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.