Archive for the Concerning literature Category

the door

Posted in Concerning literature, culture shifts, Transformations on March 3, 2017 by Christy Rodgers

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.

While reading Landmarks i was also reading in various other places that we must somehow recapture the mythic in our lives, because – as storytellers have been trying to warn us since the dawn of the Machine Age – without it, without stories and daily rituals that reconnect us to the regenerative living world, we are at risk of irreversible degradation: of becoming completely sealed off, emptied out and meaning-free beings. As all other social ways are blocked, and we head down the conveniently provided and thus far highly profitable chute towards a fully mechanized existence.

This is being marketed in some quarters as the only way we can survive the impending revenge of the natural world upon us. It is the end game of having for a thousand generations seen the living world as a battlefield: first it was humans, as prey turned alpha predator, against the other species; then tribe against tribe, and finally each against all. Thus the only door to safety from the forces we have unleashed is the door to the machine – a thing we invented ingenuously perhaps, with the intention of relieving ourselves of hard physical labor – but ultimately a nonliving thing that exists to neutralize and supplant the contingencies of the living world.

Salvation. Die and be born again as a sequence of zeroes and ones. The unfortunate others – billions of them – trapped outside the door, stuck in their domestic dependence on the farmed world, will die when it turns wild again and ceases to feed them. Like livestock caught in a flash flood. This way, folks, step right up – this way to the egress…

Our own hubris got us here, of course – but that is downplayed, our niggling concern about it a castoff of a prior world we are told we have superseded – thanks to nothing else but the machine. Well, mythic stories are full of punishments for technological hubris, from Icarus to Frankenstein. Their numinous power is paradoxical: they compel our attention because they have no agency; they are true because they are consistently unheeded. Yet like today’s collapse narratives and dystopian hunger game stories, they also don’t provide the other half of the mythic story: regeneration, reconciliation, synthesis.

But what if, as Paul Kingsnorth asks, it isn’t a war in the first place? What if the wild children are right, and the doors are everywhere? What if we can teach ourselves to see them again, and slip through them – not back, into a past that isn’t real anyway, but sideways, into Somewhere Else? A time-space which, when you think of it, we often call timeless but might actually be the immanence of Time Itself – all-changing, omnipresent, expressed morphologically all around us from microbes to galaxies, not a local illusion as the physicists would have it, or the reductive chronology to which our seductively convenient machines have reduced it, but Something Else. The force that through the green fuse drives the flower…

And place. What if our experience of intimacy with living place, plus our existence in time, creates the chronotope, the time-space that gives us initiation to that Elsewhere? Where the fluke of individuation, the self that those hard materialists reify when they say it is “only” electrochemical signals – this weirdly materialist abstraction that has been so easy to drive into the abattoir of machine life – disappears?

What if Martin Shaw is right, and the place can be as small as the patch around a struggling rowan tree on a city street, or a cluster of weeds that pushes through the pavement? What if we can even sit in a train with living bodies around us – each its own “place” (although perhaps plants are better guides) and incorporate the meaning of the chronotope, however briefly?

I had thought words, complete abstractions that they are, would not be helpful in this joining effort, this re-membering against the dismembering we have experienced from wildness to mechanization – but Macfarlane made me rethink that too. “Every language is an old-growth forest,” he quotes Wade Davis. What do humans particularly among all species offer to this world? Words, complex patterns of sound and image – not doors themselves (our great mistake to think so) but ways to help us recognize them. Signs and symbols that point to the reality we cannot experience in any other way. No computational short cuts, no machine dreams. Our offerings are necessary to us if not the world that made us; without them we lose our way.

Now the next step is clear: tell that story.

Begin: “Once upon a time in the future, this is How We Found the Door…”

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.

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.

dispatches from the island of knowledge

Posted in Concerning literature, culture shifts, Transformations on November 8, 2015 by Christy Rodgers

Mandelbrot’s fractal set is an abstraction; still the nature of our experience is fractalesque. For there are invisible patterns that do seem to repeat at ever-larger scales: individual consciousness, human history, the cosmos.

For example there is the fact that our personal experience is not any kind of a straight line but rather a series of waves and when we are in one, we think it is all and all, and accurately represents the largest and most enduring picture – and then we pass to another and must acknowledge that the whole pattern shifts, that it is always shifting. But not randomly – those layers of unexamined past experience are always solidifying, hardening into the cruel shape of the present, as real as mountains. Proust understood this, more than any other writer I have read. And so described habit as a monster. He knew that most of what shapes us we do not, and cannot control, at least as the fundamentally isolate little beings he felt us to be.

And so praised art, because it could make of the insubstantial kaleidoscopic evanescent debilities of an individual consciousness something that took manifest form and persisted in the material world far beyond the duration of that or any single consciousness, regaining and vindicating unique experience – time – that was otherwise lost: forgotten, irretrievable, pointless.

Physicist Lee Smolin wrote Time Reborn, not Time Regained. He looks at it another way, and sees, instead of ironclad timeless laws guiding the physical universe, a kind of evolution at work that echoes (or is echoed by) biological evolution. A “principle of precedence” that starts out randomly, developing, down the eons of repetition with alteration, what his outrider colleague in biology Rupert Sheldrake calls “habits, rather than laws” for the physical universe. For this to be true, though, flowing time must be fundamental to material reality, not an illusion or a property that emerges out of other phenomena.

Most of his fellow physicists and mathematicians scoff at this. After all, Einstein! Time is (hypothetically) just an extra dimension in a spatial continuum; it is not a universal standard; its passage is relative to an observer: slowed by accelerating mass, limited by the speed of light, and all that. After all, (somewhat against Einstein) time is (theoretically) reversible or even non-existent at the quantum level. Anyway, once the equals sign has been established in an equation, it doesn’t just evolve into greater- or less-than over time, they say.

Science is always looking for what is fundamental in material reality, but the scientific method is one that with regard to this question may be, as Sheldrake says, “like burning down a cathedral and sifting the ashes to understand the architecture.” Or perhaps building a lovely thing out of mathematical symbols that one then decides is just as real as Chartres – more so, because it is permanent, independent! (That is, isolated. It stands alone, disdainful of all context, as Chartres cannot.)

But what if, after all, temporal flow might be fundamental – but flowing has simply become inimical to our thinking and thus our way of acting in the world? The scientific method needs to isolate bits of reality in order to analyze them, but nothing actually exists in isolation. Flow is also practically impossibilized (a word of Joyce’s, lover of rivers and infinite recirculations, co-inventor of the “stream of consciousness” in fiction, who evidently did understand something about flow) by our language itself, its hardened tenses, its isolation of two elements that are likewise inseparable in the time-bound, living world: entities (nouns) and actions (verbs). Cf. the wise words of quantum physicist David Bohm, often channeled through the wise spirit of Jeff Shampnois’ Negative Geography.

None of this is to argue against the need for evidence and reason as tools for understanding. It is to argue for a scientific principle of humility: like physicist Marcelo Gleiser’s “island of knowledge.” The island of knowledge as it grows in size never diminishes the sea of ignorance out of which it emerges; instead its lengthening borders come in contact with an ever greater area of ignorance; its growing height merely allows us to see a larger portion of that infinite sea…

you, archibald macleish

Posted in Concerning literature on August 7, 2015 by Christy Rodgers

You, Andrew Marvell

By Archibald MacLeish

And here face down beneath the sun
And here upon earth’s noonward height
To feel the always coming on
The always rising of the night:

To feel creep up the curving east
The earthy chill of dusk and slow
Upon those under lands the vast
And ever climbing shadow grow

And strange at Ecbatan the trees
Take leaf by leaf the evening strange
The flooding dark about their knees
The mountains over Persia change

And now at Kermanshah the gate
Dark empty and the withered grass
And through the twilight now the late
Few travelers in the westward pass

And Baghdad darken and the bridge
Across the silent river gone
And through Arabia the edge
Of evening widen and steal on

And deepen on Palmyra’s street
The wheel rut in the ruined stone
And Lebanon fade out and Crete
High through the clouds and overblown

And over Sicily the air
Still flashing with the landward gulls
And loom and slowly disappear
The sails above the shadowy hulls

And Spain go under and the shore
Of Africa the gilded sand
And evening vanish and no more
The low pale light across that land

Nor now the long light on the sea:

And here face downward in the sun
To feel how swift how secretly
The shadow of the night comes on …

[This poem I discovered as I child still haunts me, and I still, often, whisper to myself its closing lines…]

Not reprinted with permission but with reverence.

at play in the comedy of survival

Posted in Concerning literature, Essays on July 16, 2015 by Christy Rodgers

An Appreciation of Joseph Meeker

This essay first appeared on the Dissident Voice and CounterPunch webzines. It was also published on the Dark Mountain Project blog.

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.

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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.