Saturday, March 29, 2008

Agriculture, Politics, Fantasy

"Up until now we had done no more, at best, than denounce the mercenary character of government research, pointing the finger at a few ways in which this research works hand in glove with the mercantilism of the private-sphere poisoners. The method chosen, namely direct action, perturbed some. At bottom, though, the most vulgar boosters of the nanny State, of fair-play capitalism, or of the permanence of the industrial system could still feign not to understand or affect to believe that our uncivil behaviour somehow lent support to their arguments. In a word, no tenet of progressivist dogma was so much as scratched - least of all infallible science still defying eternity from its dusty tomb.

"All the "citizens"(5b) were still free to trot out their old saw according to which it is only the use to which some technical application is put that "causes the problem," whether that application happens to be DDT, high-speed trains, river-polluting polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), agent orange, asbestos, cloning, Monsanto's Round-Up herbicide, the Internet, cell-phones, nuclear power, or you-name-it. Once the alarm has been is raised, all that is required is to take more security precautions in the future; to reinforce the institutions of modern democracy - stepsister to techno-science; to help governments take decisions; to assert one's independence; and so on and so forth - with everything becoming more participatory by virtue of opinion polls, referendums and "consensus conferences." In this way an end will be put to the aberrations of "neoliberalism." Last but not least, "good" genetically modified organisms will thus become acceptable, however little they may be "public" in any sense of the word."

-- Rene Riesel

* * *

The radical utopic fantasy of these early decades of the 21st century will be quite unlike that envisioned by socialist-modernists a century before: not more technology but less, and not more State but less. No large buildings but rather converted caves, no smooth infrastructure but broken roads with sprouting plants overtaking asphalt. With Opinel & hatchet in hand, we shall retreat to secluded cottages and build community bonds with our crusty peasant neighbors down the hill, and bike mechanics and failed doctors and so on, and maybe, if we're lucky, we can lead rich and full and not entirely toxic lives. Guy Debord eventually chose to live in relative seclusion; he created a glorious and mysterious facade for those who hated him. He says he lived off the land; I'd like to think in his wooded home he and his friends hunted, smoked, chopped wood, picked fruits, tended a garden and canned vegetables, read books, had sex, and got raging drunk every night so they slept off hangovers constantly. How true this all was, I don't know. (I have been reading Ran Prieur's amazing website for some months now and I suggest my readers do the same if they haven't dropped by already.) A long while back I opined on the peculiarities of some of the leading lights of festival art cinema, how these 'profound eccentrics' of the world were creating feature films that seemed to really tap into something: Reygadas, Alonso, Apichatpong, Rodrigues, Guiraudie, and others--what I think I am starting to understand is a certain wilding depicted in their texts. Or a re-wilding. The secluded adventures, the attention to "lumpen" groups, and occasionally the unusual behaviors in broken-up cities (think again of Pedro Costa, or Guerín's En construccion) and in the beautiful wilderness of Japón or Tropical Malady are not picturesque landscapes but ventures into places one can bring oneself to live, amidst the people who have not totally been claimed by the failed experiments of the last two decades. (I really should catch up with Reygadas' last two films...) All manifest today's utopic impulse. Which is not a society built up, but one that's crumbling down and the elusive promise of good life falling perhaps at our very feet so that we don't have to sell our labor for it. All the protagonists and characters in these films are microlevel, local, trying to escape some things, trying to find some things. The thing that most struck me about Guiraudie's No Rest for the Brave is how it seems to exist in a world where time doesn't really matter, where clocks don't seem to exist or have much importance--there's simply the cycle of light/dark, and the duration it takes to get from one place to another. (This whole phenomenon could explain explain part of the renewed interest this decade in Tolkien, of which of course I'm considering the blockbusters films themselves, too, as symptomatic and not causal. But I'm not yet sure that Hollywood has really been very perceptive about catering to this particular mass impulse...) This is what I'm leaning towards right now.

(Addendum: Actually, regarding this fantasy and corporate entertainment, it's not that I want to say that the studios and networks don't cater to some of these very real fantasies and impulses in our "collective unconscious"--it's more that I think they're timid and behind-the-curve, so far, about dealing with the decomposition of at least some huge aspects of our global society. Lost may be a tropical fantasy of survival & community, V for Vendetta and The Matrix saga may imagine a euphorically dystopic separation of society from the State, but they direct these energies back into old ways, and by extension old power structures. Sooner or later they will surely become more clever about exploiting not simply the possibility of rupture, but the thing that these profound eccentric art filmmakers are mining, i.e., the experience, the phenomenology, the direct freedoms and delights and terrors of these coming scenarios. More later.)

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

Zach, are you actually saying you think the world would be better off with less technology?!

Greg

Zach Campbell said...

Well, it certainly would be better off with less energy consumption, and I think we'd probably be better off with less technology--or with different kinds of technology. Automobile culture: an abomination. Sixty hour work weeks? An abomination. (And nobody better mention 80-hour weeks in coal mines as a "rejoinder"...) Agribusiness, radiation, plastics, environmental toxins ... generations of human civilization doing incredible damage to our developed world population's now-pathetic immune systems. Civilization, particularly industrial civilization, brought us Mozart and Klee and Mizoguchi and speedy travel ... but all in all I think's been a rather horrendous turn of events, hasn't it?

Now--this isn't to say that if we had less technology, we'd necessarily be better off. I've manufactured no nostalgia for the satanic mills ...

Alex said...

"The radical utopic fantasy of these early decades of the 21st century will be quite unlike that envisioned by socialist-modernists a century before: not more technology but less, and not more State but less. No large buildings but rather converted caves, no smooth infrastructure but broken roads with sprouting plants overtaking asphalt. With Opinel & hatchet in hand, we shall retreat to secluded cottages and build community bonds with our crusty peasant neighbors down the hill, and bike mechanics and failed doctors and so on, and maybe, if we're lucky, we can lead rich and full and not entirely toxic lives."

You do realize this is a version of Rousseau's idyllic Swiss villages? It's not something new, and it's fundamentally based upon the following backwards chain of logic:

1. Modernity's failures are dramatic, perhaps even apocalyptic.

2. Modernity (or capitalism or any number of other formulations) is based upon the philosophy of Hobbes and Locke (which Rousseau - and I - accept as a true statement).

3. Nevertheless, the basics of Hobbes' and Locke's philosophy is far truer than what they replaced - Aristotle (or, more broadly, classical philosophy).

Thus, Rousseau continues to block us from a possible solution to modernity - to return to classical philosophy. We don't have to agree with Rousseau's chain of arguments. I.E., whereas Rousseau creates a dread dichtomy - the volkisch mountain village versus the capitalist cosmopolitan metropolis (neither of which really is beautiful or good or perhaps even possible in the fullest sense), classical philosophy creates a potential synthesis: the comparatively small city-state (but remember, it's still a city and ancient city-states could have quite large populations), or the small principality.

Now, the city-state or principality restricted in size needs some technology, but the goal of the classic city-state is not based upon advancing technology (which is the basis of the modern state - see Bacon and Swift's satire upon Bacon). Instead, the classic city-state is focused upon the excellence of it's citizens (to some extent, this is why the ancients so praised Sparta - Sparta's citizens were so excellent that there could be a mere handful of them and yet Sparta achieve the highest military glories. Note that Machiavelli specifically praises Rome and denigrates Sparta in his Discoursi).

Zach Campbell said...

You do realize this is a version of Rousseau's idyllic Swiss villages? It's not something new,

Well, yes, what I'm writing about is a particular field of social fantasy--so of course it has a history. And an idyllic existence in the semi-wild, the fantasy, will not be the reality of even the best-case scenario of modernity's future. (Or, best-case scenario, it will be the reality of some minority of the population.)

But the impulse that fascinates me currently goes to something much deeper, and also older even than antiquity, which is the emergence of 'the human' at the dawn of history, or before, and the concepts that arise with it--the birth of the sacred and the profane, the existence of rational and mythical though, and the ordering of social groups with minimized hierarchy. I'm not a primitivist: I don't think the emulation of our ancestors from 12000 years ago, or even 500 years ago, is our key to paradise. Still, that said, small communities acting as permaculture keepers of swaths of land would be a preferable goal than any kind of techno-utopia I can think of. (Kurzweil, I'm lookin' at you...)

But given the disastrous consequences of modernity--which are social, yes, but also ecological, and have proven ill even before industrialization--I think it is worth examining the conditions that have led to this 'downfall'. Was classical antiquity our peak, or was it the first step towards our doom? (I don't think there's a good answer for that question, first of all because I admit it's a stupid way to frame the question, but the minor rhetorical point is apparent...)

The cultivation of excellence of citizens is a fine goal, but at what price were the Greeks able to achieve this? By defining the majority of their populace as non-citizens, as substrate labor & lubrication. Let's grant we're OK with this basic fact of established structural inequality--Alex, could you tell me (as, we both surely know, you're farther ahead in the readings than I am and am able to out-debate me on these issues) what would prevent us from repeating post-antiquity once we have reached a reasonable repetition of its achievements?

Zach Campbell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Zach Campbell said...

Whoops, I meant, "and are able to out-debate me" ...

I'm committing a lot of compositional and typing errors, and I haven't even had my nightcap yet. Sheesh.

Alex said...

"The cultivation of excellence of citizens is a fine goal, but at what price were the Greeks able to achieve this? By defining the majority of their populace as non-citizens, as substrate labor & lubrication."

Most certainly. And Machiavelli makes this point as well in the Discoursi (he points out that the Romans increased the number of Roman citizens constantly; the Spartans actually tended to constantly decrease the number of citizens - until the point where there weren't enough Spartans for the Spartan regime to continue). But the classical city was pretty brutal in recognizing it's own realities: if you're going to define citizens as those who are constantly doing politics rather than commerce, a large portion of the population will not be able to be real citizens.

At least they were explicit - and the cities were small enough (and politically unstable enough) that perhaps an exile or non-citizen can find a city that lets him become a citizen, or at least politically active. Is that better or worse than the representative democracy of Locke where mere handfuls of "representatives" do politics, and the millions look upon their acts without much real power?

Yes, modern democracies have many more citizens, but being a citizen in a modern democracy isn't that appealing (at least to me).

Alex said...

"what would prevent us from repeating post-antiquity once we have reached a reasonable repetition of its achievements?"

Nothing. Classical political philosophy disagrees with modern political science - the moderns argue that politics can be a science, the ancients explicitly disagree. What that means is the moderns believe humans can reliably and predictably create just (or at least tolerable) regimes.

The ancients always argue that politics isn't a science (that's why Plato analogizes the statesman not to the doctor but to the weaver) - bad regimes can always happen. But good ones can always happen too. There's effectively no history for the ancients in the sense we might mean (that history progresses or makes some grand sense). They usually portray history as cyclic - both bad regimes and good regimes WILL happen in the future.

Anonymous said...

Zach, from what I've read about Kurzweil, I think his vision is much closer to a utopia than small permaculture communities.

Greg

Zach Campbell said...

Greg, I think I'd agree that Kurzweil's technofuture is closer to a nowhere/noplace than small permaculture communities!

Alex, I have some sympathy for what you're saying, but I can neither fully get behind it nor cogently critique it until I've read more. (One of the last times you brought up the example of the Greeks here, I had not even read all of The Republic! Now, that's remedied, but I have still to go through the majority of major Aristotle that I've still yet to read...) The example of classical antiquity, or at least the Greek city-state, does not seem so bad in certain ways, and perhaps it will indeed provide a model for some of our future social manifestations. What matters to me more is not so much the excellence of citizens (though this is a desirable thing), as the sustainability of a lifestyle--not one that is resistant to change(s), but one that is resistant to certain crass and socially or environmental harmful practices which will only lead us towards sickness or self-destruction.

Patrick Ciccone said...

The Fall of Rome

The piers are pummelled by the waves;
In a lonely field the rain
Lashes an abandoned train;
Outlaws fill the mountain caves.

Fantastic grow the evening gowns;
Agents of the Fisc pursue
Absconding tax-defaulters through
The sewers of provincial towns.

Private rites of magic send
The temple prostitutes to sleep;
All the literati keep
An imaginary friend.

Cerebrotonic Cato may
Extol the Ancient Disciplines,
But the muscle-bound Marines
Mutiny for food and pay.

Caesar's double-bed is warm
As an unimportant clerk
Writes I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK
On a pink official form.

Unendowed with wealth or pity,
Little birds with scarlet legs,
Sitting on their speckled eggs,
Eye each flu-infected city.

Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast.

-- W.H. Auden

Alex said...

Well, you're onto another critical difference between the ancients and moderns - the key virtue of the ancient citizen is moderation in eating, drinking and pursuit of consumable goods. This is because the land and economy of the ancient city-state is limited - other city-states are upon your borders and limit your expansion. Thus, unbridled consumption is an evil for the ancient city-state: it's an economy relatively fixed in size, too much consumption by a few leads to too little consumption by many others. Which means the human excellence of the citizenry as a whole will decline greatly (and more moderate cities will come along and conquer you).

The modern social contract democracy is partially built upon Machiavelli, who explicitly praises the expansionary and greedy Romans over the Spartans in his Discoursi. Thus, the social contract democracies are mostly extremely large states. But what do citizens do to occupy their time in such vast states, where full-time politics can only be the province of a comparative handful of representatives?

Well, as you'll notice, the modern philosophers never talk about moderation - they encourage the mass of "citizens" to endlessly pursue continually immoderation in drink, food, consumption, pursuit of personal wealth and so on. Anything to distract them from politics.

My Plato reference is to The Statesman, not to the Republic, by the way.

Patrick Ciccone said...

I really know very little about classical civilization, but I thought it was widely accepted that the Hellenic era city-states had depleted their soil and suffered such massive deforestation for fuel use that they were completely not self-sufficient and reliant on exterior trade for their very survival. See Reay Tannahill, Food in History, pp. 58-62. Not the best or the most scholarly book, but seems relatively convincing.

Alex said...

I would hardly claim that city-states were a paragon of environmental stewardship.

dave said...

Zach (et al) -
I will return to address the political aspects of this very soon (tomorrow, hopefully), but doesn't I Am Legend fit the societal decomposition theme to a T? I've not yet seen the film, but (according to the film's marketing) it appears to be a double-sided fantasy/nightmare scenario of the collapse of the modern and the infiltration of the wild into the formerly urban (by this I mean both the return of nature to the formerly urban environment, and the ferality of the zombies). I wonder if the film's dénouement is the restoration of society, or its reconstruction?