eduardo galeano is irreplaceable

Posted in Transformations, visions with tags on April 16, 2015 by Christy Rodgers

Ella está en el horizonte -dice Fernando Birri-. Me acerco dos pasos, ella se aleja dos pasos. Camino diez pasos y el horizonte se corre diez pasos más allá. Por mucho que yo camine, nunca la alcanzaré. ¿Para que sirve la utopía? Para eso sirve: para caminar.

[Utopia] is on the horizon, says Fernando Birri. I move two steps closer; it moves two steps away. I walk another ten steps and the horizon runs ten steps further away. As much as I may walk, I’ll never reach it. So what’s the point of utopia? The point is this: to keep walking.

RIP Eduardo Galeano

Quoted in a dialogue with Jose Saramago at the 2005 World Social Forum. Every Transformations post on this blog is a tiny tribute to his work.

at play in the comedy of survival

Posted in Essays on April 16, 2015 by Christy Rodgers

An Appreciation of Joseph Meeker

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

Many of our imaginations have been captured by the seemingly unalterable and suicidal trajectory of contemporary civilization. It feels like the story arc of one of the great tragic heroes: Oedipus, Macbeth, Faust – destined to rise to great heights, attempt unprecedented levels of power over matter and life, and then fall, leaving the world’s stage strewn with the dead. But the “tragic fall” is not just an affective state of mind or a poetic myth. It is, in fact, what individual civilizations have tended to do since humans began to create them seven thousand years ago (unless they were conquered and absorbed into other civilizations, which then fell).

And now, for the first time in human history a single civilization has gone global, touching every member of an unprecedentedly large and still growing world population. And also for the first time, we have all the tools: scientific, cognitive, historical – to see the seeds of its fall in development. Even the wonks at NASA have confirmed that this pattern exists and we are replicating it. And we still can’t seem to change course.

The posture advocated by some who understand this is a correspondingly tragic view, which to them means acceptance of the Faustian bargain, acceptance that the human story is inevitably a story of hubris, of overweening ambition, aggression, and final destruction. And that we are living now somewhere near the climax of hubris, and must brace ourselves for destruction.

The problem comes in what this posture represents: is it representative in any way of how other living systems work? Because if we really want to vindicate the ethic of living things, wild things, uncivilized things, and rediscover their resilience and their relevance to our human life, then the tragic story arc is not the rule.

This idea was first articulated by the US scientist and literary scholar Joseph Meeker, in a small book called The Comedy of Survival. It was published in 1974, when an ecological consciousness – meaning a science-based understanding of the world as a living system in which everything was connected and interdependent – finally seemed to be on the rise within the civilization that had been marked by its utter contempt for earth-centered religions and societies.

Meeker was a uniquely interdisciplinary man: a postdoctoral comparatist in both world literature and in ethology (the study of animal behavior). Before becoming a professor of comparative literature he had worked as a ranger in the US National Park Service in Alaska. He has remained a committed ecologist throughout his career. (He is now professor emeritus of Union Institute and University.) His work deserves a wider audience; it can stand with many of the better-known ecological thinkers of our time: Thomas Berry, Wendell Berry, Terry Tempest Williams. But even so Meeker’s contribution is truly unique.

In The Comedy of Survival, he proposed the idea that two of the major modes of imaginative literature might be seen, from an evolutionary perspective, as representing different adaptive strategies. While “cultural evolution” in a Darwinian sense is hotly debated and the whole idea is problematic, Meeker was about something different. He saw literature as mimetic (imitative), an attempt at metaphoric representation of fundamental aspects of human life. And since strategies for physical survival and adaptation to the environment are part of the reality of any species, including humans, there was no reason why literature shouldn’t in some way reflect them too.

The two modes were tragedy and comedy. In studying world literature, Meeker found some significant differences between them. Tragedy was almost exclusively the creation of Western civilization, arising out of its heroic myths, while comedy was “very nearly universal, occurring wherever human culture exists.” Tragedy focused on an individual hero who “suffers and dies for his ideals, while the comic hero survives without them.” Comedy looked at all high ideals of individual triumph or transcendence with a jaded eye, and its successful conclusion was always one where life, continuance and community – generally represented by a wedding, or several – were celebrated. Meeker wrote:

Comedy demonstrates that man is durable even though he may be weak, stupid, and undignified […] At the end of the tale [the comic hero] manages to marry his girl, evade his enemies, slip by the oppressive authorities, avoid drastic punishment, and to stay alive. His victories are all small, but he lives in a world where only small victories are possible […] Comedy is careless of morality, goodness, truth, beauty, heroism, and all such abstract values men say they live by. Its only concern is to affirm [the human] capacity for survival and to celebrate the continuity of life itself, despite all moralities. Comedy is a celebration, a ritual renewal of biological welfare as it persists in spite of the reasons there may be for metaphysical despair […] Comedy muddles through, but seems to care little for such weighty matters as progress and perfection.

The Greek demigod who gave his name to the word, Comus, was according to Meeker, “a god of fertility in a large but unpretentious sense. His concerns included the ordinary sexual fertility of plants, men and animals, and also the general success of family and community life insofar as these depend on biological processes.”

In taking the first steps toward the elaboration of an “ecological aesthetic,” Meeker declared that just as comedy could be thought of as ecological, successful ecological systems could equally be called comic: “Productive and stable ecosystems are those which minimize destructive aggression, encourage maximum diversity, and seek to establish equilibrium among their participants—which is essentially what happens in literary comedy.” He viewed biological life and cultural life as reciprocal, invoking Oscar Wilde’s dictum that “life imitates art at least as much as art imitates life.”

Put concisely, Meeker’s ecological aesthetic (which, as he made clear, was also an ethics, another way in which his thinking was appropriately holistic and anti-disciplinary) was this: “Much that has been loved and admired by a humanistic culture is unfortunately incompatible with biological stability […] If cherished human traditions have led to the damage of the world, then those traditions must be revised.”

The Comedy of Survival looks at specific works containing some of the principles Meeker was trying to put forward. From Aristophanes’ proto-feminist anti-war play Lysistrata to Dante’s Divine Comedy to Spanish picaresque novels and the 20th century satirical masterwork Catch-22, Meeker showed comic heroes and comic stories embody many of the attributes of successful survival strategies in (non-human) animals. These “comic” behaviors make it possible to co-exist with predators and prey, respond to threats by avoiding or redirecting unnecessary aggression, and survive and thrive in a complex, dynamic environment.

His look at the picaresque hero provides the most striking examples. Picaresque comedy is a genre not much studied, in comparison with tragedy, epic literature, and even other forms of comedy, but Meeker saw it as the chief mode in which the “minority report of Western civilization” makes its case. He presents several examples of picaresque behavior in literature: how lowborn Lazarillo de Tormes escapes the oppression of his social condition, how Thomas Mann’s confidence trickster Felix Krull “shapes himself to please” society, all the while exposing its illusions, or how Catch-22’s Yossarian manages to evade the death machine of organized warfare. “Picaresque life,” he concludes, “is animal existence augmented by the imaginative and adaptive powers of the human mind.”

Conversely, Meeker portrays tragedy and its heroic idealism not as a profound understanding of life, but rather a fatal misrepresentation. Tragedy was a product of Western anthropocentrism, which was coeval with a disastrous relationship to nature: “The assumption of human superiority to the processes of nature has justified human exploitation of nature without regard for the consequences[.] Humanistic individualism has encouraged people to ignore the multiple dependencies necessary to the sustenance of life.” Meeker repeatedly emphasized that the genius of evolution is not in the perfection of the individual or even of the species, but the ecosystem, a dynamically stable condition of maximum diversity.

While he is more concerned with undermining the tragic paradigm, Meeker is also careful to distinguish picaresque behavior from the misplaced nostalgia and idealization that mark the pastoral mode. The picaro (or picara, who is less frequently represented in the men’s club of Western Lit) does not seek to withdraw from society to an idealized rural space. (Doomers and self-styled “survivalists” take note.) Rather he or she is constantly seeking to find ways to survive and thrive in a complex and shifting environment which is created just as much by human activity as by non-human natural processes.

The picaresque metaphor for society is not the so-called simple life of the agrarian homestead, but the complex wilderness. Dangers can never be eliminated in the wild; they must be evaded or neutralized, by predators and prey alike. Meeker also wrote: “The way out of environmental crisis does not lead back to the supposed simplicity of the cave or the farm, but toward a more intricate form of living guided by a complex human mind seeking to find its appropriate place upon a complex earth.”

However, it is not complexity per se but a fuller understanding of what real complexity means that would be the mark of a human society worthy of the complex web of life from which it emerged. Meeker gave us this guidepost, “If a ‘return to nature’ were to be based upon the model of a climax ecosystem, civilization would have to become far more complex than anything humanity has yet produced.”

Here is a summation of his ideas about civilized vs. wild complexity:

The truth may be that civilized human life is much simpler than most animal life. We seem to have used our enlarged brain in order to reduce the number of choices facing us, and we have sought the simple way of destroying or ignoring our competition rather than the more demanding task of accommodating ourselves to the forces that surround us. We establish artificial polarities like good and evil, truth and falsehood, pain and pleasure, and demand that a choice be made which will elevate one and destroy the other. We transform complicated wilderness environments into ecologically simple farmlands. We seek unity and we fear diversity. We demand that one species, our own, achieve unchallenged dominance where hundreds of species lived in complex equilibrium before our arrival. In the present environmental dilemma, humanity stands like a pioneer species facing heroically the consequences of its own tragic behavior, with a growing need to learn from the more stable comic heroes of nature, the animals [italics mine].

In the third edition of The Comedy of Survival (1997), Meeker added the idea of developing a “play ethic” to counter the dour and biologically destructive productivity fetish of the Western work ethic. He compared the open-ended, non-purposive nature of play with evolutionary strategies:

[B]oth ecological succession and natural selection are aimless processes that work with whatever conditions and forms are present in opportunistic and inventive ways to create new forms […] They are like play in their purposelessness and spontaneity. The comic way may be inefficient and wasteful, as evolution and succession are, but these processes have created the beauty of biological diversity, including humans.

(I would only disagree with the use of the words “inefficient and wasteful,” as complexity theorists like Stuart Kauffman have shown that layers of redundancy and elaborate speciation actually work to minimize entropy in living systems and the web of life overall. But I think Meeker was being playfully provocative here.)

In his description of the play ethic, Meeker championed increasing our participation in activities that “are their own reward: music, gardening, conversation.” (This lifted my spirits greatly, as all of them are ones I treasure in my own life.) Here comedy as both an ethics and an aesthetics returns in the form of activities that are actually common to human experience, not abstract theoretical formations. Meeker discourages abstraction and encourages praxis. After all biological systems are not abstractions. They are the largest scale embodiment of the idea that “truth is concrete.”

More than forty crucial years have passed since The Comedy of Survival, and the modern environmental movement, appeared. The last twenty particularly have left little room for any faith that there will be large-scale eco-centric reform before a massive alteration in the basic conditions of planetary life – already underway – takes place. In today’s global civilization, the Western tragic arc seems to be playing out, with human society replicating all the elements of its own earlier literary models: striving, unremitting aggression, hubris, defiance of limits. Ironically, in a reversal of what Meeker saw in literature, the tragic mode has become universal while more “comic” types of human social formations: tribal societies, nomads, smallholders, bohemians – are increasingly marginalized and living on the edge of extinction. It’s looking unlikely that the fulfillment of the tragic arc will be forestalled from within this totalizing system. (Why traditional Left strategies are failing to provide an alternative to ecocide, at least in part because of the extent to which they also reflect the tragic, anthropocentric paradigm needs to be the subject of a whole separate study.)

But if Meeker was correct, evolution’s comic strategy won’t disappear, unless the whole web of life disappears. And comic human behaviors may currently be the minority report, but they are not gone or irrelevant. Turning our eyes, hands, and thoughts to how we might practice etho-mimicry in the comic way is at the very least something less psychopathic to do with our limited time and skills than remaining transfixed in dread or despair, enslaved bystanders to ineluctable tragedy, a Greek chorus of woe.

When we talk about resilience, we often forget that emotional resilience is as essential to human survival as physical. If those who feel global civilization is irredeemable are really to represent a living alternative, perhaps we ought to embody a different emotional and imaginative paradigm: no longer the Faustian, or even the tragic sense of life, but something more like Meeker’s picaresque. Humble, smart, negentropic, playful – these are useful values with concrete behaviors we can adopt.

Even so, in the current context, it may not be possible to fully enact the comic mode in our own lives – after all, to be successful it requires reinforcement, other people we know to play along. But even as a thought experiment, the comic way offers pleasure and relief, as well as identifying exemplary capabilities humans will need, if we’re ever to be worthy of rejoining our fellow players on the evolutionary stage.

Selected Works by Joseph Meeker:

The Comedy of Survival: Studies in Literary Ecology (1st edition, 1974. Foreword by Konrad Lorenz), Toward an Environmental Ethic (2nd edition, 1980. Preface by Paul Shepard), Literary Ecology and a Play Ethic (3rd edition, 1997)

The Spheres of Life (1975)

Minding the Earth (1988)

the boojum

Posted in Transformations, visions on April 11, 2015 by Christy Rodgers

A boojum had appeared in the skies over earth, darkening the minds of many of its inhabitants with terror.

The end is near! they cried to one another. They spent time in desperate conferences arguing about what should be done: try to forestall the end, meet it with stoic dignity, or barricade themselves in a cellar full of supplies and hope it overlooked them somehow.

Interestingly enough, however, most of the inhabitants of earth were unable to see the boojum. This appeared to be the case at least in part because they covered their eyes tightly with their fingers or dark glasses and jammed small devices in their ears that played soothing music nonstop.

Meanwhile, as the boojum hovered overhead making dreadful noises and stirring up gargantuan storms that swept houses into floods, piled snow to the rooftops, and tore up the land, plunging it into darkness for extended periods, most people went on with their usual activities. And most people died as they had before the boojum arrived: from illness, age, or at the hands of other people.

Those who could see the boojum kept waiting for it to do something definitive that would reveal it to those who could not or would not see it. But the boojum seemed to be utterly indifferent to their desires and, in fact, to their existence. It didn’t have an easily definable shape; it would morph oddly or fade away at the edges whenever they tried to look straight at it or take pictures of it.

The ones who kept looking the other way whenever anyone else pointed at the sky managed to go on about their lives with relative ease, clucking their tongues at the TV news when it showed another house floating on storm waters, great fires burning unchecked in distant forests, or cars piled up for miles in a blizzard. They worried instead about the usual monsters with which they were more familiar: criminals, and People Who Stop You from Getting Ahead.

By the time the boojum left again, a thousand years had passed. In the quiet eons that followed, a small number of people (there were, in fact, not so many overall as there once had been) tried to figure out why it had come and what life had been like before it arrived. But it must be said that most people simply didn’t want to know. One thing they had learned was that regardless of whether reason was awake or asleep, it seemed to breed monsters. Another thing they had learned was how to lace their fingers over their eyes just tightly enough so that the sun still shown through, and to be apologetic and polite when, as often resulted, they bumped into one another as they walked.

bastille day

Posted in Tales on March 28, 2015 by Christy Rodgers

Dick still can’t believe it: he’s backed against the concrete wall with all these other bodies crushed in around him and the guy next to him is sobbing uncontrollably but in a kind of whiny way that makes Dick want to clock him if he could get his hands free to do it and there’s this little trickle of blood behind his ear just where he can’t get at it and Jane’s wherever they’re holding the women and kids but they won’t tell him where that is and across the big dark basement storeroom all the phones they confiscated are ring-toning like mad like a muzak machine had a nervous breakdown or something and Dick remembers that he meant to update his message and if his boss is calling for him he’ll probably think Dick stayed in Maui when he’s supposed to be finishing up that presentation for the Sunday Working Breakfast tomorrow and his boss will have his balls… Then Dick stops, thinks: What the fuck am I thinking? Because this can’t be real, he’s not here, none of it is happening.

What’s more, his day started out so nice.

Because the Good Life Holistic Emporium where he and Jane buy their groceries had this Thanks-to-Our-Community fiesta-type-thing in the parking lot today that they’ve been doing for like the last four-five years and Dick decided they should check it out because the kids were now at the age where they just got too antsy after six hours of gaming, ‘toons, Golden Age reruns, all that. (At least he and Jane still had that much time to fool around a little, download the paper, make some espresso, and maybe he can watch some of the game on his mini in bed…) So when they’d finished their scheduled frolic and shower-massage (which if the sad truth be told, those jets seemed to do more for him these days than the dependable spousal pussy) and got the kids some brunch which they all ate in front of the TV—sorry, Home Theater, it’s a 3D-HD Gigascreen; he just had it put in—the Anime Channel, which has those movies with the goofy monsters and completely incomprehensible plots that he actually kind of likes—anyway Dick decided to pack everybody into what his mother snidely calls the “Personal Assault Vehicle,” although she knows perfectly well that with the way everyone drives these days, street armor is not an optional feature… so he mobilized them all and they headed down to the Good Life where he and Jane are loyal customers because the food there is certified something-or-other but mainly the bakery has these lemon soufflé bars that totally float Dick’s boat while Jane loves the peanut fondue scones and the kids have discovered peppermint biscotti and now they can’t get enough of it.

Not to mention that the Good Life also has only young, sexy, hip-looking people working there, apparently there is even some kind of employee beauty standard, which created a stir initially when some homely folks who needed the work put up a stink about discrimination, but it never went anywhere. Homely people don’t come across that well on 3DHD and from a marketing standpoint (that’s Dick’s job, he’s in marketing) having such a sexy and fun-looking staff was a real edge for TGL anyway. And all their friends shop there too although if Dick had to be honest he wouldn’t care if the guy who served him looked like Quasimodo as long as they kept making those lemon bars, but whatever.

The only problem, really, is getting to the store because it’s in the Warehouse District which is pretty desolate and surrounded by these no-go areas they call “drive-thrus” or “safari parks” so Dick used to make it a live-action game of sorts for the kids but then he got the PAV its own 3DHD so he could just dial up a flick and they didn’t even notice what was happening on the streets outside. He once thought the “problem areas” had all moved to the suburbs and that’s why he put 500K up front (which it doesn’t bear looking too closely at how he got but let’s just say begging, borrowing, and stealing were all involved) on a condo in the Hills where everything’s still pretty copasetic and they finally got their street gated after hassling with the do-nothing city bureaucracy for five years for godssake! But no matter how much the Neighborhood Associations tried they never could shift all those increasingly scary people out of the Lowlands and in fact it was starting to seem like there were actually more of them in recent years…

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the poverty tour

Posted in Tales on March 26, 2015 by Christy Rodgers

Hi-all, my name’s Boogie Bob, and I’ll be your tour guide today on your visit to our beautiful city’s world-famous Skid Row district. On behalf of the Remain in Positivity Over Failure Foundation, I want to start by thanking you all for choosing to take a look at a side of the city that most visitors—and even a goodly number of our citizens—never see. These unique, up close and personal tours are sponsored by RIPOFF, which uses all the proceeds for entree-preenoorial programs that help down-an’-outers (or DAOs as we say), and former DAOs such as myself “get off the streets and back on our feets!” They are entirely operated and run by the Skid’s street community. So not only do you get the real insider’s view, but the money gives us guides a chance to make it out of poverty in this sweet land of the free. Yep, everything is free in our country except there’s no free lunch, haw-haw! That’s a saying we have here.

Now I see mosta you are from somewheres in Yurp, and even though you seem to speak pretty dang good English, you might not be able to follow all the street lingo that gets thrown at you on this tour, so we’ve provided a helpful info sheet for you to carry with you in case you get stuck on certain things you hear us saying as we go along. Here it is—just two pages and makes a nice souvenir. Try it on your friends when you get home: you’ll be speaking “street” like a native in no time!

We also know that you-all may have your own ideas about how to deal with poor people where you come from, so we’re happy you’re innerested in finding out how we do it here – which is to keep the government off our backs and let people starve if they darn well want to! Just kidding folks. See, in this country we believe in pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps—if they’d just stop stealin’ our boots! Sorry ‘nother little joke… ya gotta keep laughin’, am I right?

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the city once upon a time: etched in concrete:

Posted in the city, Transformations on March 25, 2015 by Christy Rodgers

James Brown 4 Prez

Women Loving Women

Free the People, Free the Haight

The Goddess is Alive – Don’t Forget!

End Racism – Never Too Soon

You’ll Never Forget John Stamet

Il faut cultiver nos jardins

And the snowshoes said to the pinecone “follow me into the forest…”

A Tree Should Have Been Planted Here

Smoke More Pot

Eye Contact is the Extractor of Rapport

DANCE HERE

Recycle Your Car (in front of DMV)

Art Above Commerce

Max Yasgur Lives

McDonald’s and World Bank Responsible for Destroying 50,000 Acres of Rainforest Daily

Ghost-Modern

Time for the Timeless

oh, city!

Posted in the city, Transformations on March 25, 2015 by Christy Rodgers

After more than twenty years without any direct exposure to mayhem or violence, the most frightening thing I’ve experienced in this city is the look in most peoples’ eyes.

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