08 December 2011

Realism or Nostalgia?

My students -- most of them born around 1990 -- view the continual proliferation of electronic devices, access to information, instant communication, and incessant downpour of ideas, images, memes, and phrases from all these devices as normal. They expect it to continue. They expect that the information will continue to rain down, heavier and heavier. The mass media, and especially the internet media, continually promise faster and more complete access to information.

I see the current info-spasm of our civilization as a self-limiting condition, an aberration from the human norm. It seems as sustainable as a metastasis, and about as desirable. I anticipate a collapse of energy, of access to information, of complexity. The Transition, the passage Down the mountain.  I don't think that the survivors will be carrying cell phones in 50 years.

So, which of these views is realistic?  which is nostalgic? 

18 August 2011

Jane Smiley Rocks

Jane Smiley is one of those writers I just can't get enough of -- her style conveys generosity, humor, intelligence, and a faith in the reader's ability to be all of that as well. Rereading Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Novel, which once again makes me want to read all the great novelists I haven't yet (I've read hardly any Dickens; a huge oversight or a deferred pleasure) and also to return to my five unfinished novels and make something of them.  I want to know how she moved from writing Thirteen Ways to her next published novel, 10 Days in the Hills. 

04 August 2011

Dark Mountain Issue 2

Yes, I'm a Dark Mountaineer.  Someone said in the Guardian that he wasn't "climbing the dark mountain..." Which misses the point of the Jeffers poem: we've already climbed the mountain of civilization, and now we begin to stumble downwards, in the dark. Today's economic news shows the point.

Dark Mountain aims at a re-thinking of the paradigms; not collapse, not apocalypse, not the end times. Rather, how does an unsustainable global civilization come unglued, and how might human beings respond to that unraveling --  creatively, psychologically, practically, spiritually?

A highlight of the new issue is Vinay Gupta's "Death and the Human Condition."
"Over-consumption and aggression to the planet and other people cannot go on indefinitely, and we with either transform or crash, but the age of the mall-dinosaurs is over and living in the truth strips out the lies. It does so without any bold statement, with no advert in the papers proclaiming that the end is night, but with the gentle and gradualist refusal to acknowledge other people's social fictions around consumption. It is the least we can do....

...We live in a culture which as made birth relatively safe, sex less mysterious, and death largely invisible, yet still from all three timeless points, the numinous shines.
   So, too, there is a strange numinosity around the death of capitalism, the survival challenges we pose the ecosystem, and the green shoots of a new culture which ache to climb the wreckage, and instead find themselves shadowed by dead-while-standing oaks."  (Dark Mountain, Issue 2, 78).

More at www.dark-mountain.net

24 February 2011

Asymptotically aproaching a zero-point

Been reading Slavov Zizek's (with special accents over the Zs), Living in the End Times.  Dense, heavy with Marxist-Freudian-Lacanian theory. I can make sense of less than half but some is startlingly relevant, stating familiar concepts in a new way.  Here's a characteristic passage:

"At the geological and biological level, [Ed] Ayres enumerates four 'spikes' (or accelerated developments) asymptotically approaching a zero-point at which the quantitative expansion will reach its point of exhaustion and will bring about a qualitative change. These four spikes are: population growth, consumption of resources, carbon gas emissions, and the mass extinction of species. In order to cope with this threat, our collective ideology is mobilizing mechanisms of dissimulation and self-deception which include the direct will to ignorance: 'a general pattern of behavior among threatened human societies is to become more blinkered, rather than more focused on the crisis, as they fail.'  The recent shift in how those in power are reacting to global warming is a blatant display of such dissimulation."

Does that not explain a lot?

30 January 2011

George Eliot Sure Knew What She Was Talking About

"The lapse of time during which a given event has not happened, is, in this logic of habit, constantly alleged as a reason why the event should never happen, even when the lapse of time is precisely the added condition which makes the event imminent."
 (George Eliot, Silas Marner, chapter 5)

Good epigraph for a book on peak oil, ain't it?

18 January 2011

Epitaph of Sardanapolos

The current issue of the New Yorker has a long article about the history of the US Constitution as artifact, document, idea, and object of discussion, derision, and reverence.  Early on, author Jill Lepore write, "As an object, the Constitution has more in common with the Dead Sea Scrolls than with what we now think of as writing: pixels floating on a screen, words suspended in a digital cloud, bubbles of text. R we the ppl? Our words are vaporous. Not so the Constitution."

The shift from writing as words-on-paper to words-in-electronic-aether has happened during my lifetime, rapidly. A hard-core bibliophile, I still manage to read more words on paper than words on the screen, but this is increasingly difficult to keep up as work demands more and more on-screen, on-keyboard time.

Most of the writing coming into the world at this moment is surely born on a keyboard and breathing in electronic memory. Is this writing? The value of the printed page declines in the minds of literate people. The value of the book declines even in colleges. The difference erodes between the labor of years embodied in a book, and the flicker of thought brought into evanescent life via the fingertips, the glowing screen.

I still value the books more. The parchment. Last summer I spent countless hours inscribing a poem onto a scroll of undyed muslin, ninety yards long and seven inches wide. Inscribing each letter with fabric paint, working the paint into the fabric. Each word took a few minutes; a sentence could take an hour.  I thought of monks, hand-copying texts that took years to finish, in rooms dedicated to this purpose, scriptoria.

Now I think of painting words on fabric, of embroidering poems on old linen napkins. The opposite of a blog: slow, useless, permanent. Poems that can outlast the flickering pixels of this civilization. Words as objects. An organization on this island made a huge banner of the preamble to the Constitution, large enough to drape over the steps of the Supreme Court. The constitution as a giant tarpaulin draped over the house of the nation. 

The blog is a leaf in the forest of the internet, a fragment, impermanent and anonymous. The poems in the books are solid as bricks. A poem or civic creed, embroidered in cotton on linen, could last a thousand years, or more. Who will pick through the fragments of this culture, looking for what we thought, what we meant? 

The Epitaph of Sardanapalos
I keep the taste of feasting,
And the wage of wantonness,
And the joys shared with lovers;
But the blessings of many
Possessions I leave behind.

Anonymous, translated by Kenneth Rexroth
Poems from the Greek Anthology
University of Michigan Press, 1962.