Archive for the 'Art Culture Politics' Category

Blue Dragonfly

Detail of a cyanotype ca. 1910 by Bertha Jacques (1863-1941), on exhibit at NYPL. Photographed through glass, so a poor reproduction of the blue.

Slicing Up the Sky

On a clear day, we can see New Jersey. Straight across is Newark, over New York Bay and Bayonne and Newark Bay. Newark International is there too. Glancing northwards, as above, the twin cities of Jersey City and Manhattan finger the sky. This particularly clear morning was all sliced by condensation trails, better known as contrails, produced by water vapor freezing in the wake of high altitude jets. It’s pretty basic chemistry and a contributor to atmospheric warming.

However, in all too typical ignorance-paranoia-stupidity fashion, a whole industry of “chemtrail” conspiracies has arisen around them. We were once in Great Swamp NWR and a nice older couple started chatting with us. They’d been going there for decades and had noted a marked decline in bird life. The male half confided that it was all due to chemtrails, secret government emissions from airplanes. I could read about it on the internet if I wanted to know more, he suggested.

Not rampant suburbanization and other sprawling development surrounding the NWR and the destruction of habitat in wintering regions, not the pesticides and pollutants in the air, water, soil, working up the food chain, etc., no, no, nothing like that, folks. Just some sinister, decades-long experiment by the dang blad gummerment!Another cold day, ripe for more scarification of the sky.Every single cloud in these pictures originated from an airplane. No conspiracy necessary. It’s just what we do.

On Heredity

Carl Zimmer’s She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity is an essential read in our present moment. Genetic essentialism and ignorance; fundamentalism and fascism; the revival of eugenic racist thought and strategy by the Republicans; all these combine in the vital necessity of a history and understanding of biological and cultural heredity today.

The perversions of the title are grim indeed. You must know that American anti-immigration, eugenics, “scientific racism,” bogus histories of “feeblemindedness,” and forced sterilization programs, aroused by the robber barons and given impetus by philanthropists and museums like the American Museum of Natural History, were the direct precursors of the Nazi exterminations. The Nazis were frank in their admiration and emulation of these American notions.

Meanwhile, genetic essentialism, the notion that genes are destiny, crowds the minds of the ignorant. Did you know that at least one sperm bank lets you pick the astrological sign of the donor?

Unsurprisingly, too, racists still fall back on bogus genetic determinism for their beliefs. The white supremacist fantasists extolling a kind of white Euro-putinesque nonsense are clueless about the actual history of the waves of migration into what we now call Europe. (Isn’t it sick irony, too, that people of Irish, southern European, and eastern European ancestry, barely considered white a century ago, now Trump-et themselves the saviors of a nonexistent white race?)

“If you go back far enough in the history of a human population, you reach a point in time when all the individuals who have any descendants among living people are ancestors of all living people.”

There is so much in this book, it’s impossible to summarize. But in addition to the historical material, I was particularly taken with the discussion of CRISPR, which has both amazing and terrifying potential, and the following.

I’ve been using the term chimera for a while now to refer to both the human/microbiome mixture and the more basic mitochondria-cellular fusion, but there is actually another biological sense as well. First discovered in cows, later humans: fetal twins can share their mother’s and each other’s cells, resulting in all sorts of fascinating mixtures.

We used to think the placenta was an iron wall between mother and fetus, but “about half of mothers still carry fetal cells in their blood decades after carrying their children.” These can include Y chromosomes (females, remember, have XX chromosomes). Meanwhile, an estimated “42% of children end up with cells from their mothers.” Girls can end up with Y chromosomes because their mother had previously given birth to a boy. Writes Zimmer, “We use words like sister and aunt as if they describe rigid laws of biology. But despite our genetic essentialism, these laws are really only rules of thumb. Under the right conditions, they can be readily broken.”

Beware of rules and laws. They were made to be broken.


“What is to be done?” asked Nikolay Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky in the title of his 1863 novel about the situation of Russian. Chernyshevsky wrote, from prison, something of a “handbook of radicalism,” postulating a sort of utopian peasant/commune/industrial socialism. Perhaps, though, the most important thing about the book was the burning titular question, which fired debate and influenced, among many others, Kropotkin, Luxembourg, and Lenin. Tolstoy, too, although of a different tenor: his What is To Be Done? was published 1886. Lenin used the question as the title of his 1902 pamphlet arguing for a vanguard party to lead the workers and peasants towards communism, part of the split of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party into “majority” (Bolshevik) and “minority” (Menshevik) factions.

I think of this question, and its ultimate disaster of an answer in Bolshevik dictatorship, when it comes to climate breakdown. (George Monibot argues that “climate change” is entirely too mild for is going to — excuse me, I mean, what IS happening now.)

Because… What is to be done? “How will the world respond politically” to climate breakdown?

In Climate Leviathan: A Political Theory of Our Planetary Future Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright offer some…guidance? They argue that a globally sovereign “Climate Leviathan” is taking shape, via the existing international order/hierarchy of the capitalist economies of the global North (largely responsible for burning fossil capital in the first place), “to enable the world’s most powerful states to engage in planetary management.” Since we essentially already have this, and the “state of emergency” model that liberal democracies already frighteningly depend on, this definitely looks like the approach the world is taking. But can a green Keynesianism do the trick, allowing adaptation to rising waters, flood/draught pattern shifts, intolerable heat, agricultural transformations, mass migration, political conflict, resource fights, etc? Will liberal capitalism (liberal in the economic sense) get us out of the mess it has created? Or will it just save its elites, and maybe some of their lucky dog-walkers and maids along the way?

Our authors postulate three other responses:

Climate Mao: an authoritarian, anti-capitalist model which justifies state terror in the interest of the collective (the “red thread running from Robespierre to Lenin to Mao”). The current Chinese state-capitalist regime is definitely more Leviathan and Mao now, but Asia, with its billions of climate-breakdown victims to come, is the potential locus of this model, which would also use the emergency model (“we have to do this to save human lives”).

Climate Behemoth: this is the reactionary conservative, “populist,” anti-reason model in vogue now in Central Europe, India, Russia, the Philippines, Brazil, the US…. Here militant minority factions (in the US: older white religious conservatives) rally to demagogues fronting for plutocrats, especially resource-extractors. “Different forms of racial, national and gendered prejudice” organize voters for Trump, Modi, Obran, Putin, etc., but all call for the necessity of otherness, an enemy, as foundational to these new fascisms. You will not be surprised, I think, to discover that the MAGA-bomber was foreclosed not by any of his would-be targets, but by his idol Trump’s rapacious Secretary of the Treasury.

Climate X: the authors choice, X for the unknown, but non-authoritarian, non-capitalist built on equality, inclusion and dignity of all, and “solidarity in composing a world of many worlds.” They leave the details vague. (The point, it seems, is not to philosophize about the world but to change it.)

“Whether we know it or not, all our thinking is environmental, even when it rebels against nature.”

“If good climate data and models were all that were needed to address climate change, we would have seen a political response in the 1980s. Our challenge is closer to a crisis of imagination and ideology; people do not change their conception of the world just because they are presented with new data.”

“The planetary crisis is, among other things, a crisis of the imagination, a crisis of ideology, the result of an inability to conceive any alternative to walls, guns, and finance as tools to address the problems that loom on the horizon.”

Referencing Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene “[…] we do not need to learn to die, but to think, live, and rebel. Moreover, the problem is hardly ‘us’ in the abstract, as if the catastrophe were built into human nature. The problem is largely associated with a specific minority of ‘us’ and the way that minority’s ‘civilization’ have determined the fate of the entire planet. Rather than accept that ‘civilization’ is dead, we need to struggle to create one that is truly civilized.”

The Tigers of Wrath?

True, they look more like lionesses. I stumbled on this in Green-Wood recently. It’s on the backside of the tombstone for Leon Golub and Nancy Spero, twentieth century artists. I just happened to be passing.

Green-Wood has more real animals than artistic representations of them. This is one of the most notable:This bear marks the gravesite of William H. Beard, a 19th century artist famed for, well, his dancing bears and the “bull and bears” for the sharks of Wall Street. This metal beast was a tribute by Dan Ostermiller and dates to 2002. Can’t say I like it.Meanwhile, in the shadows and rather less bear-bastic:By a strange coincidence, the ground in front of these twins was littered with white feathers. Somebody had been feasting on a “white dove,” actually a homing pigeon, a domesticated form of the Rock Pigeon (Columba livia). Captive bred for such horror shows as weddings, these birds are sitting ducks for raptors.

Raptor Wednesday

It was a crazy day. Raptors filled the air. An exaggeration, yes, but not by much. At one moment, there nine different raptors overhead, mostly Buteos and Accipiters. I’ve never seen so much activity above Brooklyn before. One of the birds was this juvenile Northern Harrier. The long tail, angled wings, buffy red breast, and especially the barely seen detail of the owl-like face help in on-the-fly identification.Here’s an adult Red-shouldered Hawk. And a juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk, which doesn’t have the rich red belly yet. Another view of juvenile Red-shouldered: look for the the “windows” on the outer primaries; the thin barring on the tail; the absence of dark patagium (the leading edge of the wing from the throat to the bend of carpel), which means it isn’t a Red-tailed Hawk. The juvenile Northern Harrier does have a red belly. But look how different its silhouette is from the Red-shouldered (top) in the above shot and in the very first photo above.

This piece, by long-time U.S.-watcher Gary Younge, was written before the election results. It’s a reminder what every single voter who voted Republican yesterday voted for.


Crabapple blossoms,
What do you think you’re doing,
Out in November?Spring is irrepressible,
A life-blooming metaphor.


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