Everything that everyone is afraid of has already happened: The fragility of capitalism, which we don’t want to admit; the loss of the empire of the United States; and American exceptionalism. In fact, American exceptionalism is that we are exceptionally backward in about fifteen different categories, from education to infrastructure. But we’re in a stage of denial: we want to re-establish things as they used to be, to put the country back where it was.
— James Hillman
Most of the men I grew up with in Alabama and Georgia deny the veracity of climate change. They are unwilling to make the connection between their ownership (actually the bank’s) of SUVs and oversized pickup trucks and the super storms and massive floods that, now with alarming regularity, ravish the region.
Because their besieged sense of self is intermeshed with their motor vehicles, they hold fast to these symbols of the fading world they know. In their imaginings, these gruesome, noxious (and obnoxious) machines represent power and mobility — exactly the aspects of their lives that have been diminished by the demands and degradations of oligarchic capitalism.
By their self-imprisonment in these sorts of compensatory fantasies, they choose to risk their children’s future, rather than, as one victim of his own curdling testosterone expressed to me recently on FaceBook, “[give up his over-sized pick-up] and drive a 4-wheel vagina, algore-mobile.”
A deep-rooted, malignant anger regarding their diminished sense of manhood seethes at the core of pronouncements such as that, and the following, shared on my FaceBook scroll, this past Earth Day: “Happy Earhart day!!! How did you celebrate? I clubbed an adorable baby harp seal, dumped a barrel of waste oil down the storm drain, and started a giant tire fire!!! Good times….”
The sentiment expressed above is an imprecatory prayer, borne of uneasy submission i.e., the callow voice of deep denial, a manifestation of a culturally re-enforced, self-protective cynicism — a reflexive negation of novel ideas that masks a besieged psyche; it is the nihilistic rage appropriated by the powerless serving as a bulwark against the anxiety created by shifting circumstances and buffeted verities.
In the U.S., life keeps changing for the working class — and not for the better. Hence, an inner voice of doubt and despair falsely informs these men that the agents and effects of change will be of no help to them personally… that no one (especially smug, know-it-all liberals) can be of service to you, and, worse, what little you have amassed will be lost.
It is a common (unspoken) fear of the men I grew up around down south that if they were to let go of what little they clutch, nothing would arrive to replace what would be lost. There will be no place reserved for them and their families in the new situations and novel arrangements that (by their addled take on the situation) elitist environmentalist snobs contrive to force upon them.
Moreover, in the corporate state, the loss of community, in combination with the commercially rendered sameness of the environment and the all-encompassing, manic insistency of mass media — both of which are so devoid of depth, context and meaning — it has become increasingly difficult for an individual to gain then retain the sense of self necessary to know where one exists in relationship to time, place, and changing social and political circumstance.
How is it possible to move in the direction of propitious change when the demands and distractions of the corporate/consumer state have negated one’s ability to remain still and focus long enough to even grasp the nature of the problem?
The relentless exploitation of both earthscape and timescape has had a catastrophic effect upon the inner realms of thoughts, dreams, and imaginings of the citizen/consumers of the neo-liberal economic superstate.
Loss of place and an attendant crisis of identity are inextricably bound to the angst and anomie so evident in the present neo-liberal epoch: Being bereft of connection to land, sky, sea, and polis creates a profound sense of unease.
In contrast, a powerful sense of presence rises from within when standing before oceans, rivers, mountains, and even amid streams of human currents traversing the streets and boulevards of great cities. Conversely, where are we, in relationship to the truths of our being, when we are waiting for an order of processed, fast food in a line of automobiles idling at a drive-thru window or we are engaged in hollow communion with the sundry, glowing screens of information age appliances?
One’s sense of self and one’s beliefs, as well as, the mythos and traditions of a people are inextricably bound with place, landscape, and social situation. When I was a child, growing up in Alabama and Georgia, on occasions such as backcountry fishing expeditions, I would, at times, come in contact with rural African American farmers who still lived by the agrarian rhythms of the nineteenth century.
Occasionally, taking refuge from the afternoon heat of high summer, we would lounge on wooden porches and snap green beans, and I would listen as they quoted scripture.
The Jesus of their belief system was born of humble beginnings (a mere seed) and grew beneath the hot sun, but, at the height of maturity, was cut down, sacrificed so they may live, then, like their life-sustaining crops, was resurrected as next year’s seed crop. Suffused with a metaphoric analog of the criteria they lived day to day, these tales held resonance for these rural, farming people; the metaphors resounded with the verities of place and circumstance. The figure of Christ was as real to them as the snap beans beneath their fingertips.
Now, in an era in which the destination of most all of our objects and accoutrement is the landfill, Deep South mega-churches espouse a cosmology that resonates from a junk food paradigm: a Gospel of The Drive Thru Jesus…when The Rapture comes our corporeal bodies will be cast aside like fast food wrappers.
All in all, for both Christians and for secular-minded, market economy true believers, a belief in economic providence has proven our undoing — an insistence on its miraculous influence left us mistaking ad-hoc, bubble-borne affluence for a soul-vivifying portion of divine grace. The corporate/consumer state’s trickster gods of fast buck commerce offer drive-thru-window epiphanies. Members of the congregation of the Church of Free Market miracles believe their prayers will always be answered: Instantly, the consumer state’s homilies of perpetual gratification arrive — their voices crackling like a burning bush from drive-thru order-boxes.
Yet the redeemer gods of product placement cannot provide our dying culture with a longer shelf life. Belief in the deities of empyreal marketplace might provisionally banish doubt and diffidence — yet this mythos cannot shelter us from the anonymous fury of the exponential mathematics of global systems shifted into entropic runaway.
Although every generation inherits a howling wasteland and dwells in structures constructed of the bleached bone legacy of past generations — you’d have to go back to Late Cretaceous to find a generation that stands at the threshold of a mass die-off as we human beings do at present.
The Greek tragedians would have grasped the manic and destructive nature of late capitalism, how an obsessively heroic quest for victory carries the seeds of one’s undoing; ergo, by an over-reliance on his strengths and virtues the classical hero brought on his own demise — because the habit of heroic action rendered him closed off to novel awareness.
Victory is a closed system; in contrast, defeat opens one to the possibility of new adaptations.
You win a while, and then it’s done –
Your little winning streak.
And summoned now to deal
With your invincible defeat,
– Leonard Cohen
In the case of Greek tragedy, the hero (even the collective mindset of a people) cannot, in the long run, thrive evincing victory-engendered hubris. He will wend towards tragedy; he, with each successive triumph, will become so self-encapsulated with self-regard that only trauma will reopen his heart to the intimacies availed by earth and eternity
Jason will ignore all council and bring his trophy of war, Medea, back to Corinth, setting events in motion that will cause him to lose everything he loves. He will die alone, in demented revelry, crushed beneath the rotting stern of the Argo, the ship that bore him to glory.
You lose your grip, and then you slip
Into the Masterpiece.
– Leonard Cohen
Apropos, facing tragedy, to paraphrase Camus, is the opposite of naivety. Yet we go on, even though we think we cannot, when we bear the knowledge of the ultimate futility of our aspirations. Although struggling against overwhelming power and collective delusion seems futile, such endeavors thwart one’s drive for perfection: When we seek paradise, we find paradox. Over the long term, the manner we receive, respond, and are changed by these exchanges with the world is called (our) character.
In the sorrow of defeat, one gains the possibility of identification with the oppressed people of the earth. Loss brings an intermingling with the inherent beauty of the neglected things of the world.
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) a disaster.
– Elizabeth Bishop
In my better (too rare) moments, I take Walt Whitman’s approach: I believe an individual should endeavor to connect, mingle, even merge one’s broken heart with the various and varied things of the world… polis, people, and landscape.
There are many things, although vile and ugly, I remain on speaking terms with, extant and within me. Although, our cities are decayed, people troubled and landscapes degraded, I don’t avoid those places and situations — because this is the criteria with which I was given to work, by time and circumstance.
Even, at present, towards empire’s end, when we find ourselves bearing much grief, we are stranded amid ferocious beauty.
Where does one find succor and seeds of renewal in times such as these?
It might prove helpful to glance back at what has been dubbed the “do-it-yourself-art” practiced by the pioneers of Punk Rock.
Bored blind by tedious, onanistic guitar solos of the arena rock era, they approached their instruments with a minimalistic aesthetic. In other words, many burned with such fervor to seize back rock and roll from the stultifying, velvet rope elitism of the period that they had neither the time nor inclination to master more than three cords on their instruments — which they played very fast — and did for scant financial compensation, and even less acclaim, in shot-out clubs in decayed downtown locations such as Manhattan’s Bowery district, thus reintroducing the dirty, lowdown exuberance and subversive intimacy of early rock and roll, plus establishing the enduring principle that being an imbecilic, rock and roll egoist should be a democratic process — not exclusively limited to guitar technocrats or even those individuals possessed of the tyranny of talent.
Accordingly, we can cultivate gardens (individual and communal) appropriating the ash of yesterday’s excesses and the mulch of victories long past; we can plant heirloom seeds, both terrestrial and mnemonic. Thus beginning to allow our lives to become imbrued with the purpose and meaning that arrives when one’s labors are directed at making the world anew. While one cannot know the future, one can begin to move away from a reliance upon a dysfunctional present.