“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Lynn White's thesis

There is a standard environmental history that takes it for granted that anthropocentrism is at the center of the Judeo-Christian story. This notion goes back to Lynn White’s 1967 essay on the “Roots of Our Ecological Crisis”, which does, in my view correctly, understand that the Artificial Paradise is not something that popped out of the minds of Baconian natural philosophers in the 17th century, but a fact about the Industrial system in the 19th century:

“The emergence in widespread practice of the Baconian creed that scientific knowledge means technological power over nature can scarcely be dated before about 1850, save in the chemical industries, where it is anticipated in the 18th century. Its accept- anceas a normal pattern of action may mark the greatest event in human his- tory since the invention of agriculture, and perhaps in nonhuman terrestrial history as well. “

However, if this is the material history of the Artificial Paradise, it is preceded, in White’s view, by a sort of mental prehension of man’s mastery of nature, written in the Bible:

“Man named all the animals, thus establishing his domi- nance over them. God planned all of this explicitly for man's benefit and rule: no item in the physical creation had any purpose save to serve man's purposes. And, although man's body is made of clay, he is not simply part of nature: he is made in God's image. Especially in its Western form, Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen. As early as the 2nd century both Tertul- lian and Saint Irenaeus of Lyons were insisting that when God shaped Adam he was foreshadowing the image of the incarnate Christ, the Second Adam. Man shares, in great measure, God's transcendence of nature. Christianity, in absolute contrast to ancient pagan- ism and Asia's religions (except, perhaps, Zoroastrianism), not only es- tablished a dualism of man and na- ture but also insisted that it is God's will that man exploit nature for his proper ends. “

In this narrative, the tradition, starting with the Old Testament and going through the Catholic church up through the Protestants, is that God appointed man to rule over the beasts, in accordance with God’s words to Adam and Eve in Genesis 1:28:

“And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”

White’s thesis that the the origin of the Western tradition of mastering nature goes back to our religious roots has sunk into the popular culture. I’ve noticed, at parties, that when I run into someone and the talk turns to my happiness work in progress, inevitably the theme will come up of how Christianity encourages the rape of nature, usually in contrast with the happier and more balanced view of nature taken by … well, the non-Western culture of your choice.

Now, it is obvious from my construction of the rise of the happiness culture and the dissolution of the human limit that I think this history is, in many significant ways, exaggerated and wrong. It is not wrong that the impulse to subdue the earth is part of the code of Judaism and Christianity – it is, however, wrong to think that this impulse is not crossed, polemicized, conflicted, polarized and paralysed within that same tradition. Other significant motifs flow out of, for instance, that same account in Genesis. As is well known, the blessing of replenishing the earth, at the beginning of the Paradise story, becomes the curse of childbirth and the life of toil, at the end of it. In between, God plants and grows a tree of which the fruit is forbidden to Adam and Eve – the first of many taboos on the use of living things. It is not only the fruit of the tree of knowledge that is forbidden to God’s chosen people – in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, we are given a long list of interdictions and permissions concerning living things that move upon the earth. And throughout the Old Testament, there is a strong sense of the meaning of sacred places that has nothing to do with man and everything to do with the mysterious will of God. To interpret these things in the light of anthropocentrism is certainly to miss the point – mastery, as a matter of knowing and action, is hedged about throughout the sacred history. As one would expect of an agrarian society that is always just living over the edge of the Malthusian line between a population the land can support and a population it can’t.

White makes a move to counter this by playing with the idea that, in a strong sense, the Pagan religions saw the spirits in things in the world, whereas Christianity divested those things of their spirits:


“In Antiquity every tree, every spring, every stream, every hill had its own genius loci, its guardian spirit. These spirits were accessible to men, but were very unlike men; centaurs, fauns, and mermaids show their ambivalence. Be- fore one cut a tree, mined a mountain, or dammed a brook, it was important to placate the spirit in charge of that particular situation, and to keep it placated. By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects. It is often said that for animism. the Church substituted the cult of saints. True; but the cult of saints is func-tionally quite different from animism. The saint is not in natural objects; he may have special shrines, but his citi-zenship is in heaven. Moreover, a saint is entirely a man; he can be approached in human terms. In addition to saints, Christianity of course also had angels and demons inherited from Judaism and perhaps, at one remove, from Zoroastrianism. But these were all as mobile as the saints themselves. The spirits in natural objects, which for- merly had protected nature from man, evaporated. Man's effective monopoly on spirit in -this world was confirmed, and the old inhibitions to the exploitation of nature crumbled.”


It would seem to me that a historian, noticing the amounts of bloodshed that were produced in battles over whether Christ was in the wine and bread of the Eucharist or whether they were symbols only, might be hesitant to give this history a wholly Unitarian cast.

I am not saying that White’s macro-story is wholly without merit. The problem is in treated Christianity, over one and a half millennia, as a wholly homogeneous unit, along with treating such things as the genius loci of the tree in terms of syllogistic logic. The “in-ness”, here, of the spirit – the closedness of nature upon itself, or at least its openness to, ultimately, the gods – does not operate as crudely as in White’s sketch.

Far from living in a land and on a planet that humans have mastered, the story, as unfolded, institutionally, by the Catholic and Protestant churches, is of humans living in a world of divine signs, which can easily threaten human society. Plague, drought, cold – all are about a theocentric, rather than an anthropocentric, universe. When, in the psalms, man is called a little lower than the angels, the statement takes on a different cast if, as the Psalmist does, you believe in the angels. Reshuffling that past from a viewpoint in which the angels are, at best, creatures that appear with wings on Christmas cards, is not to understand what is being said here.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Free the Miami Five

Free the Miami five.

This is bullshit. There isn't a word to express my disgust at this vile and stupid action. A bunch of greenhorns were lead by an FBI informer to "pledge allegiance" to Al Quaeda and blow up the Sears Tower, of whose very existence, as has been amply shown by courtroom testimony, they had a dim or non-existent idea.

Meanwhile, Andrew Moonan, the blackwater guard who murdered an Iraqi bodyguard of one of Iraq's vice president's for kicks is still free to do what he wants in the U.S. And the state department employee, Margaret Scobey, his accomplice, the woman who, as acting ambassador, packed Moonan off on a flight to the U.S., has not been charged with accomplice to murder.

The leader of the Miami five, meanwhile, is going to jail for seventy years because the Bush administration, overflowing with racist twats, decided to stir up a terrorist/black scare to garner the KKK/retired vote in the state.

What a disgrace. What a rotten day.

Monday, May 11, 2009

you are it

Brian Sutton-Smith, a psychologist, made important studies of childhood games, play, riddles, jokes and dreams in the sixties and seventies – and he left his mark on a lot of game studies folk. He used both anthropological and psychological perspectives. In a 1971 article, he applied Kenneth Burke’s dramaturgical narrative theory to a corpus of twenty 5 year old children’s dreams, collected by Beverly Elkan:

“A Burkian grammatical analysis of the twenty dreams of twenty five-year-olds in Elkan's collection gives us the following results. While the subject is in the dream on all occasions and while there are occasionally other actors (parents = five; siblings = six; peers = one; relatives = one), the predominant counter-actor is a monster figure in seventeen out of twenty dreams (lion, ghost, tiger, witch, animal, murderer, monster). Where sex is attributed to these figures, females pre- dominate over males, seven to two. In fifteen out of twenty dreams the dreamer is the passive recipient of another's actions. The monster chases, captures, bites, hurts, scares, and injures the dreamer bodily. In only five out of twenty dreams does the dreamer counteract by screaming, saving a sibling, calling for help, or slapping a monster. Half the time the situation is domestic (bed, home, house, or room). Temporal relations are either present or not explicit. The agency through which the acts are effected does not have any consistent shape in this sample. Pre- dominant, however, are monsters coming through doors or in and out of water. The experience also differs: drowning or falling through holes, clothes being removed, being put in machines, being bitten, and so forth. The fact that most dreamers report being scared and yet do not do anything suggests a predominantly "freezing" reaction to fear, which is also the most familiar elementary fear re- sponse reported in animal and human literature.”

I want to put this at the head of my reading of ambivalence and the primal horde theory in Totem and Tabu. As I wrote in the last post, Freud, like Marx, had his version of universal history. The assault of the brothers upon the father, his murder and the feast upon his body was, for Freud, both a founding act and an act that occurred over millennia. The monster coming through the door or out of the water also occurred. It not only occurred with the children in Elkan’s study – it occurred, for instance, in my dreams. And my response was also not to do anything, until I would wake up, and then – frightened – resolve to kill the monster. With which resolution I could then go to sleep again.

Perhaps this moment of freezing, this inability to act, is connected to another of Sutton-Smith’s claims, which is that games involving defense and attack are not fully understood – or rather, understood dialectically – by children at five.

“We may sum up as follows these various approaches to the grammar of the expressive form in dreams, stories, folktales, nursery rhymes, and games. In all of these forms as used by children at the age of five, the "flight syndrome" is the key imaginative structure. Furthermore, it is predialectical. It is possible to envisage defeat and failure without adequate counterbalance, although in fully developed folktales there is usually such redress. Even in Tag-which involves both-the actor and the counteractor are not equally balanced. One never over- comes the "It" figure. At this age level he is only eluded. He is all-powerful, and the other players can only escape. In an unpublished study of children's art, Rand and Wapner have shown that when young children of age seven or less are asked to portray an event such as looking for a lost coin, they also tend to emphasize only one side of the event.19 They may emphasize the lostness of the coin, or the im- penetrability of the grass. It is defeat of action that is represented, rather than a balance between the lostness of the coin and the action of the searcher. In mythic terms, we are perhaps discussing an attitude of "fatefulness." (1971 87).