Archive for the Essays Category

remaining animal

Posted in Essays on May 16, 2017 by Christy Rodgers

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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a massacre in the rear view mirror: el mozote at 35

Posted in Essays with tags , on December 18, 2016 by Christy Rodgers

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

In three days, from December 11-13, 1981, U.S.-trained troops in Central America’s smallest, most densely populated republic, El Salvador, rounded up and killed over a thousand unarmed civilians in the hamlet of El Mozote, in Morazán province, near the Honduran border. This massacre, I believe, still has the dubious distinction of being the largest mass killing of civilians by state forces in the Western Hemisphere in the 20th century.

Most people who know anything about the Central American civil wars in the last decades of the Cold War know that they were U.S. proxy wars, the Reagan Administration’s “line in the palms” against Soviet expansion. In Weakness and Deceit, then New York Times foreign correspondent Raymond Bonner carefully exposed the bloody fingerprints of the administration on that massacre and the years-long cover-up that followed, and was exiled from the paper for his pains.

El Salvador’s twelve-year civil war ended in a negotiated settlement, after displacing a fifth of the country’s population of five million and killing over 75,000. And after billions of U.S. tax dollars were poured in to prop up its army and political class by Carter, Reagan and Bush – El Salvador was at one time the third largest recipient of U.S. military aid in the world, after Israel and Egypt. The war was followed by fifteen years of right-wing dominated plutocratic governments that institutionalized denial, and pushed through a craven amnesty for all military and political figures implicated in war crimes, while they continued (a little more discreetly than before) looting the country. A few triggermen were prosecuted for death squad activities but by and large, the major perps walked free, some of them settling comfortably in the U.S. A lot of other Salvadorans ended up in the U.S. as well, but the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service worked diligently to ensure that none of those who had fled government repression were given political asylum.

El Salvador’s guerrilla army, the FMLN, had taken swifter, if limited, justice: in 1984, they lured the massacre’s engineer and top commander Colonel Domingo Monterrosa into a booby-trapped helicopter by letting him think he had captured the transmitter for the guerrilla radio station, Radio Venceremos. They blew him up in mid-air. A pretty good film, Trap for a Cat, made by a Venezuelan filmmaker sympathetic to the struggle tells this as a story of poetic justice, with some dramatic license.

In 1991, on the tenth anniversary of the massacre, I stood with a tiny group of people in the tall dry grass of the empty place that had once been the busy market town of El Mozote. A majority of its residents had been conservative evangelical Christians who had refused to support the FMLN – and so the initial story manufactured for the cover-up was that the massacre was a reprisal by the guerrillas. That story eventually sank under the weight of the facts – in no small part because there had been at least one surviving witness to the attack.

That was Rufina Amaya, widow of a smallholder who was killed in the massacre, and she was standing with our group in the susurrus grass of that depression in the barren hills where there was absolutely no structure, whole or partial, remaining to indicate the former town. She began to speak about what she had seen and heard on that day in 1981, when she hid in the bushes as the army marched in and began rounding up the townspeople.

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the power of nightmares: notes from the mythic year

Posted in Essays on November 5, 2016 by Christy Rodgers

All Hallow’s Eve has come and gone, and so has the day when the dead come back for a visit, but we’re not out of the dark woods of our self-inflicted nightmare yet. The days are still getting shorter, the nights longer, as we edge toward the spooky haunted house of a national election marked, more than any in my memory, by an overwhelming sense of dread.

The obsession with the Witches’ Sabbath in a culture as denatured, as stripped of meaningful and time-bound ritual as ours is something that seems particularly perverse to me these days. Cheesy decorations started going up in the upscale neighborhoods of San Francisco in mid-September. What was that about? Why this holiday, far more than the return of spring and the celebration of human labor in May, or even the birth of the new year in the northern hemisphere at the winter solstice, the magical child, all that? It’s bizarre, and yet when you think of how much we love to terrify ourselves, how rabidly paranoid and easily spooked we are as a culture, maybe not so much.

And when you think how this year in particular, the actual shocks have mounted: from first-person mall shooters to killer cops, killer candidates, and even killer clowns… we have not made Christmas last throughout the year, as the transformed Scrooge was said to have done, instead we have come damn close to making our lives a permanent Halloween.

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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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floating in america

Posted in Essays on December 29, 2015 by Christy Rodgers

This essay first appeared on the Dissident Voice webzine. It was later re-published on CounterPunch.

Remaking authentic communities into packaged forms of themselves, re-creating environments in one place that actually belong somewhere else, creating theme parks and lifestyle-segregated communities, and space travel and colonization—all are symptomatic of the same modern malaise: a disconnection from a place on Earth that we can call Home. With the natural world—our true home—removed from our lives, we have built on top of the pavement a new world, a new Eden, perhaps; a mental world of creative dreams. We then live within these fantasies of our own creation; we live within our own minds. Though we are still on the planet Earth, we are disconnected from it, afloat on pavement, in the same way astronauts float in space. –Jerry Mander, In the Absence of the Sacred

If you want to understand the United States of America at the turn of the millennium from whose pinnacle of power we are now beginning our descent – or at least, if you want to understand why you can’t understand it – you need to take to the Road.

First, let’s dispense with the idea of the Road as that mythic place of freedom seekers, pioneers, beatniks and iconoclasts. The Road I mean here is the one most Americans experience on a daily basis, and it doesn’t go all that far.

Here’s the paradox: even though on the average, each adult American spends much of his or her year behind the wheel of an internal combustion machine capable of circumnavigating the planet several times non-stop before its engine wears out – most of us aren’t really going very far. The average length of our collective car trips is just 10 miles. Over 60% of trips over 50 miles long are still within the driver’s home state. Most Americans don’t ever travel outside the country: less than half of us have passports. (And the number of those who do is greatly enlarged by first-generation immigrants.)

In 1903, when Horatio Nelson Jackson, the first man to cross the country in an automobile, took his famous trip, most Americans had never been more than twelve miles from their home. Since then, we’ve become infinitely more mobile, and yet overall, we haven’t gotten much further.

That open road thing, the myth of restless movement: it’s the restlessness of the gerbil on the wheel.

we’re on a road to nowhere
come on inside
takin’ that ride to nowhere
we’ll take that ride

The Road Denies Us Context. The great sadness in our constructed landscape is its expression of contextlessness. The reason why people romanticize San Francisco or small town New England is that there are buildings in those places that have come to seem somehow connected to the landscape they are in. This is not the norm in the USA. It never was the intent of our settlements or our society as a whole to mesh with the land; we had all come from somewhere else, quite recently, in historical terms. The land was ours before we were the land’s as the poet says, with unintended irony. And particularly since the advent of the automobile, it has been more important to us that our buildings have access to the Road, than connection with the land.

So as a result, what is it that characterizes us most profoundly? Disconnection from place. It creates a distinct set of pathologies. Continue reading

life in the margins

Posted in Essays on December 14, 2015 by Christy Rodgers

An revised version of this essay, entitled “The View from Bohemia,” appeared on Dissident Voice and CounterPunch.

For most of my adult life I have lived in bohemia, that marginal, dwindling Gaza Strip of American culture which survives in the cracks between the sterile, expanding suburbs, the gated streets of the urban rich, and the trash-blown decay of the ghetto. It exists, as it ever has, only in larger cities, and perhaps no longer all of those. Its inhabitants in these times are not the carefree, eccentric artists and non-conformists of yore, but a grimmer group: wraith-like night owls with dark-ringed eyes, crusty radicals stolidly refusing to assimilate, and children (some now middle-aged) with drug and alcohol “problems.”

I’ve found no real community here, nothing but the most tenuous web of human relationships. My only day-to-day community is my longtime companion, both of us pretty marginal even on the margins; it’s us against the world.

But tonight as our ancient room heater whistles and clanks, and traffic roars outside the cracked and rattling window of our basement flat, I raise a glass of cheap red wine and toast my dark bohemia. I am grateful for the contrarian traits, the aimlessness and alienation that have led me here. I am grateful even for my poverty relative to others of my birth class. These are the things that have kept me recognizable to myself. Perhaps I mean they have kept me human.

Tonight I’m remembering how, by accident, years ago, I stumbled across the life that might have been mine, if I hadn’t twisted off the path somewhere.

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