Monday, January 6, 2014

Energy, Guilt, Catastrophe

 “This age is both comic and tragic. Tragic, because it is perishing; comic, because it continues.”
Energy is a category within the science of nature, or physics. It refers to "the capacity to effectuate change" (E. Hecht, 2013). Like all such abstractions, the word began with a concrete sense that became abstracted over time. “Energy” is a composite from Ancient Greek, whose first syllable means “in,” while the second means “work.” In terms of “ordinary language” (Austin, 1961), energy is whatever invisible force pervades a process of work, without which it could not be done; it is also that unperformed work hidden inside an object, person, or state of affairs, which is then liberated by some kind of activity. En-ergy is the work inside something, or the powerful something inside of a work process. Abstraction has widened the scope of the term to the point where it can mean almost anything, and this is most obvious in New Age discourse, where “energy” is a ubiquitous word whose metaphoricity is always indeterminate: nobody knows what it refers to, so it can do jobs that can’t be done by other terms that are more clearly understood (Greer, 200).            
The categories of scarcity and abundance have been connected to the concept of energy from the Beginning: in Genesis, Adam and Eve are forced out of the abundant Garden of Eden and into a world of scarcity and labor. This myth, as many anthropologists have argued (e.g., Brody, 2002; Thompson, 1981), is a description of the advent of agriculture and the end of foraging as the central regime of human subsistence. Hunting and gathering, goes the claim, afforded people far more leisure and limited their appetites to what they could carry; whereas farming both bound people to their local fields and allowed the accumulation of agricultural surpluses which could be traded for other goods and services. These goods required storage, which required fortification and guard labor; soon enough, the more people a community could produce, the more crops it could grow and the more wealth it could amass and protect from competitors. With enough wealth, a community could launch an imperial project of raiding its neighbors, annexing their territory, and assimilating or slaughtering their populations. All that food production and all that soldiering require large populations, so the reproductive capacity of women tends to get commandeered by the state, embodied in the fathers and husbands who depend on it (Lerner, 1986).
This shift away from hunter-gatherer culture has long been understood as a disaster in gender relations; Friedrich Engels (1884) famously called it “the world historical defeat of the female sex.” As Stone (1976, p.199) notes, Genesis 3:17 suggests that the advent of hard labor was caused by the mistaken practice of listening to women: “And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life…” In the Garden of Eden, energy scarcity and social inequality were non-issues; they arise together, as a consequence of eating a forbidden fruit so potent that a single bite changes the world forever. The abundance in Eden was absolute, not quantitative; no measurements were made; nature was a seamless relational matrix, not a planetary stockroom loaded with catalogued “resources” awaiting exploitation (Heidegger, 1954). If the ancient and medieval worlds were afflicted by energy scarcity and a dependence on the muscle power of humans and other domesticated animals, the advent of fossil fuels brought an abundance that seemed absolute but was in fact quantitative, measurable, and all-too finite. As the literature of Peak Oil has articulated (Heinberg, 2003), the emergence of fossil fuels was so profoundly impressive and transformative that, like the bitten apple in Eden, it suddenly changed the whole world, producing a culture of boundless optimism (Peale, 1952), manic ambition (Whybrow, 2006), and “the civil religion of progress” (Greer, 2013). Modernity is this falsely infinite abundance, together with the ideological lubricant by which criteria of race, class, and gender entitle a colonial class of resource extractors, disenfranchising several billion persons at home and abroad who can directly access neither the means of production nor the sources of that fossil energy which drives production, distribution, and exchange. Only after a century of life under that worldview—that modernity of cheap energy, endless capital accumulation, and ideologically grounded inequality—did it become noticeable that its ultimate driver was neither “technology” nor “innovation,” but energy, in the form of fossil fuels.  Technology and innovation are endlessly touted in American public discourse because they are products of human virtue, whose importance flatters our narcissism. Fossil energy, by contrast, is a natural endowment of the planet (mostly from two episodes of vast algal blooming, 90 million and 150 million years ago) which we merely extract and consume, remaining powerless to replace those depleted fuels, and powerless to sequester the pollution we produce in burning them. We did not make oil; we can’t replace it; we can’t clean up after it; we can’t stop using it.  Along one vector, fossil energy provides us with unprecedented godlike power; along these other vectors, it delivers us over to overwhelming feelings of helplessness, rather like an addiction to heroin or methamphetamine.
While the discipline of English uses “early modern” as a term for the European civilization of the sixteenth century, what we regard as contemporary is a form of the modern in which energy is cheap and abundant (Heinberg, 2003); infinite material wealth is pursued for its own sake (Weber, 1905); and life is increasingly subject to what Max Weber called “rationalization,” a process of measurement and calculation that tends to homogenize, systematize, and disenchant whatever it subsumes.  For historians like Bauman (1989) and Rubenstein (1975), the Nazi Holocaust represents the heart of modernity, since it combines mechanized technology (which requires cheap and abundant energy) with pseudoscientific racist ideology and bureaucratic organization, both of which can be seen as forms of Weberian rationalization. If the taint of Original Sin once marked humanity as fallen exiles from an Earthly Paradise, this reading of the Holocaust as modernity’s essence marks contemporary people as fallen exiles from the eighteenth century Enlightenment and its utopian social hopes. The essence of our times is also the nadir of human behavior.
The same symbolic system that conceived Original Sin—derived by Iranaeus and later by Augustine from the Letters of Paul—later developed the idea that it was this sin from which humanity required the redemption offered by Christ. But Christ was killed by human beings, a sacrifice understood to have exemplified his ethics, where the victim gives good in exchange for the evils of his assailants (e.g., Matthew 5:44). So goes Luke 23:34: “Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” Traditional Christian anti-Judaism holds “the Jews” responsible for the death of Jesus (Farmer, 1999), whereas the political realities on the ground seem to implicate the Roman administration (Crossan, 1996).  Matthew 25:40 seems to universalize, or render collective, the guilt for the Crucifixion: “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” The Holocaust raises similar questions about concentric circles of guilt and responsibility, implicating first those individuals –some of whom were executed at Nuremberg, whereas others were welcomed to America by the Central Intelligence Agency for their anti-Soviet abilities (Simpson, 1989) – whose active participation was concrete (Arendt, 1963); then, the German people who supported the Nazi regime (Goldhagen, 1996); and finally, all of “modern” mankind, since we are all subject to the same forces that produced the Nazis and their atrocities (Rubenstein, 1975).  Indeed, Stanley Milgram’s famous “peer shock administration” experiments of 1963 (codified in his 1974 book Obedience to Authority) helped to establish the universality of the capacity for behaviors like torture, as Hannah Arednt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963) had done for mass-murder, slavery and genocide.
This issue of collective guilt (Branscomb, 2004) has been kindled anew by the advent of catastrophic climate change. Concrete responsibility seems concentrated among policymakers and corporate officers whose decisions directly result in particular instances of resource extraction and pollution (Jensen, 2011), but a collective guilt afflicts everyone who has ever benefitted from the consumption of those resources. This is easily (and often) quantified by statistics showing per capita energy use, with the United States among the most energy-profligate of existing nations. Climate negotiations are routinely deadlocked by this logic of quantified responsibility, since the major interests represented at the table are nation-states (whose representatives generally want carbon restrictions to be proportional, either to fuels already burned by “developed” states, or to fuels set to be burned by “developing” ones) and fossil fuel corporations (whose representatives generally want the talks to fail). There seems to be a parallel between the burning of fuels for electricity, and the entailment of responsibility for climate change: most of the liberated energy is lost as heat at the burn site, but the rest is exported by transmission lines to millions of end users—as the most concrete responsibility lies with the fuel corporations themselves, who then export a more attenuated form of that responsibility to millions of beneficiaries of the oil, gas, and coal they have expropriated. To press this strange analogy further, note that the heat generated at the power plant is not employed for any purpose (except at “cogeneration” plants, which use their heat for desalination or for municipal hot water), but lost locally as waste; similarly, the responsibility generated at ExxonMobil headquarters is not experienced as guilt (which might be converted into remedial action), but transmuted into its opposite—entitlement, as the remorseless zeal for more wealth—via the defense mechanism known as reaction formation (Czander, 2008).    
Psychoanalysis emerged in the heyday of commercial fossil-fuels, when animal muscle power was replaced by coal-fired steam engines, followed by the liquid fuel internal combustion engine, and the eventual electrification of urban and rural landscapes. In the posthumously published 1895 “Project for a Scientific Psychology,” Freud’s model of the mind was informed by his studies with Helmholz and Brucke (Sulloway, 1979), whose Berlin Physicalist Society held that “no other forces than the common physical-chemical ones are active within the organism” (du Bois-Reymond, 1842, cited in Sulloway, p. 14).  For Freud, the psychic representative of this “physical chemical force” was drive, and the “Project for a Scientific Psychology” is an effort to explain emotional life in terms of an economy of drives within the organism. Though this physicalism of the early Freud is easy to exaggerate (Mills, 2012), he does seem to have emphasized the individual mind as an embodied but somewhat isolated unit—at least compared to his successors in the object relations school. It may be fair to say that Freudian drive theory remained hegemonic in the United States for most of the twentieth century, waning only in the aftermath of President Carter’s national conversation about the new energy scarcity. It is as if modernity’s American citizen were a Freudian subject, an isolated mind with its own tank of libido, seated in the driver’s seat of an isolated Studebaker with its own gas tank, seeking its fortune. The new talk of “renewable energy,” chiefly solar and wind power, imagined energy no longer as a stably stored resource lying ready in the ground, but as a relationship arising within a cosmic system; the wind and the sunshine flow through the universe, and those who would make use of them must join in those larger processes of circulation, interposing their energy-gathering equipment into the existing system of wild, active forces. Correspondingly, the subject of relational psychoanalysis (Greenberg and Mitchell, 1983) is part of, and even constituted by, a web of relationships that constitute an environing field—like the photosphere of the Sun or the atmosphere of the Earth, tapped into by PV cells and wind turbines, respectively.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

To an Actor

What was the most thrilling role you ever played? Your best experience acting? How often does that experience come to mind as you ask yourself what you’re doing with your life? It’s easy to get obsessed with the business side of the art, since that’s what allows you to keep on acting. Chasing after fame and fortune can be quite pragmatic, but it can also be vainglorious. Generally it’s the people who cherish their experiences on stage and/or in front of the camera who have good outcomes, whether those look “successful” or not. Those who are hypnotized by the grandiose rewards of success (perhaps especially in acting) tend to berate themselves for not having it yet; when and if they do achieve it, they tend to be the people who go nuts (they “decompensate”) doing cocaine in hotel rooms, alone, or with hangers-on. Those who remember the art and their experience of it—both the acting and the camaraderie of being in a troupe or a cast—tend to cope better with lack of outward success (since the aspect that really matters to them is the one they already do have), and, if things go well, they can tolerate success without losing hold of themselves.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

An Open Letter To KMO of the C-Realm Podcast Regarding Episode 379

Dear KMO,
I’m a C-Realm listener who admires the work you do, and I was somewhat taken aback by the recent (9/11/13) interview with Tom Barbalet. On the assumption that you have the time and energy to read listener comments about your broadcast, I’d like to share my thoughts. I hasten to mention that I have no doubts about your intellectual honesty and remain grateful for your excellent work.
Episode 275 of the C-Realm Podcast featured my friend Mark Robinowitz, whose unique contribution has been to differentiate among the various kinds of dissenting hypotheses regarding 9/11. A page on his website condenses that work into a single chart that can be viewed at a glance (click to enlarge):
Having interviewed Mark, you’re probably well aware of this chart and the point it makes—yet Episode 379 shows little evidence of that awareness. Instead, it pillories the explanations listed here as “probably not true” and “disinformation that discredits,” as though they were the best the 9/11 Truth movement had to offer.
I was pleased to hear you acknowledge that the intelligence community does indeed deliberately mislead the public about its violent and unconstitutional activities, so I need not refer you to the abundant documentation (e.g., CIA document #1035-960 RE: “Countering Criticism of the Warren Report,” easily available online in both transcript and facsimile). Such documents launched the phrase “conspiracy theory” as a tool of disinformation, one that has proven remarkably effective. Only people of courage, like yourself, can persist in espousing dissident hypotheses in the face of officially encouraged mockery, contempt, and stigma.
I was also pleased to hear your guest say he no longer uses the phrase “conspiracy theory,” but disappointed at its very frequent occurrence in the interview.
The word “narrative” has its uses and its limits. You made fine use of it in criticizing lazy writers who have embraced a story without thinking it through. But your use of the word is so broad that it tars everyone with the same brush. Surely we live in a world that includes evidence, criteria, hypothesis, inference, and critique—not merely a postmodern welter of competing “narratives.”
You asked your guest about the collapse of WTC-7, but he never addressed the question. You asked him about Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth, and he discussed the hazardous ignorance of physics and engineering that makes for a bad architect. He ignored the engineers in the organization, which seemed egregious.
Apparently the focus of episode 379 was the vocal population within 9/11 Truth—a largely failed movement which I believe has run its course—who militate for a given narrative without adequate reasoning and research. Yes, their behavior is sociologically interesting in its own right. But to speak as if they represent the entire movement is, it seems to me, ethically perilous and misleading in ways you must not have intended. I hope I haven’t misunderstood you or mischaracterized episode 379.
I edited Michael C. Ruppert’s book Crossing the Rubicon: the Decline of the American Empire at the End of the Age of Oil. It makes a case for Dick Cheney’s central role in the attacks, based on means, motive and opportunity. If this bestseller were vulnerable to discredit, it would likely have drawn a libel lawsuit from Cheney’s associates—but there has been no such suit, nor any rebuttal that I know of. Crossing the Rubicon is widely praised for its sustained attention to context and motives (which Mr. Barbalet imagines have been ignored), including Peak Oil, geopolitics, narcotraffic, money-laundering, war profits, and political power.
I mention the book because it deliberately eschews issues of physical evidence (as does Mark Robinowitz), precisely the issues studied by the above-mentioned organization of architects and engineers. It does this because physical evidence is notoriously plastic; one expert witness contradicts another, and the custody chain of the evidence is usually in doubt, making it vulnerable to tampering. From my perspective, then, Architects & Engineers is a straw man, whether its work is excellent or poor. There is a mountain of evidence that is not of this sort, and to many reasonable people it establishes beyond reasonable doubt the guilt of persons within the government and its corporate sponsors. Episode 379 mentions none of it.
I appreciated your audio excerpt from Hill and Knowlton’s long-discredited disinformation regarding Iraq and Kuwait, since it showed your audience that authorities do lie; that these lies are often exposed; and that this exposure rarely changes the policy outcome or prevents the violence which those lies were intended to facilitate.
Mr. Barbalet rightly drew attention to the appalling human toll of American foreign policy and its horrific legacy of death, bereavement, mutilation, cultural destruction, and deception. Unfortunately, he also suggested that whoever is persuaded of U.S. involvement in 9/11 also neglects this history of American violence at home and abroad; that to hold a dissident hypothesis regarding this particular episode of violence somehow entails the lazy, passive racism that remains indifferent to the horrors of U.S. intervention in scores of countries the world over. This absurd claim is dispelled by a look at the work of Peter Dale Scott, or Michel Chossudovsky, or Michael Ruppert, or Nafeez Mossadeq Ahmed, or Gore Vidal, et cetera.
James Howard Kunstler, in whose books and podcasts I have usually found both wit and wisdom, routinely deploys a strategy similar to that of Mr. Barbalet: he disavows “conspiracy theory” because it has been stigmatized as the domain of fools, wing-nuts, and profiteers, but he endorses some of the very claims which that phrase is usually intended to rule out. Because the CIA has been so successful in shaping public perceptions, intelligent people of goodwill like JHK often share the engineered but bogus assumptions launched in the CIA’s own documents, such as #1035-960, cited above:
“Our ploy should point out, as applicable, that the critics are: (I) wedded to theories adopted before the evidence was in, (II) politically interested, (III) financially interested, (IV) hasty and inaccurate in their research, or (V) infatuated with their own theories.”
Stigma can be a heavy price to pay for political insight, not least in its effect on the size of one’s audience. I sympathize with the impulse to avoid incurring it. But it is disingenuous to do as Kunstler so often does, dispelling stigma with a breezy contempt for his fellow dissidents while in the same breath employing the insights of the same people he has just dismissed: “I’m allergic to conspiracy theories, but…” Marginalized as “wackos,” other people are left to pay the price—the risks and the contempt and the derision—for insights and observations that Kunstler repeats because they happen to be correct. See, for example, KunstlerCast episode 152, “Is Peak OilA Conspiracy Theory?” Note that in The Geography of Nowhere (1994), and elsewhere, Kunstler illuminates the documented conspiracy of General Motors, Ford, and Firestone to buy up and destroy the electrical public transportation systems of 45 American cities.
Of course some hypotheses are indeed implausible—e.g., no planes hit the towers, or driver William Greer shot JFK, or we never landed the Apollo 11 on the moon—and not everyone who holds them is a sophisticated liar. Some people are actually persuaded of this sort of proposition that I dismiss as either disinformation or fantasy. I don’t begrudge anyone the opportunity to dissociate himself or herself from such hypotheses and their advocates. But it plays into the CIA’s hands to wear one’s own sophistication with arrogance. That said, I reiterate my admiration for Mr. Kunstler.
Finally, your guest often referred to “the 9/11 Truther Movement.” To me, that little suffix (“-er”) is offensive. Republicans do something similar when they contemn “Democrat policies” instead of “Democratic policies.” The distinction looks small enough that no one mentions it for fear of pettiness, but it is actually a clever subterfuge that focuses attention on the people—ad hominem—rather than the policies or the hypotheses that are at issue.
In closing, I very much appreciate your work, the generally excellent C-Realm Podcast. I would welcome an opportunity to discuss these issues with you further.


Jamey Hecht, PhD

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Tragic Wisdom (from the introduction to my Sophocles book)

Tragic Wisdom 
Greek tragedy is a kind of scripture that teaches us by showing, not telling, what we need to know. I call it a scripture because it is a religious discourse about human beings and their relationships to the divine realm of abundance and to the material world of scarcity. But it is also drama, a scripted matrix of interpersonal words and actions, as human and social as any conversation in the audience. Like all drama, tragedy is about individuals, but it also speaks to public life – Thebes and Athens and Corinth are not just crowded places but living societies with their own crises, wounds, and needs. Oedipus himself is a gifted man, endowed with an intellectual power that exposes him to special dangers. But he is also the Everyman that Freud made him. Though most people are spared the crimes of patricide and incest, and though psychoanalysis may have been wrong to posit a repressed yearning for them in every heart, it remains permanently true that nobody is in complete control of his own destiny. Just as we, the audience, can read the very script which the characters must live out, so the gods can read the fates which we must live out. Tragedy puts us (for once!) in the divine position of the invulnerable spectator, free to experience a safe terror as we identify with the endangered hero; free to feel a guarded pity for him insofar as we enjoy our blessed distance from his ruin.  

Austere as it is, the art of Sophocles comes closer to life than any treatise on ethics could. It is free of precepts and instruction; within it, only experience teaches. Indeed, the work of growing up and old has in common with these tragedies the power to disclose necessary knowledge without the distortions that come with direct  expression. As Oedipus learns, direct expression doesn’t work anyway: he and Laius are each given clear oracles which they cannot successfully exploit. Apollo is not silent, but mortal persons lack His divine leverage upon their own affairs; without it, they can’t use what they’ve been told. Any person, couple, family, or nation that has ever disregarded a prescient warning will recognise the exquisitely human agony of the tragic hero and his people. It was Nietzsche who found life in this world so unjust and horrific that it ‘could only be justified as an aesthetic phenomenon.’ For him, Greek tragedy showed how the most grievous dilemmas and disasters have a wild beauty which only suffering reveals. There is a dangerous truth to this Nietzschean idea, because a misreading might allow interested opportunists to claim that all pain can be regarded as tragically beautiful, including whatever they or their leaders may choose to inflict. But tragedy is a picture of human suffering whose meaning inheres in its absolute inevitability; nothing could be more different from the sadist’s license to deliberate cruelty.   

Apollo destroys Oedipus: not the Sphinx, not Creon, not some invading army. In Homeric epic, Apollo physically strikes Patroclus between the shoulder blades, and soon the man dies in battle. In Sophoclean tragedy, the god wields the man’s own nature as the instrument of his destruction. Teiresias warns ‘Apollo is enough,’ and in his eventual agony Oedipus combines this with his own responsibility:  

O you who have done terrible things,
How did you endure the breaking of your eyes?
Which of the Gods had set you on?  

It was Apollo! Apollo, O my friends –
That brought my wicked sufferings to pass;
But no one struck my eyes
But I myself in desperation.  

The god creates the conditions for the crimes which the man commits; then the man, by way of his noble character, punishes himself. This passage is special because it repeats Homeric motifs – the question ‘which of the Gods,’ followed by the answer ‘Apollo,’ comes from the opening of the Iliad, and the image of a blinded man who attributes his mutilation to ‘No one’ comes from the Cyclops episode in the Odyssey. But the ethical structure is distinctly Sophoclean. In Antigone, the tyrant Creon issues an edict that criminalises pious acts which the heroine then performs, through her noble character; she opts for the punishment when she commits the crime, and makes no effort to avoid capture. Near the end, she tells Ismene that ‘I chose to die’; but a little later she says Hades is leading her to the banks of the river Acheron, then says that Creon is leading her captive. The god, the self, and the other are brought into a special, disastrous kind of contact that irreversibly changes the people without changing the god at all.  

In Oedipus the Tyrant, we’re told of Laius that ‘fate drove down into his power,’ but we also hear Oedipus describe the stick-fight that killed the man. In Antigone, the ruined Creon says ‘the God struck down into my head.’ But in the same speech he takes the personal and human responsibility we recognize from the protagonists of the other plays: ‘The blame of it can never move / And be affixed to some man’s guilt, away from mine! / It was I . . . ’ It is crucial that the person at the center of the story be disposed to tragic suffering by his or her nature. What is irresistible is not simply the might of the god, nor the epistemic traps of logical entailment that comprise the plot; it is the performed fact of the person’s life as he or she lives it. The truth here disappears if we hide it in the word ‘character’; nobility is not some constraint that forces Oedipus to wound himself, Antigone to break a bad law, Creon to keep his word at all costs. Nor is it a magical property resting on a shelf in the mind until the circumstances warrant its use. It is an ethically strong moment that becomes aesthetically compelling when viewed from the safety of the amphitheater or  the library. Tragic decisions are made at the peril of one’s own moral life. The willingness to endure meaningful suffering – no matter how futile – is the only route to the salvation (literally, ‘saving’) of that moral life without which meaning is impossible.