Thursday, July 18, 2013

Mother Nature's Son

By blood we live, the hot, the cold,
To ravage and redeem the world:
There is no bloodless myth will hold.
Geoffrey Hill, Genesis.

The thing that defines humanity and separates it from the host of other animals on the planet is not just our opposable thumbs, our bipedal stature, our use of symbols, our society and culture – these things are shared by various other animals, although in rudimentary forms.  What distinguishes us is our divided self, because we are at once a part of nature and apart from it.  Unlike the society and culture of our closest simian relatives, ours have grown so complex and enveloping that we have dissociated ourselves from the rest of nature, and we live primarily in an environment of our own making, an environment that is becoming increasingly virtual.  Like any other animal, we have bodies, urges, instincts, frailties; but we have gotten displaced, dissociated, disembodied to the point that we have a hard time recognizing them or connecting them to rest of our social existence.  They are a problem for us, either to be repressed or attenuated. 

     This creates in us an unquenchable nostalgia for Edens and pastoral utopias that never really existed.  We invest these fantasies with the virtues of harmony, simplicity, organic unity, and moral authenticity.  The idyll was a Roman invention.  Roman writers liked to contrast the simplicity and purity of country life to the corruption of urban life.  But we owe our present reverie of rustic virtues more to the Romantic notions of Rousseau, who made an enemy of culture itself, a thing the Romans would never have done.  They understood that culture, otium, had genuine advantages over nature.  As Hobbes famously observed, life in a state of nature is nasty, brutish and short.  Animals are beautiful, and even loving, but they are murderous (one quality in which we can honestly claim to excel our fellow Earthlings).  We choose instead to celebrate the idyllic connection between human kind and nature in terms of a pacific vision of companionability.  We are fellow travelers on spaceship Earth (and we are too, but we have obliged the rest of creation to ride in 3rd class).

     Our institutions and customs embody this yearning to close the gap: pets, zoos, aquariums, animal fables, even, for that matter, research labs, are all practices that assert our fundamental connection to the animal kingdom.  The transposition of animals into human settings secretly implies that the door to cross back is still open for us too. Thus we indulge a host of benign representations of humans swimming with whales and dolphins, walking the African veldt with lions, riding horses, and generally enjoying all the benefits of the social life in a state of nature.  The centaur is not a grotesque and unnatural prodigy; it is a sign of plaintive wish fulfillment, a metaphor for our desire to be at one with the animals.  And while I dislike the false sentimentality of these stories we tell ourselves, this picture of Edenic peace shorn of blood and hunger and strife (and let it be said that George Adamson, unlike the millions of readers, including myself, of Born Free, was no sentimentalist, because he embraced the “terrible beauty” of nature without idealizing it), I cannot ignore the bitter loss it conveys or the poignant desire that it signals for a home in the order of things.  We are all Mother Nature’s prodigal sons who dream of a homecoming we will never know.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

"Let Us Make a Name"

Naming is a faulty business, and not just because words are arbitrary signifiers.  When it comes to naming, the intelligence community – a phrase every bit as ironic if not purely oxymoronic as military intelligence – proceeds as if it were Locke’s lunatic doppelganger.  They are not so different from that other bunch of lunatics who sought to “make a name” for themselves on the ancient plains of Shinar.  The idea of a surveillance state, which converts the whole of society into a virtual panopticon, is not just a threat to the democratic values outlined in the Constitution and purportedly embodied by the State it envisions; it is the pursuit of self annihilation.  Stellar Wind and Prism – odd misnomers, if you think about it – ought to be renamed Babel, because the same impulses drive them as drove the building of that all seeing Tower in the sky.  If democracy is to have any value, it must be opposed to all types of absolutism, and thus the totalizing impulse behind any quest for knowledge must be viewed with mistrust.  Omniscience always involves omnipotence as its evil twin.  The Knowledge of Good and Evil is a curse not because knowledge in itself is bad, but because it makes us conscious of our own limitations while tempting us to exceed them, though we know that the one thing differentiating us from God, whom we fashion in our image, is that the human condition is defined by error rather than infallibility.  It is this dilemma that rules our days in the valley of shadows.  What Christians call Original Sin is really just Error.  Knowledge comes to us through error, we learn gropingly, and for that reason we must never become too sure of ourselves or confide too much in the partial and partisan understanding we have of things.  The Greeks called that particular sin Hubris.

     Very often this transgression of limits is heroic, as when Prometheus brought us fire, or Copernicus toppled the whole edifice of human thought built on the Ptolemaic scheme of the universe.  The artist above all, as Nietzsche argued, transgresses the limits of the known through the power of the imagination.  Such transgressions are necessary but costly. They tear up our world by its roots (hence it is figured as an expulsion from the garden).  The loss of that provisional unity afforded by the glue of consensual belief, time and again, is often interpreted as a reiteration of the Fall, an agony of sweat and blood and tears.  Ages of change are ages of anxiety.  But that loss is our salvation, for the only truth that makes life tolerable and fruitful is a subtle matter of multiple perspectives and polyphony, of irony and paradox.  To the extent that truth is the property of no single ideology, institution, or tyrant, it is a very democratic force, and like the ideal democracy it is a delicate balance of competing ideas whose value lies partly in their opposition.  It is a tension rather than a uniformity.

     Some trespasses are necessary in order that other more tyrannical and overreaching ones be avoided.

     That the builders of Babel should be scattered and confounded by the proliferation of tongues is not a tragedy but a great lesson in the virtue of humility.  The truth is, we are better off in our fallen condition because it gives scope to the range of multiple desires and aspirations that animate us, while preserving us from the sin of hubris.  Seen from this perspective, doubt and uncertainty are not signs merely of ignorance or blindness; they are the ground of our imaginative exploration of the world and the impetus for creative, rather than destructive, endeavors.

     Where the government and its intelligence institutions err is in their belief that, like the Pope, they cannot err, that they guard against error, and that they do so by scrupulously adhering to legal limits and the principles of due process.  Yet a secret court of law is a contradiction in terms; FISA cannot be a democratic institution.  When authority assumes the mantle of rectitude, its subjects are wise to see past the Emperor’s clothes.  Inevitably, such surveillance not only defines good and bad, right and wrong, licit and illicit, in a unilateral and thus virtually absolute manner, but it seeks to create a totalizing yet exclusionary edifice in which certain values unquestionably prevail over others, and the fundamental nourishing values of the spirit go begging.  That is a tower of Babel for our times.  Its entire structure is at odds with the wayward human spirit.

     Lawrence Krauss once famously stated that “every atom in your body came from a star that exploded. And, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than your right hand.  It really is the most poetic thing I know about physics: You are all stardust.”  A stellar wind, therefore, is one that spreads the elements like seed on the fertile ground of space.  It is an odd name for a surveillance program, which, to the contrary, works against the free propagation of animating ideas.  Prism, likewise, is a curious name, since it refers to an object that refracts light and manifests the multiplicity of light waves.  No, I recommend that the spooks give their program a name that jives with the hubristic, self aggrandizing, and fantastic nature of the enterprise, one that implies the folly of its towering ambition and misbegotten goals.  One that heralds its inevitable doom.

Friday, April 5, 2013

The world's whole frame quite out of joint

As a member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Marco Rubio’s comments regarding science and theology causes one to wonder about his qualifications for the job.  Back in November 2012 he stated that

I'm not a scientist, man.  I can tell you what recorded history says, I can tell you what the Bible says, but I think that's a dispute amongst theologians and I think it has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of the United States.  I don't think I'm qualified to answer a question like that. At the end of the day, I think there are multiple theories out there on how the universe was created and I think this is a country where people should have the opportunity to teach them all.

The media had a field day with this snippet of small minded sophistry, but his poor grasp of science and the difference between theory and theology caused me to reflect on the fact that a singular difference between Antiquity and Modernity is the character of the shared common knowledge about our origins.  In ancient civilizations, each society enjoyed a broad consensus regarding the origins of mankind and the cosmos.  This is part of the “organic unity” that Georg Lukács praised at the beginning of his Theory of the Novel.  Although there was always a priestly caste entrusted with interpretation of the esoteric mysteries of their belief systems, the people shared a set of common ideas about their origins, shared stories of heroes and gods, and they understood certain basic principles about the nature of the world in which they lived.  Today, most people do not understand the basic principles governing nature or their ramifications, and while we still share a host of stories spun off from the traditional metanarratives that structure our values and ideas, there is a radical disjuncture between the knowledge we possess about reality and the beliefs to which we cling.

Metaphysics was once the branch of thought that underwrote all others because it purportedly explained reality; science has usurped that role, but even while many of its concepts suffuse the popular culture in entertaining forms, they have not yet provided for the mass of mankind a consensual understanding of the laws of nature.  We all know the formula E = MC2 but how many of us know what it means?  How many of us realize that the formula which defined the equivalence of mass and energy revolutionized physics in part because it confirmed that size does not matter?  And how many of us know that mass and energy are properties of matter, or more precisely, what we call “physical systems,” and that energy and mass can neither be created or destroyed, but matter can?  In science very simple equations bear vast consequences.  As Einstein summarized it, “It followed from the special theory of relativity that mass and energy are both but different manifestations of the same thing — a somewhat unfamiliar conception for the average mind.  Furthermore, the equation E = mc², in which energy is put equal to mass, multiplied by the square of the velocity of light, showed that very small amounts of mass may be converted into a very large amount of energy and vice versa.”  Welcome to the age of nuclear power.  The shallow understanding of fundamental scientific concepts is rife.  For most people, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity has done nothing more than provide a rationale for the very different idea that “everything is relative.”  And Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle has provided many a blogger with the notion that nothing can be known for certain since the act of observation inflects the observed.

Today there is a radical split between what we know about the universe and the ideas about creation that are shared by the masses.  The caste entrusted with special knowledge is a group of geneticists, physicists, and other scientists whose concepts are unknown, misunderstood, or rejected outright, because they are so abstruse and they are taught haphazardly or not at all in our schools.  Plus, in order to comprehend them, one must patiently undergo a long process of study in higher mathematics and advanced science courses, not to mention a rigorous training of the faculty of the imagination.  As Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.  For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.  It is, strictly speaking, a real factor in scientific research.”  The popular debate between Evolution and Creationism focuses largely on the origins of Man: is he an outgrowth of natural processes of adaptation, or is he the creation of a Divine Intelligence?  Yet the real thrust of Evolutionary Theory is the paradoxical proposition that the order of Nature depends on chance events.  The laws of nature, then, unify order and randomness, and Darwin bequeathed to us a conceptual framework which has underwritten most of the thinking of the past century.

This framework eludes many people, who prefer instead to think in terms of either/or, as in the case of Marco Rubio.  He would rather suspend judgment and, in a parody of fashionable relativism, and as a sign of his judiciousness, acknowledge simply that each mode of thought makes a valid claim.  We live in a world in which a select few grasp the hidden workings of nature, and a vast majority have no clue other than knowledge of a few buzz words like “relativity,” “evolution,” “genes,” or “DNA,” while they obdurately maintain a belief in various theologies which no doubt serve to strengthen them in their struggles and provide moral guidance, but which are ludicrously out of step with incontrovertible facts about the workings of the universe.

Never before has humanity been so mired in superstition and yet so possessed of profound knowledge.  Never before has such a split arisen between those who, like the oracle at Delphi, can interpret the mysteries of nature and those who pray for answers but cannot hear.

Which of them is a true infidel?  The scientist who follows the dictates of nature, or the faithful who persist in believing that god’s Creation occurred in the space of six days, thus defying what nature plainly teaches?  Which is the false idol?

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Los Olvidados

El modelo de desarrollo de cada civilización emana de los recursos de la tierra. Si no fuera por el humilde bacalao, la industria pescadora del noreste de los Estados Unidos no se habría desarrollado y el famoso “yanqui” no habría nacido, al menos, no de la misma manera. Su cultura y sus valores salieron de esa industria. Eran pescadores, callados y constantes como el Océano.

Nosotros los caribeños también tenemos nuestra propia historia económica que forjó una cultura fuerte y que, por desgracia o por suerte, apoyó la economía de los imperios europeos. El cultivo de la caña no sólo enriqueció los países europeos sino que también transformó sus gustos, su dieta, aun la forma de ser de la gente, y en el proceso trituró los pueblos desarraigados que labraban la tierra – en su primera etapa: Taínos, Congoleños y otros Africanos. Ramón Marrero Aristy, autor dominicano, escribió: “La historia de tu pueblo, la de tu región, es la de la caña.”

En su posterior etapa, el azúcar caribeño era mayormente una industria norteamericana, aunque empezó en los años 1870s con una mezcla de cubanos, alemanes y norteamericanos. En los bateyes que construyeron los “misters” habitaba una multitud de babel: Cocolos de St. Kitts, Barbados, Jamaica y otras islas angloparlantes; gallegos de España; dominicanos; cubanos y haitianos. Sin embargo, el ingenio los molió a todos. Pero algo quedó dentro de ellos que no fue triturado por el engranaje. De este sabroso melao humano surgió una cultura que constaba de las ideas y los valores más perdurables del caribe. Esta cultura mestiza arrebató la alegría del sufrimiento de la esclavitud y la fuerza nervuda de la opresión, convirtiendo las cadenas de los bateyes en adornos, sus gritos en canto meloso, y su labor cotidiana en música suave y baile cadencioso. “Escuchad la canción deliciosa de los ingenios de azúcar y de alcohol” (Pedro Mir).

Ahora el azúcar no manda, los braceros no cortan, los bateyes no cuentan. Ahora las chimeneas de los ingenios no arrojan el humo de los furgones en que se hierve el guarapo, y el olor del aire melcochado no endulza el suspiro de los que comen la tierra amarga. Ahora el caribe fabrica otra forma de dulzura – playas bonitas, complejos turísticos, ocio lujoso. Y los bateyes están olvidados. . . .

La migración de los Haitianos a través de la frontera no empezó con la zafra, pero no pasó mucho tiempo para que la zafra se convirtiera en “la invitación abierta” que aumentaría su flujo, hasta que finalmente fueron los haitianos quienes componían la mayoría de los braceros. Este arreglo creado por los “misters” del norte y confirmado en la Hispaniola por Trujillo y Duvalier dejó mucho tiempo atrás de tener sentido en nuestra economía. En vez de cortar la caña, el haitiano blande el martillo en las zonas en obras y cosecha el café, el arroz, y las frutas en los campos.  La jornada sigue igual, larga y dura. La puerta no está del todo cerrada. Un torrente de refugiados haitianos huye diariamente del caos económico y político, buscando su mejoría y dejando la República Dominicana sin medios para solucionarlo. Los bateyes perduran como un triste recuerdo mudo de la historia caribeña en el cual todos nosotros compartimos al consumir los cristales dorados de nuestra querida azúcar crema.

Las nuevas encuestas nos dicen que el setenta por ciento de los que viven en los bateyes son dominicanos. No les llamemos “los negritos del batey,” ni “los haitianos”; será mejor llamarles “Los Olvidados” porque existen en el limbo de la memoria. En los bateyes se encuentran nuestros hermanos y hermanas. En las fotografías se ven los rostros de los que comparten nuestra cultura, nuestra historia, nuestros valores – caribeños todos. Como dijo un bracero, “Todos tenemos la misma sangre; somos iguales.”

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Un sueño electrotropical

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Magic and Reason

“the fate of our times is characterized . . . 
by the disenchantment of the world.” 
Max Weber, Science as a Vocation 

It may be that all journeys are circular and the orbit of planets is a pattern we reproduce in our mundane travels. After more than a decade living overseas, I have been forced to settle back in the States. I have returned to where I started, though like the proverbial river, things are not the same. I set out because I felt starved on the thin recycled air of office spaces, mass transit, sealed automobiles, and high rise apartments, just like old people wheezing on those dog days that settle around New York and smudge the sky with lead. I needed to slip the clutches of a system ruled by clock punching and daily planners, half hour lunches and appointments on the dot – a routine whose only merit appeared to be whether the timepiece that goaded you was a Rolex or a cheap Timex. 

The do’s and dont’s had choked off the maybe’s and might’s. La vida loca was the stuff of digital pop dreams, and pioneering was just corporate R and D. Ironically, I returned because I needed to take advantage of the medical benefits afforded by all that R and D, and had I not done so, I most surely would have died in a makeshift emergency room or a dilapidated bed under mosquito netting, surrounded by old women chanting the rosary. 

Presently I am recuperating in a Florida town that in some ways is as foreign to me as the places I visited abroad would be to others. Even if I had never set foot outside the States, Southern habits and society would have seemed novel, to say the least. Yet it is foreign to me not for its regional eccentricities but because it is a deeply American place, where God and country march in step to rousing martial themes of personal salvation and world dominance. There are pockets of unruliness, of dissonant nonconformity – the pine scrubs where crackers live off the land in shacks or trailers, the segregated black neighborhoods whose residents practice an ambivalent and wary allegiance to an America that still doesn’t accept them. And it has many virtues, not the least of which is the courteous behavior that is universal here, a social virtue that is as indispensable as the love of Jesus extolled by the evangelicals. But overall, there is the same obsession for assembly line order that compelled me to seek out those corners of the world where life spills out untidily like sewage in potholed streets. Strip malls, four lane highways, chain stores, family-themed restaurants, and easy access parking lots. It’s Heaven at your car door. Life comes shrink wrapped in a store or cathode-tubed via the Box, and pre-fab housing developments are rolled out across the hammocks like super sized Happy Meal boxes at lunch hour. 

I live in a colony of retirees where every little detail is supervised, down to the type of birds that visit the feeders. No children allowed, nothing boisterous other than the occasional bark of a lapdog. It is thoughtfully designed: the houses are well built, the broad avenues are shaded by majestic live oaks, the landscaping is tasteful and well kempt. Nature is pruned, groomed, and swept clean with the same regularity that one observed when clocks once were wound. There are social clubs of every stripe, activities, lectures, a pool, a gym, shuffleboard, a golf course, a miniature golf course – it is the meticulous realization of middle class affluence and its rewards at the end of life. A showcase of Planned Living, that most American of concepts. It’s what you get these days instead of a gold watch. It’s the American Dream converted into Eternity’s waiting room, and quiet is piped in like muzak. There is nothing unsettling or stirring, except perhaps when the ambulance arrives to carry off one of the residents whose tenure is at an end. It is comfy as a sweatsuit and bland as lean pork. 

My neighbors are almost entirely unknown to me. I have met a few who like to take walks or ride bikes, but life is lived indoors and you hardly ever see people. Just houses with imitations of people and animals in the form of quaint statuary decorating the lawns. On the porch of one house there is a porcelain German Shepherd, and I always look twice when I pass by because I forget he’s not real. The whole complex is a doubletake on reality. 

Nothing could be more different from the cacophony that ruled the places where I lived before arriving here. Life was played with the volume all the way up. The air was filled with the raucous chorus of people passing pell mell through the course of the day. The Flesh and the Word were one, and whatever pricked the flesh, loosed the tongue. In one country town where I stayed some years, my neighbor was a victim of Tourette’s who would launch invectives at the world outside his tiny porch. “¡MalDITo sea dios!” “¡MalDITo sean los ladrones!” God, the devil, saints, and thieves. No one was spared. He loved the word maldito for its sonorous audacity. A few doors down, the sound of dominoes clacking on a makeshift table mingled with mildly drunken gossip and shouts of victory. “¡Capicúa!” Children ran about yelling and singing odd rhymes. “Debajo de la cama hay un perro muerto. . . .” An ice-cream man selling pops pushed a little cart and sang a song about his wares, promising he could kill the heat. I’d walk the streets, and while my feet skimmed the bed of asphalt or pebbled earth, I felt as though I were stroking, lungs swelling, through a current of voices at high tide, inhaling salt inflected words. 

These days I stroll the uneventful streets of my residential complex, and I can’t help but dream of the volatility of my previous way of life in a so-called developing nation. Such places are like frontier towns on the fringes of the global capitalist order: while they succumb eventually to Reason and Progress, outlandish anomalies wearing carnival masks still burst atavistically onto their newly paved streets, bearing with them a bit of that mythic magic that existed before the disenchantment of the world. Progress couldn’t stamp out the traces of the past, which stuck out here and there like hairs from a bikini. Some streets were paved; many were not. Some had signage; most did not. It didn’t matter, because the direction of any one-way road was determined by the heading of whoever entered it first. Red lights were yellow and green were irrelevant. Most drivers had no licenses. Planning was a veneer over an irresistible entropy. 

Keeping order is a matter of drawing strict lines. A place and a season for everything. But in my tropical home, profusion defied time and space. The seasons bled into one another and were hardly distinguishable. While the city disgorged its concrete onto the surrounding fields, the countryside daily penetrated the heart of the metropolis. When I lived in the city, the cock's crow woke me before my alarm clock sounded, the beat of palos called the misterios among us, and the pregones of the itinerant street vendors, who rode in on a cart hitched to a mule, induced me to buy fat avocados or golden mangos before I ever set out for the supermarket where intercoms announce a sale on items in aisle 5. These rustic rhythms throbbed in counterpoint to the 4/4 measure of the workday. 

It was not only the mundane that defied pigeonholing. In such places the metaphysical and the physical are parallel, their relation is osmotic. In America, these planes of existence are strictly hierarchical and rigidly separated by time and space. Overseas, I slipped between them without knowing, I walked on water without ever getting my feet wet. My neighbor Sofi was a bruja, a witch who holds the keys to the doors of perception, and what you might see there was not calculated to return you to a nine to five world of Mondays. Crossing that threshold was transformative, a peril to the self. One doesn’t politely address god from a pew; one submits, like the Maenads, to a peremptory and capricious force, and the words one speaks are Delphic. Sofi was an ordinary housewife, but when the spirit of San Miguel moved her, she spoke in tongues, drank and swore like a sailor. 

But Reason has its transformative magic too, more prosaic perhaps for being explicable, but wondrously effective.  My survival is an example of this kind of sorcery.  The surgeons cut me open and reconfigured my entrails, creating a new kind of organism from the ruins of the old.  I live, however hobbled.  The misterios could not have practiced such magic on me. But like those ancient gods, Science exacts its price, demands its sacrifice, compels fealty. Having submitted to the scrutiny of a relentless Empiricism, I am condemned to live within its familiar precincts, excommunicated from that other nebulous but poetic magic. The dimensions of life have shrunk to three. 

And so it goes. I vault between these poles of being, like Rilke's acrobats, “worn by their continual leaping,” and never find the means to reconcile them.