frog's blog

Anuran, n. an amphibian of the order Salientia (formerly Anura or Batrachia), which includes the frogs and toads

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Apocalypse How?

We catch ourselves reading the Book of Revelation because we cannot face the failure of the revolution. We consult the Mayan calendar and postmodern prophecies about the year 2012 because we can no longer realize mutual aid as an interpersonal policy that suffuses all of daily life.

The prevailing critique of all forms of “collapsism”—the notion that the end is both inevitable and imminent coupled with the subsequent idea that all radical acts for present transformation are thus futile—correctly chides its proponents. The latter half of the formulation finds collapsist rhetoric contributing to the contagion of apathy; this apathy then acts as a mental pesticide, drowning and choking the roots of resistance deep inside the collective consciousness of our culture. But if we are so brash as to suggest we break apart the collapsist formula, decoupling our acceptance of the inevitable from our subsequent sense of defeat, then all things are possible. It really is a go-for-broke moment, then, when we realize that tomorrow is in fact today. But why don’t our actions reflect this?

If dramatizations of “the end”—even politically and philosophically savvy ones—find their home inside video games or on television programs or on the big screen at the bubbaplex or in home-made clips posted to YouTube, these are acceptable and sensible places to ponder the impending doom and gloom or blissful rapture, depending on which school of millennialism you subscribe to. The medium massages your fear and guilt and serves just the right flavor of KoolAid to fend off despair, insanity, or righteous revolutionary rage.

Since so many of our favorite venues for studying the apocalyptic vision are hypermediated, it follows that the platform promoted therein tends to one school over all the others. In fact, for those who see transhumanism and the Singularity (please see Ray Kurzweil and a gazillion others studying this notion) as our future, the internet is the virtual world promised by the cyber-prophets and nano-priests. Therein we can find all forms of formulation to foster the myth-as-fact that we will become the machine in our lifetimes.

To read these theories (that actually ring like theisms) thoroughly boggles the merely biological and social animal that some of us still claim to be. Indeed, the rhetoric of technological logic intensifies and accelerates in just the manner its proponents claim the actual artificial intelligences are developing to free us from our fleshly cages. For these futurists, the new world will be eternal; the flesh made machine will heal itself and live forever. Nothing in my decades of dabbling in Sci-Fi could prepare me for this deluge of high geekery-cum-godliness.

Looking back at Donna Haraway’s proclamation that she would rather be a cyborg than a goddess and the accompanying “Cyborg Manifesto” from which that thesis came can teach us how far we have traveled into the outer reaches. Really, Haraway reads as a rather quaint predecessor compared to the current cadre of anti-biological and pro-tech philosophers.

Many readers of Fifth Estate may recall our Chicken Littleism meets Ned Luddism of the 1980s and 90s where the main thing that distinguished our exhortations from Zerzan and Ted Kaczinsky is that we recoiled at (and still do) the idea of advocating terrorist acts to achieve primitivist goals. But in the intervening years, our ecotopian dreams failed to fully materialize. Moreover, many fresh strains of radical futurism have emerged to remind us that we are the real fundamentalists, the true conservatives, the green meanies.

While most of us reject such reductions, the anti-authoritarian fuel in the engine of transhumanist Singularitians burns bright. With religious levity and rigorous research, the body of thought promoting future fusion begs to better our bodies with a new body made of a new kind of flesh. Injecting us with the serum of nanotechnology, the doctors of the new day will make the days of death and disease a cultural memory as distant as our days in the cave, our days of foraging and hunting, our days of laboring in the field.

When I found out that radical performance artist Genesis P. Orridge (of Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV fame) had undergone significant body modifications—what his website describes as calls a “ritual/surgical” procedure—to morph into a new entity with his partner Lady Jaye Breyer P-Orridge, a “metaphorical mash-up of their two selves,” I knew I had to give the radical wing of this transhumanist tendency a little more time.

From this process, the mutant P-Orridges share the “visual ambiguity of identity and gender of the Pandrogyne.”

Perceived through an anarchist lens, the biological body born is then its own State apparatus and our binary gender system its police force. In “Freedom ov Salivation” (part of the larger work This Is The Salivation Army), P-Orridge elaborates,

“Once the atom was split, and consciousness was split by psychedelics, and literature and painting were radicalized by the process of the ‘cut-up,’ and behavior was made malleable by contemporary, functional, and intuitive new magickal ritual by collectives like Temple Of Psycick.Youth, all preconceptions had to be suspended once and for all in favor of an immersion in possibility and individual refuting of the despotism of all forms of conceptual and media ideologies of linearity.”

She, he, or it continues: “Once Burroughs and Gysin split the cultural atom in a meticulous and methodical manner, all models of reality were up for grabs. Linearity is defunct, long live particularity. This Is The Salivation Army is both prophetic and practical. A manual of discontent, built from the individually validated and selected building blocks of consensus stagnation in order to co-opt and author language and SELF, both as a protest against bigotry and creative denial, and as an example to all.” This is heady and hefty rhetoric, even for a counter-culture icon like P- Orridge. While his methods are as super-freaky as it gets, it’s hard to argue with the anti-authoritarian impulse of his message:

“What we are totally engaged in right NOW! is a battle over authorship of our own story. ‘Over narrative’ itself, as my dear friend Douglas Rushkoff puts it. Existence, experience is no longer a fixed and linear program. We can re-engineer the genetic text, adjust absolutely our inherited behavior, and attack the very foundations of pre-modern culture and stasis. We have become capable of, and responsible for, asking the correct questions. At last…we are given the impeccable revelation of infinite malleability of incontrovertible subjective reality as an experiential validation. Everything is true, and everything is permitted.”

What can be more revolutionary than turning the insurrection inward and building bonfires in the streets of our selves? Following from this, then, to be truly radical, we don’t need to tear down the corporations—we just need to attack the corporeal.

Reading profuse P-Orridgisms, I recalled the last fifteen years of following the debate in the transgender and transsexual communities concerning surgery or not, hormones or not, pronouns or not, and all the rest.

In a society with entrenched and powerful elements so radically anti-sex and anti-queer, it’s not impossible to understand the allure of the transhuman revolution as an extension of the transgender revolution that has grown out of the queer revolution. But where do we want to take this? In the Spielberg-Kubrick collaboration AI, the viewer cannot shake how the filmmakers portray the anti-robot masses as closed-minded bigots. Discrimination against machines is just the new form of fag-bashing and race-baiting.

I see hints for the missing part of the puzzle in P-Orridge’s misreading of the construct he calls the “pre-modern.” Radical anthropologists, historians, and other writer-researchers have argued for decades that we realize the amazing accomplishments of so called primitive persons in creating desirable social and spiritual realities that the modern human has never replicated. Some even suggest we recover the lost crafts of the shaman and the sorcerer. The techniques of the herb-gathering tribal magician cannot be so easily transposed upon the high priests of our post-modern, hyper-technological period.

But the green wing of those who espouse a collapsist perspective have no use for technological prophecies and brave new worlds; they’re too busy preparing to survive the old world “after the fall.” When civilization crashes—whether from factors economic or ecological, political or social—some people believe they can actually be prepared. This league of collapsist thinkers may not even be opposed to the idea of intelligent machines for any moral reasons, they just believe that global warming, Peak Oil, species extinction, and capitalist meltdown all have better odds of arriving before the robots are ready to rescue us from our poisoned but still polymorphous prisons of piss, shit, cum, and sweat.

Contemplating the various aspects of this discussion challenged me to dig deep into my own bias against the virtual narrative promoted by the cyborg camp, against transhumanism and the Singularity in particular and against technology in general. When Genesis P-Orridge ventured to make re-engineering my genetic text a sexy and radical prospect, I dug deep into how far I’d gone to leave my wide and wild world behind. I contemplated how many hours in the last month I’d spent online or in other virtual spaces compared to how few minutes I’d spent hiking the hills and hollows. With my face pressed too close to the computer monitor yet still too far away to caress the virtual bodies writhing voluptuously in the virtual wilderness, I had to confess that the most radical act to save the earth I’d committed this week (other than riding my bicycle to work) was to donate $15 to an ecologically rad, non-profit porno site called “”

Sadly, most of us have been sucking the nipple of the megamachine for far too long. With our lips firmly fellating the exhaust-pipe of disaster incorporated, we consume, consume, and consume some more. For various reasons, we’ve had to trade our flag of revolution for ranting against the ranters who read ragged texts like Revelation literally.

It all returns to an old Situationist mantra: desire. We never wanted it bad enough. We got bought and paid for by the trinkets of our various trades. The same people that once went to protests are instead watching pseudo-liberal and centrist comedian Jon Stewart make fun of protesters on The Daily Show. The ones who once contemplated radical property damage or economic sabotage in the spirit of the Boston Tea Party and our contemporary Elves are instead donating a portion of their pitiful wages to the websites set up to help support our radical green comrades who are now in jail.

With the blood sucked from our various so-called movements by the very blogs we thought would save us, the End looks good at least from one vantage point: it will get Mama Earth out from under the boot of pollution without end. Like in the annals of prehistory, life may yet emerge triumphant when the beast of the modern and postmodern ages has fallen on its own sword.

If you don’t have a post-disaster plan, a suicide pact may have to suffice. Make no mistake that the enemies of life and freedom have maps and underground bunkers, stockpiles of food and weapons. The capitalists have plans to profit on their own demise, and then, when their pitiful way of life has gasped its last breath, the surviving conquerors and predators and other imperialist jerks have plans to find out where we are hiding.

Then, when nothing is left of their wretched and arrogant existence, they will want to find our sustainable organic farms, take over by force, and demand that we grow the food for them, milk the goats for them, and slaughter the free-range chickens for them. Meanwhile, they will destroy our churches based on ancient wisdoms, great music, and psychedelic orgies.

Even if the green radicals have their backwoods communes and collectives organized in a truly sustainable fashion, we need not depend on the threats from marauding capitalists on attack raids for water and women. A long view of history might suggest that we be better equipped to get along amongst ourselves to survive the hard days ahead. Mutual aid is as important as preparing for a showdown as is training in armed self-defense.

Before, during, and after the Civil War, lots of anarchy prevailed throughout the outback regions of the rural south. Sure, lots of mutual aid existed of a Jesus-fearing and moonshine-sipping variety. But one-room churches and homemade whiskey apparently inspired a lot of random killing, too. The old days had a share of utopian socialist enclaves, but neighborly feuds that resembled low-intensity guerrilla warfare were at least as common as killing possums.

We don’t know which version of the apocalyptic vision will usher in the next phase or what that period will actually mean for us in practical terms. But I’ve been preparing for it, at least mentally and spiritually, for my whole life. I grew up certain I’d never live to write this article, at least not on a computer! When the nuclear war with the Soviet Union didn’t destroy life as we know it, I began the countdown until 1999. With my Prince record cued up, I bought into the whole Y2K fiasco. What a letdown!

I know it’s historically arrogant to think that we are living in the End Times. Moreover, I realize that my collapsist tendencies can sometimes lead to counter-intuitive behavior and counter-revolutionary thinking. Even still, I don’t mind praying for a shift in global consciousness that could help humans evolve out of their war-mongering and earth-raping ways. But I’m not counting on it. I’m as prepared as anyone could be for the “worst-case-scenario,” which only folds back to feed more self-indulgent echoes of Michael Stipe’s gloriously selfish and cynical refrains in “It’s The End of the World As We Know It.” It’s the end of the world, and if we don’t feel fine—what exactly are we going to do about it?

This essay appears in Fifth Estate 376, Halloween 2007.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

A life of love and riots

When the hippies danced in Golden Gate Park in January 1967 at the Human Be-In that marked the unofficial preview to the Summer of Love, my parents rolled in the sheets in Chicago, Illinois. Allegedly, I was conceived during a blizzard that brought lots of Libra babies to the Midwest that year. When the looters burned Detroit to the ground, I was kicking in the womb. When my parents drove (with me in utero) to Montreal from Chicago for “Expo 67,” they took a detour through Lansing and Port Huron to avoid the ashes of post-riot Motown.

In October 1967, the day Che Guevera was murdered in Bolivia—it was also John Lennon’s 27th birthday—I was born in Chicago’s Cook County Hospital. (When I went to visit the hospital decades later, it was closed. But just this century, the county reversed plans to demolish the historic hospital building under pressure from preservationists to renovate it instead.)

The so-called summer of love was also the summer of riots, and being a product of that period has shaped my life. In 1987, I dropped out of a small college in Ohio and moved to the inner-city of Detroit, where it looked like the riot was still going on twenty years later. That twentieth anniversary of love and riot, I also attended my first Rainbow Gathering on national forest land in western North Carolina to verify that the hippie vision of communal love still commanded converts. While I never participated in a full-scale riot, I attended more than an a few organized protests that some protagonists wished had become organized riots. My reflections on love and riots are not so much my story, but the story that this world we inhabit has made of me.

The wild world I was born into wasn’t all patchouli and peace signs; it was a contested terrain of unwieldy unrest at a controversial impasse in American social history. Four decades later, the conditions for riot feel ripe. The worldwide urban population today is larger than the entire global population in 1967, creating the situation that Mike Davis described as a “Planet of the Slums.”

On the other hand, the summer of love anniversary looks like an easily sold commodity and even an occasion for an official commemoration endorsed by the mayor of San Francisco. And the old Grateful Dead house at 710 Ashbury is expected to sell for almost a million dollars at a charity auction of 1967 memorabilia.

But don’t go looking for any “Summer of Riot” anniversary sales. Unlike “revolution,” “riot” and all that it implies is one construct that capitalism isn’t eager to recuperate. (I can think of a handful of decent rock songs and a weblog called “Riot Porn” that may be waiting to disprove this theory). When the Situationists described the Watts riot, they saw “festive celebration,” “playful self-assertion,” and “the potlatch of destruction.” While some critics have opposed assigning a radical consciousness to a collective action rooted in spontaneity and basic desire, the Situationists recognized in riots an inherent economy of erasing economy itself that cannot be analyzed away: “People who destroy commodities show their human superiority over commodities.” As palpable a force as destruction remains to remind us that the commodity is bereft of real beauty and befallen by its vapid brutality, any evidence of our human victory over it still escapes us.

As much as it tried, post-riot Detroit never really succeeded with the kind of urban integration and gentrification modeled by other metropolises. Of course, pockets of posh pervade the downtown area, and hotbeds of urban hip can be found in places like Hamtramck or near WayneState, but most of what resembles gentrification from other cities involves the urbanization of the inner suburbs and the faux bohemia of places like Ferndale. Some would say Detroit never recovered from the riot, and I wonder if the same will be said of New Orleans in relation to Katrina decades from now.

I relished the “instant badass status” that being from Detroit once gave me, but like my city, I suffered from a riot, a riot of aimless revenge against my whiteness and middleclass-ness. While riding my bicycle near the Jeffries projects in 1991, four young African-American men attacked me, knocking me to the ground, kicking my head and face repeatedly. I sustained several injuries that night, emotional and physical. Four years after that attack, I, too, left, and not just to the suburbs, but to the rural south.

But for all the violent crime and economic blight, the vacant expanses of Detroit’s permanent decay also give birth to an ironic beauty that still enchants its native observers. Living in Detroit between 1987 and 1994, I imagined I was living after the fall, in a post-industrial tumor that in its silence can speak of the sparse existence that awaited all the civilized and privileged denizens of our decadent debtor nation.

The anonymous author of the amazing “detroitblog” observed in the early years of the new century what others had noticed previously, perhaps predicting our collective future, when finally “nature runs rampant, untrammeled by human endeavor.” Exploring vast and feral fields within the city limits, we might also conclude, “It’s the astonishing evidence that an entire neighborhood, and the society that it held, can vanish, with most traces of its presence wiped out in a matter of a few years, returning to the natural state in which it began.”

Of course, many dreamers throughout history have defied logic and looked at disaster as opportunity, courting collapse and catastrophe as inevitable and chaotic weapons for carving out freedom. Some people with this perspective are just waiting for the fall; others wish to bring it on. Forever purveyors of romantically rebellious prose, the CrimethInc. Collective produced an “End Of The World” edition of Harbinger a few years back (and is allegedly returning to that theme with a forthcoming issue of Rolling Thunder).

In the former, the article “DISASTER” declared, “From inside our cubicles and confessionals, we can only envision total freedom and authentic living in the context of imminent destruction.” If we cannot organize a riot to destroy civilization, we can at least welcome the riots wrought by hurricanes and earthquakes, tsunamis and tornadoes. Or so that line of thinking goes.

During the period of the 1960s that urban uprisings swept the United States, Martin Luther King proclaimed, “There is something painfully sad about a riot.” To him, the sadness reflected political futility, the failure of a riot to achieve the kind of widespread, communal political change to which he devoted his life. King tirelessly lobbied for love against the logic of a more militant rhetoric, forever insisting that love become operative as a political tool. He claimed, “What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.”

As sad as riots are in King’s analysis, the triumph of a “sentimental and anemic” love as commodity pollutes our postmodern predicament. In lieu of a more powerful and revolutionary love, we’re left to seek the false security of offered by authority figures and their addictive denial of the real problems. Or we escape into the narcotic haze of the hyper-mediated or the heavily medicated. Or we long for riots, not so much as an effective tactic but as a welcome rupture of the imposed reality.

In wake of the natural and unnatural riots that describe our common mania and malaise, we are poised and perched on the frenetic precipice of more profound and impending disasters. Too often, love settles to be the much-needed consolation for living under such conditions. If we can extract love from its trap inside the commercial imagination, we might unlock its more medicinal properties for transforming society. Our future will likely include riots and love, and if so, let’s hope for a destruction of the commodity that is more long lasting and a love less tainted by its marriage of consumer convenience to that system.

Monday, June 11, 2007

“We need a spiritual revolution”: A conversation with Daniel Pinchbeck

Note: this is the un-expurgated transcript of a conversation between writers Anu Bonobo and Daniel Pinchbeck, author of 2012: The Return Of Quetzacoatl and Breaking Open The Head. It transpired over email in February 2007 and will be published in the Summer 2007 edition of Fifth Estate.

Later this summer, Pinchbeck and Bonobo will finally meet at Transformus the southeast regional burn in Western North Carolina

Anu: What would you say to a person who knew Daniel before you broke open your head and heard from Quetzacoatl—especially if s/he suggested you'd "gone New Age" on us, trading the fanciful fantasy for the rigorous intellectualism of your past?

I don’t have the slightest doubt that I am far more “rigorous” in my thinking (or what you term “intellectualism”) than I was in my earlier incarnation as a New York journalist and lit mag editor. In fact, what I suspect that I have accomplished in the last years, above all, was a critically important task of thinking—a philosophical mission. In the introduction to Breaking Open the Head, I quote the French philosopher Lyotard: “Being prepared to think what thought is not prepared to think is what deserves the name of thinking.” That is exactly what I have done.

My best and oldest friends know that I have always been a skeptic and rationalist, with no interest in “New Age” fuzziness. Psychedelics were the best path for me, because they had an objective and empirical correlate – you experience an immediate transformation of consciousness due to the activity of a chemical agent. It would have been much more difficult for me, personally, to trust the slower and subtler modulations of interior states caused by meditation.

Anu: But in a sense, don't you think the whole idea of 2012, of a major shift, of unprecedented and epochal social and spiritual transformation is in fact what the "New Age" was supposed to be about all along? Or do you share the idea that New Age can only be seen as pejorative, as in fuzzy thinking peddled along with trinkets by thoughtless hucksters?

Daniel: Yes, the New Age has pointed toward a new age. However, the thinking behind it has tended to be fuzzy and narcissistic. I think my work brings a harder edge, a crystallization, to ideas formerly considered New Age. Quetzalcoatl as a symbol represents the meeting of bird and snake—Heaven and Earth, spirit and matter, and the integration of mystical, intuitive wisdom with rational, empirical knowledge systems. That is the difficult feat that must be completed to bring a new form of consciousness into being. The whole “spiritual abundance” mentality of The Secret, Chopra etc has created an unappealing culture based on “spiritual materialism”—we should be thinking sufficiency, not abundance.

Anu: If we want, to borrow some words from your book, breakthrough instead of breakdown, don't we hold out some hope that we'll get out of the prison cell and, as your book and a Joni Mitchell lyric implies, back to the garden?

Daniel: I don’t think it is about going “back to the garden” but forward to a new state of being that will be the garden but at a higher octave of realization. I see the psychic evolution as crucially important, pointing toward a more psychic state of being—

we may do global psychic works to put the climate system back together, like the Hopi raindance on a mega-scale.

Anu: Do you "believe" in 2012? Or is your work more in the realm of a speculative mythology of the future?

Daniel: I don’t “believe” in 2012, or in anything really. I consider “belief” to be the enemy of knowledge – or, as Carl Jung said, “I believe only what I know.” As I write in the introduction to 2012, my work offers a thought experiment and hypothesis. My hypothesis proposes that indigenous knowledge systems have a validity that has been entirely missed by our modern rational-empirical mode of cognition, which we have come to consider the only valid form of knowing. European culture forfeited the intuitive and mystical forms of knowing and being in the race to construct material and technological civilization. We went out of our way to exterminate the witches and to destroy any vestiges of shamanic authority because these posed a threat to our value system and paradigm. For the same reason, psychedelics—the visionary sacraments of indigenous cultures around the world—were demonized, and subjected to various forms of repression, both legal and cultural, including ridicule. As I note in Breaking Open the Head, repression does not just repress something – it represses the memory of why that repression was necessary in the first place.

From the research on my first book, I learned through direct experiential investigation that the shamanic knowledge system had legitimacy and validity, that there were other dimensions and realms of consciousness which had a bearing upon this one. I experienced numerous occult episodes, extraordinary synchronicities, telepathic confirmations, and I also recorded many stories from other people that confirmed these types of events. Once I had recognized that the shamanic reality had validity, I was forced to accept that our civilization had enormous gaps in its knowledge system, and that we would need to understand what we had lost. I was forced, logically and rationally, to take indigenous knowledge systems seriously. Therefore, I had to pay careful attention to the prophecies that many tribal cultures, such as the Hopi, are holding about this current time. The Classical Maya represented the full flowering of Mesoamerican civilization. From the Toltecs to the Mayans, more than a thousand years was spent in constructing a model of time and space that took into account accurate astronomical measurements, and recognized harmonic and synchronistic cycles in our development. I offer the hypothesis that the Maya were “wizard scientists” who used non-ordinary states, psychic energy concentrated in ritual, and astronomy to construct a thorough cosmology, that included a careful prediction of when a shift in “World Ages” would take place.

We don’t know what they knew about this shift in “World Ages”—they calculated it, but didn’t predict what was to come, as far as we know. My work on 2012 supports the thesis that they were positing a planetary transformation, a massive shift in human consciousness, and the movement into a new realization of being on the Earth. I have backed up this thesis by exploring the work of many Western and European thinkers, including Jean Gebser, Rudolf Steiner, Carl Jung, Walter Benjamin, Heidegger, and F David Peat.

Anu: Are people preparing for 2012 like they did for Y2K?

Daniel: I hope not. I never had the slightest interest in Y2K. It felt like an obvious scam. However it did at least indicate how overdependent we are on artificial technology with no relation to the biosphere.

If we were intelligent and possessed of foresight, we would be preparing for an imminent transition that could, in its immediate effects, be quite traumatic, perhaps cataclysmic. We would be storing food and fuel, creating strong local communities, investing in off-the-grid energy systems, developing barter systems and local currencies to take us off the economic grid, and growing our own food using permaculture and organic methods.

Just some facts and figures: Within 30 years, 25% of all mammalian species will be extinct. Within 40 years, there will be no tropical forests left on the Earth and ocean fisheries will entirely collapse. The human sperm count has been declining one percent a year for the last 50 years due to hormone-disrupting chemicals such as plastics and pesticides. Climate change continues to spike—spring flowers bloomed in December in Central Park.

Unless there is a massive ecological U-turn and a parallel transformation of human consciousness and human practices within the next few years, it is quite possible that we will not continue on this planet. At the moment, humanity is like a person in a locked room who has a limited amount of oxygen left—all of our psychic energy should be going to make a few air holes!

The progressive, Left, ecological and liberal intelligentsia is going to have find a way to collaborate, to overcome the individuation crisis that keeps us in our separate boxes. We need to find a way to use the media to spread a new planetary paradigm, and I also personally believe that we need a spiritual revolution in this country – a return to the Transcendentalist impulse of Emerson. Despite its increasing financial collapse, the US still controls the planetary media, the mass-cultural dream machine, so a complete turn-around in the message we are beaming across the planet could change everything very quickly.

Anu: By invoking Y2k, I wasn't necessarily just thinking about a consumer frenzy geared towards stockpiling and hoarding. In your conclusion to 2012, though, you do suggest specific kinds of grassroots infrastructure that might sprout up before the shit hits the fan—such as “localized organic food production, alternative energy, conflict-resolution projects, complementary currencies, and so on.” I mean, some people went rural and joined intentional communities just before 2000. And some stayed. So if people begin to behave more cooperatively and live more sustainable lives in the years between now and then, perhaps energized by their own visions concerning 2012, wouldn't that be a form of preparation worth promoting?

Daniel: Yes. There is that grassroots level and then the system and support structures also need to be transformed. I have proposed that sophisticated social networks designed for knowledge sharing and resource sharing and precise use of limited resources could be important for this, in a transition.

Anu: What do you think about the Millennial impulse and apocalyptic worrying in general—about the second coming of Christ and the left behind series, peak oil, global warming, The Revolution?

Daniel: My hypothesis is that this time is the Apocalypse—but that term has the literal meaning of “uncovering, revealing.” It is a time when all is revealed, uncovered, so that all can be known. In “2012”, I explore the Jungian perspective on the Apocalypse—Jung’s follower Edinger calls it the momentous event of “the coming of the Self” into conscious realization.

In a strange and unfortunate sense, the Fundamentalists recognize this time for what it is—but they have an atavistic relationship to the “God Image,” and to the archetypal process of the “Second Coming.” Christ didn’t “save our souls” through the Crucifixion—he provided a model of action for us to internalize and to follow, if we would care to save our own souls. Each of us has to do the very difficult work of incarnating the Self on our own. This is the last thing that the Ego wants—it will do have us do almost anything to avoid this work or stop it from happening. However, you discover it is a much better situation when the Ego finally gives up to allow for the archetypal process to take place. The Fundamentalists are still relating to the God-image as a jealous tyrant, and not incarnating the God-image, comprising light and dark, within their own being. Bush and Cheney, etc., do not want to integrate their shadow material, so they project it further and further. Our whole culture is based on denial of the shadow, and projection of it.

Peak Oil, Global Warming—they are unavoidable byproducts of the end game of the Capitalist ego trip.

As for The Revolution, I feel that any violent struggle will end in tragedy and defeat. I think that a mass subliminal shift in awareness is already taking place, and we might have a situation that is much more like the fall of the Berlin Wall, which was predicted by nobody. The humans under the thumb of that system had evolved beyond it, and nothing could stop that shift in consciousness. When we embody a positive understanding of the transformational process and offer that out to others, we help people overcome their own fear and resistance.

Anu: How would you frame the relationship between political struggle and psychedelic mysticism?

Daniel: I think the new element that will prove successful in the next few years is the integration of political and ecological activism with the spiritual vision that has been nurtured in many ways and by many people since the end of the 1960s. The exponential growth of interest in yoga and meditation is critically important, but only if those yogis and meditators can now reintegrate the knowledge they have gained into the politics of our present time, bringing a new resonance and frequency of consciousness into the age-old struggle for justice and peace.

Anu: In a recent column you suggested the following: “If some elements of the 1960s are returning, they are doing so without the oppositional anger of the past. The open hand, offering friendship and reconciliation, has replaced the raised-fist symbol of old-style activism.” Do you really think this is true, especially among the poor of the global south? It seems like radicals in places like Mexico, Venezuela, and Argentina have actually chosen to mix the “old-style” as you call it with many visionary elements exemplified by the Zapatistas among others. What's your take on the need to mix this metaphor based on the context and what's being contested?

Daniel: When I expressed that, I was really thinking of the US, where violent protests immediately feed the prison-industrial system with bigger budgets for newer and more horrific weapons, and also engender new anti-constitutional laws. For the most part, we are still in a slightly different situation than those protestors in the global south, whose rebellion is often based on literal survivalist needs. There is a point beyond which you cannot push people any further – but as long as you have enough cheap calories to go around, as in the US up to now, it is very difficult to reach that point. I feel we are at a tremendous moment, where a huge change in consciousness could spread like wildfire throughout many levels of US society, and expressions of extremist violence could backfire on activists, as they have in the past. I would like to see progressives learn new lessons of collaboration, and also turn their attention to utilizing the media and Internet social networks in a far more sophisticated and targeted manner. By the way, I have heard that the Zapatistas plot their actions according to the traditional Mayan Calendar.

Anu: Some people are frightened by the prospect of a major shift, and others are empowered by it. Some suggest we'll see fascism, and others envision an unfathomable outbreak of freedom. Are you betting on freedom?

Daniel: We may get both for a while. I am reading Chris Hedges’ American Fascists. He believes the Dominionist Right is planning a takeover when another major crisis or series of crises hits. A phase of authoritarian madness may happen or not, but ultimately I do see freedom as the most compelling and plausible outcome.

Anu: Your book and people it cites suggest that the species has outgrown the nation state, invoking concepts like “spiritual anarchy,” synarchy, non-hierarchical organization generally, and other overlapping visionary and utopian alternatives. This is what I've been looking for, planning for, and consciously trying to instigate for most of my adult life. But based on both the overwhelming hegemony of capitalism and its elites and the frustrating discord within our own communities of dissent, on most days I'm not too optimistic. Why do you invoke these alternatives at the end of your book and how do you view them?

Daniel: A new realization of consciousness would naturally create new forms of social organization. The language we have is an inheritance that is probably inadequate. There is no doubt that Capitalism is unsustainable even in the short term now—so either we devour the planet and reach species burn-out, or we move into a sustainable model that will naturally incorporate elements of tribal culture—as indigenous people have created models of sustainability, and also nonhierarchic social organizations, social design based on fractals, communal decision-making structures that work, systems of subsistence agriculture that don’t poison the land, effective ceremonies for visionary and psychic purposes, etc. I see a global retribalization as the way to go, if we don’t want to go.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Endgame? The Problem of Anti-Civilization Writer Derrick Jensen

Prompted by requests from some friends and collaborators, I've decided to start posting and archiving a selection of my work originally published in Fifth Estate, a print-only anti-authoritarian journal I have collaborated on since 1988 and have been one of many editors with since 2002.

This will be my first such post, the review of Derrick Jensen's endgame that appears in our current issue.

Derrick Jensen. Endgame; Volume 1: The Problem of Civilization; Volume 2: Resistance; Seven Stories Press, 2006. Almost 1000 pages total.

“Do not listen to me.”—Derrick Jensen, Endgame

Derek Jensen, author of A Language Older Than Words and The Culture of Make Believe, has become a best-selling author and a popular lecturer at conferences and campuses. If mainstream environmentalists would reform industrial civilization through sustainable practices, Derrick Jensen wants to destroy it by any means necessary. No pacifist with illusions about transforming civilization into a wild, primal culture through love and nonviolence, he fantasizes about blowing up dams. He’s sticking it to the man to save the salmon. Jensen wants a wild world, and he demands doing “whatever it takes to get there.”

Reading his words about the salmon over again, I knew I’d heard this slogan before. A version of this quote appeared on the cover of the Summer 2004 Fifth Estate—our “Reconsidering Primitivism” issue. There, in an introduction to Jensen's essay (which ended up being a draft of a sliver of Jensen's mammoth new book), I praised his writings as “seamless narrative swords drawn to skewer the social lie.” Based on his earlier work and my earlier endorsement, one might expect more tribute for this latest tome. But while I agree with many ideas within it, Endgame is a bloated book that promises way more than it can deliver.

Early on, Jensen introduces a book about a “shift in strategy and tactics.” In addition to prefacing both volumes with twenty “premises” which act as both talking points and a very general outline, he pledges “to examine the morality and feasibility of intentionally taking down not just dams but all of civilization.” By the end of the book, he’s offered more morality than I can usually stomach but dodges feasibility entirely, decrying the presumption of getting specific. This denial of detail is his prerogative, of course; but to me, terms like “strategy and tactics” imply some level of specificity.

While the 900 pages prickle readers with a moral thicket of Jensen’s logical gymnastics bent on debunking dogmatic pacifism and defending his ideas about counterviolence (a term borrowed from black liberation writer Franz Fanon), the text fails to deliver any actual vision of strategy or version of tactics—unless we count loosely organized anecdotal evidence, long quotes from his sources, and short, repetitive prose poems about how “we are going to win.”

As long as the books are, readers won’t get bored. Jensen’s a great storyteller, and his anecdotal, memoir-like style make Jensen a very readable and compelling writer. However, these strengths betray his mission to provide a how-to pamphlet for taking down civilization—which is his own claim, one he openly and ultimately acknowledges his failure at by the end of volume two.

If we’re looking for current theory about the basic flaws with civilization and the movements to destroy it, John Zerzan’s recently reissued anthology Against Civilization might be a better place to start. And Green Anarchy, the journal Zerzan helps edit, never ceases to impress with its creative and critical depth, even as it occasionally infuriates with its arrogant attitude. Juxtaposing Jensen’s storytelling style with the problem of civilization, I expected something like Green Anarchy Lite. But what we end up with is worse.

In an interview with the online journal CounterPunch, Jensen describes his audience for Endgame as “people who already recognize how bad this culture is.” How would he describe his relationship to that audience? “I want to push them to become more radical.” It’s in this pushing that Jensen, in fact, gets pushy. He sinks into a subtle yet insidious pattern of conservative and fundamentalist thinking.

To the problem of civilization and how to oppose it, Jensen repeatedly applies the logic of victimization, recovery, and abuse. In Jensen’s formula, civilization is the rapist, and life itself is the victim. To be against rape is to be against civilization. And like the rapist, the civilized cannot be taught or treated, redeemed or forgiven—only stopped. To disagree with Jensen about this logic is to be obscene, to advocate slavery, to support rapists.

While Jensen scolds pacifists for their addiction to moral absolutes, that doesn’t stop him from throwing out a few of his own. His summary goes like this: “Defensive rights always trump offensive rights. My right to freedom always trumps your right to exploit me, and if you do try to exploit me, I have the right to stop you, even at some expense to you.”

However, this logic cannot be extended and extrapolated into infinity as Jensen tries to do, even against his own better insights. Of course, some kind of self-defense makes complete sense—even from a pacifist point of view. It’s our first task to prevent harm to the victim, even at the risk of harming the aggressor. But there many layers of retreat and restraint shy of killing.

In terms of complicity with civilization, all too often, the assailant is also the victim. Especially for those of us living in North America today, we are all simultaneously the injurer and the injured party.

To describe our common predicament of living this way, Jensen uses absolute phrases like “irredeemable,” “insane,” and “death urge.” If something is so bad and basically evil at its base, this could be described as its essential nature. For Jensen, the fundamental evil that precedes all evil is civilization, and if you are not actively destroying it, you’re probably benefiting from it. In logic, this could be called the fallacy of first cause, generously seasoned with the either-or fallacy. How is this conservative? It’s Jensen’s equivalent of “original sin.”

Either you agree with Jensen—or you are a pathological abuser. Since all of Jensen’s readers—and Jensen himself—participate in and benefit from this civilization in some manner, the distinction between those exploiters with an insane and irredeemable death urge and the victims of this intrinsically rotten system can get more than a little fuzzy. Moreover, many anti-authoritarians envision a world where we are neither attacker nor attacked, neither oppressor nor oppressed.

For most of the 900 pages, Jensen provides painful details to support his claims about how bad civilization is, and since most readers are already sympathetic, as long as we keep civilization in the realm of an abstraction, we’re ready to cheer right along. But in an emphatic fashion that implores readers to take action against civilization, he urges more than an abstract and alienated sense of horror and foreboding. He advocates any and all kinds of fighting, battles, warfare, counterviolence, stopping the rapists, and killing the exploiters. And he anticipates every pacifist counterargument before it’s made.

How will Jensen know that his targets are legitimate? “I would, for example, kill someone who attempted to kill those I love, and I would not kill someone who tried to cut me off on the interstate. It is my joy, responsibility, and honor as a sentient being to make those distinctions, and I pity those who do not consider themselves worthy or capable of making them themselves, and who must rely on slogans instead to guide their actions.”

Since civilization as a system is intent on killing everything we love, Jensen clearly about advocates the violent overthrow of the entire apparatus. He’s intentionally vague, however, about how to go about it at the level of strategy and tactics.

While uncertain about his own strategy and tactics, he’s too quick to critique the strategy and tactics of others. He calls some of the earth defenders who get caught “stupid,” before offering his own tedious litany of all the “stupid” things they shouldn’t do. Has he re-thought that section since the latest wave of anti-green indictments and scare tactics? I can’t speak for all the reviewers who have uncritically recommended this book, but I would never even remotely imply that the risk-taking rebels, currently facing long prison sentences, who have put their lives on the line for the earth, are “stupid.”

If that weren’t bad enough, though, late in the book Jensen admits that’s he unprepared to walk his own talk. He says he’s scared. He doesn’t want to go to jail. He doesn’t want to get killed. Plus, Derrick Jensen’s a writer, and other people actually like making bombs. I wish I were making this part up, but I re-read this section several times.

But here’s the lowdown: Jensen writes books instead of doing what he advocates in those books because, “I feel like the work I’m doing now is important, and I don’t see anyone else doing it. I don’t see enough people explicitly calling for us to bring down civilization and making the sorts of comprehensive and comprehensible analyses I try to do.”

As a person who identifies as a writer, I’ve never felt that role precluded me from taking action on the things I believe in strongly. My advocacy for nonviolent approaches comes from the fact these are the only kind of tactics I’ve ever engaged in myself. Jensen, on the other hand, passes out rhetorical matches and gasoline to take down civilization by any and all means, and then says bluntly that he’s not going to do any of the dirty work himself—because he believes his role as a writer is too valuable.

At this point, those still looking for the 21st century version of the Earth First! Classic Ecodefense might wonder what to do next. Don’t ask Jensen, who says: “If you want to know what to do, go to the nearest river, the nearest mountain, the nearest native tree, the nearest native soil, and ask it what to do.”

Coming towards his conclusion, this mythopoetic liturgy is a copout. I’m all about talking with and listening to the plants and animals, the land and water; it’s something I do regularly, and Jensen’s discussions about these kinds of conversations provided some gems in Language Older Than Worlds. However, asking the trees and weeds around Pumpkin Hollow about strategy and tactics for taking down civilization is something I could have done instead of reading this book. And inevitably, their answers would be filtered through my interpretation and ideology. The weeds might tell me to take up foraging for berries to smash the state, while the trees might tell my neighbor to sharpen his shotgun skills.

All this listening to the land stuff certainly falls into the category of what I’d call “magical thinking”—something that as a pagan I am quite comfortable with. However, one of Jensen’s primary objectives in this book is to prove the utter uselessness of magical thinking, as he does so well when stating that neither Jesus nor the Great Mother, neither the Easter Bunny nor Santa Claus “can get us out of this mess.”

Jensen lectures readers for pages and pages with painstakingly rational rebuttals to dismiss prayer, love, visualization, and any other pacifist tactic as utterly naïve and inadequate for the task at hand. So imagine my bewilderment when, towards the end of the encyclopedic rant, Jensen argues that civilization will fall thanks to a “series of miracles.” As a pagan with strong pacifist leanings, I’ll take a series of miracles over militancy and martyrdom any day. But coming from Jensen in a book about the moral imperative of counterviolence, I frankly don’t buy it.

But he reneges and asks his readers not to listen to him and to listen to their landbases instead. This, at least, is a sentiment on which Jensen and I can agree.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Molly Died Fighting

I had to work all day, but seeing as I haven't posted in so long, I decided to give a recently deceased writer some props by reprinting her last published words.

Why does it hurt so much more when we lose our people when we need them most?

We needed Molly Ivins to stick around for so much longer.

Mary Tyler "Molly" Ivins (August 30, 1944 – January 31, 2007) was an American newspaper columnist, political commentator, and best-selling author from Austin, Texas.

Stand Up Against the Surge

The purpose of this old-fashioned newspaper crusade to stop the war is not to make George W. Bush look like the dumbest president ever. People have done dumber things. What were they thinking when they bought into the Bay of Pigs fiasco? How dumb was the Egypt-Suez war? How massively stupid was the entire war in Vietnam? Even at that, the challenge with this misbegotten adventure is that WE simply cannot let it continue.

We are the people who run this country. We are the deciders. And every single day, every single one of us needs to step outside and take some action to help stop this war. Raise hell. Think of something to make the ridiculous look ridiculous. Make our troops know we're for them and trying to get them out of there. Hit the streets to protest Bush's proposed surge. If you can, go to the peace march in Washington on Jan. 27. We need people in the streets, banging pots and pans and demanding, "Stop it, now!"

—Molly Ivins published this call in her column on January 11, 2007

On January 31, she died after a long battle with breast cancer. This was her last column.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Shamelessly Stumping for Shortbus

How would a celluloid artist like John Cameron Mitchell plan a follow-up to the over-the-top rock musical Hedwig and The Angry Inch? To begin, by taking his time.

Building this film in an improvisational and intensive manner, Mitchell gives back to his community by casting the community and creating the script in workshop fashion. The cast spent more than two years testing the wild waves of such a progressive waters and learning how to touch, taste, and teach each other.

Given that this dynamic and daring director shares writing duties with the actors, it’s no surprise he ends up onscreen in one of the many pansexual orgy scenes. In a radio interview, Mitchell admitted that he gave oral sex to a woman for the first time in his life on the set of this film. While the steamy, salacious—and at times silly—sex is central to Shortbus, the prolifically prurient parts are so seamlessly woven into this psychological comedy that viewers should be warned of wanting anything purely pornographic. Shameless and self-assured, Shortbus shocks—not with the sex—but through profound intimacy, soulful perversity, and disarming honesty.

Showering viewers with geysers of cinematic semen, the movie makes us contemplate what a glob of masculine goo can do to the canvas of a Pollack painting. A sex therapist and couples’ counselor by day, the female protagonist cannot actually achieve orgasm, and the pursuit of climax helps form one of the countless plotlines. In the excruciating yet jovial interactions between the therapist and her male lover, viewers might hear painfully humorous echoes of Woody Allen’s devastating critiques of heterosexual relations from the Manhattan and Annie Hall days. In other insurrections of indecency, we get to learn what three horny men can do with the national anthem during a three-way suckoff. With this organic and orgasmic outing, Mitchell honors another queer visionary, Gus Van Sant, as the character James chronicles the beginning of his hustling days—trying to turn tricks outside a middle American screening of My Own Private Idaho.

With utopian vision and a context of collaboration, the Shortbus salon captures the fascinating flavor of fringe communalism. By culling a cast willing to function as an experimental cooperative, Mitchell mirrors the utopian process of radical New York nudists from another time-frame. In its experimental excess, the cast conjures memories of The Living Theater—anti-war pleasure pacifists whose Paradise Now marked the late 60s sacking of stuffy, sedate entertainment. Composing the script for that popular play involved, among other experimental strategies, the casting of the I-Ching.

As one character remarks regarding the bodies engaged in bawdy bacchanal, “Voyeurism is participation.” With this line, the Shortbus collective invites its shyer viewers from red states and beyond to join the funky fray. While such a gesture invites the kind of “don’t dream it, be it” subculture camping of Rocky Horror nerds, there’s something more suggestive and subversive, radical and real than anything found in Rent, Rocky Horror, Hair, or other similarly sentimental and sympathetically superficial versions of American subculture.

Years after Mapplethorpe and Monica, sex scandals still stalk us from the TV screen. While the Mark Foley situation reminds us what happens when repressed desires express themselves inappropriately, former president Bill Clinton discusses the best of the sexually open Bonobo chimpanzees in a New Yorker interview. Laws legislating the bedroom still make headlines, and deviants still drift away from the draconian norm to redefine family. Shortbus sneaks its way into our theaters and hearts against this backdrop. Of all its astonishing qualities, this flick fights the culture war without fighting. Instead, it flies sorties of consensual sucking, confronting the enemy of fear with ferocious lust and humorous love, with temptation and cunning, with tenderness and cunnilingus.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Candy & Soulfood

In a world where criminally few people have what they need, we remain unsatisfied—even with what we think we want. We have it all, and we want more. Like Mick Jagger said, “I can’t get no satisfaction.”

One popular diagnosis for this dilemma takes direct aim at the false desires manufactured by our consumer society. This argument has weight, but I always worry about its logical conclusion: a kind of post-marxist puritanism, a secular religion of perpetual renunciation.

Yet, I do not want to choose between this and that, him or her, tomorrow or the next day. Spiritually, my love for the goddess is not a denunciation of the god. Socially, my feminism is not a renunciation of my own masculinity. Politically, I’ve always believed in the extreme personal freedom that marks a libertarian while simultaneously advocating the communal life that only pure socialism could provide. When laboring—or “playboring” as I like to call it—I can get caught up in the most esoteric and speculative, flighty and fanciful of purely intellectual pursuits, or I can turn off the brain get knee-deep in all the sweaty, physically strenuous glory of my daily chores on the land.

Rather than get trapped in the muck of “either/or,” I dance in the mulch of everything and nothing all the time. I think like the French utopian Fourier who taught us that variety is more than just the spice of life: it is our sustenance; it’s what distinguishes paradise from slavery, and like a badge I saw recently declared: “Artists make lousy slaves.” (Turns out, there’s also a limited edition, underground release by Michelle Shocked and Fiachna O'Braonain that bears the same name.)

My affinity for frogs is founded in their amphibious nature as neither land-dwellers nor water-critters yet always both! I’ve argued they are an apt living metaphor for bisexuality and polyamory and many other things. This embrace of variety and “both/and” difference does not stop in one category of life’s loves and passions, chosen duties or cherished distractions. Why put the lure of one important priority before the price of another?

Take this example and all its implications: I don’t want to embrace my new found southern identity at the expense of my northern roots.

After the last presidential election, I cannot deny I wanted to run “home” and hide in some blue-state cocoon. I love living in the south, but why are there so many ignorant people around me who find the thought of two men kissing more offensive than murdering thousands of strangers and destroying an entire country. But then I paused: Michigan passed an anti-gay law in 2004, and Tennessee did not. (Or as someone less tactful than me put: “We have rednecks up north too; they just ride snowmobiles instead of ATVs.) Then I paused again: I live on a radical commune within a short driving distance of a half-dozen other radical communes or like-minded land projects.

As simple as it sounds, someone suggested blasting through all this blue versus red business with the perfect alternative: purple. Of course this notion has been co-opted and watered down, but it describes my dilemma nonetheless. I like purple.

I’m from Detroit: motor city grit and gravel pulse through me like an MC5 guitar riff. I’m from Tennessee: it’s all about summers at the swimmin’ hole or a chigger-laden amble through the blackberry bramble. Why choose between hip hop and hoedown when you can enjoy both?

A free music festival helps me understand this. Last week, I went “home” to Detroit, and my friend invited me to catch some outdoor shows downtown. We got to see: legendary soul and gospel goddess Mavis Staples; radical queer poet and Detroit folk music icon Blair; the grimy twang, garage rockers Kings of Leon, my neighbors from Lebanon, Tennessee.

The evening’s diversity boasted a proud combination of ages, colors, and sounds mirrored by the aromas of the “Tastefest” they were a part of. The menu offered on West Grand Boulevard that early July evening was another metaphor for what I’m trying to explain: a well-seasoned cosmopolitan palette could be just the food we need to create a Creole consciousness. The meaning of “both/and”: I need my soulfood, but I like my candy, too.

I’m from here, but I’m also from there, and at any moment, I could be on my way to someplace else.