Overpopulation and the Anthropocene

Overpopulation is Not The Problem, by associate professor of geography and environmental systems, at the University of Maryland, Erle C. Ellis, is definitely an important piece to read – and not just because of the argument – “The conditions that sustain humanity are not natural and never have been. Since prehistoric, human populations have used technologies and engineered ecosystems to sustain populations well beyond the capabilities of unaltered “natural” ecosystems.”

In the argument, we thus must also ask about how we’re educating ourselves – and those to come – so as to follow data, science, principles and ethics and humanisms wide reach, thus ensuring that we’re moving towards a more pronounced technological future with empathy and care.   The challenge, according to Ellis, is here:

The science of human sustenance is inherently a social science. Neither physics nor chemistry nor even biology is adequate to understand how it has been possible for one species to reshape both its own future and the destiny of an entire planet. This is the science of the Anthropocene. The idea that humans must live within the natural environmental limits of our planet denies the realities of our entire history, and most likely the future. Humans are niche creators. We transform ecosystems to sustain ourselves. This is what we do and have always done. Our planet’s human-carrying capacity emerges from the capabilities of our social systems and our technologies more than from any environmental limits.

Since we are “niche” creators, the danger, of course, is in creating a “niche of terror and devastation,” a niche, for instance, the excludes others, that, as Chris Hedges argues, creates “sacrifice zones.”

The Death of 11058

My day, last Friday, began with a burial. I buried ram number 11058, his Animal Identification Number (AIN) tagged on his left ear. He was but 7 months old. To us, he was not 11058, rather he was “Manru,” named after a character in one of my son’s dark comedic scripts. Only Manru’s end was anything but comedic.

A few days prior, almost overnight, his jaw became swollen, a sign that parasites had overtaken him. (The vet informed me he had 35,000 parts per gram; 500 parts is the limit. He was hit hard.) White Dorpers , which originate in South Africa and considered the best meat, are quite resistant to parasites. Not Manru, though; he showed a predilection.  They are a warm, easy breed that doesn’t have a problem grazing around one’s legs and rubbing up against you. I often ran my hand over Manru’s shoulders and over his head; he seemed to like it and he’d stand for a bit taking in my touch.

Manru Swollen Jaw

Manru Swollen Jaw

When the weather changes, here in VT, at dusk it’s cooler and the sheep are a bit friskier. Manru took to practicing what eventually would be his duty. The ewes didn’t mind; they just kept eating as if Manru was but a fly on their backs. But he tried. Manru always tried.

In his last week, along with multivitamins, vitamin B Complex, safeguard, RedGlo, and sheep drain, I fed him by hand, 3 – 4 times a day, a blend of organic grain and grasses and molases. After a feeding session, where I held his little head in my hands as I stood over him, he’d collapse from exhaustion. I placed water in front of him, but he hardly had energy to draw.

Aldo, our Maremma livestock guard dog, as things progressed, laid next to him, close enough to buttress him. When the other sheep grazed, Aldo laid in the cool grass between them, as if he was doing double duty watching out for the most vulnerable. After a feeding, I placed food near Manru just to urge him to try for more, and Aldo remained near, never touching the food. Aldo’s instinct humbled me – such knowledge, such understanding, something we can all learn from, I thought.  Total trust in what he understood; there were no questions, just surety.

Then early Friday morning – it must have been 1:30 – 2AM – we heard Aldo barking in the barn. Aldo’s bark was different. When he’s guarding the sheep, especially at night, his bark is ferocious, chilling. But this morning’s bark was mellifluous, longer and it lasted for about 20 minutes. Then silence.

My wife, Nina, turned to me in the dark and whispered, “Manru’s dead.” She heard the signs. I didn’t say anything. I knew what Aldo was saying – that instinct I trusted too. Aldo was calling out to us, telling us something had happened.

On this humid day, gnats already flying about, I slid opened the barn doors. It was 6 AM.  Usually, the sheep are resting, still lounging about waiting to see what I’m going to do. Instead they were all gathered as if in a waiting room; they looked like a group in deep discussion. The sheep like to hang in one large stall, one of 4 – but not today. The were all hovering in the center of the barn.

Aldo and Ewes in Barn

Aldo and Ewes in Barn

Aldo came to greet me and quickly turned and ran through the sheep, opening a path to the stall – but he didn’t go in until I did, then he stood a few steps to my side and behind me, watching me and Manru.  I looked at Aldo.  He has an uncanny gift for a dog: he looks back right into your eyes. He looked at me, then at Manru and I got the strangest feeling that he was watching to make sure I was going to handle this correctly.

Manru was in a corner leaning against a wall.  He was stretched out.  He was soft, restful.  His eyes were gray, as if covered by a film. I knelt and ran my hand over his head, as I used to do, and then down his body. I felt his legs – then back again. And I placed my hand, finally, against his side.  I knew I was touching what once was Manru; just as I knew that I was touching death, what death feels like. The silence, the image of what once was and is no more.  That’s what death is, a memory, something you can’t quite have again, not fully and completely, not as I once had him up against my leg grazing as I scratched behind his head.  No. That was over. That’s death.

The sheep gathered at the stall’s open door but wouldn’t come in – they just stared.

Aldo and Ewes

Aldo and Ewes

Manru was about 90 pounds and I lifted him onto a wheelbarrow and brought him to the back of the paddocks where I have a cemetery. Farms have cemeteries. Life and death are constant on a farm, something we rarely even consider.  But we never get accustomed to seeing death face-to-face; we accept it, but it’s never something that’s welcomed.  It is, however, understood.  The supreme commander.  The end of everything known.

Just the other day, an acquaintance, knowing what had happened, said to me, “I could never raise livestock. It’s too painful.” I of course wondered what she thought was on her dinner plate when she ate meat and poultry. Death is even prevalent on vegetable farms; it’s an ongoing cycle of life into death and back again. One informs the other. Only we forget that.

We’re scared of death when it’s up close; we’re even frightened of it when it’s off at a distance. We’re also very scared of what’s real; that is, we’re scared to know what it takes to raise an animal so that it completes its lifecycle, helping you complete yours.  They’re cycling through too.  We’re all so interconnected – everything is connected. This is one reason why industrialized farming has gotten out of control. We have been educated into not wanting to know, not wanting to see, not wanting to experience. Of course, this way of existing has tentacles and it reaches all aspects of our lives – then we say things like, Well, it’s the new normal, or, Well, I’m lazy I don’t want to know, I prefer not to, or, Well, I’m glad someone’s doing it, just not me, or, perhaps one of the worst, I don’t want to know what’s on my plate. I do.  I want to know.

I’m reminded of the old Holiday Inn ad. Remember? What’s so great about the Holiday Inn, said the ad, it’s the same place wherever you go. That’s what we want. No surprises, a prophylactic that’s called sameness; it’s why fast foods are so popular – a McDonald’s in New York is the same as one in Los Angeles, and points in-between.  We don’t want variation because it requires we become acquainted with change – and we’re always changing, cycling towards death. That’s too much for a culture that’s embraced the spectacle as life itself.   A constant diet of this leaves a residue, a kind of heavy resistance for what’s real and natural; it’s an act of collective repression that annihilates inquiry, critical thought and dialog.  It also creates a culture that’s easy to deceive.

The ground was heavy with tall grasses and rocks as I shoved my shovel into the soil.  I was drenched in sweat by the time I finished the hole for Manru – 3 & 1/2 by 3 & 1/2 by 3 feet, deep enough to deter coyotes, foxes, wild dogs from wanting to dig him up. They’re cycling through too.  We’re all so interconnected. I looked up and realized that his resting place was 10 feet from Amos’, our German Shepherd that passed 4 years ago.  And he was just a few feet from George, the 3 legged cat.  The cemetery.

I placed Manru in his hole – no other way to really say it.  His hole.  Our hole.  A hole – just that.  Earth to earth, right?  The dark hole of eternity.  I covered him over, placed some rocks over the mound so I could go back from time to time after the dirt settled, and I walked off and gathered the sheep and moved them to a fresh paddock for grazing.  Life doesn’t stop.  It just changes a bit every so often and we’re tested – can we adapt to the changes, can we adapt to the surety of where we’re headed? How are we spending our brief moment here? What do we value and why?

Grazing - a New Day

Grazing – a New Day

College Affordability and the Order of the Day

The other day, speaking at Binghampton University, in New York, President Obama said the following:

“But…let’s assume that we eliminated all discrimination magically with a wand, and everybody had goodness in their heart, you’d still have a situation in which there are a lot of folks who are poor, and whose families have become dysfunctional, because of a long legacy of poverty, and live in neighborhoods that are run-down and schools that are underfunded and don’t have a strong property tax base.”

Concomitantly, as it so happens, Noam Chomsky, speaking in Bonn, Germany, at the DW Global Media Forum about how the United States is not behaving anything like a democracy, said the following:

“Well, another important feature of RECD [really existing capitalist democracy; it has several daunting characteristics described in Chomsky’s talk] is that the public must be kept in the dark about what is happening to them. The “herd” must remain “bewildered”. The reasons were explained lucidly by the professor of the science of government at Harvard – that’s the official name – another respected liberal figure, Samuel Huntington. As he pointed out, “power remains strong when it remains in the dark. Exposed to sunlight, it begins to evaporate”.” [inclusion of brackets mine]

We can’t have it both ways. Which is it? Are we indeed moving towards a classless society where social justice, compassion and empathy – and opportunity for all – are at the heart or are we moving towards a society where more and more, each day, we are “herded” further into “bewilderment” and unknowing, which is very quickly followed by apathy, the sense of giving up, because nothing will change so we have to go along with the plan that we don’t see?

We can find an answer to these questions in President Obama’s most recent bus tour to promote his education policies – college affordability – meant to extend the opportunities for those that graduate from college. These policies, interestingly, run parallel to the Administration’s Race to the Top, the K-12 program (more on this below).

A way to end poverty, says President Obama, is to ensure that all citizens that want access to affordable higher education should have it.  Makes sense. Good idea. Obama’s plan is to grade institutions of higher education by matching outcomes to costs. Presumably, then, somehow the cost of higher education will be measured by where graduates land jobs, what they achieve and how these achievements can then point to a profitable, worthwhile future for students and the country. Okay, very dreamy.

But what this proposed plan will undoubtedly create is the following:

  • A stronger demarcation between the haves and the have nots, a more stringent hierarchy.
  • A greater concentration of power among the few, but particularly among those that will follow the path of banking (see Chomsky, above), which is where wealth is being made today.
  • A greater concentration of power is always followed by tighter surveillance, tighter policing and a further reduction in civil liberties; it’s also followed by a more nationalistic approach to foreign policy (isn’t it ironic – even uncanny – that a rise in racial profiling, an increase in drone terrorism and greater power given to Wall Street all happened while the first African American president presides over the nation? never mind the diminution in civil liberties …)

Why do I say these things? Because while the Obama Administration is looking to use outcomes as a means to curtail education costs, a reason for the high cost of higher education is not outcomes, but rather, inputs.

Here’s what I mean: the best colleges and universities – Harvard, Princeton, Yale, so on – make sure to attract the best – and best known (read: best published) – professors; this entails paying well and having personalized budgets for the professors’ respective research projects. In turn, these luminaries attract money from all sectors of our society – military, technology, science and medicine, and business. Money begets money.

Students in the best colleges and universities work closely with some of the best minds in the country; students are connected to future work through research, internships, and simple face-to-face meetings at conferences, and so on. In other words, the best students are carefully groomed to be on the cutting edge stage.  Also, these great schools have tremendously powerful and well connected alumni groups that take on as their responsibility the promotion of young, up and coming undergraduates and graduate students. It’s a conveyor belt to wealth and power. The reward is of course a wonderful life, material security, and great fun without needing to worry about the rest, those left behind.  This is not going away; it’s only going to get stronger.  And no one in this world is going to give this up – that’s for certain.

This conveyor belt wants participants to enter into different nodes in the current production system. This system does not want game changers, people that will come up with changes to level the playing field – President Obama is a prime example. In fact, this system works because it relies on the very notion that education is hierarchical and the different nodes in the system are synonymous with the inputs elite colleges and universities have put into place with donor funding.

The outcomes Obama wants to measure are easily done by these elite schools – in fact, they’re already doing it: go to the leading industries in this country – the military, government and Wall Street, technology – and you can see who is sitting where, wielding power and making policy: they all come from top schools – say the top 20 -50 schools. Take a quick look when college seniors look for work in powerful enterprises and you’ll find that the most profitable industries already have in place a method for hiring – and it starts with the Ivies. The back rooms on Wall Street are filled with students that have attended second and third tier schools (Of course there are exceptions, but generally speaking, this is par for the course.)

If we then add Obama’s K-12 plan, Race to the Top, we can note some parallels. Take New York City, for instance. Those students and families that have enough understanding of the system, are moving to charter schools and elite public schools such as Bronx Science and Stuyvesant. What’s happening in NYC is that those kids that don’t have family support, that don’t have the proper preparation to take entrance tests, and so on, are left behind in some of the more challenged, large, urban public schools. It’s difficult to get ahead. In turn, the best colleges and universities, whether working through special programs in the inner city or looking at individual students, first go to the best schools because, naturally, they want students to succeed; their success turns up on the bottom line.

So where are we?

We are where Chomsky says we are: a nation where power is easily kept hidden from the majority; where the majority are too easily sold programs and ideas by people that have other notions in mind – namely to maintain the status quo. Power, kept this way, is deeply rooted; it’s ancient and therefore hard to move – if at all. This is not pessimism, rather the way things are. We live in a spectacle society because it’s essential; it is a means by which powerful entities claim to have answers, color these answers – college affordability – in dreamy language, when in fact what’s happening is a deeper, more powerful entrenchment of the (historical) ways power is kept. Education is – and will be – a very powerful way to ensure our means of existence stay just as they’ve always been. Education is another arm of power.

Work Today and the Loss of the Sublime

We can learn quite a lot about ourselves by examining a single word: work. Our sense of this very simple word has undergone a tectonic shift – and we’ve changed right along with it.

In The Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that, “Every art and every investigation, and similarly every action and pursuit, is considered to aim at some good.” Thus we have work’s dialectical structure: art and investigation – a study, the creation of a thing, a building or a bridle, a poem, music, and so on – and the moral action that binds these in relation to a justification. This is a covenant between the pre-knowledge or desire that motivates one to an art or an investigation, the art/investigation itself and the result, some good, which is a moral bind. Skills are good; nurturing the “faculties,” as Aristotle calls medical science, military science, arts and sciences – our academic disciplines today – is good.

For Aristotle, the responsibility in maintaining a healthy, meaningful covenant resides in the individual. S/he must never neglect her/his work; doing so will hinder one’s journey toward self-fulfillment and a more complete self. Neglect would also hurt the community because, says Aristotle, “For even if the good of the community coincides with that of the individual, it is clearly a greater and more perfect thing to achieve and preserve that of a community; for while it is desirable to secure what is good in the case of an individual, to do so in the case of a people or a state is something finer and more sublime.”

Sublime: elevated or lofty in thought, languageetc.; impressing the mind with a sense of grandeur or power; inspiring awe, veneration, etc.. That’s the supreme goal, the ultimate good.

But we’ve abdicated our responsibility to a covenant with work to the detriment of our communities and ourselves. We’re not in control of our destiny, which is key to Aristotle – and later to Aquinas.

The major shift in our appreciation of work is this: we have moved far from work as sublime, something finer for the greater good of the community that, in turn, would elevate each and everyone one of us towards a higher, more enlightened sense of self, to the sense that work is practical, for survival, for riches and comforts – something we have to do, earn a living. Work is subjugated by earning.

Work has moved away from its more philosophical, moral origins and presently complies with the needs of individuals, first. Understood this way, work cannibalizes rather then nurtures; it pits one against the other in fierce competition; and it undermines, ironically, the actual legitimacy of the individual because the worker must comply, not with dreams, aspirations and creativity, but with ruling ideologies. Ideologies have redefined work by colonizing consciousness. “The result,” says John Ralston Saul, in The Unconscious Civilization, “…is a growing imbalance which leads to our adoration of self-interest and our denial of public good.”

Work is exhausting, drudgery, uninspiring. College students choose courses that will pay off, not spiritually, not even intellectually, but rather financially, complying with some imagined future full of material possessions. Despair reigns among those seeking employment: far too many young people are either not employed or under employed. “I’ll take just about anything right now,” we hear. Current unemployment is at 7.4%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Take a tour of vacation advertisements, too. Three days here, there; 5 cities in 7 days; bungee jumping, scaling mountains in a day; Hawaii today, Alaska tomorrow – see nature’s wonders, run past a bear feeding on salmon. A quick picture with a cell phone. Onto Facebook. These vacations, meant to release stress, create it and openly promote the conveyor belt psychology that privileges “growing adoration of self-interest.” It’s solely about me.

If we think clearly, we shouldn’t need – or want – a vacation from work that’s sublime, should we? We wouldn’t want to leave it, rather we’d want to take it with us wherever we go because we’re nurtured by it, we grow with it.

Our understanding of work, in part, has lead to the existential crisis we’re experiencing as Americans – who are we? where are we going? why?

What is happiness today?

And where should work fit into a sublime journey of self-discovery, which is, after all, what life is – a journey in which each stage moves us deeper into an understanding of our relationships with the world around us – and prepares us for a dignified death, our final life experience? It’s suppose to lead us to greater empathy, rather then away from it. Work like this is spiritual in nature. But there are many obstacles.

We can date this change, and begin to see the obstacles, by looking at three seminal texts that mark a societal transformation towards hyper-individualism, away from the greater good and towards a more intense – and systemic – narcissism: Joseph Conrad‘s Heart of Darkness (1899, published in seriel fashion in the 1000th issue of Blackwood’s Magazine; in 1902, included in the book Youth: A Narrative, and Two Stories), Henry James‘s The Turn of the Screw (1898), and the text that opens the floodgates, Sigmund Freud‘s The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) .

These three crucial texts, at the doorstep of World War I, announce the individual’s retrieval from a sense of the public good – even from the public sphere – and towards a perverse solipsism that pushes aside any notion that work is somehow linked to sublimity.

Truth is hard to come by as we transition into industrialization, physically, spiritually and emotionally. Conrad, James and Freud chronicle a veering in our understanding of work and point to an increasing need for reclusive spaces to rest, think and create. Even in Freud we see that the artist, for instance, retreats, leaves society, the community, to create. And we see the need to work through objects in order to get a better sense of the world, some grounding – be it Marlow in Conrad or multiple storytellers speaking simultaneously in James so as to highlight the artificiality of the world.

It’s important to understand that as these texts are acclaimed and debated publicly we are marching towards the first mechanized war, a terrifying thought that was held only in the imagination then. But we now know better. From World War I to the present, we transition from tanks and mustard gas to drones and satellites, post-modern prophylactics for killing, a more nuanced, perhaps, repression of the moral conditions of our times. Besides cultural, political and financial unrest throughout Europe signaling the encroaching storm of war, also bringing this period to the forefront is the Paris Exposition – Exposition Universelle – of 1900, which celebrated the achievements of the past century and ushered in the new – escalators, the Eiffel Tower, diesel engines, film and telegraphones.

The individual finds himself in nebulous times at the turn of the century; insecurity is made even more pronounced by experimentation in art and music, as well. Think Stravinksy‘s Rise of Spring, which premiers in Paris in 1913; Baudelaire is tried for obscenity for certain poems in Le Fleurs du mal (1857); the transition from the Impressionists and van Gogh to Picasso, who says that, “through art we express our conception of what nature is not.” This a very confusing challenge to one’s sense of self – another turn of the screw, we might say. The artificial becomes the norm, even a religion. Composer Hans Pfitzner describes “the international a-tonal movement” as the “artistic parallel of the Bolshevism which is menacing political Europe.” The avantegarde assault on the senses is confusing because art is based on structures, order, not disorder – yet the individual, aesthetically, politically, and spiritually is being dislodged, asked to re-think “the Order of Things.”

“In our dreams,” writes Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy, “we delight in the immediate understanding of figures; all forms speak to us; there is nothing unimportant or superfluous. But even when this dream reality is most intense, we still have, glimmering through it, the sensation that it is mere appearance.”

It is this sense of reality as illusion that parallels our own age; it taints one’s journey towards an understanding of the self; and it skews the philosophical, moral and spiritual classical understanding of work, since the purpose of work, in 1900 and now, is for something outside the self. The individual is expendable.

Heart of Darkness can be accepted as a journey into the bleakest of recesses of the human condition – but only on the surface; it is the illusion of historical documentation. Anti-colonialism, the idea of individual freedom and a fidelity to the work ethic as salvation are traditional readings of Heart of Darkness. But if we approach the text as Marlow, our narrator, does, we find that blindness “is very proper for those who tackle a darkness.” In Heart of Darkness, Conrad speculates that in a mechanical universe what is flesh or body, no less soul? All seems already lost. Hard things, resistant things – metal, mechanization – have superseded softness, flexibility, humanity itself. The individual, in Conrad, is tempted to become unfeeling, tough and durable in order to survive. Work, tough work, keeping a distance from any emotional connection to one’s work, is a part of it all – and a violent turn from Aristotle. In Conrad’s story, therefore, human waste is pervasive, the ivory being the central symbol here. The ivory – men work and die for it – is solely for the rich, a luxury, like art. The world of work and who benefits from the means of production have been successfully established.

In Heart of Darkness we transition into the dark side of Modernism and point to our post-modern narcissism. Where else can we go after such terrifying emotional conditions? But before we get to us, we must pass through Hitler and his most radical and unacceptable way of getting rid of Modernism – vehemence, hatred, and violence – mindless persecution. The world, post World War II, then, is forever tainted, having experienced the “daemonization,” as Harold Bloom calls it, of all academic conditioning and the pervasive evil leveled against anyone who supported Modernism. The world after World War II struggles to become more homogenized, more hierarchical and conservative.

For this to succeed, the individual has to be effectively removed from the self. Nowhere is this more evident then in James’s The Turn of the Screw, which begins with a confusing narrative, voice over voice trying to pierce the artificiality of the tale. The story is, ironically, an “apparition,” doubling as a mirror of reality, the Nietzschean sense of “the sensation of mere appearance.” Only this “mere appearance” has repercussions; a “ghost of a dreadful kind” alters the sense of what’s real and what’s not. All known systems of knowledge – reason especially – have broken down.

In Modern and Modernism, my mentor (NYU), Frederick Karl, sees this as a history that exists in the seams of the text, “a secondary apparatus”: ” a way of suggesting how uncertain and discontinuous evidence is; which is another way of saying irony undercuts not only our views of characters but the every day world.”

God is dead. Science is to be questioned – a suspect. Social structures are breaking down. And institutions, though formidable, cannot be trusted. But more importantly for us, the Aristotelian meaning of work is completely lost. We’re looking for the spiritual in artificiality – reality tv, the Kardashians, mediated sports, etc..

Enter Freud and The Interpretation of Dreams. Where else could we be but in a place whereby, as Freud says, “every dream reveals itself as a psychical structure which has a meaning and which can be inserted at an assignable point in the mental activities of waking life”?

Peter Gay, in Freud: A Life for Our Time, suggests that The Interpretation of Dreams is, “in short,” he writes, “undefinable.” In keeping with the times, Freud’s Dreams is an autobiography, a survey of psychoanalytic fundamentals, “sharply etched vignettes of the Viennese medical world, rife with rivalries and the hunt for status, and of an Austrian society, infected with anti-Semitism and at the end of its liberal decades.”

But key to our discussion on work is what Freud says about “resistance”: “Whatever disturbs the progress of the work is a resistance.” In some ways, Freud returns, through psychoanalysis, to Aristotle’s dialectic [on work]; here, it is both the work of psychoanalysis – patient and analyst working together – and the resistance evident in the patient when attempting to work at defining – or approximating – the repression proper, the first instance that began the reason for the need for analysis.

What is also critical in Freud is the picture we get of psychoanalysis: an affluent client on a leather couch, reclining in a room amidst classic pictures and sculptures (Freud kept these objects on his desk), seeking to find herself or himself; Freud sitting just off the shoulder, unseen by the patient, pipe and pen and pad in hand, scribbling his notes. This is spiritual work removed from the church, by now dead. Here, we also see Conrad’s hard, mechanized world, as well as James’s layered structure of the world – elusive, and an illusion. This is not work in the traditional sense, though I’m aware that I’ve said that Freud returns us to a sort of neo-Aristotlean sense of work.  This is heady stuff, the work of the soul in an increasingly secular world.

For Freud, being that Dreams is his most significant work – not just in psychoanalytic terms, but also in terms of style, literature – it is important to understand that professionally – the world of work – he is trying to “normalize” psychoanalysis. In other words, he is trying to mainstream the work of psychoanalysis. Our collective acceptance of “therapy” as legitimate work begins here.

Peter Gay: “One irresistible discovery, which forms a central theme in The Interpretation of Dreams and of psychoanalysis in general, was that the most persistent human wishes are infantile in origin, impermissible in society, and for the most part so adroitly concealed that they remain virtually inaccessible to conscious scrutiny.”

Thus work is mired somewhere between “persistent human wishes” that “are infintile in origin,” (we need only think about Anthony Weiner here, and Eliot Spitzer), mechanization/technological speed, progress and alienation (we need only think about a couple having dinner while looking into their cell phones), and the chasm between the sublime nature of work and its current, materialistic driven nature (and, here, we need only look at our current political climate to note the disconnect between service for the good of the community vs service to me and my own).

Here we have the nature of work today – nothing we educate people about; we just put our heads down, nose to the grindstone, and persist to the detriment of ourselves and others – and the future. In this example, the story is 115 years old, approximately.

Where will it go, I wonder? Do you know? Can you guess?

Love’s Labor: The Long View in Education

for Katie, who brought me this essay

My relationship with students has changed dramatically over time and is determined less by my knowledge of disciplines and more by how sensitive I am to their emotional and psychological needs.

Students have changed over time, as our culture has changed, requiring that I rely more on my intuition, my sense of things, keeping faith that my ongoing study can be conjured instantly and give me the knowledge of content I need at a moment’s notice. This requires constant preparation on my part. I taught before the Internet, and now with it; I taught when it was only paper and pencil, and I teach now when technology is ubiquitous, sometimes even distracting. And, let’s not forget that in these last 28 years, we’ve experienced huge socioeconomic, global shifts that have affected students and teachers, as well higher education itself.

My relationship with students is determined less by the constraints of a 12 week semester (Middlebury has a 12 week term, with a January “J”term) and more by my sense of the long view; that is, my relationship with 18 – 22 year olds is defined by how well I foster the sense that what we’re developing together in the classroom and in my office is long term and made to last because we need to face the world together. It’s too harrowing to do otherwise. I see this as the essence of the liberal arts education, the most vital responsibility for today’s professor. Anything else is window dressing – the business of education, not teaching meaningfully.

We have crossed over to a different time, forced upon us by how students and their families are reacting to the confusing stresses of our times: globalization and the compression of time and space, and the narrowing of opportunity; the breakdown of institutions that we were accustomed to relying on, including education; the cracks and falsehoods of ideologies; the ongoing secularization of society; the dysfunction of governments – and fundamentalism running amuck; climate change and the challenges to our environment that, consequently, raise concerns about food and health care. These are all huge pressures that make everyone that is even remotely paying attention anxious; students, more so, since they are all experiencing incredibly complex forms of vulnerability.

Students are demanding a different academic experience, something that is more complete and holistic, and determined less by the recklessness of departmentalization and the privileging of idiosyncrasies that have lead to overspecialization and underemployment, our current problem. Students are demanding acknowledgement; they demand to be seen and heard – and to be understood. Students need to have their anxieties taken seriously – and for the curriculum to react and change accordingly. Thus, the word relevant has become a measure: is this course relevant? is this school? this technology? this pedagogy?

In other words, students are challenging what has been a rather passive approach to education, particularly among colleges and universities, not least of which are the elites with tuition approximating 60K a year. What is the relevance? You can hear students and families asking.

Students, families, teachers – all of us share a desire to learn, and to do so actively. It’s ironic, actually, that today’s conditions have forced us academics to move towards more active representations of knowledge, pushing us, even unwittingly, towards Paulo Freire, Maxine Greene and bell hooks, just to name a few who have advocated a deeper, richer meaning for the teaching and learning experience. These are the thinkers that have always believed that the process of learning is a mutual experience, a creative exchange between students, teachers, the institution and its place in society.

So I smiled the other day when a student with which I have a very long standing relationship with – as well as with her older sister and her family – sent me a passionate text about Vijay Govindarajan, the Earl C. Daum 1924 Professor of International Business at the Tuck School at Dartmouth. She attended Tuck and she was beside herself after Govindarajan’s talk. “We have to bring him to Middlebury,” she texted. His central idea, found in Reverse Innovation: Create Far From Home, Win Everywhere, is simply that “reverse innovation is any innovation that is adopted first in the developing world. Surprisingly often, these innovations defy gravity and flow uphill.” Thus the developing world benefits, as then does the world from which, traditionally, innovation occurs first because of wealth and technology. Creativity and innovation flow upward, from the poorest countries to the riches; this is new, says Govindarajan, because rich countries can afford to innovate – they demand it and people have grown to expect it. But what works for the rich doesn’t necessarily work for the developing. (What works for the classically trained, elite professor, doesn’t necessarily work for even the best of students in today’s world.) This is creating huge adjustments in the world of innovation, technology and business.

There are several reasons for my smile, my glee, when I got this text and launched into my reading of Reverse Innovation:

  1. A student reached out – she took the time – and taught me something; her view of learning is active, new, fresh, believing that we – she and I – can and must learn together;
  2. She’s trusting that I will move forward with this; in turn, this means that in the two years we’ve shared, and the time we have together at Middlebury, she can rely on me, trust me – I in her. This is monumental in the development of the long view, and she has it; she’s looking for deep, abiding meaning and significance; she’s looking to push aside anxieties about the future by creating a view for herself, a way through;
  3. Reverse innovation is unique to business, which she understands; however, it should not be new to her since she’s been deeply engaged in education issues, working with me on these Freirean ideas: “For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other”(italics mine);
  4. We always learn from each other and, today, the point is to acknowledge this reality – and for teachers to open up to student innovation, a kind of reverse innovation, which sounds counterintuitive but, as Govindarajan would argue, defies gravity. We know this to be true since this student’s experience with me has been exactly Govindarajan’s definition of reverse innovation. She, in fact, motivated this small essay, my first acknowledgement that, professionally and intimately, I hear her, I see her and I care for what she has to say. She is teaching me.

Govindarajan’s Reverse Innovation may be new to business; it’s not new to educators that have been working assiduously, to use bell hooks here, to teach to transgress. As engaged education thinkers say, education is, indeed, the practice of freedom. Govindarajan, in reverse innovation, sees, in business, a practice to freedom as well.

The tragic irony is that as globalization and new markets see this need – innovation floating uphill, rather then the more intuitive downhill – education is moving in the opposite direction, working to eliminate innovation, squash creativity, and squelch the very important relationship that must exist between a teacher and a student; this relationship defies standardization, rather it requires that more time be given close, innovative, encounters that can begin to define – and design – meaningful pathways through the complexities we find today. For me, these gateways happen in the classroom, during long hours in my office, and online. Academics must learn to use all the tools available to us so as to create the sense that education is wed to a long view held together by deep relationships where empathy, understanding and love are the guiding lights.

The Meaning of LeBron James

There’s a photograph of a close friend and former student that has remained fixed in my mind: two young lads, teenagers, wearing LeBron James, Cleveland Cavalier’s game shirts, number 23, one red and one white, stand amidst the solemnity of the Walling Wall, or Kotel, located in the Old City of Jerusalem at the foot of the western side of the Temple Mount.

Ryan at the Walling Wall

Ryan at the Walling Wall

LeBron James means something to these kids from Cleveland. He was the world to them to such an extent that they appear at one of the holiest sights in the world sporting his jersey. LeBron was hope — not just for Cleveland but for the post Michael Jordan NBA; his is the American Horatio Alger story we so need to keep alive — from poor Akron, Ohio, to the fourth highest paid athlete in the world, the kid who wasn’t suppose to be holding up the Larry O’Brien Championship trophy after the Heat beat the Spurs, 95-88; he was the new face of Black American hope, even before President Obama, as James explains how he’ll be the first billion dollar athlete and, to this aim, he installed his closest friends to run his empire, heard first on the  60 Minute interview.

LeBron James means something to the NBA. He’s moved our attention past the dearth of exhilarating play that fell on the NBA after Michael Jordan retired. He’s excited new narratives — is he better than Michael? will he have an equal amount of championships — can he catch Jordan? is he more like Magic Johnson? is he the best of both?

The game today is not the game Michael played. And for me, speaking strictly basketball, James is the prodigal son of a long standing prototype that has adapted to and animated the evolving play of the NBA. LeBron James is true, imaginative adaptation. Think Karl Malone, “The Mailman, “ generally considered one of the greatest power forwards and long held to be a strong leader, even another coach. Think of the 6’9″ Magic Johnson and the selfless play, the incredible vision, the passing, the shooting, the quickness. And we can take a page out of Larry Byrd, too, if we consider basketball IQ in a deep and penetrating sense. LeBron James is all these players — and Michael Jordan (who wasn’t all these players).

Basketball — as in most sports — is keen on comparing numbers and trophies, the accolades that fund a vertical profit structure and that can give a player — and a team — value; this is why racing to comparisons with Michael Jordan abound and are easy to make. The comparisons are trite, though; these types of comparisons are like statistical models in economics, say: they only tell one small piece of the story. What this modeling fails to see is that LeBron James, in his young career, has already outdone Michael Jordan — if we look at the whole man, beyond the game, and understand that, unlike Michael, there are moments when a figure appears and transforms his sport, as well as the perceptions of fans and the culture at large.

LeBron James is a product of our culture and he’s transforming it as well — the good and not so good. This is his true meaning — and some may not like this, while others see vitality and hope. It’s a fresh narrative line when we most need it since the other being that was to transform our culture — Change Obama — has clearly not, acting more like Mike then LeBron.

Here’s how it works:

Mediated sports in American culture — their immediacy, their narrative strategies, their universal appeal — occupy the unique function of continuing the ongoing tensions — relationships, influences and antagonisms — in the dominant culture. The assumptions about popular culture concerning race, class, and gender — especially masculinity — are grahically displayed in media’s representation of sports. In other words, there are but a few figures that stand in the center of this spectacle that are transforming these tensions, while also, before our eyes, being transformed by them. And it is here where we are offered a mirror of who we are. One such person is LeBron James, of course.

But to get there, we have to begin with Michael Jordan’s problematic position in popular culture.

“To some, Jordan in his prime became the embodiment of Black Power,” writes William C. Rhoden in Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete; “to me he is the antithesis, however, the embodiment, if anything, of the destructive power of the Conveyor Belt and the perversion of the nobler goals of integration.”

Who is Mike? asks Rhoden.

Jordan is the one who fully exercises the won right to be publicly neutral, not to have to deal with quotas and segregation, and even to have the ‘black’ elements of style and image — bald head, baggy pants, soaring acrobatics — not just accepted by the mainstream, but revered, freeing him to be obsessed with wealth and image. Freed by the Civil Rights movement to be neutral, he’s lightly shrugged off the historical mission of black athletes to push for progress and power.

Jordan paid a price for this. In May 2003, Jordan was summoned to Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin’s office and categorically dismissed, Rhoden tells us (as did many others in the media).

“I didn’t do this for the money,” Jordan told Pollin. “I thought I was going to take over the franchise eventually” (in Rhoden).

“That was never a part of the arrangement,” Pollin responded, Rhoden tells us. “I’ve worked thirty-nine years to build this organization. I’m not giving it to you and I don’t want you to be my partner, Michael.”

Says Rhoden, “Intentionally or not, the dismissal served as a warning shot that reverberated through the NBA. The greatest athlete of all time — “God,” “the deity,” His Airness — couldn’t prevent his own firing. Jordan was effectively taken out into the yard and shot like a dog.”

This is not LeBron James. He learned from Jordan’s don’t make waves, go along quietly and just Be like Mike attitude. In fact, James may have learned from the Williams sisters: they’ve paved their own way, created their own, respective voices in tennis and, literally, as in the case of Serena that “runs women’s tennis like Kim Jong-un runs North Korea: ruthlessly, with spare moments of comedy, indolence and the occasional appearance of a split personality,” designed their own lives and fortunes — on their terms.

LeBron James’ meaning encompasses something of all the descriptors used for Serena Williams, the antithesis of the Be like Mike, quiet persona that refuses to take a stand on anything. James is something other then Jordan’s passivity and reluctance to engage any racial challenge. When LeBron James was handed the MVP and the NBA championship, standing with each trophy securely in his arms, he acknowledged coming from Akron, Ohio, saying that he wasn’t even suppose to be here, the champion, a profound political statement in a dramatic moment.

As Rhoden suggests, Jordan was fully aware of his double standard and, like most African – Americans “playing the game, seeing racism and sidestepping it, grumbling about it under his breath, but pushing it to one side in order to reap the full benefits of a multiracial society. At the same time, even if his attitude about race was familiar and defensible, his actions remained troubling.” Who could forget, in 1992, when Jordan balked at wearing the Reebock designed United States Olympic Committee awards-ceremony uniform and covering it with the American flag, of all things?

What’s the point?

The point is that LeBron James is reaching far beyond the confines of race in sports, pushing the boundaries, creating new models to consider. Somewhere in America today, young boys are running around trying to be like LeBron, not Mike, and wonder, as LeBron has said, if they too can use basketball as a stepping stone to other ventures.

But this, too, is the problem, and deeply felt, more then most, by Cleveland fans. In order to be the first million dollar athlete, and taking a page from the Williams sisters, more so then from any other story today — except for, maybe, Muhammad Ali — LeBron James is floating to the heights of capitalism like no other athlete before, conflating Black Power, Black Style and (Black?) Capitalism. This was made evident in The Decision. James said he wanted to win championships, the hard road to value and to making an impact on history. The people of Cleveland were devastated; unfortunately this is because most fans don’t understand the business of sports and how a player is valued, financially and historically. Players will float to the money — and money, even though there are rules in the NBA, has no allegiances, except to more money.

I received a text from another student post the Heat victory: Even though I love LeBron, she says, the Spurs are a REAL team. This is another meaning of LeBron: he represents the conditions in which the game takes place. Pat Riley and the Heat management bought a team — and helped LeBron make his mark. In the Heat vs Spurs NBA final, we saw two histories, two narratives unfolding that are mirrors of our lives: bought, immediate success vs the labored building of success over time. LeBron James has given meaning to this business form — which is also a military form, “shock and awe.” We don’t like this when we’re affected by it. (Sort of the hatred of the winning Yankees, the glee in their losing.)

LeBron James is the meaning of our times — loved and despised; admired and yet disliked, too, for his grace, agility and strength; he is liked and disliked because of his work ethic, professionalism and business, as well as basketball, IQ (no one said, as an announcer said about LeBron during the NBA finals, that Michael could coach any time; he’s failing miserabley with the Bobcats because his basketball IQ is just not LeBron’s); and he’s both admired and admonished because he forces us to look at race in an America that still asks that African Americans be like LeBron, or Mike, or Magic or …, to succeed while others hope for the best in the injustice of it all. Think Detroit, think Akron, think South Bronx.

LeBron James’s meaning is that he’s us — we are him. He is a mirror of our extremes; he is a sign that all is not right, but suggesting that what is right requires self-reliance, certitude, facing fear without reservations, and launching out with dead reckoning, much as Herman Melville would suggest. We love and hate LeBron James because he captures all of who we are and he’s letting us know; and we are uncomfortable, in Apartheid America, that one individual is actually striking out, not on the Pequod, but on the basketball court, and calling it his own.

LeBron James and the Williams sisters, too, are the future. They’re in control of it — we’re not.

The Real PRISM Story: The Silencing of Dissent

DISSENT : To differ in sentiment or opinion, especially from the majority; to disagree with the methods, goals, etc., of a political party or government; take an opposing view; difference of sentiment or opinion; disagreement with the philosophy, methods, goals, etc., of a political party or government.

There are 2 challenges facing us post the PRISM story that define a history of efforts to curtail dissent, though dissent is essential for democracy:

  1. The U.S. government approved — and reconciled itself with — the PRISM program without much debate. The public didn’t even know about it. The public sphere has been carefully eliminated by partisanship and media’s propensity for the extreme. This, more then any other story is the critical story of the PRISM leak.
  2. The U.S. citizen is literally clueless about surveillance and the trail we leave behind, which begins the moment we’re born and we receive our social security numbers in our utter innocence. It begins here — then we’re cataloged, followed through school, tax forms (in my case: selective service during Vietnam, and service in the USN), drivers license, marriage certificate, diplomas, CV’s, etc.

DISSENTERS: U.S. history is synonymous with dissent; their voices and struggles created this country. Someone like Jonathan Edwards, one of America’s original theological philosophers, was a dissenter. Dissenters landed on Plymouth Rock, in 1620, 83 years before Edward’s birth. Ralph Waldo Emerson, too, and his prodigal son, Henry David Thoreau dissented. A long line of American writers — Hutchinson and Bradstreet, Hawthorne and Melville, Whitman and Dickenson — through to Faulkner, say, and Zora Neal Hurston, who died a relative unknown, in 1960, until Alice Walker found her unmarked grave, in the Garden of Heavenly Rest in Fort Pierce, Florida, are dissenting voices speaking against the status quo.

The point I’m making is that the evolution of the American character — our beliefs, our personality, our energy and our dedication to civil rights and social justice — is synonymous with dissent; however, as we’ve journeyed into our very tenebrous times, media, corporate sponsored government and our entertainment industries have all worked assiduously to homogenize the American character, thus the American experience. Homogenization, on a mass scale like this, is, first and foremost, how dissent is repressed; it’s also how propaganda parades as truth. And from this lens, how people — and language and actions — are criticized, which is to judge. It’s why John Boehner can call Edward J. Swoden, the individual that leaked PRISM, “a traitor”. This is the same John Boehner that would parade through the halls of congress with wads of tobacco cash asking his colleagues to take it; this is the same Speaker of the House whose leading five contributors are AT&T, Murray Energy, First Energy Corp, American Financial Group and the Boehner for Speaker Committee.

Who is a trader to whom?

Edward Said is dead, as is Howard Zinn. Noam Chomsky is 85 years old. How long can he keep fighting the good fight? Bernie Sanders is all alone, a lone voice. Naomi Kline is working hard, and only 43. If you think, unless you’ve tuned into Democracy Now!, with another dissenter, Amy Goodman, and WBAI, something like that, nowhere in our crowded networks does one hear a single voice of dissent, ever. Colbert, Stewart and Maher are our contemporary — and popular — dissenters, speaking to the choir, but their comedy goes along, it reminds us that all we can do is poke fun at the lies, deceit and idiocy because we have to live what we have. Hell, Rush Limbaugh, for god’s sake, sees himself as a dissenting voice.

Where are we?

In Chatter:  Uncovering the Echelon Surveillance Network and the Secret World of Global Eavesdropping, Patrick Radden Keefe (2006) describes the Echelon project, the largest invisible eavesdropping architecture in the world:

The United States is the dominant member of a secret network, along with four other Anglophone powers — the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand — that intercepts the chatter of people around the world. The pact between thee countries was initiated a half a century ago, in a document so secret that its existence has never been acknowledged by any of the governments involved: the UKUSA agreement. The network these countries have developed collects billions of telephone calls, e-mails, faxes, and telexes every day and distributes them, through a series of automated channels, to interested parties in the five countries. In this manner, the United States spies on its NATO allies, and the United Kingdom spies on its EU allies; the network supercedes any other ties of loyalty… Signals intelligence, or Sigint, in the shorthand of politicos and spies, is the little-known name for listening in that it is used today by the eavesdroppers themselves. Eavesdropping has become an extraordinarily cutting-edge game, with listening stations inhaling conversations bounced via satellites and microwave towers; spy satellites miles above in space tuning in on radio frequencies on the ground; and silent and invisible Internet bugs clinging, parasitelike, to the nodes and junctures of the information superhighway…Though many Americans are not even aware that it exists, the National Security Agency, the American institution in charge of electronic eavesdropping, is larger than the CIA and the FBI combined…[And] Like any good conspiracy theory, this one contains important elements of truth. Like any good conspiracy, it is also nonfalsifiable: while it might be impossible to prove it’s all true, it’s also impossible to prove that it’s not, and the theory thrives on official denials and refusals to comment.

Has anyone read Chatter? Has anyone seen Patrick Radden Keefe interviewed, particularly since the PRISM story broke? Exactly.

In England’s North Yorkshire moors, Keefe reports, in cow country, “lies the most sophisticated eavesdropping station on the planet.” The five Anglophone powers — the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand — share it. British military police stand guard in front of a sign that reads: RAF Menwith Hill.

What we’re experiencing is a perfect storm right now: a long standing pact between certain powerful nations that created a world-wide — and very powerful — surveillance system; the unfettered dominance of the world’s largest electronic surveillance security agency, the NSA; corporate owned government that by design has to do nothing, because that’s what it’s asked by sponsors, and instead — also by design — harps on ideologies while privileging social issues over human rights and social justice, and dismantles public education; and the slow decay of dissent via entertainment and education, the only outlets for citizens, which is why mediated sports and pornography are the top sellers, followed closely by reality TV.

Very effectively, alternative voices — and alternative points of view — are marginalized through ridicule because they’re different, unable to adhere to jingoistic idealism, the bane of our existence.

The real story of the PRISM leak is here — in how dissent has been slowly silenced and how any alternative point of view, when voiced, is immediately rejected and ridiculed because it’s not following the ruling — and mediated — ideologies of our time, lending our age a certain degree of shiftiness, giving us a sense of transit where complexity — and complex figures — are introduced to produce, in us, an inside and an outside that figure to confuse our identity.

Life in the PRISM: We Asked for It — or the Illusion that Technology is Neutral

The most disconcerting aspect of the NSA’s PRISM program, whereby the U.S. intelligence community can gain access to the servers of nine Internet companies for a wide range of digital data, is not that this was granted by federal judges working under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and congress went along; it’s not even that Big Brother has been here — and now it’s here to stay.

The most disconcerting aspect of the NSA’s surveillance program is what it says about us, the citizens of the U.S. that are wired, interconnected, splashing ourselves across social media, using all kinds of devices and moving ever so quickly — and quietly and blindly and accepting — into a more nuanced programmed world, a reality, as suggested by Bill Wasik in his Wired article, Welcome to the Programmable World, where “houses, cars, and factories, [are] surrounded by tiny, intelligent devices that capture data about how we live and what we do” — and they’re starting to talk to one another, and us.

The NSA has an infinite number of entry points into our private lives.

And the most disconcerting aspect to all this is that we’ve gotten here without much fanfare, not much noise. It arrived — along with the surveillance.

We live in 3 worlds:

  • The 1st World is highly visible and physical. It’s life and death, birthdays, weddings and funerals. We experience it getting food out of a refrigerator, opening doors, smiling at people, getting on planes, and so on. In this magical world, we’re assisted by the 2nd World.
  • The 2nd World is the device world: automated doors, automated tellers and accounts of all sorts at our finger tips, cell phones and bluetooth devices, computers, and computer chips, the magic of the Internet we don’t see but have grown to expect, even anticipate to such a degree that if at anytime it should go down, it would be accompanied by massive withdrawal and anxiety. Here we’ve grown to depend on our social networks – Facebook, Twitter, Tumbler, WordPress, and so on. All of it, the identities we try to extend online. This leads us to the 3rd World, the most dangerous of all.
  • The 3rd World is inhabited by the programmer — engineers socializing us through their dreamy programming that comes to us via cool hardware. Cool has seduced us into a blind acceptance of programming. It is this world that ties everything together; it is this world that pre-figures our actions, even our motivations, and synthesizes all this with the needs, will and plans of some of the most powerful forces, nation-states and multinational corporations. We’re pawns here.

We’re under a spell, mediated into believing we have voice and a modicum of control.

Program: a plan or schedule of activities, procedures, etc., to be followed.

An insidious but vital part of the programmer’s responsibility is — and has been — to make everything we experience easy, fluid, dynamic; this is what keeps us from wondering where we’re going — and why. And this is the most disconcerting aspect of where we find ourselves today with this Big Brother-like surveillance program.

Most of us that enjoy technology, and many who pontificate about the wonders of technology, have zero knowledge of how and why our states of being changed so drastically — though there have been warnings. We could argue that this has been a problem about educating ourselves. But how can we educate ourselves when we’re so complascent with the way things are, going along as if nothing is happening, quite able and eager to surrender control? This is what technology is — a surrender to the programmer’s imagination.

This is not technophobia. I use technology. I teach with it. I find great pleasure in working with technology — but not at the expense of not knowing.

The first warning came from Martin Heidegger, in The Question Concerning Technology. This essay is contained in two of Heidegger’s works, Die Technik und die Kehre (1962) and Vortröge und Aufsätze (1954). I mention this because the dates matter — a lot. The atomic bombings of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaky, conducted by the U.S., occured in the late stages of World War II, in 1945. Heidegger speaks on the heels of this monumental human event that changed our relationship to technology forever. By 1962, the air was filled with a sense of revolution, change, a desire to unmask authority world-wide. In-between these global events, Hiedegger warns us about technology. From this vantage point it’s easy to see the arc to our current day:

Thus we shall never experience our relationship to the essence of technology so long as we merely conceive and push forward the technological, put up with it, or evade it. Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to the technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it. But we are delivered over to it in the worst possible way when we regard it as something neutral; for this conception of it, to which today we particularly like to do homage, makes us utterly blind to the essence of technology.

In the traditional sense, Heidegger regards essence — the German noun Wesen — as not simply meaning what something is, but that it means the way in which something pursues its course, the way in which it remains through time as what it is. Thus, he means here a “coming to presence.”

As technology has come to presence — to be present in our lives — Heidegger suggests that we’ve merely create what is technical — data, programs, hardware, etc. — and push on without much thinking. We “put up with” technology’s requirements — iPhone 1 – 5, hardware and software that can’t be updated because it’s obsolete, the new mantra for everything we must have, the glitches.

We also put up with what we don’t see, such as the NSA’s surveillance program. Drones for attack, drones for surveillance. This is why Heidegger suggests we remain “unfree and chained to technology”; it’s the point of no return. We’ve gone over the edge. Never have we been so reliant on technology – and never have we been so vulnerable. Even the Ludites are vulnerable.

We’ve gotten to this point because we regard technology as something that exists outside of our lives; that it’s not us. But a closer look demonstrates that the technological world we have is the technological society we’ve fostered, from cell phones to drones.

Another author that is seldom studied and discussed along these lines is Jacques Ellul who, in The Technological Society, prophetically first published in 1954, then again in the U.S. in 1964, also warns us:

Whenever we see the word technology or technique, we automatically think of machines. Indeed, we commonly think of our wrold as a world of machines…It arises from the fact that the machine is the most obvious, massive, and impressive example of technique, and historically the first. What is called the history of technique usually accounts to no more than a history of the machine; this very formulation is an example of the habit of intellectuals of regarding forms of the present as identical with those of the past.

Subsequently, “…technique is nothing more than means and the ensemble of means. This, of course, does not lessen the importance of the problem. Our civilization is first and foremost a civilization of means; in the reality of modern life, the means, it would seem, are more important then the ends. Any other assessment of the situation is mere idealism.”

There we have it. If we conflate Heidegger — technology is neutral — and Ellul — technology is a means, and this is more important then ends — we have our world.

What is our world?

As overt examples of authoritarian regimes crumble and fight to stay alive, the power of the microchip has risen. Simultaneously, as governments and corporations experience our crowd sourcing and learn, a different form of totalitarianism is rising under the auspices of capitalism, the threat of terrorism, and a government eager to demonstrate its benevolence by arguing for our protection. The invertion of power is now complete, the corporation — Google, Verizon, Apple, AT&T, etc — legitimize massive control by becoming open partners with their foil, government, and thus power is effectively removed from the hands of citizens and sits only in the hands of the few.

The Agony of Lucidity

For Leah and the girls down in Boston today

I’ve not been “on” this blog for some time. I want to apologize, say I’m sorry, but I don’t know who I’d say this too. And given what we face today, a darkness visible hanging over American culture, it’s hard for me to find the words to get through this. But here goes …

Boston changed everything. Boston brought me back to our interconnectedness, a notion or theme linking all my classes this term, a Writing Workshop and Social Class and the Environment. So that’s what I want to talk about. Interconnectedness.

CNN’s feed — such an influence! — compels me to create my own timeline to my emotions:

1. 3PM – 4PM, Monday, April 15: I was in a delectable bubble, sitting in my warm, safe and bright college office with a student, engaged in an incredible conversation about social justice, environmentalism, writing and creativity, a healthier future we imagined conceivable.

2. 4:10PM: I learned about Boston — the ugly violence, the havoc and instant suffering, the confusion that turned into a tremendous weight — and disbelief.

3. 5:30PM: On the ride home from school, I learned of the cowardly defeat of the gun bill. A heavier darkness set in. The NRA and Washington cowards intent on keeping power, not saving lives, are more powerful then the voices of American citizens. Washington exists outside our American lives.

4. April 17, two days later: The news of the poison letters sent to Senator Roger Wicker (R-Miss) and President Obama. And the darkness reigned supreme, a suffocating feeling.

The winter winds have begun to change in Vermont. Indifferent clouds race across the skies, the air is lighter — you can smell it — the temperature rising ever so slowly, as it does this time of year. Hints of sun remind us that it’s still there laboring to find its way back to us — finally. Something other then death, destruction and callous indifference has to come our way.

5. April 19, Friday: When one suspect is dead and CNN works to fit into every aspect of the unfolding manhunt, a tropical wind is screaming across Vermont. My chickens had a hard time getting across paddocks, pushing against it, literally going airborne and tumbling  when the gusts were incredibly harsh. It all felt surreal, confusing. At some point that night, maybe around 11PM, I learned that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the second Boston marathon bombing suspect, was apprehended.

During the depressing malay, the chants of Boston Strong, the Red Sox game and Neil Diamond, my brain turned to a movie, The Siege, directed by Edward Zwick. This film is about a fictional situation in which terrorist cells make several attacks in New York City. Despite objections, the US President declares marshal law and the US Army’s 101st Airborne Division, under Major General William Devereaux (Bruce Willis), occupies and seals off Brooklyn. People of Arab descent are rounded up and detained in Yankee Stadium. New Yorkers stage violent demonstrations against the army and the racial profiling of the Arabs and the Army fights to maintain control.

The Siege, again, a fictional account — I’m compelled to repeat this, just to pinch myself — is not the Boston lock down, but it gave me pause. Is this what we’re facing, our future? Surveillance. Tighter controls, literally and virtually. A military-like presence in our cities. Fiction has been turned into our lives.

Regardless of the ethnicity of the Tsarnaev brothers, they grew up in the United States. In the West, many fundamentalist radicals intent on following terrorist actions are being bred in our communities. Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, whatever they did to get to that tragic day that colored the Boston marathon with such harshness, had friends in the community. They had family, went to schools like everyone else’s — even excelled. They went to work, too. In other words, they lead American lives in an American community. They were, at one point, normal, as we like to say.

In an interconnected world, everything is possible.

Welcome. This is our world now.

Where do we go from here, knowing what we now know?

I’m a father of 4. I’m a husband. A son. A brother. And I’m a teacher. This Sunday, April 21, my mind is on the Middlebury Women’s Tennis Team: they took the trek to Tufts, in Boston, yesterday, Saturday, because the original trip, a long weekend of matches, first against MIT, then Tufts, was put on hold by the Tsarnaev brothers. Everyone was on tenter hooks. With some anxiety, these beautiful, wanting kids took the trip to Boston. They went to do something they love; they went to meet their responsibilities. That’s what we’re called to do. I know they’re safe, but I can’t help thinking of them because they’re young, like my children. Hell, they are my children — they’re all our children. They’re young and innocent working so hard that it sometimes brings me to tears to watch them grapple with our difficult world. Sometimes we cry together.

I feel totally guilty for the world my generation is leaving behind. It’s a world where neighbors can’t trust neighbors; where important people in important positions, graduates of our most elite institutions, can’t be trusted at all. This is the world we’ve given them, the tomorrows colored by a siege scenario. Unacceptable.

All I can say to them, my students, is I love you. I have nothing else, nothing left. How else can you teach any kid anything today? Love and Health are the only curriculum. What we pass along as knowledge and information makes no sense — not to them, not to us. The material I teach, I find almost irrelevant. In the face of Boston — and the Bostons to come — I’m driven to my knees. I’m sorry, yes, I can say that only to them. I know that now. I love you is what I must say to them and show them, let them know that in their time with me, they’ve been loved, unconditionally; that this is love in this heartless universe — so harsh. We’ve become so harsh and reproachful.

Why are we here?

6. April 21, about 1:40: the girls are on the courts at Tufts. Brazilian Girls: Some people want to burn the world with their greed. We just want to have a good time, all the time.

I had to travel some, today, to get to the Brazilian Girls. Given how dark I felt, after morning chores I turned on Al Greene. His Greatest Hits have a way of lifting me — even though my wife, Nina, laughs. You know nothing about music, she says. My son, Devon, agrees. But Nina is in a workshop in NY and I’m a weekend bachelor, left alone with the weight of things. But Love and Happiness — Love will make you do right, make you do wrong, just wasn’t doing anything for me; it existed somewhere else. Love is, Love is walking together, talking together…

Is it? Can it be?

Feeling so alone, I took to cooking. And somewhere between the chili con carne and the lamb (White Dorper, our own) with lentils, and Bonnie Raitt,  Used to Rule the World began to lift the veil of darkness. I began to see, slowly, a bit. Brother lovejoy. Yeah, Raitt’s raspy voice, that guitar — she touched my soul, showed me the way, aching. With her cover of Right Down the Line — You know that I need your love, you got that hold on me — I had 3 dishes going simultaneously — the lamb, the chili and a kale and potato soup. And I was moving to Raitt. She was moving me towards light.

Lucidity. The agony of lucidity.

Lucidity is both a gift and a punishment. Lucid comes from Lucifer, the rebellious angel, the Devil. But Lucifer is also the morning star, the first star, the brightest, the last to fade. Lucid comes from Lucifer, Lucifer from Lux and Ferous, meaning that he who has light, who generates light, who brings the light allowing inner vision. Good and Evil together. Pain and pleasure. Lucidity is agony, and the only pleasure we can know, the only pleasure, remotely like joy, is that of being aware of our own lucidity. “The silence of understanding, the silence of merely being. There, the years go by. There, beautiful animal joy went,” said Pizarnik. Brilliant. (Lugares Comunes, Adolfo Aristrain, Director, 2002)

Lucidity is agony. This morning I sent my students a note, just a quote, something to ponder in this extraordinarily blinding world:

Academics who act as ambassadors of the oppressed are no substitute for enduring arrangements that might enable the oppressed to explain themselves and pursue their own interests as they wish … When humanists claim to set aside crude, worldly, practical concerns for the sake of purely ‘philosophical’ inquiry, they actually fall prey to the optical illusion of a pure thinker somehow separate from the world. (Arts of Living: Reinventing the Humanities for the Twenty-first Century, Kurt Spellmeyer, 2003).

I blame myself for the world we have. Us professors, in our elite institutions, have presumed a position that is an illusion: the world is out there, we are somehow living in loftier terrain separate from the world. We have separated people; we have separated ourselves from feeling the world. This false position has created the world we’re in. We’ve failed to describe a world that Don DeLillo gives us in Underworld (1997) where everything is interconnected: the guy making toothpaste and light bulbs is also making nuclear warheads. How do we tell the good from the bad? asks DeLillo.

Our way of life has consequences. Our leisure, our comforts — and discomforts — come at a price; we can’t have what we have unless someone pays. This is what Rob Nixon calls slow violence (Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor; 2011). Struggles for existence, for human rights, are extraordinarily symbolic — as well as physical (banking; military) and intellectual (ideologies; academia). Thus, the overwhelming force of the West has created cultures of doubt coupled to systems burdened by national debt. It’s not a stretch to imagine the rise of terrorism from here.

Now it’s come home; it comes from us. If we are to enter into this age with meaning — to try to understand our complicity, first, then find a way through — the agony of lucidity must be central, and it begins by recognizing that everything is interconnected, as DeLillo would say; that what happened in Boston is not because of some foreign force, rather it’s, in part, due to our own force, our own blindness in our uses of force, the cataclysmic development of structural violence worldwide.

From Newtown to Newark and Back: The Always Ongoing Cycle of Despair

Not since 9-11 has a country mourned as it is now following the overwhelming, mindless violence that occurred in Newtown.

Twenty six innocent children and six innocent adults were martyred on the crucifix of insanity. We have to accept, as Yeats says in Easter 1916, that we’ve finally been Transformed utterly. All, indeed, has changed — Yeats says it and we must see it as well.

There will be a lot of talk in time — the Second Amendment to the Constitution, violence in America, assault weapons, the NRA, mental health. The list can be endless since Newtown — this new town — to many of us a new spiritual place, is now every town in America; everything that ails us crushed Newtown’s innocence.

Why? Why have we come to this?

A shadow of cloud on the stream/Changes minute by minute, Yeats tells us. The long-legged moor-hens dive,/And hens to moor cocks call;/Minute by minute they live:/The stone’s in the midst of all. How prophetic Yeats is about our problem: those common folks living in Eighteenth-century houses, we pass them by, nod and give Polite meaningless words. We move around and through people, not with people. We ensnare rather then enable. We are suffocating. We suffocate because we take meaning away, not work to understand.

But in the middle of all this, our constructed struggles, our foibles, is The stone, the grave, death. It’s inevitable so we try to move past it too. “These tragedies must end,” said President Obama. But in order to begin to address the problem we have to first acknowledge our inconsequentiality in the face of Nature. It has a power that brings us to our knees — Katrina, Sandy, now Adam Lanza. He, too — there is no doubt — is a force of Nature we don’t understand. He, too, is a storm of destruction.

Too long a sacrifice/Can make a stone of the heart, says Yeats. Is this who we are? Was this Lanza, his heart so cold, so lost? O when may it suffice? wonders Yeats. President Obama wondered the same thing in Newtown. He told us all that Newtown reminds us of what matters. Why do we have to have violence of such magnitude to remind us of what matters? Why?

What matters are the simplest things: Why are we here? What is the purpose for our lives, given that time is fleeting, our lives ephemeral? This is the terrible beauty that is born, says Yeats. The dull, almost empty sound that comes when we ask these questions. There’s no response. We turn to education and religion, exercise and excess, mediated sports and consumerism to find ourselves. We never turn inward, towards ourselves, our inner being.

Adam Lanza is the extreme example of an outward manifestation of a harrowing malady. Newtown is his response to his darkness. How can we evolve if we don’t embrace these frightening questions about ourselves, the shadows in Plato’s allegorical Cave, and face these together?

When President Obama read the names of the innocent children, I turned to Yeats and whispered, Now and in time to be, …/Are changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.

We are a culture that harbors anger against our inconsequentiality — …the birds that range/From cloud to tumbling cloud,/Minute by minute they change, while we run past each other, never taking the time, never asking, never wondering, watching, learning what ails us.

Nature’s indifference against our need to be seen and heard, to have relevance in a short life requires that we have systems of checks and balances that help us address questions of the soul, the mind, the spirit because we will each find ourselves, from time to time, in the darkest of places.

Of course, the change we need — one that also coincides with Nature’s insistence that we are merely part of its scheme, that’s all — must address the deepest, darkest aspects of our American existence. We must face our hand in evolving a world in which life is cheap, inconsequential.

As we turn to Newtown, as we should be, as we mourn, let’s not forget the hundreds and thousands of children that are killed yearly in places like Newark, New Jersey — not Newtown, which is a random brutal tragedy. Newark has been spiraling for a long time. A few years back a mother cried to me, in a Newark elementary school, to help make education better in the city because she lost a son to the streets and illiteracy as the system promoted him blindly — until at age 16 when he was shot dead in front of her.

Newtown didn’t need our attention because all the American signs of perfection were self-evident. Newark we bypass because, even though little school age children are killed every year, due to a harrowing street violence that, like Lanza, has no conscience and will use incredible fire power regardless, the people here are not like us. We push by Newark — and its people. There are far too many communities in America we bypass, leaving them to face incomprehensible violence on their own, leaving them to face questions about their existence in the shadows of our illusory splendor.

We all suffer equally. We all suffer. Some have more resilience then others; however, we have nothing in place to help those that might be lead down a destructive path — no mechanisms are available to diagnose, analyze and engage those among us who live troubled lives.

Questions of the heart and the soul have been relegated to prayer and service, once or twice a week; they’ve been sidelined in our daily actions, our close and sometimes intimate exchanges. Speed is privileged over contemplation; the quick fix over meaningful deliberation. We are desperate but we don’t have the means by which to express our anxieties. Some respond to their despair with gruesome violence — and we faciliate this by embracing an amendment to the constitution that was adopted on December 15, 1791 when we were new, fresh and worried about the shackles of a heartless government. Then, a well regulated militia was necessary; the security of a free state fundamental, as was the right of the people to keep and to bear arms. But now we have a fat Defense Department, and in States, we have militias — the National Guards. States differ, but in most states people can keep and bear arms — as Mrs. Lanza did.

Given these realities, what is the necessity of arming ourselves with assault weapons? Fear of government? Any local community police force can overcome any citizen militia, even if the citizens are armed with assault weapons. So what is the point of such armament? We know where it leads, particularly if we don’t have a robust system to work with our anxieties, our very human stresses, our discontents.

From Newtown to Newark, and back, the needs of a Nation are the same. The terrible beauty is that we can’t escape our place — life and death in a brief moment in time, the raw awesomeness of Nature, and our sense of a beleaguered self. All this requires one thing: mindful education early on. When it skips people, when we rush by it, even as change happens all around us, some will find no recourse but to continue down a dark and violent abyss whose only end is to spread pain and suffering to as many innocent people as possible because the despair is so overwhelming that it’s unspeakable.