Saturday, October 18, 2014

Whose American Life?

What is it about Sarah Vowell that makes me cringe when I hear her voice scratching like chalk across the board?  Is it the peculiar dissonance created by her little-girl, monotonous nasal whine and the precocious humor of her observations?  Is it that she never really manages to get beyond that precocity, the precocity of an odd little darling performing for the grownups?  Is it the compulsive reaching for the next flip quip to keep the interest in her rambling and glib essays alive?  Or is it the deceptively broad range of cultural allusions, mixing high and low as every hipster must who would write for the self styled edgy webzines, belied by the callow understanding of human experience which is the inevitable result of her inability to understand anything except through the lens of her own self absorption?  This is a person whose understanding of politics and history is achieved through minor epiphanies bestowed on her via the miracles of yuppie consumerism:

            Just the other day, I was in my neighborhood Starbucks, waiting for the post office to open. I was enjoying a chocolatey cafe mocha when it occurred to me that to drink a mocha is to gulp down the entire history of the New World. From the Spanish exportation of Aztec cacao, and the Dutch invention of the chemical process for making cocoa, on down to the capitalist empire of Hershey, PA, and the lifestyle marketing of Seattle's Starbucks, the modern mocha is a bittersweet concoction of imperialism, genocide, invention, and consumerism served with whipped cream on top. No wonder it costs so much.

That is Vowell to a T  (pardon the pun).  The history of post-Columbian globalization is reduced to a clever aperçu capped off by a glib punchline.  Sarah Vowell is the reductio ad absurdum of the New Journalism that arose just before she was born.  Instead of the punk prose of deranged reporters like Thompson or Herr, who were intent on looking deep down the abyss, we get the urban hipster staring into the froth of her extra grande café mocha and lamenting the unquiet spirits of those who died so that Starbucks customers might live – and pay too much for their overhyped coffee.  In the end the thing about Vowell’s American histories and her sympathies for the downtrodden Other whom History has stomped and kicked aside, is that they are, ultimately, relentlessly self referential.  It is the boomer bourgeoisie at its most annoying – cosseted, precocious, eagerly identifying with whatever Other is in fashion but never actually spanning the gap, a bit guilty about its privileges, but too comfortable to do anything about it, except contemplate its own disquiet.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Mad as Hell

Watching the news on TV is to subject oneself to a constant stream of fear mongering. Ebola is here! Illegal Immigrants are threatening our Border! Black people are rising up in Ferguson! Terrorists are beheading people!

The appearance of a few cases of Ebola within our borders is a non-story, but the TV news stations obsess over it, filling airtime with flatulence, forcing it into importance. And why? There are plenty of real stories out there that go unreported. But the media's purpose is not to report news, much less analyze it responsibly. Instead, its purpose is to inculcate beliefs, well worn beliefs that through their reiteration resist interrogation -- right wing, left wing, it comes to the same end, because the Tube reduces all points of view to a continuum of "information" that merely reaffirms what you assume you already know or fear. The pernicious consequence of this fear mongering is that it works to disarm the population by undermining its belief in the power of its agency. So instead of working toward change, we change only the channel, and watch yet another rerun of The Terminator.

It might be a good idea to inscribe on all television sets these words: "The only thing to fear is fear itself."

Monday, September 8, 2014

Your Reward in Heaven

Wonder is the basis of worship
Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus (I,10)

You are all stardust. 
You couldn’t be here if stars hadn’t exploded . . .
The stars died so that you could be here today. 
Lawrence Krauss

The ancient enmity between science and religion hides an impish affinity.  The awe that inspired simian beings, cowed by the immense vault of stars above them, to develop theology was also implicit in the nascent science postulated by the likes of Democritus, Anaximander, Ibn Yunus, Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, Zhang Heng, and others whom we are just now beginning to recognize, such as the unnamed Africans who developed the use of fractals.  Scientists are among the greatest heretics, but they are also Nature’s greatest acolytes, faithfully interpreting the mysteries of the oracle.  The awe that science inspired, however, posed a threat to the theology governing our thinking for centuries, because it offered no obvious niche to house human aspirations, no reflection in nature’s pool to assuage our vanity.  The terrifying, vengeful and imperial god of the Old Testament was still less terrifying than a universe in which he played no part.  Because even a Sky God, aloof, sublime, capriciously malevolent or beneficent, provided mankind with a kind of mirror in which the human scale was confirmed as a measure for the universe – this god after all was just man writ large.  The order of things remained consolingly anthropocentric.  But Science has displaced Man and God.  Its arguments gradually acquired such force and cogency that by the nineteenth century the philosophers pronounced God’s death.  The twentieth century simply provided an extended autopsy.  The twenty-first century, perversely zealous, has busied itself with reviving the corpse, setting the resurrectionists at each other's throats.
Entrenched beliefs don’t die along with the objects of their genesis.  Nietzsche’s übermensch, the new Adam who would recreate our values and reinvigorate culture, has indeed appeared among us, several times, but we have been slow to grasp their meaning.  What apostles can compare with Darwin and Einstein?  What gospel is more compelling than the great news of Evolution, the Curvature of Time and Space, the perpetuity of Energy, the infinitude of the universe, and the creation ex nihilo of the Big Bang?  The human imagination never conceived anything as marvelously intricate, terrifyingly vast, richly paradoxical, or fantastically sublime as this universe, of whose magnificent dimensions we have come to learn but a few.  In the wake of such ideas, one would think that religion could be regenerated, placed on a solid foundation, endowed with a new scope, and charged with a renewed respect and even adoration of Nature; but instead mankind persists in its slavish idolatry of paltry anthropomorphic schemes of creation, Intelligent Design, and, for the more secular minded, technological utopias like the Singularity.  The result is a persistent belief in the instrumentality of all Nature, with Man the Creative Brain as its motive force – not Woman, notice, because this would threaten the patriarchal norm of the anthropomorphism that animates all these schemes.  (Pachamama nonetheless bides her time, expecting her ritual recognition.)

Through us – and no doubt countless other beings scattered through the galaxies, as well as some of the species who ride along with us on this tilting ball – Nature becomes conscious of its laws, which seem to provide little quarter for our selfish aspirations, and therein lies our tragedy – and our comedy too, for we all slip on the banana peels that fate litters about us.  Yet even if the means whereby Nature achieves consciousness are ultimately inconsequential to its ends, we should not despair.  We are happy accidents, the astonished beneficiaries of a bit of Nature’s grace, heirs to a fortune whose riches were not intended for us.  The great good news here, the true gospel of Nature, is that Necessity is not so iron a law as we suppose: just as the Big Bang heralded a universe in which Chance converts Causality into its playfellow, so too each life is a playing field in which possibilities and improbabilities abound.  Error is not so much a sin as a signpost pointing a different direction.
And this is, perhaps, where Science falls short and betrays its inability to accommodate religious feeling.  Occam’s razor whittles Nature down; from a great tree, it carves a divining rod (the capitalist has his own sort of razor: with a power saw he whittles old forests into lumber).  The crude Darwinist sees nothing in the plumage of a bird but evidence of a generalized will to survive and pass on its genes.  The redness of a poppy is merely bee bait.  In this the scientist is no different from Wilde’s cynics, who “know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”  Nature is perhaps an artiste manqué, whose palette of colors has fascinated philistines for the wrong reasons. 

There is nothing so valuable as unnecessary things – tribal rug weavers knew this, as they toiled on crude looms over their engsis and asmalyks.  The true value of those objects lay not in their function as rugs or coverlets, nor in their value as a dowry; – no, they were, simply and ultimately, the patiently woven dreams in wool of the woman’s sense of beauty, and beauty, like art, is quite useless. That is its saving grace.  Their use as rugs was simply a dodge in order to assert the supremacy of beauty in the lives of nomadic people whose love of gardens sanctified their desert existence.  And yet, it would be a mistake to think that the luxury of beauty and the aesthetics of Nature are mere excess, an inconsequential by product of more exigent and important processes.  Is the mockingbird a mere ventriloquist, or a jazz player riffing on birdsong?  Or both?  Who is to say that the mockingbird does not delight in his mockery?