complexity theory

Posted in Concerning literature, culture shifts, Transformations on May 8, 2016 by Christy Rodgers

There really is a butterfly effect at work in the Homo sapiens sapiens story: Imagine, tiny genetic anomalies reverberating into distinguishable types of physicality and cognitive processing, expanding into historical acts in the world altering aspects of large-scale material reality – the climate of a planet! (the largest if not the happiest example) leading to concatenating unforeseen and unforeseeable consequences through great spans of time.

Missing from what we call complex civilization today: the ethic of humility, attentiveness, and care that a real understanding of the nature of this effect would seem to demand.

That civilization looks like our last best hope for comfort, sophistication, and abundance – until you visit its sacrifice zones. Then, like Shevek in The Dispossessed, all you want to do is run.

But Shevek has a home outside of the murderous, gleaming, extractive civilization of Urras to which to flee. We don’t. For now, our stories are the only door to the sky.

another may day’s come and gone

Posted in culture shifts, Transformations on May 2, 2016 by Christy Rodgers

Against the dream of a universal human family that haunted the last century: “all things in common/ all people one,” the times have given us a strange array of nearly disembodied tribes scattered about the globe, who rise up here or there in fearful ecstasy against the extermination of unprofitable difference by capital, and its establishment of a venal, phony meritocracy with the rentiers at the tiptop and the rest (numbering in the billions, mind you!) to blame for their own misery. Then these stirrings fade – under bombs, tear gas, buy-offs, internal divisions, media defamation, political accommodations – leaving capital reeling on, largely indifferent to anything but its own increasingly unmoored manic-depressive cycles, in its happier moments blithely ecumenical, calling anyone with cash, no matter what color or creed, to come on in and buy. And its gloomier ones, of course, all chilly premonitions of the inevitable and yet unpredictable Armageddon that shadows all its busy-ness.

How strange, in a small, dim, sparsely populated hall in Berkeley, California, amid determined voices singing the stirring and lilting songs of failed struggles for the universal goal: venga, jaleo, jaleo… a ragged band they called the Diggers… arise, ye prisoners of starvation… to see again with mournful clarity that the Old White Left in the US is another such tribe: the tribe of internationalists, people who want no tribe, people who fervently believe in The People, now one of the smallest tribes of all. (For whom, I should add, the Senator from Vermont is to be taken at his word as an Eisenhower Republican). As fragile and yet tenacious as the old ones still clinging to an Amazonian riverbank or a depopulated Mediterranean village.

Oh the decades that have crawled by, and we get older, ghostlier; we keep saying the same things because they are still true and yet the words are without agency. Like the chiefs of a landless people who can’t call the rain anymore.

What will it be like, the time of fulfillment, the time of transformation? We will die without seeing it, as have all the rest before us. Instead, imperfect wonders and horrors unpredicted by those who will experience them will unfold, as they always have, and those people will keep finding ways to trap them in dull retrospective chronicles as we always have. Until such time as they become something entirely unrecognizable to us as we are now, or else vanish utterly from the earth.

the irish have risen (to the top of nob hill)

Posted in the city, Transformations on April 25, 2016 by Christy Rodgers

This weekend the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising was celebrated with a concert at Grace Cathedral. In that grand space the words rebellion, oppression, socialism – set to a new operatic score – reverberated down the chilly nave, absorbed in the folds of the comfortable flesh of a flush-faced, suburban crowd.

Interspersed with the cantos of high style were some old country laments – pipes, flute, harp, fiddle, drum. Plaintive and joyful at once, unutterably beautiful. The music of exile and loss to which you must dance. Composed by people whose names are gone from our collective memory.

From these heights (the biggest flag you ever saw atop the Mark Hopkins Hotel across the park) Jones Street plunges down the hill to the darkest trough of the meanest city blocks, where the hopes of the new Irish come to grief at the hands of the cops, politicians, and bureaucrats with the lyrical names.

All true human music is the sound of exile. Our comfort surrounds an abyss; our freedom is only an absence. Let us at least keep making music, then. The streets are rivers of music, and rivers flow where they will.

twice-told tales

Posted in Transformations, visions on April 17, 2016 by Christy Rodgers
  1. The little lame boy in the Pied Piper of Hamelin

who gets left behind when the others are led off to their magical fate, weeps and weeps as if his heart were broken. He can never be comforted, because he sees it all; he knows what he has missed. Since he could not follow the music, he will have a long, boring, sated life, without wonder in it, marked mainly by isolation and mild contempt disguised as pity, in which each day is nothing more than a series of moments existed through until there are no more moments left for him. While his lost companions will go singing and dancing wildly into an invisible shining world full of mystery and marvels – even if it seems to the fearful, hesitant, grasping townspeople that they are being led away to bitter death.

  1. The Grandmother in Little Red Riding Hood

What was she doing living out there on her own in the woods? There’s always been something suspect, something louche about her. If she’d just agreed to live in town with her daughter and son-in-law, none of this would have happened. But it may be that the grandmother is a kind of bohemian, an independent-minded sort who doesn’t really get along with her children that well, and her granddaughter loves to visit her because she can’t wait to get away from her oppressive, boring parents, with their chores and nagging. Anyway, as the grandmother knows, sooner or later we’ve all got to face the predators out there; we’ve got to succumb to them or become them; c’est la vie. And it’s a wise child who knows her own grandmother.

  1. The animals in all the tales

The goats, pigs, spiders, geese, cats, donkeys, mice, rabbits, deer, foxes, swans, chickens, crows, eagles, ants, serpents, bears – extras, walk-ons, or stars, they all leave the set each night exhausted, muttering glumly, knowing they’ll never get anything like what they’re worth for their work; they’re just being used for their exotic qualities. But their real lives are never shown, never make it into the tales that light up the big screens. It’s always all about these rich, self-absorbed apes, with their clever tongues, draped bodies, and busy hands. The other animals wonder how it all came to be this way, and how much longer it will go on being this way. They take their meager pay and trudge stoically back to the tattered fields and woodlands at the edge of town, to watch and wait.

ah, wilderness!

Posted in culture shifts, Transformations on April 8, 2016 by Christy Rodgers

I once took a wilderness and transformed it into a garden. But along the way I killed or evicted anything I didn’t want, I radically reduced the biodiversity in whole areas, by poor soil management I created tiny deserts where almost nothing grew. I practiced a kind of ethnic cleansing as I weeded, uprooting and forcibly removing many things that had long established themselves and were happy and thriving – often for no purpose but an aesthetic one. I set up borders where once there were none. I made roads – paths, that is – nothing was allowed to grow where I walked.

As I learned better how to garden, I began to let things back in that I hadn’t planted, as long as I liked the way they looked, and they didn’t compete with my colony of plants, the ones that were for my exclusive use, slaves of my need for food and beauty.

Years went by, and I could relax, now that I was in control and knew how to get what I wanted from the land. I interfered less and less. The plants that had survived my scourges were supple and forgiving. The animals were unobtrusive – they had learned to stay away, to haunt less tended spaces. The more aggressive birds chased the others away, and took advantage of the insects and seeds that were on offer when I disturbed the soil. It all seemed to be in proper equilibrium.

My garden was beautiful, and I was happy. But the wilderness was gone for good. As long as I lived, it would not return.

baucis and philemon in the 21st century: notes on living small

Posted in Essays on February 22, 2016 by Christy Rodgers

This essay first appeared on The Dark Mountain Project blog. It was republished on Resilience.

I live in the nation with the highest rates of personal consumption and energy use ever seen on earth, and I live small. But it isn’t an intentional experiment, like no-impact, no-plastic, all-local, Tiny House, zero-waste, or any of the others that periodically make waves now. I didn’t decide to start living small one day and rearrange my life to fit a program. It happened because, as the memoirist Vivian Gornick says of living alone, “I said yes to this and no to that” and at some point found myself in this situation.

Even though I’ve adopted a number of now-familiar lifestyle habits to limit my consumption of goods and energy, that’s somewhat incidental. I’ve also made some “small” choices less trumpeted by sustainability advocates: I have stayed in one place for a long time, which requires far fewer resources than the constant uprooting common here in the US (where we change our homes on average once every four years). My place happens to be urban, so I’m lucky that, at least in this country, it’s easier to be resource-efficient in the city than the suburbs or the countryside. I should say that this is not to be confused with “self-sufficient” (whatever that actually means – there’s a whole other essay there). The vast infrastructure that sustains me is profoundly wasteful; I’ve just limited my demands upon it somewhat.

I also own no real estate, no home or land. (Individual property tenure is possibly the most anti-ecological type of tenure ever invented, notwithstanding the hash some societies have made of attempts at large-scale collective tenure.) I live in a rented flat; the same flat I’ve lived in for over twenty years. I live with my husband, who had been there for fifteen years before I met him, in the city where he was born. We have two rooms, a kitchen, and bath. We have no yard, laundry machines, or dishwasher, no children, no pets, and no car.

In fact, outside of this country our lifestyle isn’t particularly exceptional. To this day, millions of people live as we do in urban areas around the world, although it’s somewhat rare to be our age and not to have children. At the same time many others, urban or rural, have even fewer possessions than we and have had to work harder for those they have.

And to be honest, none of this really came about because of an ecological awareness on our part. It had more to do with a lack of personal ambition, and a feeling of alienation toward the drivers of what is called ambition. So what does living small really mean, in this context?

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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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