Archive for the 'Art Culture Politics' Category

Against the Grain

“The founding of the earliest agrarian societies and states in Mesopotamia occurred in the latest five percent of our history as a species on this planet. […] Measured by the roughly 200,000-year span of our species, then, the Anthropocene began only a few minutes ago.”

And look what we don’t that tiny bit of our time here on Earth!

If you’re like me, you learned that the first states, and hence civilization, arose with agriculture and sedentary lifestyles (sedentism) in early city-states. But we now know that agriculture and sedentism predated all this by a couple thousand years.

James C. Scott’s Against The Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States is one of those books that overturns stale thinking and makes you look afresh at the world we’ve made. Things like the reluctance, until quite recently, of the great majority of the world’s population (call them barbarians, pastoralists, hunter-gatherers, peasants, etc.) to be sucked into cities/states. Cities were places of slavery, disease, and simplification. Nomadic people were far healthier than urbanites, until quite recently. The state is based on the domestication of fire, captives, livestock, plants, and women.

And from a wide range of plant and animal food, we’ve been whittled down to a handful of grains, hard little nubbins that are easy to count, tax, and control.

The book begins with this gut-punch quote from Claude Levi-Strauss: “Writing appears to be necessary for the centralized, stratified state to reproduce itself…. Writing is a strange thing… The one phenomenon which has invariably accompanied it is the formation of cities and empires; the integration into a political system, that is to say, of considerable number of individuals… into a hierarchy of castes and classes….It seems to favor rather the exploitation than the enlightenment of mankind.”

Our oldest story is Gilgamesh. It is not insignificance that the killing of the forest guardian Humbaba (Huwawa) precedes the cutting down of the cedars.

On Denialism

Did you see Trump’s Coal Ambassador to the UN, Kelly Craft, say she believes “both sides” of the science on climate change? She and her husband, the Kentucky coal king, are major contributors to Trump’s campaign and inauguration. They also funnel money into his hotels, one of the major conduits of corruption flowing to the Trump Organization crime family. (His most fervent supporters in the Senate and House are also big spenders at his properties, with the pallid trollop Lindsay Graham as number-one bootlicker.)

Ah, “both sides.” Such inestimable damage corporate media has done with claiming to provide balance. 99.9-something % of the world’s scientists versus a handful of cranks is hardly balance. Of course, there’s rarely push back from the media to statements like Craft’s. Follow-ups like:

“Can you name one scientist or one peer reviewed study or one peer reviewed journal at all on the side that denies anthropomorphic warming?”

“Who actually makes up this side you also believe in?”

“What do you mean by “believe”?

“Or, put another way, how can you believe in two completely contradictory things at the same time?”

“Were you aware that scientists working for the oil, gas, and coal companies figured this all out half a century ago but their bosses chose to ignore them, bury the data, and fund the obscurantism and denialism you’re now peddling?

“Are you in the pay of the carbon industries …oh, that’s right, you are the carbon industry! Question withdrawn.”

Someone on their game — and Trump’s grifter scumbag crew are rarely on their game — might offer up the name of Bjorn Lomborg. But he doesn’t deny the reality of climate change, he’s just skeptical about what should be done about it.

I’m fascinated by the denialism complex. There’s the instrumental cynicism of the plutocratic funders of denialism, as they build their redoubts against radical climate transformations to protect their own, because they know what is coming. (I hear On The Beach will be remade in New Zealand instead of Australia.) There’s the denialism of Murdoch’s sluts; I don’t frankly know what they believe, but that’s immaterial; it’s what they perform. And then there’s the denialism of the serf-like supporters of denialism, parroting and serving their masters. Some of these folks have been brainwashed by religious and conspiracy thinking, which are not, after all, dissimilar. How well they fit the Trump cult.

Physics is complicated. The planet is complicated. The greenhouse metaphor, on the other hand, is not so complicated. But denialists aren’t looking at the evidence. They’re not actually making an argument against the science. They’re making an argument against science and rationality. They’re making an argument for rejectionist know-nothingism, militant stupidity, vicious irrationality. It’s all quite fascist, which is why it meshes so well with the Republican-authoritarian attack on democracy, as in the attack on the facts as we know them.

Check out Sarah Dry’s new book Waters of the World. There’s an absolutely fascinating century and a half of questioning, exploration, and experiment in the unraveling, per her subtitle, “of the mysteries of our oceans, atmosphere, and ice sheets.” A so very human achievement, flushed away by the epistemological nihilists.

Migratory Restlessness

Of course the Germans have a word for it: Zugunruhe. Migratory restlessness is best known in birds, but other animals have it as well. In spring and fall, these animals feel the need to get a move on. Hormones trigger it.

Here’s Melville making an analogy in Pierre, or, The Ambiguities, published in 1852:

“So the sweet linnet, though born inside of wires in a lady’s chamber on the ocean coast, and ignorant all its life of any other spot, yet, when spring-time comes, it is seized with flutterings and vague impatiences; it can not eat or drink for these wild longings. Though unlearned of any experience, still the inspired linnet divinely knows that the inland migratory time has come.”

Migration complicates the notion of species, including out own. (Paywall.)

Sunday Thoughts

Last week I touched on Carl Safina essay about our moral obligation to the natural world. Since reading that piece, I’ve read Jedediah Purdy’s This Land is Our Land. In it, I find him citing Montaigne, who argued, in Purdy’s words, “that it was possible for a kind of humane and egalitarian affection to flow between people and the nonhuman world.”

Montaigne: “There is a certain respect, and a general duty of humanity, that attaches us not only to animals, who have life and feeling, but even to trees and plants. We owe justice to men, and mercy and kindness to other creatures that may be capable of receiving it.”

There is, Montaigne wrote, “Some relationship between them and us, and some mutual obligations.”

Purdy is most instructive on the history of environmentalism. The impetus was in the beginning an elitist one. Teddy Roosevelt and Madison Grant, for instance, wanted landscapes preserved so they could hunt big game and prove their East Coast manhood. Native Americans were removed from national parks. Further down the social scale, John Muir was as genteel racist as they came.

In the 1960s and 1970s, following Silent Spring, Earth Day, and the Nixon era environmental laws, the environmental justice movement began. The generally all-white conservation groups had paid little attention to poor and generally non-white people who bore the brunt of air and water pollution, leeching landfills, lead paint, toxic run-off, and the like.

Also in the 1960s-1970s “legal liberalism” emerged. This was a law-driven agenda: use the courts to affect change, on all fronts, of course, not just for the environment. Already by the 1970s, however, the activist courts of the brief window the the 1960s were retreating back into their traditional role as defenders of wealth and power. The long reactionary counter-revolution that has resulted in a majority of Republicans/fundamentalists on the Supreme Court and Federalist Society shock troops elsewhere on the federal judiciary has only cemented the precariousness of the legal avenue.

The mobilizations of the many that culminated in Earth Day were defanged by the lawyers, and the institutions, and the middle-class and wealthy donors that funded them. A movement was reduced to membership, which is a completely different thing, one that diminishes engaged citizenship.

The process reminds me of the self-disarmament of the coalition that first elected Obama. Here were fired-up door-to-door troops, a national grassroots organization of committed and optimistic voters and organizers. But party organizations always work to suppress people power and reduce citizens to consumers; they are a threat to their position (and, notably, jobs). Instead of taking on the work at the local, state, and national level to push back against GOP authoritarianism, gerrymandering, voter suppression, etc., the so-called professionals, the allegedly smartest guys in the room, etc., sloughed off their supporters, mothballed their vaunted organizational database. The adults are now here, they seemed to say, and no, we won’t push back against the Wall Street robbers (who we went to school with), or Bush’s war criminals, or the ever more monstrous national security state, or the archaic anti-democratic system in which the millions of more Americans who vote for Democratic Senators then Republicans ones don’t matter.

With SCOTUS now in the hands of the corporate fascists for a generation or more, with the slavemasters’ Senate impossibly gerrrymandered, with Trump rampaging across the Constitution, a host of Obama-ites flocked… to work for Uber or corporate shill Pete Buttigieg, the consultant class’s standard bearer. Along with the Big O himself, they’re dedicated to defeating the only systemic-challenging candidate (Sanders) and even the mildly reformist one (Warren).

Wild Remains

For some, the aesthetics of the native meadow will take some getting used to.

Consider, if you will, the lobster

Andrew Selkirk, the inspiration for DeFoe’s Robinson Crusoe, ate a lot of crawfish and spiny lobsters while marooned in the Juan Fernandez Islands. When he returned to Scotland, he took up lobstering.

This is the kind of thing you learn in Richard J. King’s Lobster. This book is one of the Animal Series from Reaktion Books, distributed by the University of Chicago in this country. Each book tackles one animal, or, sometimes, several — since there may be more than one species of said animal. One taxonomist has tallied 248 species of lobster, for instance. Some are still being discovered. Each of the Animal books interweaves biology, history, and human culture with great illustrations. I wasn’t aware of the Dürer work above, for instance, and I’m pretty aware of Dürer.

I’ve found the series uneven. King’s a good writer, though, and knows his A-B-seas. I’m looking forward to his natural history of Moby Dick, officially released next week from Chicago.

The word lobster comes from the Latin for locust. Lobstermen call ’em bugs. I once found one on the rocks near the foot of the Manhattan Bridge in Brooklyn Bridge Park (one park, two bridges). A ranger said it was probably swept down from Long Island Sound by the ferocious currents of the tidal strait we misnamed the East River. The Sound used to host a vibrant lobstering industry, but warmer waters, pollution and pesticides, and over-fishing put paid to that. Further north, however, in the Gulf of Maine, lobstering is going gangbusters, and is considered one of the most sustainable fisheries there is.

But for how long? We’ve seen this movie before, many times.

Some lobster species have extraordinary larval forms. They are thin, transparent, all legs. This was news to me. I thought they were just smaller lobsters…. But then crustaceans are most wondrous and curious creatures. Remember that Darwin was fascinated by barnacles, which are basically crabs who glue themselves to a substrate and batten down the hatches when the tide runs out.

Vocabulary builder: what’s the opposite of anthropomorphizing, the giving of human characteristics to animals? What about when you give humans animal characteristics? King uses theriomorphizing, from theriomorphic, meaning a deity in animal form.


The Cumaean Sibyl spoke in oak leaves, which, when scattered by the wind, tended to result in the most ambiguous prophesies.

In John Dryden’s bouncing-ball translation (Aeneid 6, 126-129), she says to Aeneas:

The gates of hell are open night and day;
Smooth the descent, and easy is the way:
But to return, and view the cheerful skies,
In this the task and mighty labour lies.

The hill of Cumae is close to Lago Averno, which was called Avernus in the classical period. This was one of the entrances to Hades, the one guarded by the three-headed dog Cerberus. (Man, that’s a riot-lot of barking!) Trojan-boy Aeneas — I didn’t not like Virgil’s suck-up nationalist fantasy — didn’t have far to go to slip the hound some narcotic and descend.

2000-ish years later, apropos: algae in the Averno’s waters turned the round lake a dark red in summer. It was a sight on the road from Napoli and Pozzuoli to Parco Azzurro, where we lived up on the terraces. From which we could see Cumae. More prosaically, the hotels along the beach would suck up all our water in summer, so we had to use the outside tape, which had to be boiled. One day, it was regular, potable inside water that filled the tub with twitching red larval something or other.

This is a cratered and caldera’ed landscape. Historically a trampoline. Parts of old Pozzuoli (Puteoli)) are now underwater. Other parts used to be underwater; c.f. the “Temple of Serapis“. The U.S. Navy’s Carney Park, also nearby, is ringed by the steep walls of an old volcano. In my day in the early 1970s, there was a drive-in theater there along with the baseball diamonds. Carney Park — our military myrmidons never name an overseas facility after a local — is where I discovered how poor my eye-sight was: I couldn’t read the scoreboard at the football game. I got glasses, but have never been to another football game.


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