Archive for February, 2011

Wrong

By David Parkinson

Crocus, the trailblazer, unafraid to be the first flower to bloom.

Listen to my song,
It isn’t very long,
You’ll see before I’m gone
That everybody’s wrong.
(“Everybody’s Wrong”; Stephen Stills/Buffalo Springfield, 1966)

Winter is slowly turning to spring here; crocuses and snowdrops are up and trees are gradually budding out. The hibernation of the year’s round of activities is slipping off: Seedy Saturday, which I think of as the opening event in the warm season, is only two weeks and a bit away, and there is a ferment of activity around Powell River, with citizens engaging with the City’s plans for liquid waste management and its plan to rezone the former arena site in town. We’re in a municipal election year and people seem to gearing up for it.

Out there in the wider world, all hell appears to be breaking loose. I’m never sure whether my perception of an increase in general mayhem meshes with reality, but it does look as though instability throughout the global economic system is beginning to permeate the social and political sphere to a greater degree than usual. The flareup in North Africa and Wisconsin’s sudden desire to return to the 19th Century are visible signs of some kind of unusual tremors; but it’s the steady drumbeat of corruption, misdirected effort, make-work in high places, lies, idiocy, counterproductivity, bogus expertise, worn-out fairy tales, and infantile wish-fulfillment fantasies that just keeps sounding louder and more insistent to me. It’s hard to prove that things are any weirder or more unhinged than they have ever been: each new signpost stands alone and we can choose to explain them away as they emerge, or we can, without much effort, see them fit into a larger picture — just another brush-stroke on the canvas.

The danger here is to be as sure as we can be that the big picture is not a paint-by-numbers set, where the outcome is predetermined and our only task is to fit the paint to the pattern. I hope (although I know that this is a thwarted hope) that we all observe the world and the things that happen in it as pointed challenges to our worldview, as observations always in need of proper explanation and not just more data to slide easily into their assigned place in our static outlook. Once we stop paying real attention to the meaning of the things we see, choosing to treat them just as more evidence of what we already know to be true, we begin imposing a kind of internal conformity on our own minds. It’s bad enough to suffer from the need to suppress our own creativity in the face of overwhelming social pressure; but when the pressure to quiet our rebellious mental impulses comes from within, it’s a step along the road to complete shut-down. And this is where we find ourselves, more and more; a very sad and dangerous place to slide into. Especially without being aware that it’s happening.

I’m thinking about this sort of thing a lot lately, because I’m finding it a challenge to make sense of anything I see going on. The human motivations, the social reasons, the economic justifications for the ways we structure our activities and relate to one another are, if anything, getting harder to figure out and resolve so that I can comfortably put them into their place and move on to other things. They come too quickly, from strange new directions, bearing the signs of who knows what unforeseen arrangements of hidden forces.

I can only think that the systems we’ve developed, and the mind-boggling complexity of the ways they interact, reinforce, and contradict each other, are creating a kind of widespread counterproductivity that is making it harder all the time for anything genuinely useful and humane to flourish. Possibilities are closing off in the visible parts of the system, but new configurations are still struggling to be born. And I believe that, without having a vocabulary for this kind of rolling deadlock of ever-growing futility (and worse), many people are picking up on a feeling of dead-endedness. We have entered the doldrums and no wind is blowing us out of here. As is so often the case in human affairs, that which matters most is to be spoken of least. We keep mum for fear of appearing fearful, believing the others to know what we know we don’t. This is the borderline between comedy and tragedy that runs right up the middle of each mind and every society.

I just started to read John Restakis’ 2010 book Humanizing the Economy: Co-operatives in the Age of Capital, and it’s pretty hot stuff. John is the Executive Director of the BC Co-operative Association, and someone I would love to bring up to Powell River to talk and meet with people around here. The turnout and enthusiasm at Skookum’s recent public event suggests that there is a lot of pent-up interest in cooperatives around here.

Here is something I read last night resonated with this vague sense I’ve been having for months now that we need new ways out of predicaments we hardly know how to name:

The inability to imagine an alternative is the final triumph of ideology. As William Leach [in Land of Desire: Merchants, Powers, and the Rise of a New American Culture, Vintage 1994] put it so well, the enthronement of consumerism and the acceptance of corporate capitalism as its social mechanism has diminished public life, denying people everywhere “access to insight into other ways of organizing and conceiving life, insight that might have endowed their consent to the dominant culture … with real democracy.” It is here that the most difficult, the most necessary work must be done to advance a more fully human vision of what economies might be and how such economies might be constructed. (p. 26)

This really struck a chord with me, since I have come to believe very strongly that one of the causes of our culture’s growing brittleness is precisely this inability to conceive, or consider, or value alternative answers to the questions we ask — let alone all the questions we don’t know how to form — about who we are, individually and collectively, what we’re doing, and why. Lost opportunities to find alternatives consolidate existing problems, but we’re all too busy running along the predestined grooves to look up and take time for the frivolous exercise of our innate creativity. Keep running!

The promising shoots of new growth so often get blunted or neutralized by being drawn into the inertia of the system they’re meant to challenge, however weakly or unreflexively this challenge might be mounted. Our fear of being wrong is so powerful that we’d rather dither and burn out in the unheroic middle ground. Everywhere we look, promising new approaches wither away while the same old deadly, ridiculous, pointless methods and attitudes thrive and spread. The mere act of persisting in something that rubs against the grain is a necessary act; the only way to have a true purpose is to be wrong by wrong standards, to deliberately set out to confound and disturb the accepted wisdom (which is rarely wisdom, only unthinking habit pretending to rest on principles).

This week I read of a fine example of how unhinged things are, from Mark Bittman’s blog: a sidelong look at McDonald’s new breakfast offering, oatmeal, which, as you would expect, they manage to fuck up almost completely, turning a cheap and nutritious food into expensive junk. As Bittman notes, “Incredibly, the McDonald’s product contains more sugar than a Snickers bar and only 10 fewer calories than a McDonald’s cheeseburger or Egg McMuffin.” I come at this as a confirmed daily oatmeal-eater, and I know that picking holes in McDonald’s food and foodlike products is cheap sport. But what I thought of when I read this is how hard it is in this upside-down world to start up and fund a breakfast program for schoolchildren, one that might serve inexpensive healthful (and locally growable) foods like oatmeal. I know, from sitting at the table of the Nutrition Committee of the local School District, something about the hurdles that stand between hungry children and food. We tolerate them, although we know it’s wrong and a sign of a society in trouble that in the midst of extreme wealth and ostentation there are children showing up at school unfed. And we tolerate McDonald’s serving this nasty overpriced food, because after all there’s not much for us to say or do about it. It’s a free market. It’s wrong, but we’re stuck with it. And the alternatives are just too hard to imagine; if we can imagine them, they’re impractical or obviously crazy; and who are we to kick against the pricks?

The fierceness of desire from which rebellion springs

By David Parkinson

Tree is to bud as human is to dream.

When first the opposition of fact and ideal grows fully visible, a spirit of fiery revolt, of fierce hatred of the gods, seems necessary to the assertion of freedom. To defy with Promethean constancy a hostile universe, to keep its evil always in view, always actively hated, to refuse no pain that the malice of Power can invent, appears to be the duty of all who will not bow before the inevitable. But indignation is still a bondage, for it compels our thoughts to be occupied with an evil world; and in the fierceness of desire from which rebellion springs there is a kind of self-assertion which it is necessary for the wise to overcome. Indignation is a submission of our thoughts, but not of our desires; the Stoic freedom in which wisdom consists is found in the submission of our desires, but not of our thoughts. From the submission of our desires springs the virtue of resignation; from the freedom of our thoughts springs the whole world of art and philosophy, and the vision of beauty by which, at last, we half reconquer the reluctant world.
(Bertrand Russell, 1903, “A Free Man’s Worship“, published in 1918 in Mysticism and Logic)

Midwinter is the time of soldiering on, resigned to the weather and the strange weightlessness of days spent mainly indoors, waiting for the better weather and longer days to come. This is the time of the year when we are most likely to give way to our darker imaginings; it’s harder to shake off the blues when the weather is at its most negatively pathetic-fallacious, and any emotional reversal is likely to make connections quickly in our psyches and sprout a network of worries, fears, and insecurities. No wonder so many of us flee to warmer places to wait out the wet and dreary days.

By some fluke of lineage or upbringing I am less affected by the winter blahs than most people around here seem to be, although I sometimes wonder if there aren’t more people out there who float unruffled through the winter, complaining in company with others but only as a form of considerate camouflage. After all, no unhappy person wants to have to deal with someone handling the situation perfectly well, thanks. So maybe we’re all secretly enjoying the rain and cold days, only none of use dares admit it out of a false belief that everyone else is suffering.

While the world idles, in the background, out of sight, under the surface of the soil, the plots and plans that will define the coming year are brewing. I allow this blog to slide off current events and on to matters less calendrical, more vague and inward-looking. I think a lot of the perpetual question of how we are supposed to dream our way forward into a better future, when there are so many pitfalls and distractions preventing useful action. Some people see a problem needing a solution — or a predicament calling for an adjustment of attitude — and then do something about it; some see the problem or predicament and don’t know what to do, caught up in the many compelling reasons for apathy or paralysis; some avert their eyes so as neither to do anything nor feel guilty for shirking; the great majority hope to find nothing wrong in the world around them and thus find nothing wrong. (They might be the happiest of us all.) The world is shaped by apathy, obliviousness, and acceptance. To remark on this is not to pathologize these very human traits but to take note of them dispassionately and face up to the inescapable reality that we are flawed creatures out of whose flaws come many wonderful things along with the terrors and nightmares you might expect.

It makes no sense to me to kick against the pricks and find myself in constant opposition to the world. Your mileage may vary. There is much going on around me and further out in my far outer orbits which horrifies me and fills me with despair. A good example is that, as the world slides into an economic blowout and as more people are falling into poverty and suffering, the political sphere shows all signs of becoming uglier and less forgiving. Using human misery as a rock-solid justification for sawing apart the safety nets strikes me as just about the lowest behaviour that a person can exhibit. And yet there it is: those with the most in this world are working tirelessly to cause ever-greater suffering in the service of a psychopathic ideology of extreme individualism. Oh, but enough of that.

Sometimes while reading I’ll come across a passage which resonates so strongly for me that I need to put it aside for future use. The Russell quotation at the head of this week’s post is one of these: I don’t know how many months ago I was reading the essays collected in Mysticism and Logic when this passage jumped out at me, but I wrote it down thinking that I wanted to return to it. I really like his characterization of a saner stance towards the things in the world that we find wrong and want to change, and I worry that too many people fall into a position of indignation which is emotionally satisfying but ultimately self-defeating and impotent. It’s just too easy to be constantly enraged; what we need is more of Russell’s resignation, which is not apathy but the humane recognition that we are born flawed, doomed to become caught up in systems beyond our control or comprehension, and that rage and resistance are no use when they pit us against unchangeable human nature or the impassable limits of our existence. The “fierceness of desire from which rebellion springs,” as Russell very aptly calls it, should be no more than the first and briefest phase of engagement, the launching point of a trajectory that has to pass through understanding and compassion or else burn itself out in some kind of psychic mutilation, whether directed outward or inward.

But to see the trajectory implies a human tradition of sanity that calls things by their real names and spends no time entertaining infantile fantasies of total control over nature and society. A critical look at the way we run our affairs suggests that we’re not about to develop this sort of tradition anytime soon. Any ideological system powerful enough to do this work will catch the virus which attacks all such systems, become corrupted and dangerous, and replicate only those aspects which serve the self-interested coercers whose excess benefits give them power to game the system, yielding greater future benefits. The only way out is the endless undermining of every system which threatens to become complete enough to become an ideological self-replicator. Skepticism, mockery, suspicion are the proper tools for this work, and that is why we are taught to despise them.

I’m especially interested in Russell’s invocation of Stoicism. I want to write much more about that, but it would take more concentration and a more sustained effort of composition than I seem able to put into this blog these days. (I need a sabbatical!) I find Stoicism to be a very useful set of tools for recognizing the limits of the world, laying out the boundaries of human possibility, accepting the fallibility and finiteness of all human enterprise and facing our common lot as mortal animals, and — most usefully — distinguishing between what we can change (our own attitudes to things) and what we cannot (other people, the bare conditions of our existence). There is much about Stoicism as historically recorded which is less useful, but these aspects mostly have to do with areas of inquiry which centuries of science have illuminated since Stoicism was a philosophical school. We now understand the cosmology and religious thought of the ancient world to be mistaken or incoherent, but in matters of human existence and the experience of being stranded on a hostile planet surrounded by mysterious beings and other unexplained phenomena, without an instruction manual… well, they still have something to teach us.

It strikes me that we could all do much worse than to adopt a position of radical resignation, so long as it is accompanied by the desire and the ability to make progress on the things we can make progress on. Resignation should mean only the abandonment of efforts to intervene in vain, whether through misunderstanding or the urge to self-aggrandizement. This is a lot to ask of the heroic personalities among us who would rather spectacularly fail to make a dent in history than quietly succeed at solving a small but serious problem — or learn to cope in the face of some predicament. I don’t really know why this misplaced heroism is such a common pattern; but it certainly is one, and that explains to some extent why things get no better. So much wild energy battering so many immovables. So many solvables staying invisible.

At the same time as we let the fierceness of our desire to change the world lead us astray, the place where our freedom is greatest — our imagination and capacity to dream better worlds, even small ones, into being — suffers from neglect and marginalization, maybe because we let ourselves foolishly believe that the only purpose of human creativity is to change the world. This means a constant ratcheting-downwards of our hopes and visions to make them mesh with the world we claim to want to change, diluting them and rendering them ineffectual or (worse) counterproductive. Again, misdirected effort directed against the things we cannot change, ignoring the ones we certainly can.

Caught up in trivialities

By David Parkinson

The window sees trees cry from cold and claw the moon.

… at least for me, there is one thing that matters: to set a chime of words tinkling in the minds of a few fastidious people.
(Logan Pearsall Smith)

After the emotional freakout of the last couple of weeks life is returning to normal — but normal under slightly closer scrutiny than is usually the case. I find myself more likely to wonder why I’m doing what I’m doing, what it’s all in aid of, and whether I wouldn’t be better off doing something else… or nothing at all. The dense texture of life, which we normally slide through as effortlessly as we hold the door open with our foot while balancing an armful of parcels, has become a little defamiliarized. This is a good thing to experience from time to time, and is one of the benefits of extreme events and heightened emotional states: habit and routine thrive in an atmosphere of benign oblivion, where their frankly bizarre nature gains camouflage from repetition and the rubbing away of novelty.

Grief and shock are reminders that the routine might not last for ever. Worse, that our routines are under threat. Especially the routine of waking up every day and continuing. So we step back and take in the big picture, asking ourselves simple but devastating questions. The friendship which just went silent was, weirdly, one of the outcomes of a previous period of reassessment for me, a number of years ago, when I found myself wondering why I was pouring so much of myself into my work that I had very little energy left to hang around with people, aimlessly socializing and participating in the cultural life of the world around me. That was a strange time, when I seemed to wake up abruptly to realize that I was becoming a soulless drone oriented towards work and not much else. I was able to shake that situation up and get out of the rut; but the older I get the more I suspect that many of us are not so lucky: we slide into these patterns of half-living and the sacrifice of the real to the imagined world, and either never see that there is a way out or find ourselves unable to take the first step.

And multiply this bind by a few billion and there you have it: human life snowed under by a planet-sized heap of minutiæ, all of us unable any longer to remember what the point of it is; or that there might even be a point to it beyond what sounds so sane and sensible when other people say it. (But, oddly, not when we do.) Work hard; accumulate stuff; be safe and secure; save money; look out for yourself; don’t stick out too much; and so on.

It’s so hard to mount any kind of realistic defense against this massive campaign to thwart our abilities and our will to be completely human. Maybe this is being completely human. A state of constant acceptance with an undercurrent of struggling to get away and find something more authentic. Where to begin? Most paths lead off into sterility or isolation or cultish futility, and they’re so poorly marked and rarely traveled that no one knows which ones go nowhere and which just bring you back where you began, only to begin again or stop your wandering and accept that what you get is what there is.

It might be a function of getting older, but I can see more clearly how this all comes from within ourselves — or from strange and inscrutable forces we set in motion when we humans create societies. (And what else do we do so consistently?) There are no grand conspiracies whose purpose is to hold us back and blunt our thirst for knowledge or wisdom: our greatest talent as a species lies in frustration: we are the active subjects and the passive objects of conformity, forgetfulness, nonchalance, and many other benign but ultimately paralyzing ways of encountering the world and the creatures in it. Brief precious slits of time in which universe spawns consciousness of itself, only to find itself clipping coupons for a blowout sale at the mall. And then back to oblivion.

Once you have this sort of triviocracy up and running, any number of viruses can spread and proliferate, throwing the delicate imbalance even further out of whack, like a washing machine on spin-cycle in which the sheets have tangled up on one side, creating a crazy high-pitched oscillation which only draws more weight towards the heavy side until the whole thing keels over. Take a cold clear-eyed look at the real meaning of the many things we believe without articulating, and you have to ask yourself how crazy you’d have to be to act as thought that were normal? To take one example: the idea that we should park young and impressionable children in daycare in order that the parents can make enough money to take care of their children. That is, by anyone’s definition, insane. But only when you really unpack it and dispassionately look at what it means. We’ll do anything but that, though, and so we’ve spent the best years of our life as a culture cultivating the party game of deflecting attention and grabbing hold of the most pointless aspects of every momentous thing.

Of course, I have no solutions to offer. The idea of a solution to something this monumental is laughable and pathetic. As John Michael Greer likes to point out, there is a real difference between a problem and a predicament, both in their nature and in finding reasonable responses to them. A problem has a solution, but a predicament can only make us find ways of coping with a state of affairs for which there can be no fix. A general inability to distinguish between these two sorts of situations, and to treat all predicaments as problems in search of solutions, is one of the real predicaments facing us. And it is a predicament not a problem: for reasons which I think we’re fated never to understand, we humans are cursed with just enough smarts to get ourselves into trouble that we’re just not quite smart enough to get ourselves out of. If this sounds depressing or fatalistic to you, then congratulations on your sunny worldview. I believe that this gnarly situation is strangely beautiful and deeply human; we have made a mess of it by looking for solutions instead of coping strategies.

Everywhere I look, I see people waiting for Superman, hoping for the technofix, certain that others are better equipped to do the work, looking to swap one set of clueless managers for another. And who can blame anyone for sitting on the sidelines while the star players make it look easy? God knows they’re a pack of bumbling good-for-nothings (as we would be in their position), but they seem to know what they’re about, and they’re so enthusiastic and shout so loud that it seems to bad to interrupt the fun. We’re probably better off working away in our own little corner or the world, doing the best we can to make some sense out of something for ourselves and those around us.

If we treated our genuine predicaments as predicaments, we would realize that there’s no sense waiting for the experts with the perfect fix. We’d simply muck in and get to work in the knowledge that our best efforts won’t be good enough — but that to make no effort is the only worse thing. We may solve no problem, but if we also manage not to destroy anything then we’re already ahead of the game. And sometimes we learn something from our failures and reverses and half-successes, so next time around we recognize a pitfall or a shortcut. Then again, maybe not, because someone may have shuffled the deck when our back was turned. In the end there is nothing real except doing one’s best to puzzle things out, push forward, and try not to get distracted by what doesn’t matter. (Hint: that’s just about everything.)


Post facto

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