the knife of modernity

Posted in culture shifts, Transformations on January 23, 2015 by Christy Rodgers

After reading Marshall Berman’s All That Is Solid Melts Into Air.
The natural world is not much present in his analysis, or that of most of the social critics I have ever read. But it is increasingly clear to me that attempts to make overarching sense of human life collectively or individually without looking at the biosphere as a whole are at the root of our intellectual paralysis – they are literally dead-ends.

Whenever we stop drugging or deluding ourselves with what some have called the “secular religion” of progress, we become aware that we live now on a knife-edge, the very tip of a whirling blade that unceasingly slashes and shreds and uproots everything in its path, leaving the ruined mess of the past in its wake. Some elements of that past weren’t worth mourning, some may have deserved to die – but others were veins coursing with lifeblood that lie gashed and emptied now. It makes no difference to the knife of modernity; it doesn’t cut judicially, with skill and care as a sculptor cuts and shapes clay, with arduously obtained ability and a profound understanding of natural forms. It cuts and slashes because it is the raison d’etre of the knife to cut and slash.

We look for a home in this world but home is out of reach; we look for home within ourselves but within ourselves there is nothing without the world.

All around us and intimately harbored in the minutest units of blood and tissue of our bodies is the web of life, the enormously elaborate, interlaced, flowing and breathing world that already made sense without us, that, in order to pulse and circulate and grow and deepen in ever-more fabulous complexity, didn’t need us at all. It didn’t need us to come along and name its parts and try to order it, as we may have tried to pretend to ourselves it did. And perhaps the realization of this utter indifference was a cruel shock to the self-awareness we alone seemed to possess. In humiliating fear, and then in outright loathing, we fought to be free of the web, of the animals that preyed on us, big and tiny, of the storms and shaking ground, of the grueling heat and cold. We tried with every great achievement: combustion, agriculture, architecture, mechanical reproduction – to radically simplify the web of life so that we could have final power over it and eviscerate that horrific apathy.

Out of this long march of fear came the knife. And then, in the 20th century, the Faustian battles to wield the knife, as the sculptor does, but upon the whole world. And now – and now, far from the centers of power and wealth in waking dreams the fearful thought has begun to dawn that we are not in control of it. That even those individuals and groups to whom we have ceded almost unimaginable power are not in control of it. The powerful go blithely on, worshipping the knife, singing its praises; the rest are left to scramble among the ruins they create, of fields and forests, long inhabited niches, egalitarian bonds, desires for belonging and home. We justify, accommodate, or resist, or all of the above at different times, in an unending pursuit of survival. But no one can grasp the spinning blade now.

The web of life, which has dealt with cataclysm and rebuilt itself each time with protean creativity may indifferently still be doing what it always has, retreating now before the knife, its elaborately redundant layers of stability decreasing, its turbulent chaos increasing, its more contingent life forms unregretfully disposed of as it responds to physical necessity alone. So whatever sadness there is at the daily diminution of vividness may only be ours. But “all things desire to persist in their being,” according to Spinoza. And the more you look at other species, the birds and the mammals, even the stoic plants and fish, the more you feel that all species can experience loneliness and melancholy at the ending of their desire.

3 minutes to midnight

Posted in culture shifts, Transformations on January 23, 2015 by Christy Rodgers

Between the idea
And the reality
Falls the shadow…

The doomsday clock was created by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists in 1947 and so I have lived my whole life in the shadow of its moving hands. Humans, it seems likely, have dreamed of their final, collective annihilation ever since they became capable of dreaming. But mine was the first generation to have to stare at the hand holding the Damoclean sword, the reaper’s scythe, the vial of poison labeled extinction – and recognize it as a human hand.

We are always hearing how unprecedented our time is – this is the one ironic constant of modernity. But really, I can think of no other aspect of our time that is determinatively unique beyond this transcendent capability. Everything else modernity has created seems only a means of distraction beside it, a way to keep from staring our at last actionable death wish in the face.

And so there is the clock, rising up like some dour ghoul, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come from the old movie, out of the insane froth of daily information hissing in our brains, pointing its creepy hands closer to midnight, seeking to get us at least to pause and acknowledge. How sad, how sad it is to know that beyond the end of my own generation, who were only the first to be shadowed, and from now on for as long as the clock and the society that keeps it, and the civilization that made it necessary – exist, the hands will always have to hover somewhere near the end of the final day. We thought it was the highest of high tech (“rocket science”) to be able to kill ourselves off by loosing the bonds of matter, but now we see it could equally just be a result of one of our crudest activities, the one we mastered before all the rest – burning.

But most unconscionable of all, from under the extending shadow, is the thought that there was no overarching necessity, that everything might just as well have been otherwise. The psyche recoils and denies this, looking for a sense of mission in religion, in progressive secular humanism, even in science. But the cosmos keeps its silence, and our pretexts seem more specious the more closely we examine reality. There were other roads. At every point of necessity, there were other roads.

Well, there is distraction, there is despair, and then there is the survival of the prophetic, the persistence of the sublime. On the radio now Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, another creation of the mid-20th century. I listen as the dream unfolds; its chill, eerie beauty, its longing, its unstoppable reaching. And I have to forgive us, temporarily. Because even if it is powerless to alter one atom of the material world, such music too exists for now and it is ours.

the unicorn and the dove: another look at blade runner’s sublime dystopia

Posted in Concerning film, Essays with tags on January 18, 2015 by Christy Rodgers

This essay first appeared on the Dissident Voice webzine.

When Blade Runner played the Castro Theatre in San Francisco recently, I went to see it on their old-school big screen, where it belongs. This was the Final Cut, one of multiple versions (not all of which have been released theatrically) made since the film’s first release in 1982. For some reason the Final Cut has been unavailable to theaters since it debuted seven years ago. Blade Runner’s production and re-production history is a saga in itself, as a little web research will show you. It’s clearly always been an object of obsession for its director, Ridley Scott. And has since become one for legions of fans, including me.

It was (appropriately) a night of rain, although a needed, drought-breaking rain, not the toxic acid rain that unendingly fills the skies of “Los Angeles 2019” in the film. It was a weeknight, and a busy time of year. Much of the audience didn’t look old enough to have seen the film when it first came out. But the ticket line for this 1400-seat theater stretched around the block, for both shows. Why? “People love some Blade Runner,” said a guy in line.

And why is that? Blade Runner was not a hit back in 1982. The love has taken time to manifest. In hindsight, though, it’s clear that a good deal of its power to attract comes from the extraordinary level of craft applied to both of the elements that determine reception in any film: visual and narrative.

For decades in Hollywood, pulp genre films were associated with low budgets and correspondingly simple design. That’s why earlier sci-fi movies mostly look cheap and silly. Stanley Kubrick blasted the hinges off the genre’s door back in 1968 with 2001: A Space Odyssey, but his approach didn’t inspire a herd of followers. Spielberg and Lucas were visual standouts in the 1970s, but their narrative model was for kids – it was the Boys’ Own Story. What Scott did with Blade Runner that was unique, at least until Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, was to tell a grown-up future story in which the design was superbly visionary and still created a putative environment on this planet, not out in space somewhere. Blade Runner’s visual aesthetic is both familiar and exotic, and, for a genre film, almost lovingly detailed.

(We’re talking about Hollywood here; Europe’s sci-fi masterpieces like Chris Marker’s La Jetée, Godard’s Alphaville, or Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris had already shown what could be done even without the kind of capital demanded for “big” studio pictures.)

But of course there is another criterion for enduring success that applies uniquely to stories of the future: can it prophesy?

Blade Runner’s rise really began in the ‘90s, when the rapturous wedding of capital and new technology, the ascending power of the Asian Tiger economies and transnational corporations, and advances in genetic engineering and AI (in 1997 a computer first beats a chess World Champion), indicated that much of the film’s future scenario was now clearly nascent.

This is key, because the best sci-fi is not predictive but prophetic. It doesn’t show us what we’re going to be wearing or driving in fifty years, but how living in the world could feel. And not just in the future, of course, but how it can feel right now. That’s because prophecy, unlike prediction, has a timeless quality. Its reality is always imminent. It’s always a reflection of inner understandings more than specific external characteristics.

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books by despairing men

Posted in Concerning literature, culture shifts, Transformations on January 17, 2015 by Christy Rodgers

I open my eyes wide only for them: Kafka, Beckett. Bolaño, Sebald, Delillo. They don’t fear the worst. It seems to free them to speak as nothing else. To create in fact a personal tongue, a carved ship wrested from the forest of Language. That soars, dark letters against an ashen sky.

the golden age

Posted in Essays on January 16, 2015 by Christy Rodgers

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

Who will remember what this age was like? And how will it be remembered? For the abyss of silence at the center of all the noise? The fierce shadow cast by all the blazing lights that never went off, that burned night and day?

The one terminal war foreshadowed endlessly in the last century shattered into fifty endless wars all going on simultaneously, fought only by the poorest people in the most degraded landscapes? (Where there was nothing but oil. Nothing but diamonds. Nothing but cobalt.) Two towers coming down, a hundred towers going up. The slums stretching as far as the eye can see. The cities that are factories, the farms that are factories, the ships that are factories. The plants that are machines. The animals that are machines. The factories that are cities. The first trillionaires?

The vast fields of oil-stained asphalt surrounding the gargantuan concrete temples in which there were no collective public rituals, only individual ones, requiring currency transactions. The heads of mountains sliced off and their guts ripped out and their veins bleeding black waste through the bleak towns. The dry exurban plains of the brown world glittering everywhere with acres of windblown plastic trash. The mountains of waste, as tall as Everest, as deep as the oceans. The waste, the waste, the waste.

But the cute puppies? The teen pop stars? The home videos? The first-person shooter games? The selfies at the Grand Canyon? The tiny glowing devices that told a million lies a second, shining in everyone’s hands. The phones, the phones, the phones.

And the hydroponic gardens, the solar panels, the bike paths. The “creative class” – right! The swank bistros. The delicious, artisanal, expensive food. The cocktail craze, the wild game craze, the pop-up restaurant craze. The celebrity chefs and their TV shows in endless reruns always playing somewhere on the 500 channels. The swag, the bling, on display, every home a store. The pretty tourist towns, anywhere in the world, as carefully decorated and lifeless as a Hollywood set. The cruise ships that are cities. The airports that are cities. The planes, the planes, the planes.

The horror stories of dismemberment and necrophilia? Of stolen fetuses? Of school shootings and mall shootings and post office shootings and cinema shootings and campus shootings and abortion clinic shootings and army base shootings and family shootings and ex-wife/girlfriend shootings and drive-bys and snipers and standoffs and road rage shootings and shooting range shootings. Of property better protected than ever in the history of property, of children ever more at risk of dying of gunshot. Of paranoid white men killing cops, of paranoid white cops killing black men and boys. Of men of any skin color killing women they’ve had sex with.

(Mostly, all right mostly. The age when it became (almost) impossible to exaggerate anything.)

The working class in the global North drifting into narcotized nicotine-addicted alcoholic diabetic televised poverty, in the global South scrambling frantically into the soulless middle class. The shopping malls in the North dying into spaces out of a post-apocalyptic fantasy, into Miss Havisham’s great dark cobwebbed halls of regret; the shopping malls in the South exploding, growing white as false teeth over razed forests and slums. In the North the black cities coming down, collapsed by debt, scoured by floods, the white cities rising in an orgy of speculation out of their weed-choked ruins. In the South city after brown city erasing the old farmland. The glittering towers rise, the gleaming gates slam shut. Takes money to make money. Are you in or out? The hedge fund managers. The media conglomerates. The megachurches. The crashing trees. The gigantic dams. The transcontinental smog.

The promise of multiverses where everything we failed to do could happen anyway. The promise of superstrings (but what are they?), of dark matter (but what is it?) of black holes at the heart of everything (but – really, who cares?) The promise of space colonization: extract, consume, deplete, move on – forever. The final frontier! The promise of becoming a machine. We HEART puppies but we H8 animals, and above all ourselves as animals. Who wants to be meat anymore? The medical miracles. The designer drugs. In one lifetime the average human lifespan expands by 25%. In one lifetime the number of human beings doubles, the number of wild animals is halved. The viral loads. The superbugs. The superweeds.

The superhighways, the soft wheels turning everywhere. The global triumph of the private car. The daily traffic jams. A city disgorges ten million vehicles and they inch along a ten-lane freeway. What’s the saddest pretty thing in the world? At night in the western desert, the endless line of diamonds winding up the grade, the endless line of rubies winding down. A whole separate history unfolding inside each car. A history whose unique and intricate detail will disappear like a melting snowflake leaving behind only a genetic trace – perhaps – and a tiny increase in local entropy. “All these memories will be lost… like tears in the rain.” What is human?

Outside each car? The Sixth Extinction.

The heat waves, the droughts, the floods. The emptied reservoirs, the flooded coastlines. The polar vortex. The tornados, the tsunamis, the blizzards, the haboobs, the superstorms. The beautiful shiny blue days after the storms, before the brown haze drifts back in to choke the skyscrapers. The calving glaciers shrieking like mortally wounded Behemoths as they upend themselves into the sea. The sinking islands. The acid seas, the dissolving starfish, the maddened otters, their brains teeming with parasites. The jellyfish blooms. Mile after mile of delicate corals bleaching. The meltdown, the invisible poison spreading in color-coded plumes across the sea. The color-coded charts and graphs documenting every decimal point of the data no one looks at except the generals and the scientists. The last amphibian? The comeback stories: aww, look, a bald eagle!

The terror, the terror. But Mistah Kurtz, he not dead. The age when everything dead kept moving, kept coming back. Zombies, vampires. Empires. Striking back, and back, and back. Torture techniques from ancient China officially sanctioned by modern states. It will be recorded that most people were okay with that. Imagine a boot stamping in the human face – forever? Not my face, the terrorist’s face – fine, okay with that. These are times of hard choices. I don’t make the rules. Freedom (my freedom) isn’t free. “Empathy fatigue.” Slavery comes back. What will next year’s polls say about that?

The mountaineers, the deep-sea divers, the long distance runners. The records broken, the wild acclaim. Look, he came from a village with no drinking water to set a new marathon record! Look, they climbed a cliff of ice that won’t be there next week! The professional activists. The coordinated risings, the colorful marches, the big puppets and banners, the handwritten signs, the sit-ins and camp-outs and die-ins – the only mass public rituals besides sporting events and pop concerts. The only ones that are free. The baptism of tear gas and baton, of rubber bullet and beanbag round. Stephen Daedalus said god was a shout in the street – is that what he meant?

The young, enraged, betrayed, powerless. Distracted. Suicidal. Terminally anxious. Criminal. The drugs, the drugs, the drugs. The military plans for dealing with social breakdown. All rocking-horse winners now: there must be more money, there must be more money, there must be more money. The spies and hackers. The mercenaries (“contractors”). The cops, the prisons, the weaponry, the gear. Tasers? Drones? Whatever you can dream, they can build.

Gerontocracy. Plutocracy. Kleptocracy. All words for the same thing.

The age when they doubled down. When they told us, well, we’re in a hole here, and we’re just going to have to dig ourselves out of it. With this new technology that the X Corp is developing. A bioengineered, artificially intelligent laser guided quantum computed fiber optic cold fusion nanotechnology shovel! Ta-daaa!

The age when they told us, well, greed doesn’t actually work, but it’s too late, it’s all we have left, greed and terror – let’s pull out all the stops.

The death even of irony. This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, booming out in the Wednesday night retro disco. Imagine all the people wafting through the dying shopping mall.

The contingent sanctuaries, the oases in the desert of the real. The last river you can drink from. The last forest where you can go a whole week without hearing the noise of a single machine. The last tundra from which you can see the pulsing velvet blackness of the night sky unpolluted by any other light. The last village where no wants to leave and no one has to leave to make money. The last glacier? The last uncontacted tribe. The Last Poets.

The exquisite art and music. Far from the galleries, the concert halls, the recording studios. In homes and bars and church halls, on street corners and walls. Spoken aloud. Sung together. Rising and falling, ephemeral. Not preserved, not hoarded, not digitized, not owned by a reclusive billionaire. Not a dead thing that keeps moving. Alive, which means it dies. The purpose of art is to produce something alive, said the writer Henry Green. Whom (almost) no one reads today. Along with most of the writers who have ever written. Written on the wind.

Sowing the wind, reaping the whirlwind.

The sense that it was all foretold, by word-poets, image-poets, first and last. It was all foreseen long before the Bomb went off or the Wall came down – the what, if not the how. What “freedom” would look like. The infinity of darkness under all the lights, the silence under all the noise, the reverberating sound of the final crash echoing distantly, daily, somewhere in our minds. Which never comes but is always here, our constant companion, close as our own shadow, from now on, world without end, amen.

the insect god: bugs as cultural icons

Posted in Essays on December 15, 2014 by Christy Rodgers

This essay first appeared in LiP Magazine. I resurrect it here as a nod to the recent piece in The Guardian about the scope of the anthropogenic Sixth Extinction now underway. Insects, worms, and other bugs seem to be among the species most resistant to what humans are now doing to the biosphere. So maybe it’s worth looking at what they’ve had to say to us, and about us, over the last few thousand years.

If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos. – E.O. Wilson

Any attempt to understand human beings requires understanding our symbols, the things humans—for reasons we don’t understand but that seem integral to our nature—invest with meaning far beyond the immediately apparent. Bugs, true to their physical nature, perform an amount of symbolic work entirely disproportional to their tiny size in modern society, even if much of it happens in some pretty subterranean parts of our culture. It’s true you don’t see a lot of insects or other bug phyla* as corporate logos, or on flags or presidential seals. They don’t get to be team mascots very often (although University of Santa Cruz’s Banana Slugs are one consciously ironic exception), or the names of cars, or to float in parades or greet visitors to Disneyland. But if you take your net and your magnifying glass and travel up some of the more esoteric—though still widely used—tributaries of modern Western Culture, Inc., you will start to see a lot of bugs. What they represent lies at the very heart of our civilization. And particularly, its contemporary discontents.

* for the purposes of this article, and no doubt to the horror of entomologists everywhere, “bugs” will refer to true insects like ants and flies and also some other classifications like arthropods (spiders and centipedes), annelids (worms), and mollusks (snails and slugs), and even some forms of bacteria at the discretion of the tyro author.

Since our symbolizing practices are tens of thousands of years old, it makes sense to start with a quick look at the symbolic role bugs have played over the course of our cultural history, and some of the cultures which pre-existed ours. The oldest known culture on earth, the African Bushmen or !San people, have a mantis creation god, Kaggen. Scarab beetles were worshipped in ancient Egypt as a symbol of regeneration, and early North American and Mesoamerican societies had a variety of bug gods or spirits. In Hopi creation myth, Spider Grandmother is one of those whose actions are responsible for generating the world. Mexican Apaches postulated that controlled fire was a gift from fireflies. In Hinduism, ants are the privileged first-born creatures of this world, and the anthill symbolizes the world itself.

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in the white city

Posted in the country, Transformations on December 5, 2014 by Christy Rodgers

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

In the White City, all the days are beautiful days. The weather is temperate and mild. The parks are spacious and gleam with care. People stroll with elegant animals, talking on the latest devices, filling the cafes at all hours of the day. In the coffeehouses where the best coffee in the world is brewed cup-by-cup for them, they sit in parallel rows like they did as children in school, seeing no one else now, gazing intently into the white screens of their gleaming devices.

There are hardly any old people or schoolchildren left in the White City. Everyone is slim and trim.

Except for one woman, standing outside a busy expensive grocery store where all the food is healthy, her hands clenched on the handle of a shopping cart which does not contain healthy food, or any food. Her face is twisted in madness. Her clothes are filthy. She screams and screams.

The busy shoppers gaze blankly past her, checking their devices as they go in and out of the gleaming store, their brown bags filled with healthy food.

In the Black City, whole blocks are empty, the houses crumble, the yards are full of weeds, the police are dressed like storm troopers in a movie of the future and tanks crawl the streets. The water is cut off when you can’t pay for it. The weather veers to wild extremes, the summers sweltering, the houses turning into ovens, the winters freezing, the houses burning through precious fuel that, like the water, is the difference between life and death and yet, unlike life and death, is not available to everyone for free.

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