to the landscape they are in. This is not the norm in the USA. It never was the intent of our settlements or our society as a whole to mesh with the land; we had all come from somewhere else, quite recently, in historical terms. The land was ours before we were the land’s as the poet says, with unintended irony. And particularly since the advent of the automobile, it has been more important to us that our buildings have access to the Road, than connection with the land.

So as a result, what is it that characterizes us most profoundly? Disconnection from place. It creates a distinct set of pathologies. Continue reading

life in the margins

Posted in Essays on December 14, 2015 by Christy Rodgers

An updated version of this essay appeared recently on Dissident Voice and Counterpunch.

For most of my adult life I have lived in bohemia, that marginal, dwindling Gaza Strip of American culture which survives in the cracks between the sterile, expanding suburbs, the gated streets of the urban rich, and the trash-blown decay of the ghetto. It exists, as it ever has, only in larger cities, and perhaps no longer all of those. Its inhabitants in these times are not the carefree, eccentric artists and non-conformists of yore, but a grimmer group: wraith-like night owls with dark-ringed eyes, crusty radicals stolidly refusing to assimilate, and children (some now middle-aged) with drug and alcohol “problems.”

I’ve found no real community here, nothing but the most tenuous web of human relationships. My only day-to-day community is my longtime companion, both of us pretty marginal even on the margins; it’s us against the world.

But tonight as our ancient room heater whistles and clanks, and traffic roars outside the cracked and rattling window of our basement flat, I raise a glass of cheap red wine and toast my dark bohemia. I am grateful for the contrarian traits, the aimlessness and alienation that have led me here. I am grateful even for my poverty relative to others of my birth class. These are the things that have kept me recognizable to myself. Perhaps I mean they have kept me human.

Tonight I’m remembering how, by accident, years ago, I stumbled across the life that might have been mine, if I hadn’t twisted off the path somewhere.

Continue reading

this will be the century of chaos

Posted in the wide world, Transformations on November 14, 2015 by Christy Rodgers

We’ve known about blowback at least since “sow the wind, reap the whirlwind” was written. But a vast, entire, astonishing empire of glittering cities, speeding cars, shiny restaurants, metal music, and digital devices has been constructed over the pliant land by pretending that we do not know.

Oh, what a paradise it seemed!

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