The inconvenience of reading posts in reverse chronological order has led me to overcome my dread that no one will read four thousand words in succession in an online format. As I indicate herein, I have no idea when, if ever, Parts Three and Four will come into being, but this sums up and rethinks a good many topics I have tried to argue are intrinsically linked to one another. There are a good many that are not so linked; I am not likely to incorporate Patti Smith's introduction to the volume presenting the fashion designs of Ann Demeulemeester, for example, although other aspects of the topic might relate to the subject matter herein. Although the number of topics I seem to incorporate into this essay are numerous, they are not only finite but fewer than they might seem to a sufficiently impatient reader.
—Jerry Cullum (who is asserting his Creative Commons rights if not an outright copyright, as I expect the piece to evolve quite a bit before it reaches finished form)
Tipping Points in the Anthropocene Era, Part One
I have the increasing sense that the world has reached what can only be called (in spite of Malcolm Gladwell’s obnoxious use of the term) several tipping points—I use the term to denote points from which there is no going back, whether the change is for better, for worse, or indifferent but irreversibly different. These are to be distinguished from those all too common points in personal and global lives in which failure to reach a tipping point means that everything will degrade back to the unsatisfactory way it used to be; the world has an ample quantity of those, too, but what has been reversed once can be reversed again, in the opposite direction. Some tipping points are culturally inflected; it is still possible to live without the digital revolution, and even to live without electricity and contemporary medical knowledge (entire societies live that way, not always by choice) but to choose a technology involves choosing a cognitive package that comes with it even if it destabilizes things you would prefer not to have rendered unstable. Other tipping points are environmental, and are truly irreversible: extinction is forever, even if we genetically engineer a reasonable simulacrum of the original.
Perhaps some environmental tipping points will be avoided by way of cultural or technological tipping points. Perhaps the monarch butterflies will be brought back from near-extinction by the cessation of illegal logging, alteration of pesticide use, and planting of the right (North American) rather than wrong (tropical) species of milkweed on the monarchs’ migration routes. Perhaps colony collapse disorder will be corrected in the bee population, and we won’t have to use robots or impractically immense numbers of underpaid farm workers to pollinate fields and orchards fifty years from now (with the concomitant die-off of large quantities of natural flora not self-pollinated or pollinated by moths or other intermediaries...with cascading consequences for other species). Perhaps a century or so from now solar powered container ships will deliver at a slower pace sweatshop-manufactured goods from remote parts of the globe, the absurdity of just-in-time inventory replacement having gone the way of the dodo bird. (Or perhaps solar powered drones will have developed to transoceanic capacities, or some other way of getting supercheap goods from point A to point B will have been developed.) Or perhaps the countries hosting the sweatshops will have all fallen prey to demodernizing revolutions, replacing global banking with traditional methods of exchange and imposing legal systems that are not in sync with global standards of acceptable commercial conduct, leading to the rise in the rest of the world of some other, perhaps more technologically rather than exploitatively based methods of making and distributing inexpensive goods (with still further worker displacement....). Perhaps the exhaustion of a number of critically short raw materials will be worked around, as it always has been. Nobody worries about the current shortage of whale oil (to the disadvantage of the world’s whales) and as the Saudi oil minister said once, the Stone Age did not end because of a shortage of stone. (Speaking of the environment in which those whales live, perhaps sustainable fisheries will become a reality, so that fifty years from now we will not have a world in which the only fish available is farm-raised tilapia from polluted waters.) As the multiplying number of parentheticals in this paragraph indicates, the outcome of one inevitable change affects a good many other outcomes.
The future, in all those regards, is unknowable, but the future is arriving rather faster than anybody expected, and there are, at present, inbuilt social structures that keep anybody from being in a position to change things fast enough to meet its challenges unless the solutions increase short-term profits for a very specific set of asset managers in capitalist and putatively socialist countries.
The problem is that many, perhaps most, of the people who can keep up with the technology involved tend to think that the human problems will be solved by the advent of smart machines of one sort or another. The age of the transhuman is a popular notion among some self-styled futurists. Other futurists can write that we should modify William Gibson’s (no tech optimist he) remark that the future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed; the future is already here, but in many ways it’s not distributed at all. This small problem does not seem to bother the transhumanists, who presumably will not have to worry about rioting human mobs interrupting the electricity supply by blowing up the grid or the fuel pipeline or the solar and wind farms when the machines take over and the futurists upload their digitized selves onto servers. (Presumably the machines will have devised foolproof defenses for all these parts of the infrastructure, putting humans in general in the position of missile-armed tribesmen fighting against drone aircraft.)
The cultural tipping points are much harder to define than the environmental or technological. The technological, just as the half-delusional prophets of the 1960s predicted, has been a major force in the alterations of the cultural. The whole nexus of events, however, has not unfolded quite in the way that McLuhan or the others expected, as we all become textually visual in the immediacy of a financier-governed global village.
The cultural issues are so confusingly simultaneous that to discuss them one at a time is to fall prey to the misrepresentations that keep us from realizing quite what is happening. But to discuss all of them in the same simultaneous (dis)order with which they arrive in our lives and on our digital devices is likely to leave us with a headache and no greater degree of comprehension than we had previously.
As H. P. Lovecraft put it, in an opening sentence I was quoting before it became fashionable or even acceptable to do so, “The most merciful thing in the world is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.” Thomas Pynchon concurred, of course, but he too did not completely realize just how much there is that needs to be correlated. (William Gibson sort of did, and still does, as does Douglas Coupland and, maybe, Okey Ndibe—Foreign Gods Inc. is a fairly amazing first novel, as much in its own way as its nearly polar opposite Neuromancer was.) There are frightening gulfs of time and space that have nothing to do with Lovecraft’s space monsters, and globe-spanning sets of interactions that go beyond Pynchon’s intricate economic conspiracies (which is not to say there are not economic conspiracies, just that they are not a sufficient organizing principle to explain what is happening to the planet and the human society that sprawls across the face of it, changing it inexorably and unconsciously as it goes).
Widen the area of consciousness, Allen Ginsberg wrote; but he meant something psychedelic, and while it is good to be aware of the gulfs at the margins of consciousness (where something very interesting might be trying to get us to notice it), we need to widen awareness of things that are much more central to human survival. But we live in an age of multiple centers, or an era in which the notion of the center has been inexorably weakened by the awareness of the networks of meaning and the networks of physical force that we approach one at a time, when in fact we need to be conscious of how they interact.
George Steiner, who prophesied all this some forty years ago in In Bluebeard’s Castle, has become yet another version of the Last European (in the sense of someone defending a culture that already has become, as Pope Francis recently implied, sclerotic at best and moribund at worst). There is something ludicrous about the style of hatch-battening being undertaken by those who feel that it is time to batten down the hatches of the glocal ship against the storms to come and the storms that are already here; this is so not least because the measures are so inadequate and so shortsighted, and because the ships with their unbattened hatches (let us ride in the vessel of this nautical metaphor for as long as we can) are already sinking in the crosscurrents of global forces.
That was a way of putting it; not very satisfactory. To quote T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, which is one of the fragments I shore against my personal ruins. The boy from Saint Louis did all right in mythicizing the British culture into which he inserted himself as a foreign immigrant, even if, as Wyndham Lewis put it, he had to disguise himself as Westminster Abbey in order to do it. Derek Walcott and V. S. Naipaul did it differently, coming from the Caribbean instead of the middle of North America, and they have been succeeded by younger generations of immigrant writers, predominantly female.
The curious thing is that Steiner not only noticed this, decades ago, he celebrated the fact that the English deployed by Commonwealth writers was far richer than the language as it was spoken and written by the putative indigenes of a little fog-haunted island off the coast of the peninsula of Asia that we call Europe. In other words: the ex-colonials were doing it much better than the longstanding Brits, and frequently doing it in the home country of their colonizers. A similar phenomenon obtained in France, where African and Caribbean francophones often outdid the proud originators of the language, and did it in Paris, too.
What happens, however, when the new arrivals begin not just to enrich but to supplant the cultural assumptions of the previous generation? The Brits learned in school that their culture came about because after holding out against an onslaught of Danish immigration, Celtic and Saxon-immigrant culture pretty much collapsed under the weight of Norman French occupation, resulting in the hybrid we call England that subsequently pulled Scotland, Wales and Ireland into its orbit. The French...well, the French learned about their ancestors, the Gauls; just how a welter of differently-languaged regions were fused into the hybrid entity of La Belle France tended to be passed over in silence until very recently. Cultures function by mythicizing themselves; cf. the relatively recent books titled The Invention of France, The Invention of Scotland, The Invention of Argentina—everywhere cultures are created by arbitrary denials of difference for the sake of creating a fictionalized national unity that eventually turns into a functioning reality.
As I was implying a few paragraphs back, the problem today is that the new arrivals everywhere are increasingly less interested in mixing and mingling with the existing cultures, not least because the historically defined local cultures are increasingly in a state of collapse, and the long-resident locals are not particularly inspiring exemplars of them. (Whittaker Chambers sixty years ago, in his usual tone of histrionic rhetoric: “It is futile to talk of preventing the wreck of Western civilization; it is already a wreck from within.” Gandhi, some decades earlier than that, when asked his opinion of the European code of civilized conduct: “I think it would be a good idea.” (Both quotes are cited from memory, and probably slightly wrong. Don’t quote me.) The fact that a good many readers no longer understand Gandhi’s joke illustrates Chambers’ point; there are habits of irony that never quite took comfortable hold in America, and are disappearing from the Europe that originated them, and for which Chinese and Indian and African intellectuals found analogues in their own cultures. Sometimes the non-European intellectuals are now more adept practitioners of the ironic cast of mind than the heavy-handed literalists of one-dimensional Europe and America—and has anyone noticed how Australia and New Zealand get cast to one side in this discussion, while South American cultures are so tangential to it that it is necessary to reframe the terms of debate in order to include them? although of course “non-European intellectuals” is a term that includes Jorge Luis Borges, who was more European in Buenos Aires than most intellectuals in Paris or London, and entire subsequent generations of South American writers in Spanish and Portuguese have more in common with their contemporaries in Prague or Dresden than with their contemporaries in, say, Chicago, Toronto, or Sydney.)
This essay has yet to get to the cultural consequences of the digital divide, and of the prevalence of cultures of demodernization in large parts of the world, including enclaves in a world that has gone from modern to liquid-culture post-postmodern. But in my experience, fifteen hundred or two thousand words is about all I am good for, and all that anybody can deal with online or in downloads, other than the dwindling ranks of New York Review of Books and New Yorker readers in America, and their counterparts in other countries and other continents for whom ten thousand words at a stretch is as nothing, even onscreen. (The quality of the screen matters a great deal, however.)
So I shall have to take up the difficult aspects of shifts in sensibility some other time, which is just as well since, as all of the foregoing implies, the shifts are so different from one subculture to another that it will take a fair number of paragraphs even to delineate them as inadequately as I have thus far delineated the other stuff. I like to allude rather than spell things out, which, by the way, is a characteristic that both Michel Houllebecq and Graham Harman have ascribed to H. P. Lovecraft in their reassessment of the value of his oft-derived rhetoric and transhumanism avant le lettre. Onward to eldritch revelations of disturbing fragments of evidence under a gibbous moon, then, but later.
[Regarding the habit of allusion without footnotes—that is why we have Wikipedia and websearches, not necessarily on Google. I look up most of my allusions these days (except when I get really lazy), and sometimes have to search for days before I find the reliable version of the quotation if I don’t have the book on my shelves. But in the old days of interlibrary loans, it sometimes took even longer, and sometimes I still hadn’t tracked it down, even years later.
But it would be fun to annotate this essay; littered with superscript numbers midway through every sentence, it would resemble an idea-convoluted story by John Barth, Donald Barthelme, David Foster Wallace, or their generational relatives and successors, with whom I haven’t kept up.]
Tipping Points in the Anthropocene Era, Part Two:
I have said remarkably little about the American context, and the purportedly postracial American context most of all. But that is because I do not want to sink irredeemably into a dispute over whether the American experience east of the Mississippi prior to 1920 is best represented by Huck Finn, Moby-Dick, The Souls of Black Folk, all of the foregoing plus Emily Dickinson (and maybe Madame C. J. Walker as a practical economic exemplar), or that it is pointless to argue about literary and economic history as long as today’s policemen armed with army-grade weapons are killing black men and women for selling cigarettes or standing the wrong way in the street.
So for the nonce, let’s not go there, although we must someday visit how all this affects or is affected by the forces that depopulate drought-ridden agricultural regions while creating boom towns in resource-rich ones, and how much of what is happening is unfolding more or less as it always has whether times in America are deemed to be good or bad.
Better to look for now, very briefly, at the discontents of demodernizing forces across the planet, and their relationship to the insights that Peter L. Berger articulated some forty years ago: that modernity travels with cognitive packages that are difficult to detach from it, and that those cognitive packages are intrinsically destabilizing even when they don’t automatically offer the culturally specific forms of stability that advanced industrial societies had worked out, in the era just before the Arab Oil Embargo first changed everything.
The world’s societies have been relatively settled for so long that their mores have become mythicized as much in the centers of postindustrially developed power as in the cultures closest to the level of hunting and gathering. The successful evolution of ways of routinizing the rights of the individual (and of the corporation defined as a collectively composed individual) have become so codified into law that it is forgotten how much the law has to be transmuted into social habit. One might argue that Edmund Burke and Antonio Gramsci were not irredeemably far apart in their insights into human nature; the difference is that Burke felt that settled tradition reinforced by state power was the only thing keeping humanity’s natural tendency towards rascality from devolving into chaos, whereas Gramsci more incisively saw that the rascals running things were perfectly capable of bending settled traditions and state power to their own ends and of learning how to convince others to believe in versions of settled tradition that were against their own interest and the interest of all their neighbors. It is not necessary to grant angelic status to human beings to support their right to act with full awareness and as much capacity to act as is not instrumentally harmful to other human beings. (But what if the harm is psychological? and what if the instrumental harm is indirect, by way of subtle aspects of the physical environment, whether that environment be the ecological balance of natural forces or the social forces of architecture and urban space? Politics may be based on power, but it also rests on how communities define the nature of nature and the nature of the human.)
In liquid modernity (I confess that I do like Zygmunt Bauman’s locution, for its metaphoric power) the mix of individuality and social support structures are shifting in ways that bring their interplay into clear visibility for those who choose to see. The problem is that scarcely anyone really wants to see; regardless of one’s political or social position, certain opinions that are grounded in reality are going to sound like transgressions against one’s received pieties, and granting aid and comfort to one’s ideological and political enemies.
We are not yet at irreversible points in the definition of humanity, in spite of the irreversible flood of knowledge about our condition; not so long as bodies of knowledge can be obliterated or occulted by force or disorder. The definitions, of course, remain irreversible in and of themselves; what is reversible is how much is known by individuals in a society, how it is known, whether the exact definition of the knowledge is open to argument and refinement, and whether the knowledge can be acted upon.
So before we enter upon the question of the nature of humanity and the nature of human institutions and the nature of nature and the future of all three together, which may end up as a never to be written Part Three of this, we shall have to consider a couple of present-day (in 2015) examples of the demodernizing and anti-modernizing forces (not the same thing) that have been explored from many different perspectives since I first read about them in Peter L. Berger and read about their practical consequences in the unintentionally mischievous reportage of Robert D. Kaplan.
Boko Haram is, of course, actually named after the assertion that non-African modes of education are heresy in the brand of Islam that the group espouses. Never mind that the brand is itself an opinion open to dispute, or that parallel demodernizing groups have sought to wipe out the intellectual heritage of African Islam itself and a large part of traditional African Islamic creative practice; what matters on an immediate basis is that the group has the imported firepower to enforce its opinion and supplant state power in so doing. (To combine the insights of Berger and Kaplan, when technology is considered just another object in the town marketplace, akin to salt or vegetables, the question of cognitive packages does not arise—or rather, the cognitive package is the category “useful object for sale.” You do not have to think about the world that produced a weapon in order to use it, or even to maintain or repair it, any more than you need to understand the relationship between software, hardware, and network in order to use the internet.)
That’s a demodernizing movement, although the modernity it opposes incorporates a large part of its own indigenous history. Anti-modernizing currents, or movements that oppose a specifically Western European modernity, are not at all the same thing, and we could look at a couple of the world’s largest societies if we had a few thousand words to spare and a few hundred hours to do the research beyond the headlines.
China’s directive to schools and universities not to teach “Western ideas” (other than socialism, of course) is the example du jour. The assertion could be spelled out more precisely, and probably has been by someone other than the European and American academicians who insist that since science and civilization in China got along fine independently prior to the intrusion of European and American would-be colonizers, it is perfectly feasible and perhaps desirable to revert to a uniquely Chinese way of organizing technology and the state that makes no obeisance to notions imported from Europe, other than Marxism, of course.
Others have argued that on that view, it is possible and necessary to look at the irruptions and eruptions of intellectual and political forces in Chinese history that were effectively analogous parallels to the opinions being disparaged as alien, and to argue that since almost all societies generate similar displacements of tradition (it’s just that the displacements succeed better in some cultural circumstances than in others), we might as well consider certain parts of the contemporary human condition (e.g. individual rights) as universals, regardless of who was the first to articulate them.
This is where the disputes of present-day anthropology become relevant to the disputes of present-day politics, but it would take another ten thousand words to unpack that problem.
Although the notions of exceptionalism in such places as China and Russia and the United States of America are certainly worth respecting and examining, if only because in many ways each is an exception, all cultures insist upon the rightness and superiority of their own ways of doing things, and treat the barbarians or just the rubes from someplace else with a certain amount of suspicion.
Problems arise when enough rubes from someplace else arrive with the same unexamined reverence for their way of doing things that the local rubes have for theirs, and we are talking about events probably dating back five or ten thousand years here. In good circumstances, invigorating hybridities flourish in newly enriched cultures; in bad circumstances, people start killing one another even without benefit of invading armies to render the job more efficient.
It is difficult enough when the simple facts of intermingling of cultures have reached a point of irreversibility and something is going to change dramatically, so that the point at issue is what sort of change is going to happen. When the culture on whose turf the drama is being enacted is itself going through internal upheavals created by economics, ecology, and/or technology, the difficulties are doubled and quadrupled, or multiplied by whatever factor your capacity for dubious rhetoricizing will allow.
Right now, globalized complex societies throughout the world are suffering from a combination of increasingly irreversible circumstances of this sort. Differently complex societies are in some cases simply collapsing, and generating instabilities that impact almost every other society on earth. (A few isolated societies are affected only by one or two forces, such as that their continued existence constitutes a hindrance to resource extraction.)
The dynamics of economic exploitation, cultural insensitivity, ingrained dislike for other ways of life, kneejerk responses applying universal principles to particular cases, and so on, is a topic that can scarcely be discussed without offending so many passionately held beliefs that no one really wants to undertake the dialogue.
To cite only one example, recent patterns of disease suggest that we need to consider the difficulties caused by the fact that some people really like to kill and eat forest animals even when other food options are available, and that some people like to consume cheeseburgers no matter how many cautionary calorie charts are posted or less artery-clogging food options placed on the menu. But there are also ample numbers of West African and Midwestern American young professionals lining up at the same low-calorie food purveyors in spite of their grandparents’ preference for bush meat or burgers. Some of them even share the same opinions regarding the ecological and epidemiological consequences of socially mediated choices, as well as the consequences for their personal health. And many of them probably hold divergent opinions on ashé (including simply knowing the term) and on the legitimacy of banging away at deer in hunting season in America.
But for those who try to discuss such topics as this outside a work of fiction, the topic of practical consequences will quickly be derailed by inquiries and objections about the problem of intercultural communication and who possesses the right to pass judgment on what sort of behavior.
In the meantime, the tipping points for a host of interconnected problems continue to arrive, and the choices narrow accordingly.
There is a clear need to move to Part Three here, but that is the larger area in which I need to discuss topics on which I have been accumulating books I was going to get around to reading someday, even as the topics themselves can barely be kept up to date in daily news reports on the consequences of the historical forces, without regard to the theories that might allow us to make sense of them. So I may never get round to writing that one, although miracles have been known to happen.
A bibliography of interesting titles, with a frank admission that I have only a fragmentary idea of the overall value of the books’ contents, may be the interim solution. Part Three, Beta Version
Actually, parts one and two are very much beta versions, with their own share of operating problems. But I hope I have made my point that human survival depends on the concomitant consideration of a variety of rapidly changing situations, despite all the reasons why this sort of consideration is not very likely to happen.
What we do about this is the topic of a Part Four that is even less likely to get written than Part Three, although I have implied in past essays some possible routes to addressing the problem.