New Environmentalism?

May 30, 2012

The Pulaski Skyway spans the Hackensack Meadowlands

With accumulated time on earth, comes the knowledge that much of what goes on in society is driven by generational demographics, or what used to be called “The Generation Gap.”  It can be funny:  hippies raising broods of yuppie wannabees, conservative button-down types being railed at by their liberal children – the usual.  I groan inwardly when I see young libertarians walking around spouting slogans, thinking they’re hip and brash:  their ideas are so 18th century.  (And I do love the 18th century, you know.)

Is there a similar backlash now in the environmental movement, I wonder?  I’m thinking of three young writers, all deeply interested in the man-nature ‘interface,’ who seem to be at pains to distance themselves from what they consider a soddenly romantic or New-Age-y environmentalism; the “we must heal/save/worship the Earth” variety.

I first became aware of it reading the journal put out by The Nature Conservancy.  (I give to that group because it puts into practice my environmental golden rule – preserve habitat!)  There was an interview with Emma Marris, who has written Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Nature World.  I don’t like that post-nature part: sounds way too much like Bill McKibben, but I like what she says:

NC:  In your new book … you argue that “we are already running the whole Earth, whether we admit or not.” You say this calls for a new definition of nature beyond “pristine wilderness,” which no longer exists and hasn’t for some time. How must nature be defined now?

EM:  I struggled with that definition in the book, since much of my argument is about enlarging nature to include more kinds of things and places beyond pristine wilderness, from backyard birds to city parks to farms. . . . I am not sure we need a rigorous and watertight definition. We know nature when we see it, because we respond to it. At any rate, there’s a lot more of it out there outside of designated nature reserves than inside.

Then there is the book I just read, The Meadowlands, by Arthur Sullivan, which is about his journeys through the Hackensack Meadowlands, dismissed by New York-centric comedians for years as the armpit of the nation.  Sullivan revels in the industrialized natural history of the place, marveling that so much ‘nature’ has managed to survive in it.  He has to sell books, so he plays up the eccentric characters he meets, the stories of mob burials and toxic waste – some of it completely true – as well as the natural and unnatural topography of the place, but he produced a readable guide to an area that has fascinated me as I gazed at it from my car or train window.  He too finds nature in urbis but not in the English picturesque fashion that rus in urbis used to mean.  As Pinsky notes in his review:

Sullivan’s account of the Meadowlands is anecdotal and genial, but his book, covertly ambitious, takes up serious matters. By looking observantly, without trite moralizing, at the natural world as well as at the disposable world we build, and at the great overlap between the two, this book suggests a challenging new model for how we ought to pay attention.

And today in the NYTimes, there was an interview with Andrew Blackwell, author of a travelogue of the world’s polluted industrial sores, including Chernobyl:

I love a backcountry hike as much as anybody, but venerating nature often has as much to do with what we think is pretty as with anything else. And a lot of the time it doesn’t leave much room for humans in the picture, which I think is a problem. Humanity’s not going anywhere

Great good sense, there.  Humanity is not going anywhere, so like the Israelis and the Palestinians, we’d better learn to live together, with Nature, of which we are a part, anyway.  And let’s drop this sentimental wooing of the pristine, the sublime, and the simply pretty, which amounts to nothing more than a self-serving rationalization for doing what we want with Nature anyway.  Unless you’re Bill McKibben, and you think the game’s over and done with…

There are an awful lot of deep and unresolved contradictions in the philosophy of environmentalism as it is processed through political advocacy and the media machine these days – no surprise that!  Perhaps these new writers, who seem alive to the humor, irony, and foolishness of these contradictions, are part of a larger trend that may be able to create a more sustainable environmental philosophy.


Harvard – Bought and Paid For

September 18, 2011

Inside Job is an excellent documentary about the financial crisis of 2008.  The basic point, very well documented, is that an extremely small group of people with lots of money managed to tweak the economic system of the country, to divert huge sums of cash their way.  Some timely deregulation legislation, carried forward by a thirty-year drumbeat of intellectual support from influential economists, made it happen.

In the end, the vast collective wealth of the United States, and much of the world economy, became the gambling stake of these people, and when it all crashed, they walked away with their loot, and were free from any consequences.  The people in charge now, under Obama, are the same ones who made it possible, and who made it happen:  it’s a Wall Street administration, as one critic in the film says.  As Mr. Rosewater says in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, getting rich in America is largely a matter of positioning yourself to get your straw into the money stream:  These people had very big straws.

Towards the end of the film, there is a section in which various heavyweight academic economists are interviewed about the possible conflicts of interest inherent in consulting and publishing articles for firms that were pursuing extremely risky behavior.  These firms crashed and burned, despite the intellectuals’ assertions that they were sound, a good idea, helping stabilize the economy, etc.  The opinions of these people, from Columbia, Harvard, and other schools, were extremely influential.

In one stunning sequence, the chairman of the Harvard Economics Department, John Campbell, is asked if he thinks it’s relevant that people like Larry Summers, Obama’s economic advisor and a Harvard economist, made tens of millions of dollars from finance firms while he was writing papers and pushing policies extolling their virtues and efficiency.  “No, I don’t see why it’s relevant at all.”  The interviewer asks a hypothetical question:  What if a medical researcher published and spoke about the importance of using a certain drug, and then it was found that 80% of his income was from the company that manufactures that drug?  Is that relevant?  What follows is a series of ums, aahs, and hmms… as Campbell looks away from the camera and finally offers in a mumble, “Well, I think this is very different…


Botulism

February 10, 2010


Philosopher Left to Muse on Ridicule Over a Hoax:  Bernard-Henri Lévy, France’s most super chic intellectual, a founder of the New Philosophers movement in the post May ’68 reevaluation of Marxism seems to have put his foot in his mouth.  In his latest book, he cited The Sex Life of Immanuel Kant, an actual book (You can buy it, but only in French) supposedly written by Jean-Baptiste Botul, developer of the philosophical school of  the Botulists, who is actually the fictional creation of a well known French philosopher and satirist, Frédéric Pagès – here’s his blog.

Unlike the foolish dupes of the brilliant Sokal hoax, in which a professor of physics at NYU published a bogus and incomprehensible paper in Social-text and was roundly denounced by its fans for showing that the emperor was naked, Mr. Levy reacted with relative good grace.

“It was a truly brilliant and very believable hoax from the mind of a Canard Enchaîné journalist who remains a good philosopher all the same,” Mr. Lévy wrote in an opinion piece. “So I was caught, as were the critics who reviewed the book when it came out. The only thing left to say, with no hard feelings, is kudos to the artist.”  [see NYTimes link above]

However, being a talker, and a talker, and one who lives by being a talker, he couldn’t keep from…talking too much:

Appearing on Canal+ television, he said he had always admired The Sex Life of Immanuel Kant and that its arguments were solid, whether written by Botul or Pages. “I salute the artist [Pages],” he said, adding with a philosophical flourish: “Hats off for this invented-but-more-real-than-real Kant, whose portrait, whether signed Botul, Pages or John Smith, seems to be in harmony with my idea of a Kant who was tormented by demons that were less theoretical than it seemed.” [Times Online]

Words, words, and words, to cover up the foolishness in his blizzard of words.  In other words:  It doesn’t matter that I credulously believe fake stuff that is written for fun – including accounts of German emmigrants forming a colony in Paraguay to live by the metaphysics of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason – they agree with me!

Get your J.P. Botul T-shirt here!


Children of The Grid

January 27, 2010

Manhattan is a grid of streets, and the pretentious provincialism of its chauvinistic inhabitants has been ridiculed, lovingly by many, most famously by Saul Steinberg.  I encounter the grid tribesmen occasionally, I mean those who see themselves as such, or at least a segment of that population:  white,  professional, more or less liberal.  (In Europe, perhaps they would be called bourgeois.)  Their company makes me uneasy – I feel as if I’m struggling for breath in an airless room if I’m with more than two at a time.  Bunuel makes me laugh at it.

It’s the suffocating atmosphere of caste.  I guess I am with Groucho Marx who quipped that he didn’t want to join any club that would have him as a member.   I have a bit of envy of people who can so strongly link themselves to a place and a scene, like a barnacle that’s found a home, but I also find it upleasantly restrictive. Nostalgia is not an emotion I feel very much.

It’s all very personal:  When I meet people like this, I sometimes feel as if they are checking me out unconsciously and automatically, seeking to determine if I know the secret handshake or eye movment that signifies that I am of the tribe.   Intelligent?  Went to a “good” school?  Lives in what neighborhood..?  Politics okay, check!”   “Oh hell, just tell me what you think, if you think!”

I guess I’m a wee bit oversensitive, but you see, I come from the antipodes of The Grid.  I am from The Valley.

These photos are from a high school classmate, c. 1975.  That decor, those colors, that landscape, the plush pointless comfortable mentality of it all…how I loathed it.  To move east to attend a university was my dream and my escape.  Those were the thoughts of a silly teenager – it was hardly hell on earth.  And as I learned, the urban sophisticates of the east could be equally boring and trivial, not to mention pretentious.


The crowd, Pascal, and the philosophers

June 20, 2009

weegee_coney blaise philosophers

I have been fascinated by Blaise Pascal for a long time.  He was a child prodigy; he invented an early mechanical calculator; he was an accomplished wit and satirist who skewered his opponents in religious controversy in his Provincial Letters; his scientific work on hydrostatics and the debate over the existence of a vacuum were as monumental for the future of physics as was his ground breaking work on geometry and probability theory for mathematics.  And, he was a mystic.

In the last week or two, a few exchanges here and there in my little corner of the blogsphere have brought him to mind once again; specifically his thinking about the role of The Philosopher (thinkers and intellectuals)vis a vis The People, aka The Masses.  In his very short introduction to Pascal (Pascal:  In Praise of Vanity, part of the Great Philosophers series) Ben Rogers teases out Pascal’s thoughts on this topic from his Pensées, that disordered bundle of notes and passages in his papers found after his death.

Sometimes I take Troutsky & Co. @ Thoughtstreaming to task for their leftist-Marxist assumptions about the nature of popular consciousness. I happen to agree with most of their policy prescriptions, but they often sound to me as if they believe that “everyone is just so damn stupid – if they’d just read more theory, or listen to us, they’d see the truth and revolt – but they are drugged (that opium, again…) by popular consumer culture and propaganda so they vote Republican, etc. etc…”  Sometimes these agitators of the Left sound almost as supercilious about The  People as William F. Buckley, that great pseudo-intellectual snob, sounded on a good day.  Pascal addresses just this conflict.

As Rogers reads him, Pascal detected in The Philosophers a “conceited intellectualism – a utopian rationalism – which he was determined to shake and unsettle.”  Even though Pascal assented to the Philosphers’ condemnation of popular vanity – the people don’t know the truth, they are diverted by stupid useless entertainments, they are driven by their passions rather than by analysis – he engages in a “constant swing pro to con” about them.  Some might call it a dialectic.

Thus we have shown that man is vain to pay so much attention to things which do not really matter, and all these opinions have been refuted.

Then we have shown that all these opinions are perfectly sound so that, all these examples of vanity being perfectly justified, ordinary people are not as vain as they are said to be. (#93)

For example, Rogers notes that the “sages” complain that the activities that people pursue are vain and trivial, distracting, and rule out all opportunity for reflection. Pascal responds that this is precisely their point.  As he puts it in a fragment on divertissement:

…those who hold that  people are quite unreasonable to spend all day chasing a hare they would not have wanted to buy, have little knowledge of our nature.  The hare itself would not save us from thinking about death and the miseries distracting us, but the hunting does so.  (#136)

How’s that for a demolition of the Situationist critique of compelled consumption/consumer culture?

Pascal’s thought is subtle and diffuse, but, in sum, he feels that The People have adapted sensibly to the pressures of life served up to them by God and the political order.  At bottom, there is a dark, pessimistic conservatism in his politics.  He says it is necessary for The People to be distracted, and lied to, because if they were told the bald truth about the injustice of society, they would rebel.  Pascal is not a rebel, though he is subversive!  He demolishes the pretentions of the Philosophers who try to demonstrate that the political order is just, and according to God’s law.  He knows it’s a sham.  The people sense this, and they know their relative powerlessness, so they adapt.

One need not endorse Pascal’s bleak realpolitick to accept the wisdom of many of his observations.  He is right – philosophers, sages, agitators, are often out of touch with the real life of the people, and they impose their tastes, views, and aspirations on them, dismissing other approaches to life as surrender to bourgeois hegemony, apathy, or some other political sin.  Thus, the possibilities for overturning the political order are slim to none.  History does not offer much support for the claim that it is eminently feasible.

Moreover, nobody is truly free.  We have free will, but it is limited.  We do not choose where or when we are born.  We cannot start from a blank slate.  We are raised in, and must move forward from the state of things as they are.

Most important, when “thinkers” start riffing on “false-consciousness,” cultural brainwashing, the evils of popular culture, the pernicious influence of the media, think of Pascal and his double-edged critique of “conceited” Philosophers.

More junk from me on Monsieur Blaise:

  • Pascal’s famous wager on the existence of God.
  • Further reflections on divertissement.
  • A note on Pascals most famous mystical passage.

Oh, that stupid Bush!

January 4, 2009

bush_stupid2

Yes, I am getting a bit tired of all this Bush-bashing.  Frank Rich’s column in the NYTimes today is a good example.  I agree with everything in it, but really, what’s the point?  Here’s the opening, emphasis added:

WE like our failed presidents to be Shakespearean, or at least large enough to inspire Oscar-worthy performances from magnificent tragedians like Frank Langella. So here, too, George W. Bush has let us down. Even the banality of evil is too grandiose a concept for 43. He is not a memorable villain so much as a sometimes affable second banana whom Josh Brolin and Will Ferrell can nail without breaking a sweat. He’s the reckless Yalie Tom Buchanan, not Gatsby. He is smaller than life.

Uh…I’m not sure I get the logic of that clever allusion to Hannah Arendt, but I”m sure Rich’s smart fans do.  Or think they do.  And his references to all of us leads to the old joke about the Lone Ranger and Tonto:  “What you mean “we” white-man?”  Behind it all, Rich is separating himself and reaping satisfaction with his “I told you so’s” heaped on the Republican right.

Well, if he is going to say “We like …,” he ought to face up to the unpleasant fact that we elected him.  Yes, even those of us who didn’t vote for him!  We live here.  We aren’t renouncing our citizenship.  It’s our country, our society, and it made a big mistake.  If you want to talk about our country in the collective, you have to own up to its failures, too.  It’s like being in a family – the sins of the wayward are, in some sense, your burden, if you are truly a family.

Intellectuals like to harbor the secret thought that if everyone were just smart enough to listen to them, the one’s who are really smart, everything would go fine, but it never works that way.  People are just too…well, let’s say it, dumb! (Or are they not dumb enough?)

Rich isn’t talking about all of us, he’s talking about himself and his friends.  I happen to agree with him completely, but those yahoos who supported Bush aren’t going away, and neither am I.  We’re just going to have to find a way to exist together.


Meanwhile, back on Planet Stupid…

August 16, 2008


Once again, David Brooks clocks in with a column that makes me ask, “what planet do you live on?”  Visiting the countryside in China that was recently traumatized by earthquake, he comments:

We’d visited the village without warning and selected our interview subjects at random, but some of the answers were probably crafted to please the government. Still, there was no disguising the emotional resilience and intense mutual support in that village. And there was no avoiding the baffling sense of equanimity. Where was the trauma and grief?

For someone who bills himself as a libertarian-leaning conservative Republican, and a “pop” sociologist, his response is remarkable.  Does he not read the newspaper that publishes his drivel?  He hasn’t heard of the protests by grieving parents, their children crushed to death in shoddily built schools, that were broken up by police, the parents beaten?  He is not aware of the concerted effort by the Party to buy silence with a hush money policy?  It never occurs to him that the vast network of Party officials throughout the country has made it perfectly clear what sort of statements are acceptable?  Does he think that these people are as stupid as he is?  Does he really think that the Chinese collectivist spirit, as he calls it in his superficial maunderings of the last week or so, precludes grief over the death of a child, especially when such mind boggling political corruption is involved?

And speaking of ideas that are so stupid only an educated person could believe them (to use George Orwell’s phrase here for the umpteenth time), what about that “End of History,” eh?  People like Francis Fukuyama are why the word “intellectual” is, for some, a slur.  Just add the pointy headed… How could anyone take this idea seriously?  Well, it seems that Vladimir Putin didn’t.   Fellow neo-con Robert Kagan gets a jab in at FF with his new article, “The End of the End of History,” commenting on the return of 19th century history as Russia pursues the “Great Game” with renewed vigor.

Yeah, every movement is supposed to end history.  The same thing in art – we had Modernism…then Post-Modernism.  In the end, all we have are styles and fads.


Art by the numbers…

August 4, 2008

Today, in the New York Times, there was an article about an economist who has reordered the canon of art history by using market statistics and counts of the appearance of works in standard texts.  After his quantitative ranking is done, what will know about art?  That is, will it deepen or alter our appreciation of the works?  I think not, though it may have some interest as cultural history.  As Arthur Danto pointed out succinctly,

“I don’t see the method as anything except circular. The frequency of an illustration doesn’t seem to me to really explain what makes an idea good.

“Somewhere along the line you’ve got to find answers to why it’s so interesting.”

If you’re interested in art, that is…

Unmentioned in this article, is the fact that it seems to reverse Marx’s comment on history playing out twice:  first as tragedy, then as farce.  This economist is engaging in a travesty of thought, a tragedy of …well, maybe it’s just farce all around, but the farce certainly came before him.  Has he not heard of Komar & Melamid?  These two tricksters did extensive polling – market research – to discover what art people want and then they gave it to them!  That’s art by the numbers!!


Terror Neat, Please

March 8, 2008

Medusa Cellini

As readers of my drivel know, I have a fondness for extreme political rhetoric, the more apocalyptic the better. There is also a bizarre frisson to be had from the prose of political “theorists” who stare down the abyss of terrorism, and find it good. Maximilien Robespierre is one of the best (emphasis mine):

The two opposing spirits that have been represented in a struggle to rule nature might be said to be fighting in this great period of human history to fix irrevocably the world’s destinies, and France is the scene of this fearful combat. Without, all the tyrants encircle you; within, all tyranny’s friends conspire; they will conspire until hope is wrested from crime. We must smother the internal and external enemies of the Republic or perish with it; now in this situation, the first maxim of your policy ought to be to lead the people by reason and the people’s enemies by terror.

If the spring of popular government in time of peace is virtue, the springs of popular government in revolution are at once virtue and terror: virtue, without which terror is fatal; terror, without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue; it is not so much a special principle as it is a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to our country’s most urgent needs.

There you have it. The Last Days are upon us, and the battle between good and evil will be resolved. Enemies are everywhere – anyone could be a traitor. There is a need for merciless terror, but it is virtuous. With such axioms and logic, almost anything can be justified.

I love the formula by which he clearly demonstrates that terror is justice. I am fascinated by the tone of the piece – so elevated, alluding to the revered, shared values of the classical past. It brings to mind that wonderful piece by the ever able propagandist for the revolution, and later, for Napoleon, Jacques Louis David, The Oath of the Horatii. Can we be so virtuous? We can, we must, but we must not flinch from the use of terror!

As the history of revolution moseys along, things change a bit. Here’s V. I. Lenin:

“We will turn our hearts into steel, which we will temper in the fire of suffering and the blood of fighters for freedom. We will make our hearts cruel, hard, and immovable, so that no mercy will enter them, and so that they will not quiver at the sight of a sea of enemy blood. We will let loose the floodgates of that sea. Without mercy, without sparing, we will kill our enemies in scores of hundreds. Let them be thousands; let them drown themselves in their own blood.

Sounds so much more emotional than Robespierre. Who knew Lenin was so romantic? Almost biblical, could easily have come from the mouth of Martin Luther, mutatis mutandis. Ah, this is more like it:

“We stand for organized terror – this should be frankly admitted. Terror is an absolute necessity during times of revolution.

Here, however, Trotsky waffles a bit:

Our class enemies are in the habit of complaining about our terrorism. What they mean by this is rather unclear. They would like to label all the activities of the proletariat directed against the class enemy s interests as terrorism.

Whatever the eunuchs and pharisees of morality may say, the feeling of revenge has its rights.

If we oppose terrorist acts, it is only because individual revenge does not satisfy us. The account we have to settle with the capitalist system is too great to be presented to some functionary called a minister.

What bothers me is the drift away from aesthetically pleasing moral certitude that Robespierre states so succinctly. Lenin and Trotsky argue. Maybe they felt guilty. The ends justify the means, but all that blood! Stalin was a stronger man, but not so eloquent.

Finally, we get the degenerate prose and rhetoric of the apologists for terror of the 40s to the 60s; the supporters of Stalin and his successors who were repelled by the violence of the Soviet State, but wished to portray it as somehow necessary, or no worse than the concealed violence of the capitalist regimes. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, with his Humanism and Terror is prominent here. Why not just come out and say YES to terror?  “I’ll take my terror neat, please.”

I’m not trying to knock the left here, though it might seem that way. It’s just that liberal-socialist-marxist thinkers have a professed committment to reason, so they have to argue for the goodness of killing women, children, innocent men, etc. They have to show that in the end, it’s all for the best, sort of like Pangloss proved in Candide. This perversion of rationality is what intrigues me. Except for Ayn Rand, I cannot think of people on the right who do the same. (She perverted rationality, but I don’t know that she supported terror.) When they plunk down for terror, they usually do it out of blood lust, romantic hero worship, satanic apocalyptic yearnings, or unutterably sick, evil, and convoluted workings out of their own psychological problems. Many vicious fascists, anti-semites, Nazi fellow travellers fit this bill.