absence and presence

Writing is always about absence. To practice it you must absent yourself from immediate experience, and what you write is always a memory or a prediction of the experiences from which you are absent, otherwise you would have nothing to say but “I sit here typing…” The practice of most other arts is its own kind of present experience, but writing is uniquely mental, solitary and abstract.

And imagination may be a wonderful thing, but it is not as wonderful as the Real World Out There, the one we have to abandon and despise in order to live inside our own minds.

As another irreplaceable day, unique in all of endless time, with its unrepeatable configuration of birds, clouds and winds, its dense totality of living entities in this incomparably life-filled sphere, whose  collective actions will never again take the exact shape or have the exact same participants they had today – passes away, and i have shut myself inside again where so little changes, and so little is alive by comparison, i mourn a life i’ve never known, the impossible life of a self-conscious being who could move in that plenitude as an ecstatic participant, in any locality – not even for a whole life, just, possibly, for one whole day. Who could naturally feel (without chants or hallucinogens, without coercion of any kind) in relationship with that totality of the living non-human, absorbed in it, almost utterly meaningless to it, and yet safe: neither predator nor prey, just praise-animal. A tiny part of the dance in that place, that time only – but fully part.

Why does human life seem instead like a pin-hole of light in the grim shutter of a dark-lantern? We made those shutters, no one else. We turned it all inside out, by coming to tortured consciousness only of the temporal vastness of “I am not,” and fearing and hating that understanding, instead of realizing the baroque and inexhaustible variety (age doth not wither nor custom stale etc.) of the time we are, and learning to immerse ourselves in it, even with so few turns round the sun in order to do so. Collectively, we go on trying to de-complexify everything until it is either boring or dreadful, now in our shoddy automaton world that doesn’t even work well for most, that never gives even the  privileged more than a momentary illusion of control – when all around us, and inside us too, was a breathing, palpitating, circulating body of such inexhaustible abundance of forms.

Yes, from before the beginning of our self-consciousness, we had to kill and eat living things, and kill or flee anything we feared would eat us. Was there nothing more we could do with that primal understanding than to become what we have become? I sometimes wonder what it would have been like if a photosynthesizing creature had developed self-awareness.

I suppose when we give up on presence, and disappear into the imagination, we can at least fill the world with interesting phantoms.

 

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the third world war

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

Was undeclared. Exactly where and when it began is debatable. Most would say there had been low-level conflict for millennia, but it only became a world war toward the end of the 20th century CE. Some choose the symbolic date when we ran that tanker, the Exxon Valdez, aground in Prince William Sound, because its cargo was the secret weapon that had brought the war into this new stage.

Our global forces were still divided into two antagonistic camps at that time, but both were at war with the greater enemy. The eastern camp had already killed the Aral Sea and poisoned 180,000 square kilometers of land with nuclear radiation (although this action was a Pyrrhic victory, resulting in more drastic consequences to us than the enemy). Shortly thereafter, we declared a truce of sorts between the factions, so we could make further gains in the great war, ostensibly without so much damage to ourselves. For the remainder of the last century, our forces were on the march everywhere, and the enemy fell back.

But in the early years of this century, some unseen fulcrum began to shift. Rather than the widely and randomly interspersed events we experienced in the relatively mild regime we grew up with, we saw destructive actions that escalated in their scope and frequency until they came to seem like calculated responses.

The waves of heat and cold. They caught us off-guard with their new intensity. Then the storms, to which we continued to give bland, suburban names: Mitch, Dennis, Katrina, Irene, Sandy, Iris, Maria. At first mostly a threat to the growing legions of the unprotected poor, they soon showed themselves a match for our largest cities. And beyond that: whole provinces, countries were paralyzed for days, weeks, months. And then the fires – early on they were far from where we lived and breathed, in the still-vast northern forests, but then they came closer, filling the skies of our cities apocalyptically with drifting ash and smoke, and finally, audaciously, striking at the sprawling cities themselves, taking thousands of buildings in a single attack.

Our initial casualties were so small – a few tens of thousands a year against all our billions. We published the tiny body counts for each incident, as if nothing else was of consequence. But overall, we took little notice, because we killed ourselves with friendly fire in vastly greater numbers. And against the enemy, we unleashed a holocaust. Total war. We took no prisoners. It was xenocide; we were willing to exterminate not just individuals but whole species to win our freedom. Thousands, then tens of thousands of species began to fall.

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fleet week, blue angels

It is a perfect October day: warm, blue-green-and-golden light poured over every scene like a potter’s glaze.

The long, green strip of the Panhandle is dotted with people at leisure: couples in each others’ arms, men and women pushing babies in strollers, drummers, cyclists, athletes, bench sitters. The constant roar of traffic is a dull and distant backdrop.

In the midst of this comes a shattering sky-filling scream, a sound that momentarily seems to take all of the surrounding air for itself, leaving you gasping. Then the jets are visible, flying like shaftless arrowheads through the air, or as if the sky were flesh on a body inside which we lived, and we could watch as some unexpected knife pierced through and ripped it open.

Through the gash left behind by the Blue Angels’ passing, other things come into view: a filthy man in rags, muttering angry curses, a child bombarding a squirrel with rocks, a wall-eyed girl beating futilely on the arms of a man pinning her down.

The screaming machines that a moment before seemed an absurd intrusion in the idyll have forced their logic on us. Once you accept that logic, you are in its sphere and you will close your eyes to anything.

What the Blue Angels’ roar eliminates, what their presence really protects us from, is the impermissible idea that our life in this world might have been wholly otherwise.

fire and rain

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

Run to the trees
Trees will be burning
Run to the sea
Sea will boiling
All on that day

So, summer, the frivolous season of our supposed repose, now brings dread, east and west, north and south. As summer peaks in the west, everything dries and dies, and as the suffocating heat grows inland and the dry grass whispers we start watching the skies fearfully for lightning, and we wait for the news that actually it wasn’t lightning; it was a tossed cigarette, a forgotten campfire, some guys shooting rifles, a firebug with a can of gasoline. And then the sight of the firestorm on the jagged horizon, moving faster than anything that doesn’t fly, the flames joining together in an impossible roaring uprush that feeds on itself, that grows like a living thing, and the trees light up like great torches, the pain of whose immolation we cannot feel because thanks to the scientific worldview we know trees have no brains and no nerve endings and thus don’t feel pain anyway. They are just matter, burning.

Of course, coming from a species that has set alight its own members, with their highly developed nervous systems, when it seemed politically necessary, this suggests that even if we did think individual trees felt pain we wouldn’t necessarily care if we needed other things more than large numbers of trees, which we clearly do, because we, collectively, are watching them go up in flames on a grander scale every year without making much of a peep about it, and the trashed trophy homes and cars scattered back in there are all we can really mourn for, the only things that have a compelling reality for us. Forests grow back, right?

Except when they don’t, because some invisible calculus has determined that the underlying conditions which made their existence possible are gone. We may not be there yet for what’s left of the great boreal forests, but we won’t actually know when the threshold is crossed – invisible means just that. Chaos theory means just that. Biologists have identified a phenomenon in complex living systems called “critical slowing down” whereby those systems become gradually less resilient in the face of repeated onslaught until some non-trivial boundary is crossed and they collapse. Where is the line, exactly? Well, the scientists tell us with marvelous equanimity, that’s precisely the puzzle. Hard to say…

We of the bourgeoisie rise momentarily from our stupor when fascists begin to stir in the shallows of our societal swamp, ironically more like some monstrous presence out of an H.P. Lovecraft story than the racist, miscegenated, fever-dream monsters Lovecraft actually gave us. We’ll even take the kids out for an afternoon to send those fascists back “where they came from,” which is the same place we come from, so good luck with that. But when the distant forests burn in their hundreds of millions of acres over the longer, hotter, drier summers, we barely so much as sigh – what good would marching in the streets do?

Whether we can see it or not, the inanimate (to us) forests have been set alight by the lineaments of our gratified desire: cars, roads, houses, electronic devices, cosmetic surgery, food from everywhere. Thanks, capital! Thanks, science! No more hands and backs into the hard labor of pulling sustenance from the soil or forging steel or tending gigantic machines – our livelihoods are gained now by our dancing fingertips alone! Who will be the first bourgeois to blow up that bargain? Who will be the first of the expendable classes not to seek it? And at least we are compensated by the quality of the sunsets – what beauty there is in annihilation really! It’s as if we told ourselves, well, all those tiki torches sure did make for a pretty procession!

Those who can’t turn their attention to other distant horrors or daily cares will then have to listen to the insane barking of politicians who blame tree-loving enviros for preventing responsible forest-destruction that would, according to those wise men of capital, make these fires of growing intensity, scale and frequency somewhat less damaging. Never mind the climatic elephant in the ideological room, that’s a non-starter with men whose fanatical devotion to the profit system can be diminished by no preponderance of evidence. Why bother to argue, even shoving the elephant aside for a second, that massive thinning and brush clearing further dries out the forests and impoverishes their soils, making them even more susceptible to catastrophic burning, or that “responsible logging” is an oxymoron when you throw in economies of scale? Why argue that the vast, safe, checkerboard tree plantations of the coastal Northwest are no more forests anyway than Nebraska’s wheat fields are prairies? Not even apples and oranges, it’s apples and ball bearings. There is no basis for a discussion because there is no shared conceptual framework. That living systems have any right to exist apart from our usage of them is inconceivable within capitalist (or socialist, frankly) doxa.

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total eclipse

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

The ultimate representation of the primitive, of what the civilized call the dark ages of prehistory, is the image of tribal people cowering in fear and abasement at a reoccurring and entirely predictable phenomenon of the “clockwork universe,” the eclipse of the sun. Even civilizations with some form of recorded history but limited application of the scientific method are denigrated for their tendency to attribute this phenomenon to a sentient being. Creating a class of priests whose job it was to pretend they were capable of negotiating with the celestial entity generating this mystery was social hucksterism of the worst kind, no better than a carnival barker’s or a confidence man’s. Worse, in fact, because the whole class sustained itself on these falsehoods not at the margins but at the center of those societies, for hundreds and sometimes thousands of years.

All well and true, perhaps… The science of eclipses is beautiful in and of itself, a dance of geometrical objects in four-dimensional space-time. But eclipses are a far more complex phenomenon than any simple clockwork analogy can comprise. The nature of the sun, for all the force of observation and analysis brought to it since the emergence of the scientific method, is still mysterious, and many scientists readily admit this. They chase eclipses to pursue that mystery, perhaps with the hope of eliminating it. At the same time one senses in many of those who have written of the phenomenon an unspoken love for the mystery itself. The beauty of something humans didn’t create, and can’t fully recreate at any scale, and yet which shows a mastery of the logic we (well, some, anyway) have discovered in nature and learned to apply with a degree of skill.

But there is another side to the perception of nature as an actively sentient force, and you could say it is in eclipse now, and we are not necessarily better off for it. That is a recognition of humility. A profound understanding that these forces are supremely determinative, at least compared to us. We may talk and talk and talk of freedom, and freedom has meaning when we oppose it to the social oppression we create in our own species, but still we are not “free” to alter one millimeter of the path of the moon’s shadow as it races across the earth.

Although, I suppose we might begin to imagine such power – I mean, I suppose we are technically capable of destroying the moon someday. Would that be a demonstration of our freedom? If some geoengineering eco-modernist convinced the world’s elites that destroying the moon (or just eliminating half its surface, say) was needed to reduce tidal surges from a rising ocean, and thus protect real estate values, would the rest of us “free” humans have any choice but to watch the sky on the announced night and marvel at the great power that humanity’s possession of the scientific method has given (some of) us, as we blew that once-living deity to smithereens?

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remaining animal

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

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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