Respectful Response to Julia Serrano

Okay, I'm a half-generation too old to have been first awakened to the overlaps between trans rights and feminism by Julia Serrano (Davina Anne Gabriel what happened to you?) but holy crap is she an awesome writer. I saw her at the trans-health conference, however, talking about sexualization, and I have two serious concerns with her latest directions.

Her current work analyses the ways in which sexualization contributes to the marginalization of trans women in culture, building on the initial explosion of public consciousness about "sex changes" in the 1950's and continuing up to the most recent revisions of the DSM. Sexualization is the discourse that overemphasizes the sexuality of a subject population, or that views a subject population as a fetish (her word) for a master population's illegitimate (again her word) desires. Building on sociological studies on the sexualization of women, she cites a significant (and basically incontrovertible) association between the perception of women as sex objects or as hypersexed, and their exclusion from positions of prestige and frank power. She then shows a consistent pattern of media depiction of trans women as sexually manipulative and/or predatory, and a psychological understanding of divergent gender identity as a sexual pathology, primarily focused on obtaining sexual gratification in non-standard ways. Her aim is clearly critical, both of the specific textual instances she mentions (and she doesn't have to work too hard to come up with books, movies, feature articles in magazines, etc) and also of the acceptance they find with American audiences. She is careful to mention that trans women do, indeed, have sexualities, though they are no more defined by their sexuality than anyone else. And, she calls for activism on the subject.

And that's it.

I have two concerns; the first with her analysis, and the second with that numinous activism. The analytical concern is more abstract: while there is absolutely rock-solid evidence establishing a relationship between sexualization and marginalization, there is not a clear sense of causality. Bluntly, sexualization can be seen, as Serrano sees it, as a cause or a contributing factor to social oppression, but it can also be seen, with equal validity, as an effect. There are easily accessible examples of marginalized people who are also hypersexualized- black men come to mind- where attributing the marginalization to the sexualization is clearly inappropriate. The hypersexualization of black men in white media and science has always been seen as an aspect of, or an effect of, racism, not the other way around. It could well be that "sex object" is simply something that we, as a culture, call our outgroups.

In fact, proposing the reverse hypothesis- that trans women are sexualized because they are marginalized- is fairly easy to do, given the shame associated with public sexuality in culture. Calling a group of people perverted whores carries a rarefied sting. Sexual exploitation, always seemingly fun for the master population, can be carried out much more easily against groups who already lack the credibility or position to resist; blaming victims removes even the faintest stain of questions about guilt. Psychologists and writers may depict trans women as hypersexualized simply because they lack any other narrative in which to place them.

Serrano is not foolishly excluding this reversed analysis either. The two forces- marginalization and sexualization- have a complex interplay in her thinking, and she acknowledges this with an intellectual's attraction to nuance. The concrete problem is with that call to activism.

This is not the first time in modern feminist history that writers have noticed the connection between sexualization and marginalization. The first round pertained to women more generally, and was followed by activism that many of us recognize today. If one accepts the primarily-forward understanding, that sexualization causes marginalization, it seems fairly simple to develop a liberatory program: remove the sexualization. Eliminate the understanding of women, and trans women specifically, as hypersexual, predatory sex objects, and you will eliminate a great deal of oppression. It seems simple, right?

Remember that shame associated with public sexuality? Sexualization is not a monologue. There is not only the master-population accusation, there is also the compulsory subject-population response. The same social narratives that describe women as treacherous, seductive, pieces of ass, also compel women constantly to act to exempt and redeem themselves of those charges. Serrano discusses this in the context of individual behavior, calling it the "virgin" narrative. The problem is, the "virgin" narrative doesn't only exist in an individual context- it is also compulsory for self-organized groups. Feminists in the 70's and 80's didn't just torch porn shops because they misunderstood a restricted, intellectual anti-sex critique, they acted because women are always, at all times, expected to be anti-sex. Feminist-inspired women were simply no exception.

Serrano is, again, careful to acknowledge that trans women deserve a positive sexuality, but saying that in the face of calling for anti-sexualization activism is like inserting anti-racial-profiling language into an immigration bill. Words don't make racism- or the compulsory anti-sex "virgin"-enforcement drifts of culture- go away. I don't want to see anti-sex trans activism, and I similarly don't want to see a caste system in which "good" sexuality (by "our" people, who are college educated, usually white, and use big words) is pitted against "bad" sexuality the way a previous generation counterpoised Suicide Girls and "stripper girls," or the generation before regulated between porn and "erotica." I don't want to refight the sex wars, nor do I want to pretend they've already been fought and settled so thoroughly that reopening the door to anti-sexualization activism won't again play on the worst tendencies of anti-sex culture. I'm comfortable to let hypersexualization sit alongside with assumptions of criminality or stereotypes of "hyperfemininity," and wait for the larger struggle for narrative space in society make them all untenable.

Otherwise we all end up celibate, soft butch, and helping the cops round up shoplifters and hookers and calling it activism. Bleah.

With respect,


In 1998-9, I spent eleven months at the Minnehaha Free State in Minneapolis. A one-day Earth First protest against a road construction project somehow turned into a year-and-a-half long occupation of a park and the surrounding neighborhood, in the name of opposition to roads and the repatriation of Indian land. As it turned out, much of the land for the road had been transferred to the DOT from the Minnesota Bureau of Mines, which had acquired it from Fort Snelling. Over the past half-century Fort Snelling had diminished in size and prominence, but up through the first world war, it had served as a major railhead for military transports to and from the upper midwest. Before that it had been a frontier fort on the site of the first European encampment in Minnesota, and had been a major waystation for Indians being relocated westward. Whether or not this qualified it as a “concentration camp” is a matter for semanticists to argue- a subject population was confined, starved, and died there, and somewhere nearby some were buried. By coincidence, four trees resembling a burial scaffold lay directly in the path of the right-of-way, and that was enough for the politicized Indian communities of Minneapolis- and eventually country-wide- to support the encampment. We built improvised housing out of old pallets, lived in trees, attempted to construct barricades, and did our darndest to imitate the British examples set at the No M11 and Newbury Bypass campaigns.

Minneapolis is a city of liberals and former leftists- when I was there, shoppers could still choose between three separate grocery co-ops, remnants of the separate infrastructures built by competing maoist and trotskyite tendencies. Famously, the membership of one co-op had staged a baseball-bat raid on the offices of another in 1975. Beyond the scruffy core of Indians and self-described “ecowarriors” actually living at the site, and the nebula of part-timers stopping by every few days, there was a steady stream of “regular folks” coming down to the encampment alone or in families, gawking. Frequently, they would ask me how they could help.

My typical response something to the effect of: “you can’t!” Sometimes I was nicer and just told them to quit their jobs, ditch their houses and move in with us. They would snort at me and walk away. I deserved that. I was an asshole back then.

What I meant was this: I don’t think there’s anything you can do, with your spare money and your free time, that change the march of culture, if you don’t also leave that culture. I despise Derrick Jensen for the supercilious contempt he directs towards his friends, but I have to agree with him on this point- you cannot shop to fix a world destroyed by shopping, you cannot live comfortably to redeem a country stolen for your comfort. You cannot tell romantic stories about yourself and still see yourself with any clarity. I might still be an asshole, but I might also be right about this.

I think the Deepwater Horizon spill is making me moody. Over at The Oil Drum they’re talking about things like hydrostatic pore pressure and the comparative density of different brands of drilling mud. There are a lot of current and former petroleum geologists writing for the page, and they tend to get very technical and use complicated charts and graphics, which I have difficulty following. Still, their conclusions are pretty clear- “Top Kill” was doomed. There might, in fact, not be a solution to the oil spill. Its interesting to wonder whether BP has been choosing interventions based in part on whether they will allow the company to return later and develop the well for profit, or whether they will plead the Iraq claim and demand to keep the lease in order to fund the cleanup effort once the “relief wells” are producing, but these are human-scale stories. The truth is, this exploded beyond human scale a month ago. Whatever chance we had to avert this, we blew. The Gulf of Mexico is cancelled until further notice. Human, aquatic, or poetic, the story there is now only death and desolation.

Then again, maybe its something else that’s getting me down. I feel like I have two options: work to make my life better in the world, or work to be a more utile person who can work in the cracks and fissures of that world, so that maybe some day the things that matter to me and my friends will be made real. Going to Ohio with my now-ex was a big step in favor of the first option- we could have a farm, maybe kids, build our own house, and live what the Nearings called The Good Life.

It didn’t work out so well. The fact is, I’m too old to start down that trajectory now, and anyway, demographically, people like me don’t die at home surrounded by grandchildren and great-grandchildren who remember us fondly- we end up in the river. I know that.

I love working on ambulances because, cliches aside, I like people. I like feeling like I have the capacity to make someone’s life a tiny bit better at a moment where tiny bits matter a lot, but that isn’t why I went to EMT school in the first place. I wanted to continue what I had begun at the Free State, only with the power and knowledge of a medically-trained intervener. I wanted to be a medic for the afterculture. I wanted to work in the cracks and fissures, so I needed experience and skills. I learned the emergency protocols then, and I’ve learned a lot more since then about emergencies and human illness than the protocols could ever cover.

Some people have noticed this blog tends towards freelance anthropology, and there’s truth in that. I tried to study illness and found confusion and anomie. In a blogosphere where “collapse” writers fascinate themselves with material culture, I’ve found a little niche for myself by insisting that the primary focus of human society isn’t to provide for food or defense against enemies, but to tell and to hear the stories that hold off depression, anxiety, and the fear of meaninglessness. Starved and imprisoned, it is the last thing that makes us people. I stand by this belief. But I’ve had trouble doing anything with it.

I applied to medical school because I wanted to be a faith healer, but I didn’t believe in god. Its nice to cure pain and infections, but I worry more about that fear of senselessness, of placelessnes, of the absence of any sustaining narrative. In our culture, only religion teaches that the world is a sensible place, that you (yes, you) have a role in it, and that there are reasons for undertaking activities not immediately gratifying. I would look at becoming a priest or minister, but I can’t, in good conscience, claim to believe in any religion, and spirituality without religion is like throwing a potluck for one. I thought I could become a doctor, but I fear the institutional culture of medicine. I never finished my comic. I’m not much of a charismatic leader. I have this blog, which garners a dozen or so comments per entry, and takes up a few hours of my life every week, but it is very small and still the oil pours into the gulf. I am offering the alternatives to culture no real comfort or assistance, and I’m not sure what the game plan is.

The truth is, I never found the cracks and fissures in the world, or if I did, I was scared to jump into them. Despite all my fussing and noise, I still don’t know what to do with myself, with the time I have left, to clear my conscience of the discrepancies between vision and action. I feel the second direction for my life- the utilitarian revolutionary one- becoming as ridiculous as the first, the successful family direction, and I don’t know what that leaves.

Its as if I find myself, a decade and change later, staring down at my younger, angry, dirty, dread-hawked self, asking “how can I help?” And with a hint of sadness, she looks me clearly in the eye and tells me: I can’t.

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The Unthinkable

I've mentioned this before, but I despise the sanctimony of invoking Pastor Martin Niemoller's famous quote about the nazis. You know the one; it begins "First they came for the..." There's plenty of controversy about the original words; Niemoller himself didn't remember saying it. Wikipedia lists a semi-authenticated original German form:

„Als die Nazis die Kommunisten holten, habe ich geschwiegen; ich war ja kein Kommunist.
Als sie die Sozialdemokraten einsperrten, habe ich geschwiegen; ich war ja kein Sozialdemokrat.
Als sie die Gewerkschafter holten, habe ich nicht protestiert; ich war ja kein Gewerkschafter.
Als sie die Juden holten, habe ich nicht protestiert; ich war ja kein Jude.
Als sie mich holten, gab es keinen mehr, der protestieren konnte."

which lists communists, social democrats, trade unionists, and Jews as the good nazi pastor's predecessors into the camps. In the seventies, Niemoller selected three victims from the many attributed versions of the quote- communists, trade unionists, and Jews, the SPD having long since rehabilitated itself in German politics- to serve as the final authoritative construction of his poem.

Well, good on you, Pastor Niemoller. Times have changed.

Lets remember that Niemoller was a nazi, and not just by default. In the period when "they came for" the communists, as I've written before, nazis didn't see communists as annoying didacts with poor hygeine and worthless newspapers- they were unruly mobs who would burn down your bank and beat the cops senseless. Interwar Berlin was something of an ongoing, widely-dispersed riot. Those of us old enough to remember the Rodney King Riots in LA can consider those, the rest will have to look at current statements coming from Bangkok (US Political Attache George Kent's reference to "now deceased red-affiliated radical thug MGEN Khattiya" should give you a sense of the US' stance) for an apt modern parallel to what it would mean to "speak up" for the communists. Trade unionists were (seen as) the unions of On the Waterfront, not Matewan and Jews? Don't even get me talking about what Niemoller probably thought about Jews.

My point is, what Niemoller is describing isn't the silence of sitting on your ass and blogging ineffectually while the worst environmental disaster ever, period unfolds off your coastline. He's discussing a different kind of silence, that comes from an only semi-willing blindness, and a general acceptance that some people only get what they deserve. We may, as a culture, stand up readily when Jews are threatened, or when "they come for" even the most detestable political tendencies- but there are plenty of categories of people we consider beyond the pale of human concern, and one of them just lost habeas corpus rights last week.

Folks, its time to start talking seriously about sexual predators.

Monday, the Supreme Court ruled that sex offenders who had served out their criminal sentences could still be held under "civil commitment" laws provided there was "clear and convincing evidence" they were mentally ill. When you talk about sex offenders, you quickly run into a social buzzsaw. After all, unlike "regular criminals" aren't sexual criminals "predators" who will never change? Isn't this a biological deviation, not just bad behavior like shoplifting? Are sexual predators criminals for life, who will offend and offend over and over again?

Uh, actually no. The Department of Justice releases periodic reports on exactly this subject. In the last study, prisoners released in 1994, who had been convicted of rape and other sexual assault had a 46.0% and 41.4% chance of being rearrested in three years. Not good. But then you compare with other crimes and you find that other than homicide (40.7% rearrested in three years) no other category of crime has as low a recidivism rate as rape and sexual assault. Compared to drug trafficking (64.2%) or robbery (70.2%) or theft of motor vehicles (78.8% - wow!) sexual predators are pikers. And actually, now that I think about it, didn't somebody come up with a drug for shoplifting too?

So why do we live in mental worlds in which predators, corrupted for life into monsters, lurk around the outskirts of every playground- don't ever turn your back!- and we have to buy GPS beacons for our kids? I don't think the media can take the heat for this one. Law and Order SVU works because it plays on existing anxieties, not because it creates them. Similarly I don't think its because rape is a sui generis crime of human destruction (murderers, after all, and even nazi death camp guards can, on completing their sentences, buy real estate wherever they like).

I think, rather, its a combination of these factors and two others- sex crimes are unbelievably rare (making the news often ahead of murders) and they don't seem constrained by class warfare. In other words, highly publicized sex criminals are likely to be white. And employed.Some are even middle-to-upper class. They look just like the guy reading the news. They might look just like you.

Compare this to car theft. Are there white car theieves? Oh hell yeah. But auto theft is so common that media outlets and fictional portrayals can revert back to a "generic criminal" stereotype. If you want to avoid car thieves, avoid young black men from poor neighborhoods, something white America has been doing "to avoid crime" for decades. Your son's idiot white best friend might still steal your mercedes to pay for his heroin habit, but that's "an exception" because we can still meaningfully believe "most" car thieves and junkies are black. And, elsewhere.

But sex crime arrests, when they do happen, are often so overblown that we can't avoid realizing that the "average" sex criminal, like the "average" car thief and and "average" American, is white. Which means, they seem uniquely invasive, and require the maximum possible retribution. Like, being restricted from living anywhere in a county except under a bridge- and then enjoined by parole rules from leaving the county. Or, in this new supreme court ruling detained without trial or, depending on how you look at it, for a crime for which they have already served their sentences- the habeas corpus and double jeopardy clauses in the constitution.

I'm not a sex offender. I actually don't know anyone who is. When I lived in Texas a decade ago, there were militia libertarians at all the anarchist parties, and they used to talk about the coming insurrection. What would set it off? Lots of things- it was different group by group. Some said the UN taking control of the US government, others said federal IDs or ID implants. Most often, though, indefinite suspension of habeas corpus was the trigger.

First they came for the sex offenders...

Guess what, folks: Rush Limbaugh is already asking that this ruling be extended to "terrorists." The New York Supreme Court is extending it to rapists who are HIV+.


[ETA: There's also a weird echo of the last time a class of criminals were considered to be warped for life into an endless series of violent assault on the public, and thereby termed "predators." Does anybody remember the Superpredator scare of the 1990s? Basically, young black men were so dangerous they could no longer be managed with criminal laws intended for humans. The guy who thought that one up, UPENN's John DiIulio, went on to direct the office of faith-based initiatives. See how this stuff works?]

More Comments on Animism and Ritual

A friend who is a philosopher/historian of science wrote to remind me that one of my assertions in the last post is considered somewhat controversial, at least in the field of science studies. There is an argument about whether, as I claim, religion creates or proceeds from rituals- in science terms, whether abstract science depends on consolidating and systematizing the insights of engineers. There are fields in which goal-oriented science is hamstrung next to a couple of guys with a decent testing apparatus- metallurgy, for instance, remains almost blind when predicting the behavior of new alloys- and in the past thermodynamics and steam engines, or ballistics and computers, have been so entangled as to be nearly indistinguishable.

In terms of religion, I think my comprehenson is much clearer: practice precedes principle. Things that seem "right" according to personal psychology and cultural valuation have very strong mechanisms for survival, and are only consolidated into intellectual schema about The Nature Of The Universe when they have reached the point of ubiquity, or at least become common enough that people start to wonder what's going on and why do the new neighbors do it different. We are somewhat confused by the fact that three major world religions (Buddhism, Christianity and Islam) trace their origins to a single prophet figure whose personal insights formed the subsequent cosmology of the beliefs that now study their books. However, Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed weren't just "right"- they were embedded in complex cultural processes. Two (Christianity and Islam) grew out of regularizing the practices of a dissident social movement (the Essenes and the... crap, somebody help me out) and two (Christianity again and Buddhism) acquired prominence only by imperial fiat some time long after the initial period of heresy. All three depend for their coherence and relevance on much larger volumes written susequently by others, who explain how traditions, stories, and practices common to the various host cultures prior to the rise of the prophets, are relevant within the new system of belief. Hence, Christmas as the Christian explanation for Saturnalia, or the Boddhisattva incarnations who were the old heroes and gods.

I think this is why I am so skeptical of the Derrick Jensens and Daniel Quinns of the world. I was asked, both here on the blog and (in absentia) on IshThink why I distrust Quinn. I said that he can preach, but he can't minister, and I think this is what I mean: no set of principles, however artfully (Quinn) or strenuously (Jensen) articulated, can create practice more than a hair's breadth away from the norm. So far, there is no dissident movement practicing "leaver" culture, who need reassurance, or need to be reconciled in their differing reasons for living like they live, with others who are similar but not quite the same.

On the other hand (and yes, I recognize the irony here) there is a huge cultural swath of people who have been recycling, using energystar fridges, and longing for solar panels for years, who took to An Inconvenient Truth like fish to water. Why? Because it gave them a sense of support, reason, and collective awareness for what they were already doing. Quinn could do that if there was a second-generation cultural moment looking for direction, but there isn't, so he's reduced to calling everyone else blind. Maybe he'll get lucky, like Thoreau, and get rediscovered in a hundred years, but by then someone more attuned to what it is people do-without-understanding-why will probably have filled the gap.

On a whim, I read a (free) copy of Vanessa Farquharson's book Sleeping Naked Is Green. It starts out pretty dishearteningly with an entire chapter (entry?) on, basically, how unstylish cloth shopping bags are. And, let me just say, this girl loves her facial product! By the end of the year, though, she's unplugged her fridge and is butchering her own meat. How? Or rather, Why? Because products like meat-butchering classes are already available, and the "green living" schema allows her to consolidate her interests and (desired) lifestyle. Practice precedes principle.


[ETA: Or, put another way, the Bubel's book on root cellaring changed more lives than Ishmael, because it gave people something to do. Or, Dwelling Portably or the guy who figured out how to scam the machines at Kinko's.]

Longing for Animism: Intimacy With Landscapes And Other Dreck

I've suddenly started working seven days a week, which has cut into my thinking time somewhat, and I've been absent from this blog now for longer than I care to think about. I'm also frustrated by an as-yet-unfinished post on Oomoto and the concept of "mazeways"- the techniques people use to accomplish their goals which, while delineated by culture, are intensely personal and hence valued as an extension of the self. An anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania came up with the concept half a century ago, it explains many of the difficulties experienced by the recovery efforts in New Orleans after the floods... why the hell can't I make a good entry come together? Okay, that doesn't matter. This is about animism.

There's this scene I fucking hate in Avatar that also shows up in pretty much every other WTPNIAH movie.

Basically it goes like this: white guy kills something large with superior (and quickly acquired) techno hunting skills. Native person upbraids white guy for being an idiot. White guy seems puzzled. Native person explains that when you kill something, you must apologize to and thank the pained, dying animal, or else you risk offending it. At some later point in the movie, this is revealed as a key secret white guy must learn. In some movies, the "sorry, thanks" lesson (sometimes accompanied by some fear-factor-esque ritual, like eating raw heart muscle) is taught not by a native but by a reviled-yet-wise older white guy, like a favorite, cabin-living uncle who carries the secret of white guy's inheritance... look, I could shoot this fish for hours. Its a bad cliche. We all know it.

What we don't ever see is exactly what difference it makes whether you apologize to an animal or not. Possibly this is because hunting is, in visual fiction, unrealistic- killing a large mammal generally involves a long period of thrashing, horrible noises, and general unpleasantness that inspires even seasoned hunters to cringe, and makes for very disturbing television. Why any animal spirit would accept this in exchange for a whispered "now my family can eat" or whatever white guy protagonist is supposed to offer is completely beyond me. Yet, it persists- which to me implies that there is something about the ritual that is embedded in a Euro-american conception of the "authentic." For some reason, this is something we think we should be doing, even if we express that by projecting it onto the Other. So its worth looking at.

There is a pop-anthro cliche that states that people living in deserts tend to be monotheistic, while people living in rainforests tend to be polytheistic, animistic, or pantheistic. While statistically this may be true, I've never quite bought the justification (expressed in the Discover Magazine article in that link) that "deserts teach large, singular lessons" about environmental hostility while rainforests offer nuance, including "more species of ants on a single tree than one would find in all the British Isles." (What? Is this like "God loves beetles" creationist determinism?)

I think a more likely explanation is that religions develop from rituals, rather than vice versa. Many major religions, including Shinto and Vedic traditions, weren't even considered religions at all until other religions showed up and practitioners needed a conceptual map to distinguish "people who do like we've always done" from "people who are into that new god with the hat." Over time, "doing like we've always done" becomes more self-aware and standardized, and eventually forms a religion in its own right- Shinto, while it retains its splendiferous array of Kami and shrines and local rituals, is considered (mostly) a single religion with a more-or-less unified priesthood, Hinduism has a conceptual basis (the other avatar reference in this post) that binds a diverse range of practices and deities into a single theology. One can see a similar process developing with Native American practices in the US, with the emergence of "intertribal" pow-wows that cheerfully blend dances, songs, and fry-bread from all across the continent into an eclectic but highly-viable mash-up that at this rate will likely outlast the United States. If one swallows one's skepticism hard enough, one can even see a regularization at work in neo-paganism, which accumulates European practices believed to pre-date christianity like a flea market collects unsellable sweaters, but now we're back to the Authenticity question and we don't need to go there right now.

Rituals, however, tend to focus on repeated events or constant locations of importance- a river, the planting date of a given crop, a particular mountain, calving time for hunted or herded animals- and these, in turn, tend to be critical aspects of a productive landscape. If your landscape bleeds productivity (like, say, in a rainforest) there are probably thousands of familiar points in space and time that you, and your ancestors, and your descendants, mark with rituals and recognitions. If you live someplace where there's a lot of scrub between you and the next pasture, or a long wait between growing seasons, you will probably spend a lot more time travelling through a landscape, and hence won't be able to develop the same depth of relationship with a certain standing stone, or a copse of trees. Monotheisms are just more portable.

Interestingly the Discover article mentions rain forest "tribes" that are monotheistic, but doesn't talk about any cultures with a two-register religious system, like the division of Classical Greek practices into Olympian (portable, oligotheistic) and Cthonic (local, polytheistic,) or the Catholic recognition of a monopolar deity paired with a syncretic, localized pantheon of saints, each with their own feast day and weird parade outfits.

There's a crude analogy to be made with the commodity fetishism that underlies globalisation, and the romantic quest for the authentic. The more delocalized and transient global capital becomes, the more consumption patterns tend to favor the portable and the reproducible, and the closer each economic and cultural sector gets to an oligopolar or a monopolar theology. McDonald's is everywhere, Mueller's Barbecue is only on one street in Austin, Texas. Capital and those who spend it favor Mickey D's because they can develop a relationship with it throughout their peregrinated lives- but only because like Jay-Z, or the 16-inch concrete block, its the same everywhere you go. So naturally, the romantic objection to globalization stands in favor of "authentic" local cuisine like Mueller's, which, like animism, requires a relationship with a given, enriched landscape, a relationship impossible in a globalized world.

And guess what, folks: animism is really, really authentic these days.

The problem for people looking for an authentic polypolar alternative to globalization is that all of us are delocalized and (to a great extent) deracinated from any kind of ongoing relationship with a single, non-commodity social landscape. Some writers, like Kalle Lasn (of adbusters have looked to blankness (famously running photo essays of whited-out cityscapes with no logos or text, or even in one issue depicting volcanic wasteland in Iceland) as the "only escape." In a sense this is equivalent to Buddhism, which has no god but a highly developed sense of all the things gods are supposed to provide.

And can we please stop fighting about whether Buddhists are appropriating someone else's culture? Buddhism has been a multi-cultural evangelizing world religion since Ashoka, and it would be weirder to see a belief system that jumped from India to Indonesia in the ninth century fail to make it from Japan to the US in the twentieth. Globalization goes in all directions sometimes, and no cultural gulf today is anywhere near as wide as in the past.

The other approach, however, is the animist approach, which has proven more difficult for Seekers Of Authenticity to take because localized multipolar practices, whether anti-commodity or polytheistic, can't generally be learned from the internet or books. By definition, they don't travel well between settings. If you want something like Shinto, but you aren't in Japan (or aren't Japanese, depending) you're kind-of S.O.L. If you want to patronize the local barbecue joint, but all you've got is starbucks, there isn't a whole lot you can do. Animist practices and traditions can either be copied from some other landscape (which is cultural appropriation) or they can be started afresh, by weird, participatory mythicist rituals aimed at whatever is important to you, and maybe, just maybe, something might stick.

Of course, in keeping with the last few entries, I love weird participatory mythicist rituals. Everybody run their dogs at the dog park? Hey, why not make a little carved dog statue somewhere back in the bushes, and leave a bit of kibble in its mouth every time you go past! Morning of the shortest day of the year? Lets go climb on those abandoned oil tanks and watch for the sunrise! There isn't any reason not to do these things. Right?

But there is a question of what they accomplish, and whether they work with a belief system that works for connecting people to times and places. Neil Gaiman says the key is sacrifice. Barry Lopez says the key is to give a landscape (and the people in it) dignity.

Given that Lopez is a naturalist writer (and a very good one- highly recommended) its unusual that he develops this idea out of discussions with burned out oil workers in Alaska who are speaking, most poignantly, or their own lives of humiliation at the hands of government and company superiors, but he quickly adapts it back to the arctic landscape itself. "Their dignity as workmen, and therefore their self-respect, was not whole." he writes, "To an outside viewer they, like the land, were subject to manipulation. Their dignity was received. It grew out of how well they responded to directions."

Later, he adds: "Without dignity, of course, people are powerless. Strip a person or land of dignity and you can direct any scheme you wish against them or it, with impunity and with the best of motives."

Americans, especially dominant culture Americans, believe strongly in the myth of good intentions- if you "respect" something, or "value" it, it doesn't matter what you eventually do with it. We "respect" the same people, institutions and ecosystems we blast apart every day. When someone says "we value your input" they're giving you the procedural finger. To respect a social landscape gives it no more than apologies give a dying boar. Perhaps, though, the word "dignity" is still unsullied enough by opportunists- or, in fact, is distinct enough in meaning- that little rituals, giving dribs and drabs of it back to the people and institutions we fear to admit matter to us, could someday restore to us a mythic intimacy with our landscapes.

Goddamn I write like an idiot at five AM.


All Eyes On The Microcosm

I did a google search for "wakarusa war" and "arizona immigration," together. No hits (well, that's not true, Wakarusa, IN is talking about the same things as the rest of the internet.) I also tried "bleeding kansas" which got me this unexplored and decontextualized comment but I'm not particularly concerned. The Wakarusa War is often seen by serious historians as a microcosmic harbinger of the US civil war ten years later, and if anyone were drawing a connection to current events, I'd be worried about an analogous future cataclysm. Doesn't seem to be the case.

(odd, though, that it would be a rightist making that lone blog-comment remark, since the comparison isn't flattering to the right)

The history of "Bleeding Kansas" is fascinating. I'll try to summarize here, but really you should go read Jane Smiley's (fictional) The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton for a more vivid understanding. Briefly, Kansas was only dubiously north of the 36-60 Missouri Compromise line that marked the boundary between states that would enter the union as slaveholders and those that could not. In 1854, a states'-rights initiative known as "popular sovereignty" and championed by none other than Stephen Douglas (he of the "Lincoln and..." debates) led to the passage of the Kansas/Nebraska act which allowed those two new states to vote on whether they would be slave or free. Nebraska (which at the time was enormous) was too far north for slavery to be profitable (i.e. neither cotton nor tobacco would grow) but Kansas included cotton-able regions. Kansas was also next-door to slave-holding Missouri, which meant that fugitive slaves would have one more direction to run (at least, this is Wikipedia's theory.)

So, naturally, partisans from both sides attempted to squat as much of Kansas as possible, to tip the vote for or against slavery. Competing constitutions, land claims, capital cities, voter registration lists, and pretty much everything else came to a little bit of shooting and a lot of razing of buildings. History is never kind to slaveholders (nor should it be) but both sides here were looking for a fight, and got one.

Sb1070, in Arizona is not what it looks like. The critical fact that puts the new "stop if brown" law in context is that the three contenders to host the 2012 Republican National Convention are Salt Lake City, Tampa, and Phoenix. The right is divided between a nativist bloc and a globalist bloc, with the globalists in power and the nativists ascendant. A law like this one, widely supported by the (white) nativists, is basically a challenge: if you want to keep control of the GOP, prove us wrong on this bill. The supreme court will almost certainly kill it, Sarah Palin and the Democrats have already made their (diametrically opposed) positions clear, but the Karl Rove/Newt Gingrich wing of the Republican Party is quavering, afraid to dip their toes in the racist sewer. That's the point- they can't go along with this, and because of the convention they can't ignore it. They lose the P.R. war to the nativists, and Palin (or Huckabee, or Crist, or someone like them) gets the endorsement money. End of GOP.

Or, possibly, this is a shot across the bow for the battle for post-global, post-superpower America- the Wakarusa comparison. I'm sure Sarah Palin thinks she can win in 2012, and I can't see how the country would avoid domestic instability if she did... but that's just the thing: she'd lose and everyone knows it. So its not an issue.


Aaaaaaah! Giant Seagull Attack!

I just went through and friend locked a few entries relating to my personal life, so now you can page back as far as the Sarah Palin and Country Music essay without me feeling self-conscious. If anyone has been lurking, has an LJ account, and really WANTS to see the other stuff, send me a note. I do lots of friending.

In other news, I haven't really been on faceboom in months. If you think I snubbed your friend request, I apologize. I'll probably just close the account.


More About Romantic Utopias and Esperanto

Several people, on reading my entry on authenticity had the same two questions. First, why did I choose "authenticity" as a word, and second, what should we do?

For the first question, WolfBird and Ran Prieur both suggested "mythic" as a replacement. I disagree, for the reason that "mythic" implies artificiality, whereas "authentic" implies something realer-than-real. It is common across class and lifestyle differences in the US for people to talk about seeking "authentic" experiences, whether they be "authentic" fishing villages in Long Island or "authentic" wilderness. I like the sting of using it to mean things that are valued as realer-than-real precisely because of the cultural overlays it claims to evade.

The second question is more difficult. Ran asks:

Why not wallow in myth? Because the academic world won't take us seriously? I'm sorry, but they don't matter. Maybe that's why Sarah Palin upsets intellectuals, because she reminds us that myth beats rationality.

Similarly, an unnamed friend asks "Is it possible to throw yourself into something larger than yourself without imagining what a different world could be like?" and kerrickadrian asks "How do we get people to be healthily enchanted with the real, and willing to take real action to protect it?"

I think this relates to the first question better than it initially seemed. Enormous social projects requiring sacrifice- and every cultural idea requires sacrifices to sustain itself, even or especially market capitalism- also seem to require a sort of enchantment, a vision of what the world would be like. This is how Marxism survived, for instance, or lesbian separatism- it was possible to leave a part of your heart in the future, and know that you would someday return to it weary but victorious. But this sort of mythopoetic imagining is different from the narrative of authenticity in one significant way- it is openly artifical, and indeterminate.

Authenticity is determinate. I was serious when I wrote, last time, that if you take authenticity too seriously, you end up expelling the interlopers from your homeland. Authenticity is the author of genocide- it justifies the death of "the sheeple" and "the invaders," "the undeserving" and "the parasites." With its fixed, if unattainable reference point, a chase towards the authentic requires everyone to conform their real lives to a given plan, or be dislocated as thoroughly as Jesse Ventura's Indians who should lose their treaty rights because they fished with outboards instead of "birch bark canoes." If the problems of modern society are because people have deviated from how they should be, than fixing society requires enforcing those should-be terms.

Mythopoesis, on the other hand, can be open-ended. People can admit that they're making it up as they go, and create new stories when the old ones turn out to criss-cross their underlying values. There is still a balance to be struck. Mythopoesis demands careful attention to absolute boundaries: a world which requires genocide is unacceptable, but so is a world in which intervention in genocide is forbidden. However, creative, flexible movements have flourished often enough in the past. I humbly present, for your consideration, Esperanto.

Esperanto was invented by one Ludwik Zamenhof, an opthamologist, in 1887. Designed to be an international language of peace, it is the only constructed language to have more than a thousand native speakers (including George Soros) or more than a million fluent speakers at all (Klingon hovers around twenty, by means of comparison.) Esperanto is fantastically easy to learn- I was taught that this was because all the roots were from romance languages. Its not true, actually- Zamenhof's first language was Yiddish (germanic) and he lived in Russia (slavic) and much of the grammar is decidedly different from the romance model. Additionally, Esperanto is fiercely agglutinative, permitting the construction of words meaning, for instance, "he/she/it behaved like a person who has the characteristics of an enormous badger" (melegulis- see any romance roots there?). No, the reason Esperanto is easy to learn is that it taps into the way brains learn languages- the mind sees and seizes on a pattern, generalizes, and then learns exceptions. Thus children learning English say things like "he bringed the dog and feeded it goodly"- they haven't yet learned "brought," "fed," or "well." French children say "faisez" for "faites" for the same reason. In Esperanto, there are (almost) no exceptions.

Esperanto was created for the job position English eventually filled- a lingua franca everyone around the world would learn at least as a second or third language, at least in a stripped down form (like Globish- the 1500 English words most humans know.) Of course, English has an authentic form- its tied to native speakers in England, the US, Canada, Australia, and a few smaller countries. There might be more English speakers in India than the rest of the world combined, but their day-to-day speech will never be considered "authentic."

Esperanto, on the other hand, is tied to nowhere. Its almost a joke how nationless a language it is. As a result, however, no-one can claim authentic status over anyone else. Its interesting to wonder what the twentieth century would have been like had America not been able to claim linguistic dominion- imagine if Bruse Sterling hadn't been able to say that thing about 'everyone is watching subtitles except me.' English is authentic,but Esperanto is mythic.

Oh yeah, and while Zamenhof was kind of an asshole about other constructed languages, Esperanto has adapted over time. It now has a non-gendered animate third person pronoun ri, and a masculine infix -ič- (traditional Esperanto marked everything without the feminine -in- infix as masculine, now unmarked words are non-gendered) and is losing its accusative marker.

The point is, Esperanto had a fairly open-ended vision of an egalitarian world, and survived on that vision and the possibility it offered people to help guide and create it if they would participate. English told everyone to be like America, and compelled participation with, occasionally, bombers and debt restructuring.

Short post,

PS #1- to Vera- I think Eric Brende was, as you say, an outsider. Better Off is a conversion narrative, and suffers the classic problem of presenting the protagonist as essentially pre-converted. Brende never really makes much of a compelling case for himself as a devotee of "high tech society" nor does he convince me that what he has done would be unpopular or unappealing among his MIT friends. His depiction of the anabaptists doesn't really square with, say, Donald Kraybills magisterial On the Backroad to Heaven. The Amish, after all, don't worry about technology as much as they worry about whether an innovation- technical, social, or financial- will bring the community closer together or enable it to disintegrate. That Brende is so distant from this axis in his analysis, talks so little about faith, and hides his unnamed community somewhere west of Lancaster without further specification suggests that whatever he might have done, it was all him following his own muse. Maybe he should have called it I Rented From A Guy I Think Was Amish.

PS #2- to Eric in Kansas- Vitebsky is excellent! Thank you, I have faith in Siberian anthropology again.

PS #3- perhaps this requires its own post. In 1892, Deguchi Nao founded an animist religion, rooted somewhat in Shinto, called Ōmoto. Unlike classical Shinto, which is inextricable from Japan, Ōmoto was from the very beginning a proselytizing world religion, and had for a while missions in such hinterlands as Paris. Appropriately it embraced Esperanto as semi-sanctified language, and Zamenhof as a Kami made human. It remains heavily involved in world peace work today. This is both interesting and a reminder that religions can be mythic as well as authentic- the Dalai Lama has called Buddhism a science, testing and selecting methods of living a happy and benevolent life, a far cry from the a priori assertions of a few other religions...

Jumping Into Someone Else's Discussion About Complexity

When I lived in Ohio, I did a lot of work with a 1955 Gravely walk-behind tractor.

(That one isn't mine, by the way. I don't have any pictures of my own. I did have that funky grader blade, though, along with a rotary plow, tiller, and a couple bush-hogs)

When I bought it, I had a choice- buy my own Gravely, or go in with some well-heeled neighbors on a BCS.

(there was no way we could afford the baler, and actually you need an outsized engine to even run the baler, so all things considered this is an unrepresentative picture. Still, pretty cool.)

I opted for the Gravely for three reasons. The first was social and not worth going into. The second was, there was a Gravely dealership thirty miles away, which is close by country definitions. The third, and most important reason, was that it was really old, really well used, and any engineering flaws would have shown up by now. Gravelys run on big, cast-iron Kohler engines, which are the PS2's of small motors and show up in everthing from irrigation pumps to stand-alone generators. They have the reputation of being bombproof, overweight, and easy to fix with hand tools. Compare this to the Italian moped I'm currently fixing for a friend, in which everything is non-standard and spare parts need to be shipped across an ocean. My current task is filing down the ferrule on the throttle cable so it can fit in the shutter gate in the carburetor.

Anyway, I'm going a bit over the edge with my teaser topic. The actual discussion I'm responding to is one about complexity. In the last couple days, Ran Prieur, Adam Feuer, and John Michael Greer have all responded to John Robb's review of a Joseph Tainter book about the collapse of complex societies.

"Complexity" is actually a very fuzzy subject, in fact no really good definition of the term exists. "Number of interacting parts" is good if one is describing a combine harvester, but not if one is describing a bacterial culture. "Necessary variation" works to exclude the slime mold but falls down when talking about banks. Even in the narrow, technological sense, complexity is difficult to pin down. Interchangeable parts made the assembly and repair of rifles much simpler in the late eighteenth century, but producing them required coordinating the design and production of components with a whole new level of precision, at multiple different sites.

I have not read the Tainter book, but he is an archaeologist and probably uses "complex" in much the same way Jared Diamond does, important because Diamond is also frequently cited in the above blogs. For Diamond, complexity is a measure of the number of social relationships mediated by a culture, beginning with extended families (few relationships, low complexity) and reaching up to a modern world in which social relations are formalized and regularized to the point where basically anyone living within sixty miles of here might be sitting next to me on the trolley and it would be equally appropriate and easy to make small talk. For Diamond, complexity depends on surplus production to support the emergence of a political sector. This then can coordinate disparate subcommunities and create the social infrastructure to bring everyone together. Not a bad definition of complexity (though I should probably look up an actual citation instead of paraphrasing from memory) but noticeably unrelated to technology and machines.

The bloggers above, on the other hand, interpret the terms "complex society" and "simplification" as referring specifically to modern material culture. Complex operating systems, automated factories, and centralized production are doomed, but simpler electronics, skilled workers, and garage hacking may yet survive through being less complex to maintain, or through being reparable using local components and skills.

I'm trying to read the three bloggers' comments in the light of social, rather than technological complexity, but I'm finding it too tempting to use machine-talk as a metaphor. For instance, what is the human equivalent of a cast-iron interchangeable engine? Would that be a generalist laborer? Would the persnickety carb on the moped be the equivalent of someone who has studied extensively how to do one thing, and is useless otherwise? In this formulation the romantic era of "arts and crafts" suggested by Greer would be less fragile in a collapse than our current technical world.

But this is terrible- your average experienced "generalist laborer" can run rings around a new hire in a workplace, because even if they've never studied a recognizable "specialty" the best way to get good at something is to do it for years on end. Good generalist laborers aren't generalists. Exchange the Kohlers in a pump and a lawnmower and you get equivalent function. Swap an advertising copy editor for a book copy editor and you get steep learning curves on both sides. Furthermore, your hopeless specialist, while common in fiction, never really shows up in real life. Even the fussiest, narrowest academic, who studies parasites on a specific species of swallow, say, still probably knows more reptile bio than you do, and who knows, maybe they knap flint in their spare time. Lots of people do that, y'know?

I can, without trying very hard, conjure up a number of scenarios in which technologies, especially those that are harder to repair by hand with widely-available parts, stop working. However, at this point I consider them much less likely (well, or imminent!) than scenarios in which the kind of social simplification described by Diamond in Collapse comes about first. What would it take to remove the fine distinctions between a book editor and an ad editor? Or to problematize cheerful daily interaction between geographically dispersed strangers? Not much. Take away the financial system, banking credit, student loans, and disposable American income, and all the people from my various examples, the two copy editors, the parasitologist, and you, are all in line together at the mine office, offering your services humping coal. Plenty of us will lose DSL service long before the internet "goes down," and spare parts are no good if you can't afford them.

I think when one is talking about social complexity, social simplification, and the collapse of a complex society, its important not to get overwhelmed with machine metaphors. Simplified societies in history, even the special dramatic ones that bloggers love to predict recurring here in the states, became simpler because social positions and social relationships were simplified, not because all the cell phones went to rotary dial.