Thursday, March 24, 2016

Encountering Shakespeare in Los Angeles: Art as Religion

In late 2006 I moved into a new neighborhood in West Los Angeles. I didn’t know a single resident, but I knew my Shakespeare fairly well and brought my Oxford Complete edition with me like a talisman. A former professor of English and a mostly secular Jew, I had been told that I would have been a Rabbi had I been born a century or two before. Such clergy provide pastoral care, to be sure, but their identities and professional lives are often centered on textual exegesis. Hermeneutics has, after all, twin sources in Jerusalem (where the interpreted text was the Torah) and Alexandria (where it was the poems of Homer). Instead my texts were the canon as taught at the colleges and universities where I had worked (especially those chosen for inclusion in introductory humanities courses), and these included plenty of Shakespeare.

Essential elements of my cultural equipment travelled with me into the new neighborhood where I was a stranger, conferring a vague faith that guarded me from the loneliness I feared. The move confronted me with a piece of social problem-solving, made harder by the well-known disappearance of mid-sized social institutions (those larger than the nuclear family but smaller than the state). In his lauded 2001 book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam chronicled that shift from community to isolation in American life since the Second World War. My solution was twofold: find a bookstore (I was fortunate to discover the Sam Johnson’s Bookshop on Venice Boulevard), and go to a Shakespeare play. Soon enough I found a production of Julius Caesar just a few miles outside the zip code. I’d never heard of the company—the Porters of Hellsgate—and I had no notion of just how a solo trip to the theater could possibly enhance my social life, but I had to roll the dice and hope for the best.

What I walked into that night in early 2007 was the first production by a new company of young players, full of heart and passion, neither paying to play nor expecting a dime for their work. The actors were competent and impressive, but one stood out head and shoulders above the rest: Charles Pasternak, who starred as Mark Antony and directed the show. His handling of the blank verse was impeccable, mellifluous, and nuanced. Each word was phonically eventful, because Pasternak’s voice filled out the syllables with meaning, music, and dynamic crescendi and decrescendi. He knew exactly what he was doing, and when his heart was “in the coffin there with Caesar,” mine was, too.

After the curtain call I approached the 23 year old actor and said, “listening to you handle blank verse is like watching a boxing match; it’s that eventful in each moment; they’re all loaded with subtleties and yet it all flows. Thank you for an inspirational performance.” He seemed moved, and I ventured a gesture that might help me with my isolation: I had translated Sophocles’ Three Theban Plays for Wordsworth Editions, and the book had been published in 2005. A devotee of Shakespeare and of the inventor of blank verse, Christopher Marlowe, I had rendered the great Athenian in that meter because, due to the Elizabethans, blank verse is the standard metrical form for the tragic drama in the English language. The process had been strangely spiritual, even numinous; despite my skeptical cast of mind, I continually felt as if Sophocles (whom I began to call “the Old Man in the ground”) were speaking through me. Pasternak was a bit taken aback by my zeal, but he saw something in me and decided it would be worth reading the book. So I returned the next night and saw the play a second time, handing him my Sophocles at the end of another great performance.
It took three years, but eventually the company produced my Oedipus the Tyrant for its premier. By that time I was a member of the company, and I played the blind seer Teiresias, in Biblical robes with white contacts in my eyes, leaning on a crooked staff. I played opposite Charles Pasternak’s Oedipus, under his direction. The run got extended and we received a glowing review in the L.A. Weekly, from its best critic, Stephen Leigh Morris. What had gotten me there was Charles’ faith in me: shortly after we met, the Porters began gearing up for their second production, Much Ado About Nothing, and after an audition I was given the small role of Antonio. That went well enough to help win me more and larger roles in subsequent productions, until eventually I was made a company member. Today (2016) I’ve done eleven productions, nine of them with that company.

My story is one of many thousands in which the works of Shakespeare serve as a social medium of contact and cohesion. It is a discourse of the past, through which we access not only the events of vanished dynasties and legendary figures, but also the lost relational life that held sway before we were atomized by car culture, electronic devices, apartment living, and the decay of social institutions. Perhaps the closest analogy is that other atavistic cultural practice—religion. The house of worship is the theater; the liturgy is the Shakespearean text; the ritual is rehearsal and performance; the priesthood are the scholars and directors; the votaries, monks and nuns are the actors; and the population in the pews are the theatergoing audiences who show up for plays they’ve seen and heard again and again.

As I used to tell my students when I was a professor of English, texts of a certain quality are rich enough to repay even the devotional mode of attention we bring to the Bible, the Vedas, or the Koran—with the difference that literary texts (or sacred texts approached in a literary way) do not require doctrinal commitments. At no point need one trouble oneself about one’s degree of conviction that Henry the Fifth really gave that speech at Agincourt, nor about just how many children Lady Macbeth had nursed. All that is required is the Coleridgean “willing suspension of disbelief.”

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Othello's Handkerchief and Montaigne's Kidney Stone

The Handkerchief and the Stone

1. The Handkerchief
Othello conflates Desdemona’s handkerchief, which is real, and Desdemona’s affair with Cassio, which is not. Iago’s hypnotic communications are designed to set up a false equivalence between the stubborn, concrete reality of the handkerchief and the ethereal wisp of Iago’s toxic fiction. This real handkerchief is like Othello’s dark skin in the bigoted imagination of Brabantio, the father of Othello’s wife, who makes a mistake not entirely different from Othello’s:
O thou foul thief, where hast thou stow'd my daughter?
Damn'd as thou art, thou hast enchanted her;
For I'll refer me to all things of sense,
If she in chains of magic were not bound,             285
Whether a maid so tender, fair and happy,
So opposite to marriage that she shunned
The wealthy curled darlings of our nation,
Would ever have, to incur a general mock,
Run from her guardage to the sooty bosom             290
Of such a thing as thou, to fear, not to delight.
Judge me the world, if 'tis not gross in sense
That thou hast practised on her with foul charms,
Abused her delicate youth with drugs or minerals
That weaken motion: I'll have't disputed on;             295
'Tis probable and palpable to thinking.
I therefore apprehend and do attach thee
For an abuser of the world, a practiser
Of arts inhibited and out of warrant. (I, ii. ll. 282-299)

Note Brabantio’s rhetoric of the concrete: “all things of sense”; “gross in sense”; “palpable.” These epithets of materiality fit Othello’s skin—“the sooty bosom / Of such a thing as thou”—but not its meaning in Brabantio’s “thinking.” The “magic” he imagines Othello practicing upon his daughter is immaterial, not only by definition (“charms” are impalpable) but also because it’s a fiction (“drugs or minerals” are palpable, but not these imaginary ones) like Desdemona’s affair. The father’s misjudgment of the husband and the husband’s misjudgment of the wife both turn upon material objects whose empirically verifiable realness is confused with their meaning—the very meaning that empiricism and the senses cannot verify. Objects are a treacherous substitute for knowledge; they pitch people into certainties that lead to violence. Father and husband are wrong about the same question: does Desdemona really love Othello? On the logical “square of opposition,” the object called Othello’s “sooty bosom” creates for Brabantio a false negative about his daughter’s love for the Moor, and a false positive about Othello’s supposed “chains of magic,” both of which are immaterial. The handkerchief creates for Othello a false positive about his wife’s possible infidelity. There is foreshadowing in Brabantio’s equivocations: “'Tis probable and palpable to thinking,” where the merely probable is finessed into the palpable.
            The crisis of the play comes just before the denoument; first Othello murders Desdemona, then he and others find out Iago has been lying and Desdemona is innocent. In the murder, Othello arrives at the nexus of palpable object and impalpable subjectivity: Desdemona’s breath, which is both a real object and the life force inside her. Indeed there is a universal idea in human language that subjectivity can best be represented metaphorically as a corollary of breath. In Latin spiritus, Greek pneuma and psyche, and Hebrew ruach, the older term for breath or wind acquires an abstract sense in which it represents the immaterial subjectivity of a human being[1]. After all, as the Iliad says so many times, living people have breath inside them and are endowed with mind, but dead bodies have neither breath nor mind. Besides the strawberried handkerchief, the most important object in the play is the pillow with which Othello smothers Desdemona, preventing her breath from entering her body and thereby forcing her spirit out of it.  The air is thus linked to both materiality and to aliveness. The spirit, then, is uncanny in that it lies between these two categories—the material which we know by the senses, and the mind of the (human or divine) other which we cannot know. The slipperiness of this uncanny thing/nonthing is thematised in the play in figures like Othello’s a fortiori reasoning: “I had rather be a toad, / And live upon the vapour of a dungeon, / Than keep a corner in the thing I love / For others' uses” (III, iii, ll. 1931-34).
            If we assume the frightfully patriarchal norms of the period, the tragedy of the play is not Othello’s mad amorality in killing his wife, but his torture for lack of knowledge, at the hands of Iago’s sadism. Like Lear, Othello is ruined by an insistence on certainty that the person who claims to love him really is sincere, since that certainty is not only unavailable but ruinous in itself. When the apostle Thomas demands to see the holes in the hands of the risen Jesus, he precludes faith—“the evidence of things not seen.” For Lear, what engages the senses is what counts: his lands, his spectacular grandiosity in royal robes, and the evocative flowerly language of Regan and Goneril. Land—real estate—is given to them, while plain-spoken Kent and Cordelia are deprived of land and banished from it. “Thy truth then be thy dower,” since “nothing will come of nothing.” As with Othello, the mistake is about who loves the protagonist and who does not, but also about what is real and what isn’t. Ontology is a big problem for a meaning-making animal; Luther changed his position about the “real presence” in the Eucharist no fewer than six times, because the nexus between God and the wafer (“this is my body”) is just as paradoxical as the nexus between mind and breath. From outside Christian piety, and perhaps from inside as well, the Eucharist is a ritual whose pathos lies in its failure to resolve the problem of other minds. When God becomes a human person in the Incarnation, the problem of belief in the reality of God’s subjectivity and the problem of belief in the reality of other human subjects collapse into a single problem.

2. The Stone
            “My heart is turned to stone,” Othello declares, “I strike it, and it hurts my hand”; and later, “O perjured woman, thou dost stone thy heart.” This image of the interior stone seems to encode the crux of the tragedy. One part of Othello—his jealousy, a skepticism about the inner life of another person—injures him, now not only in the hand but in toto. The stone heart represents the loss of the capacity to feel, including the loss of compassion for the wife he will kill; yet it also symbolizes the exactly wrong answer to the question of what is inside the body. Are other human bodies the automata Descartes feared they might be—machines full of dead matter? The equivocal right answer is that Desdemona and Othello really are the flesh and blood they appear to be, yet they are also the non-visible spirits which they must merely infer. Only an ordinary, non-tragic comportment toward the world can free us from the dualism which philosophical skepticism—de omnibus dubitandum—imposes on Descartes. “If you wanted to doubt everything, you would not get as far as doubting anything,” wrote Wittgenstein in response to him. “Doubt comes after belief. The child learns by believing the adult.”
            The sexuality of the marriage bed prescribes an acceptance of both body and soul, and of the mysterious nexus uniting them after they have been sundered by religion or philosophy. Stanley Cavell has argued that the node of Othello’s unconscious fear is that Desdemona has an interior life of her own, distinct from his imagining of her; a flesh and blood woman, and not the perfect figure of his own idealization. Insofar as this idealization is a projection, Cavell states, the underlying fear is that he too is just flesh (and Black flesh at that, susceptible to the mockeries of the play’s first scene), doomed to die and to be forever flawed (“my perfect soul,” says Othello).
Skepticism itself is rooted in a disturbance of embodiment, a fall into dualism caused by an encounter with the body as an (alien) object, as a consequence of a relational trauma, in Othello’s case perhaps related to the objectification of the black body. Here is Cavell:
Nothing could be more certain to Othello than that Desdemona exists; is flesh and blood; is separate from him; other. This is precisely the possibility that tortures him… his professions of skepticism over her faithfulness is a cover story for a deeper conviction… the cause of skepticism [is] the attempt to convert the human condition, the condition of humanity, into an intellectual difficulty, a riddle (to interpret a metaphysical finitude as an intellectual lack). (Cavell, 1979).

Andrew Cutrofello paraphrases Cavell thus: “Something like skepticism underlies Othello’s jealousy; something like jealousy underlies Descartes’ skepticism… skepticism and jealousy are two forms of the same psychological complex; namely, an inability to tolerate someone else’s independent existence” (Bates and Wilson, 2014). What interests me here is the way the figure of the stone gets used as a defense against aliveness in both the self and the other.
It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul,—
Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars!—
It is the cause. Yet I'll not shed her blood;
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow,
And smooth as monumental alabaster.

Comparing his wife to an alabaster statue is part of Othello’s unconscious defense against a female subjectivity he cannot control or surveille. The stone metaphor here is consistent with the rhetoric of impossible, inhuman purity: “whiter skin of hers than snow.” Obsession with purity is associated with compulsion, as in the handwashing of Lady Macbeth, or the compulsive character of jealousy itself, with its constant search for evidence of infidelity. Nothing is whiter than snow, and only a corpse with no blood at all could approach that kind of blank whiteness. There is a tension in the text (even if not in the handkerchief itself) between a pure white that erases the mark of the human, preferring lifeless snow or alabaster, and a worked artifact that expresses the concrete, localized finitude of our nature and stands for blood and for food.
Othello condemns his own blackness by participating in the conventional valorization of aristocratic female beauty as “fair,” untainted by that exposure to the tanning sun which fieldwork imposes on peasants. “Work” is a term of bodily exertion, including sexual exertion, where the spirit gets its hands dirty by engaging with the real world: “you rise to play,” says Iago to Desdemona and his wife, “and go to bed to work.” Eight times the embroidered strawberries of the handkerchief are referred to as “the work,” as the speakers go back and forth on the question of its removal from the cloth. If the red of the berries represents the red bloodstains on Desdemona’s wedding sheets, the back-and-forth about taking out the embroidery parallels the ambiguity as to whether or not her marriage has already been consummated.  The handkerchief has been dyed in “mummy,” so it may be a dark or even black one (Smith, 2015), as Ian Smith has recently argued; that may or may not preclude the interpretation of the strawberries as blood spots.
That the family of Othello regarded the handkerchief as magic would suggest that it has served as a transitional object for more than one person whose relationship to reality was so demanding that it required such a talisman for its safe maintenance. That the childlike Desdemona kept the handkerchief “to kiss and talk to” would seem to fit closely Winnicott’s notion of a “transitional object” (often a favorite teddy bear, or security blanket) located between the warm omnipotence of a naïve psyche, and the cold resistance of an objectively real world. When Othello takes on Iago’s projected jealousy, the handkerchief is stripped of this transitional quality. Instead it gets framed as the stubborn real object whose interpretation seems beyond the reach of subjective reframing; it appears as if its significance were totally unambiguous, as if the fiction of the adultery were as evident in the object as the fact of the handkerchief itself.
Falling in love is one of the touchstones by which we appreciate the value of subjective truths. The experience of falling in love brings with it the obvious fiction that, like the circle-people in Aristophanes’ soulmate story (see Plato’s Symposium), the couple were uniquely meant for each other. Similarly and for the same reason, the experience of infancy brings with it the fiction that yours is the perfect mother. To be concretely skeptical of these fictions—regarding them as absolute falsehoods rather than absolute truths—is to begin to die. Salvation, Montaigne explains, lies in the middle road between hubristic certainties and hubristically ambitious doubts. Accept what is there, and you will be as strong as it is possible to be. For the purposes of living a life, a necessary illusion is no illusion at all.  In other words, when the left hemisphere tells the right, “God is not real, your wife is not faithful, and your mother was not good enough—but you didn’t hear it from me,” the correct reply is, “didn’t hear what”?
Montaigne’s essay “Of Experience” is about the prudence of a moderate form of philosophical doubt. We should be skeptical of generalizations, but not so skeptical as to dismiss concrete particulars, even though there is no ultimate certainty of them. Montaigne’s pragmatism, his epistemological humility, make him a rare figure—wise enough to appreciate the tragic nature of human life, but humble enough to forego the grandiosity that courts disaster. Without hubris, there is no nemesis. This essay about humble skepticism, which steers straight between naïve dogmatism and over-sophisticated doubting, is expounded in the context of an horrible ailment: the kidney stone in Montaigne’s body that tore up his urethra until he passed it. Othello is grandiose and speaks metaphorically of a stone inside his body; Montaigne is impressively humble and speaks literally of a stone inside his body.
The stone is like the body in its materiality, but it is the opposite of the body in being devoid of mind. Stones are the opposite of meanings: “you blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things,” says Shakespeare’s patrician who scolds the plebs for their mindlessness in Julius Caesar. The same play has Marc Antony warn the crowd they will be enflamed by hearing Caesar’s will read aloud, because they are not “men of stone.” The uncanny in that play occurs at the point of friction between the tragic design of the omniscient God / Author and the subjectivity of the characters captive to it, e.g., when Caesar’s statue bleeds in Calphurnia’s dream. Stones are what does not bleed, does not feel, does not live. The kidney stone inside the body of Montaigne can’t be interpreted away; all Montaigne can do is reframe it so that it is less and less like the indifferent jagged stone it must be. Thus he weaves a narrative of the stone as teacher, physician, companion, even to the point of attributing to the stone a vulnerable life like his own: “you [men] kill me far more often than I kill you,” says the stone to Montaigne. Here, killing the stone seems to mean passing it out of the body; once the horrific ordeal is over, the man can again afford to regard the stone for what it is—dead matter without malice or empathy. It is as if Montaigne were reading Job 5:23, “Thou shalt be in league with the stones of the field…”
Harry Levin emphasizes the effect of contingency which Shakespeare achieves with the apparently random dropping of the handkerchief: “The lovers are not star-crossed; the protagonist is neither hounded by fates nor predestinated by oracles; the retrospective design bears the signature, not of necessity, but of chance; we listen in vain for the ring of inevitability” (Levin, 1976, p. 159). Following Levin, Katherine Eisaman Maus has written: “In Richard III…Shakespeare allows the audience’s oversight of the stage action to approximate divine omniscience: we know what is happening, we know what will happen, we approve the design of providence. In Othello, this is emphatically not the case” (Maus, 1995). Plays which do seem haunted by an underlying necessity are those in which foreknowledge (in the form of oracles, etc.) doubles for the authorial function. What drives Othello’s pathology to its manifest conclusion is the questing sadism of Iago, whom we do not tend to experience as an instrument of Shakespeare’s controlling presence because there is nothing Olympian about Iago that could suggest the high perch of the author. In Oedipus, by contrast, Apollo and Sophocles are two names for what makes things happen as they do.
In tragedy (particularly in tragedies of knowledge like Oedipus and Julius Caesar), the inaccessible knowledge necessary to avoid suffering is encoded into the text by an agency that appears outside the text as authorial function and internal to the text as divine providence. That encoded knowledge takes the form of prophecies, oracles, omens, dreams, and so on. In Othello, too, the horrors and the knowledge necessary to avoid them come from one source, not God but—Iago. The snares are lies and suggestions like “I like not that.” The unavailable way out which Iago puts right under Othello’s nose is the non-anxious alternative interpretation of the snares:
Good my lord, pardon me:
Though I am bound to every act of duty,
I am not bound to that all slaves are free to.
Utter my thoughts? Why, say they are vile and false;
As where's that palace whereinto foul things
Sometimes intrude not? who has a breast so pure,
But some uncleanly apprehensions
Keep leets and law-days and in session sit
With meditations lawful?

This doctrine of universal imperfection is what could have equipped Othello to survive.
The contingent effect comes largely from the randomness with which the handkerchief is introduced into the action by being dropped. But the more psychologically minded we are, the less this sense of free contingency is available to us because Freud’s psychic determinism supplants it. As A. J. Honigmann, editor of the Arden Othello, puts it, “it is not clear here whether he or she drops the handkerchief.” If Othello drops it, he does so because his unconscious is arming Iago with the means to destroy him; if Desdemona drops it, Othello does the same thing by urging her to “let it alone” (III,iii, l.293)
The play vacillates as to whether is it better to know, or not to know, whether one’s spouse is cheating. This is something like the insistence upon knowing whether God is “real.” Why do you need to know? Concretely, it might seem pointless to pray to an empty Heaven or to love an adulteress. But the concrete is already a problem, even before the evidence is in, because love is supposed to transcend the facts. For Othello to love Desdemona requires that he tolerate the inherent uncertainty that comes with embodiment, aware that she could be cheating, but able to prevent this mere possibility from ending his experience of her.[2] What should have mattered but did not, in other words, was Othello’s ongoing experience of Desdemona, rather than his imaginative arrest of her through his experience of Iago. In the effort to find out who Othello is, it’s worth asking oneself who Othello is not, by asking another question: who could have survived Iago’s attack? The answer is: Montaigne.

[1] This etymology fits with the commonplace whereby the winds are the breath of God: “Great Jove,” says Cassio, “Othello guard / And swell his sail with thine own powerful breath…” (II, i, 77-8). See also John 3:8, “The wind [pneuma] bloweth [pnei] where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit [pneuma].

[2] The impulse to philosophy for Socrates was wonderment; for Descartes, it is the incapacity to take it on faith that other people’s bodies have minds inside them.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Friday, June 12, 2015

Notes on Some Sculptures of Zvi Lachman by Jamey Hecht Sept. 2003 NY Arts Magazine

Zvi Lachman is an Israeli sculptor. I read a brief catalogue of his work and looked at his website, and though there was no mention of the Holocaust in it, the experience of contemplating these great sculptures, for me, involves broader thoughts about the human condition, Jewish history, theodicy, suffering, and so on. I'd like to share those thoughts.

Judaism, Europe, and modernity together constitute a problem that exceeds history's philosophical horizon. In other words, there is no figuring it out.  Death is at the heart of it, where a living God would be if the ancient world had continued. That world was not merely broken, like the father's arm in Lachman's Akkedah sculpture; it was shattered. Contemporary Jewish thought is still circumnavigating this problem, always on the inside of its infinite perimeter.  David Blumenthal's Facing the Abusing God figures the Holocaust as an episode of dysfunctional parenting, a borderless explosion of the story of Abraham and Isaac and the knife, from Genesis 22.  This has to be right, as surely as Alice Miller's work on rage and abuse has political implications like those explored by Robin Karr-Morse in Ghostsfrom the Nursery: Tracing the Roots of Violence; Michael Milburn in The Politics of Denial, and the great Hannah Arendt in Origins ofTotalitarianism.  In his Tremendum, the late Arthur Cohen surrendered the power of speech in the face of the Shoah by calling it "the caesura," the gap in Jewish reality that no thought can fill. As Wittgenstein says, "Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent": but it's necessary to speak about that silence, and criticism is what avails to speak so.

Zvi Lachman's sculptures are strong enough to evoke many layers of earliness, from the originary Modernism of Giacometti, down toward the archaism of extinct hands on clay.  Whereas the paintings explicitly allude to seminal masters like Rembrandt and Velasquez, art-historical reference in the sculptures is more subtle and attenuated. 

The 1998 seated figure of The Poet seems to quietly evoke Max Klinger's Beethoven of 1902.  
Lachman's sculpture builds the allusion (if it is an allusion) out of the unthinkable distance between them, a distance much greater than 96 years.  Sublime, transgressive, German, Klinger's supra-romantic apotheosis of the composer spills over into the 20th century from an aestheticism that was already overripe in 1902. Beethoven's fate was to dissolve into the Wagnerian disaster that appropriated his ambition. Two nationalist wars (each of which dwarfed Prussia's martial adventure of 1871) eviscerated the promise of the Enlightenment and turned Schiller's Ode to Joy into indecent noise. The rejection of Beethoven by Wittgenstein, Adorno, and Thomas Mann became binding upon every listener, every reader, and everyone who gazes on the figurative sculptures of the modern world.

The love and pain in Lachman's sculptures of his father bespeak the miserable sunset of the West, in which nuclearism finally drives the human image off the canvas. But they also reassert this human image, in an act of artistic (not religious) faith that presses out toward (compromised) survivorship and (non-inevitable) progress.  His father's meliorist socialism is gone, but the artist is still alive, still Jewish, still able to resist the seductions of nationalism, and still making art.  Lachman the Elder is grounded, merged with the situated chair whose long sides recall those of Beethoven's throne, cleared of all its mythographic friezes.  Both his feet are planted on the step. Though the robe covers his hands, the surface has nothing to conceal: King Lear is in plain sight, whether we perceive an old man or the tragic consciousness made flesh.

Exodus 20:4 is unambiguous: "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth."  Islamic art has kept to this requirement; Christian art has overcome it through the idea that God's incarnation made his image a human one, whose representation must therefore be more than permissible. Jewish art (according to, for instance, Anthony Julius in Idolizing Pictures: Idolatry, Iconoclasm, and Jewish Art), repeats the Abrahamic gesture from that famous Midrash in which the young patriarch breaks the idols in his father's workshop.  Lachman's Akkedah (the "Binding" of Isaac for sacrifice) encodes this breakage where the terrible diagonal is interrupted; the father's arm (or it may be the rope) has a gap in it.  Is this the beginning of Isaac's eventual reprieve?  Or is it a breakage in the story?  Lachman seems to ask: which is the blessing, the bond (Akkedah) of Jewish identity, or the lifesaving break in that bond?  The knife that would have sacrificed Isaac is the same knife that cut the rope instead.  The Akkedah story ends with God's promise to make the Hebrews flourish: "I will bless thee… and I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand upon the sea shore" (Genesis 22:17).  Of course this blessed chosen-ness is also a curse, and the trans-rational numbers of God's fertility poem have their dark side in that equally unthinkable number, six million.

Here are the titles of some of Lachman's sculptures, which we might sort into three groups:

  1. Witness Head, Distant Gaze, Cello – Woman, Rested Head 
  2. Isaac, Akkedah 
  3. My Father In a Robe, Face to Face with My Father (the Chess Players).  

The first group conforms to that class of traditional titles which archivists applied to works by Renaissance artists whose models' names had been lost (e.g., Head of a Man) though they do render an historically specific face, it is an anonymous one. Rested Head might be anybody. The next group inherits the convention of religious art that begins when Greek sculptors craft a male nude from life and call it Poseidon or Apollo. Like these, the biblical Isaac has a name. Such sculptures have names which denote specific figures, whether historical or mythic--but these do not imply any claim that the model was selected because his features resemble those of the historical Jesus or the invisible Apollo. Last, the sculptures of the artist's intimates are a further step in the direction of individuality, since they point to one man in history, with both a specific face and a name. 

And yet the power of these works involves a mirroring of the human image down the generations, as the two men face one another across the chessboard.  
Some months ago, my 92-year-old grandfather lay dying in a hospital bed.  My chair, my father's chair, and the deathbed formed a triangle.  In such a situation there is nothing to be done, and you keep watch and you collect your thoughts.  I said this strange thing: "Now I'm in this chair.  One day I'll be in that chair.  And then one day I'll be in the bed." The men in Lachman's "Chess Players" are firmly situated in space, and their genealogy situates them in time; one of them is younger.  And yet not so: compared to the bronze, compared to the God (real or not), compared to the Jewish People, there is no age difference between any particular father and his son, caught as they are in a game of begetting and dying that foreshortens individuality into a grain of sand (Genesis 22: 17).  There are no pieces on the board: pawns and kings come and go; matches are won and lost; but the game itself is not mortal.  Like Rodin, Zvi Lachman can build a human being out of bronze because with one hand he grants it an identity, and with the other he makes that identity into a cipher (what Lear's Fool called "an O without a figure").   Sculpture is the lesson of time taught in the language of space. 
The Poet

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

No Place in the Universe Has Elements Not Found on the Periodic Table

I meet lots of people whose open-mindedness is not shaped by any knowledge of the constraints on the diversity of phenomena in the world. For example, the integers are universal, and the elements instantiate the integers, from 1proton (Hydrogen) to two protons (Helium) on up to heavy elements with nanosecond lives that end when their giant heavy nucleus decays. People assume it is possible that other worlds, elsewhere in the galaxy, have elements that do not appear on the periodic table. They often insist on this, because other worlds are surely a matter that calls for open-mindedness.

Read the Periodic Table of the Elements from left to right, row by row, and watch the building of reality as proton after proton is added to the nucleus to make each element. I don't mean that the actual elements are formed by a process of adding protons; I mean it heuristically, that is, as an aid to thought: the nucleus of each element on the table is one proton larger than the nucleus of its predecessor.  How they get formed is a matter of the life cycles of stars, including the formation of heavier-than-iron elements in supernova conditions. But let's bracket out for a moment the diachronic, time-bound processes by which the elements are formed, and just look at the synchronic snapshot of the current situation. The world is composed of energy, spacetime, and these hundred elements. The miracle of physical chemistry is that a primate came to understand just how the numbers spell out the physical world; how it is that the addition of a proton to the nucleus gives rise macroscopically to a completely different substance; how the healthful precious silver of 47 protons becomes the toxic heavy metal cadmium when a 48th proton is present.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

God's Big Job

Suppose, for a moment, that there is a God.
God’s job is very large.­ It includes at least two (maybe only two?) jobs. He has to create the world. He has to govern it.
He has to launch the spatio-temporal world from within a non-spatio-temporal eternity. He has to govern the world in a way that allows for gratuitous-suffering-without-recourse, while retaining His attributes of greatness (omnipotence) and goodness (omnibenevolence).  As history happens (with its Holocausts, its wars, its plagues and famines and fires) the stain of cruelty and indifference keeps spreading toward these two attributes of God, and they keep receding in a process of apologetics and intellectual strategic retreat.
The Watchmaker argument (that God created the universe, imparted some sort of internal momentum to it, and sat back to watch it change) feels silly. If there is a God, the God somehow has to pervade everything; viewed theistically, everything bespeaks the God, from the experience of this or that object’s presence, to the general fact of experience itself. There can’t be a dichotomy of the sacred and the profane if all of it is God’s work. Human free will can destroy the local world called Earth (and it has), but human nature is still an expression of the Creator’s nature. Not because it says so in the Bible (which it does, e.g. Gen. 1:26), but because the idea of God tends to include the idea that everything which exists is, one way or another, the product of His will. God’s world has the character that we experience it to have, and both the world and we in it are artifacts of the same divine mind. As is made clear in texts like the Book of Job, the Iliad, and the Gilgamesh, this is a world defined partly by loss and death, a distribution of pain and deprivation that is not reducible to reward-and-punishment. God cannot be trusted. It’s common for God to sustain people, and it’s common for God to crush people like insects.
Piety is a system for governing persons and communities; piety is a way to cope with the infinite gap between the mortal and the divine. Unless there is some revealed religion (and I don’t think there is such a thing), all piety comes from our side, not God’s; we write the contracts of morality wherein a currency called virtue buys a thing called happiness, but God does not sign these contracts. He does not write books and send them down from Heaven in a basket with a very long rope. Piety is not the thing Job thought it was: a prophylactic against future harm, a charm against divine abuse and divine neglect, the demonstrative show of utter compliance that aims to mollify an unpredictable and arbitrary authority of unlimited power. I used to say that religion/piety is like the dead mouse that a cat brings to its wise, mighty, provident human owner; the mouse is useless to the human, but she appreciates it because she knows it is absolutely the best the cat can do. Another analogy is the dress made by a little girl for her Mother; the dress is tiny and lopsided, and Mommy can't possibly wear it, but its value is great because her daughter made it out of gratitude. 
The trouble is, gratitude is mixed with horror and terror when the Parent is an unpredictable and arbitrary authority of unlimited power, rather like an alcoholic parent with borderline personality disorder. After Auschwitz, it's a little crazy to pray the prayers of gratitude even if one is currently loaded with blessings, because it's been shown that all mortal persons (human or otherwise) and states of affairs are subject to sudden reversals that eventuate in soul-crushing agony, no matter how pious people are. It's a bit like having your bags subject to arbitrary search by police, such that if they decide to plant drugs on you, you could rot in jail forever without charge or trial. This kind of arbitrary power is politically justified by the creation of an evil bogeyman, from whom the intrusive and capricious police are busy protecting us; but who plays that role for God? Why should He permit a Devil to slaughter his children? Or if there is no Devil, and human beings are responsible for evil, we can plead as Socrates did, that we are "in need, not of punishment, but of instruction." 
That leaves open the question of "natural evil," which was brought into terribly sharp focus by the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755. I can't possibly believe that my good fortune is linked to my having prayed the correct prayers correctly, when millions of other people, plenty of whom were surely at least as pious and at least as innocent as myself were burned to ashes in Pompeii ("natural evil") or, indeed, in the ovens of the Nazis (not so natural).
It could be that we have not avoided destroying the biosphere because we could not have avoided it. Having evolved (in God’s world) to use all the available resources, we do just that, until the limits of our planet are reached and five or six billion people die off in a giant crash (of climate change, pollution, and depletion). This conduct is strangely similar to being told not to eat a potent magic fruit, and being unable to refrain from doing so because of the nature of human desire (itself an artifact of God’s creativity in making us). The fruit was a shortcut to a “knowledge of good and evil” that is normally acquired in a cumulative, difficult, lengthy, incremental process of learning and suffering, harming and being harmed, helping and being helped. The fossil fuels that provided the energy for our destruction of the biosphere and doomed the human project were also a shortcut to power that would otherwise be acquired through labor, a cumulative, difficult, lengthy, incremental process of learning and suffering, harming and being harmed, helping and being helped. This, it turns out, is the eventual meaning of the story of the Fall: all is lost by a hubristic grasping at shortcuts. 
The Comforters of Job urge him to propitiate their contract-signing God of reward-and-punishment. But Job knows he has already done that, to no avail. His experience has proven that their God is a social artifact, and at the end of the book (Job 42:7), God Himself speaks from the whirlwind and affirms that Job is correct; the comforters are wrong; God is the wild spirit that invented predation and death and sex and music, not a giant human king or magistrate with an accounting ledger on his giant desk in Heaven.
I've been reading an amazing and highly sophisticated 2009 book about the two hemispheres of the brain, called The Master and His Emissary, by Ian McGilchrist. 
Broadly speaking, the Left Hemisphere sees the world in terms of logic, linear phenomena, and continua of discrete units comprising rigid categories--all of which conduces to control and effective manipulation of the environment for personal survival. The Right Hemisphere can tolerate paradox and slip right past it with a subtly wise smile like the Mona Lisa's; it is gestalt-oriented, holistic, interested in the uniqueness of individual people and things, and able to tolerate ambiguity and even ambivalence. McGilchrist doesn't discuss theism (or if he does, I haven't read that far yet), but it seems to me safe to say that in general, it is the Left Hemisphere that insists that God must come from somewhere in spacetime. The concept of eternity is entirely foreign to it. Recall part 21 of the Fifth Point in Six Theosophic Points (1620) by Jacob Boehme (1574-1624): 
Here external Reason says: God has created the soul in flesh and blood in the outer world, what harm can that do it? This Reason knows no more of the soul's origin than a cow does of a new stable door. She looks at it, and it seems to her to be strange; so also to external Reason the inner world seems to be something strange. 
I guess the way to tie all this together is to note that the most destructive idea in the history of the world is dominionism, rooted in (once again) Genesis 1:26: And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. That's the God of Exodus and Leviticus, who makes deals and assigns prizes and torments. It is not the wild God of Job and Ecclesiastes who does whatever the fuck He feels like doing, no matter the implications for people's well-being, for better or worse: "As flies to wanton boys are we to the Gods;" says King Lear, "they kill us for their sport." 
This little essay has been a representative snippet of my endless, so-far futile search for A Plausible God who would somehow be available to human relationship. Apparently there is none. 
Now about those methane clathrates...

Sunday, November 2, 2014

A Thought Experiment: When Drilling for Oil Becomes a Net Energy Loss, Will Anyone Do It Anyway?

Until recently, not many people were aware of this important bit of Peak Oil wisdom, but because of the successful efforts of activists in the Post Carbon Institute and elsewhere, many people now know it; everybody should:

When a barrel of oil costs more energy (to find, extract, refine, deliver, and sell) than the energy in the barrel of oil itself, rational actors will choose to leave it in the ground.

Having heard this formulation a hundred times, and having repeated it to various readers and audiences, I want to speculate a little about oil and "rational actors."

Money is a representation of energy, not the other way around. The energy--as oil, or sunshine, or labor measured in food calories, etc--is physically real; the money's just a paper symbol charged with socially constructed power. Huge amounts of energy are chemically inherent in petroleum, but unextracted oil becomes worthless when its EROEI (energy return on energy investment) approaches zero.

It does this because every variable in the game tends to deteriorate as time goes on: at the start (c. 1853, when the first commercial well opened in Poland), the Earth is untapped, riddled with great pockets of delicious pressurized oil lying just under its skin. Rockefeller shows up, sticks a straw in the ground, and a gusher blows 100 feet into the air. This amazingly easy oil is of the highest quality, because while the heavy sulfurous gunk sinks deep down, the light sweet crude rises toward us nifty surface dwellers. The easy oil is the better oil, so latecomers have the indignity of expending huge new levels of effort and resources just to get their hands on inferior petroleum. That's the heavy stuff, the stuff you prefer to use for asphalt. The stuff Venezuela can only sell to the Chinese, because everyone else with lungs is scared to burn it.

On any timescale relevant to human affairs, the planet's natural endowment of petroleum does not grow at all. Nearly all of it was formed in two special, geologically exotic eras that occurred roughly 150 m.y.a. and 90 m.y.a. (million years ago). Liquid hydrocarbons occur in only a finite but unknown number of spots around the globe; of course, once we started searching for them, the number of undiscovered ones began shrinking toward zero. The more we searched for oil fields (which they call "exploration"), the better we got at finding them (which they call "discovery"). Discovery peaked in 1964. In other words, in no year before or since have we discovered more oil than we discovered in 1964. Except for some non-linear fluctuations, we have discovered less and less oil every year since 1964.

Once you discover oil, you have to extract it (which they call "production"). Production seems to have peaked around 2008, plus or minus about six years, depending on whose numbers you find persuasive. The date of the Peak is something we can only really know in retrospect, though by then our minds may well be focused on huntin' up our next rack o' possum ribs, not reminiscing about Saudi Aramco's bygone century of make-believe field survey data.

As with discovery, practice makes perfect: the more we extracted, the better we got at extraction. Over the past century and a half, a lot of brilliant petroleum geologists invented scads of amazing instruments, techniques, mathematical models, software, and geochemical expertise, for the purpose of sucking out an ever-greater percentage of the oil in a given deposit... then going back for more (which they call "secondary recovery"), often with a new approach, like injecting the field with a million tons of seawater daily, so the oil will float to the top... then giving it one last shot (which they call "tertiary recovery"), where they send down a rhesus monkey on a rope with a bucket and a spoon. The point is: the better we got at extraction, the more quickly we depleted the planet's limited supply.

Okay, fine. So the viability of an energy source depends not on the amount of money required to exploit it, but on the amount of energy returned per unit of energy invested. But is money totally irrelevant to the question above? The question was, whether people will deliberately leave oil in the ground.

Well, the law forbids corporations from behaving like decent members of the human community, since their sole purpose is to generate profit. They don't ultimately care whether the profit comes from the financial side (selling stock to investors) or the commercial side (actually selling a product to customers). Corporations, like the mentally compartmentalized individuals who run them, are only "rational actors" within the tragically narrow frame of reference that defines them. As Chomsky pointed out in an interview I used to play over and over when I was a teenager, "If you're the Chairman of the Board and you start behaving as if human beings are more important than profit, you find very quickly that you're not Chairman of the Board anymore."

When a barrel of oil costs more energy (to find, extract, refine, deliver, and sell) than the energy in the barrel of oil itself, rational actors will choose to leave it in the ground, lest they lose more energy than they gain. Unless, of course, someone else takes the losses for them, as happened in the 2008 bailout of the big banks, when the taxpayers covered the banks' losses (and then some). I can imagine a scenario in which a young Dubya-like one-percenter goes after oil long after the other companies have given up doing so, because for him, somehow, the public foots the bill.

Suppose a Mafioso is given an oil company for a birthday present. Suppose all his operating costs shrink to near zero because his "people" have "ways" of reducing costs. He could afford to extract oil that others had left in the ground because it cost them too much money to extract. But unlike them, this guy could buy up depleted old fields for a song, sell the thousand defunct rusty old derricks for scrap metal, and get ta drillin'. He starts injecting seawater, firing up the triple-zoom robo-snake and the other hi-tech gizmos, running the pumps, paying the employees, etc., and then sells whatever heavy sour crude he can for profit. The energy he's investing per barrel could be double the energy he's extracting per barrel of this mediocre but useful goo, and he might just keep on going anyway, because it barely cost him anything (neither money, nor the energy for which money is a symbolic place-holder).

Imagine a network of one thousand permaculture-based eco-villages, powered by a solar-and-wind operation where a million men and women work every day to keep things going smoothly. One day the energy gets diverted, somehow stolen by a gangster. Only the villages are in a physical position to make efficient use of the energy they collect, since they live on site; the thief, by contrast, can't steal it without wasting half of it in messy processes of storage and transmission. But he has no interest in efficiency, because this is stolen energy that cost him relatively little (hire some paramilitary contractors; bribe a few cops n' Congressmen). He's like the little rascal who runs home from Old Man Hayseed's well, sloshing his open bucket full of stolen water; he doesn't care that it's nearly empty when he gets home, because he didn't get caught and he did get some free water.

Anyway, back to our story. The energy thief dumps his ill-gotten gains into a tertiary recovery petroleum operation and sells the meager results for a fabulously high price because it's become so rare. When a unit of energy requires a month's labor from a million hungry villagers, plenty of people will prefer black market petroleum if they can get it.

People already have sometimes chosen to leave petroleum in the ground for reasons other than inadequate EROEI. They do it to drive up the market price; or to save some for later; or to placate people who want some field to go offline for a while; or if the military hasn't yet got the place under adequate logistical control for Halliburton's comfort; or if President Putin wants to remind a freezing former Soviet satellite that he's in charge. In my little fable, where things are more simple and extreme, it's easier to see the perspective-dependent nature of "energy accounting"; it's one thing in the two million hands of a community with long-term goals, but quite another in the two hands of a tweaky aristocrat who knows he's above the law.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Check Out This 2012 Report On Psychological Effects of Global Warming

Kevin J. Coyle, JD and Lise Van Susteren, MD,

National Forum and Research Report
February 2012
National Wildlife Federation Climate Education Program
With Support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
Copyright © 2011 National Wildlife Federation

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

No Existential Risk, Please! Stephen Pinker's Naive Optimism on Climate Change

Here is a Youtube film of a recent (August 2014?) panel discussion on “Existential Risk”—risks to the survival of the human species as a whole. I have transcribed the initial response of Harvard psychologist and popular intellectual Steven Pinker:
"I guess I’m skeptical of existential risk as an important topic, for two reasons. One of them is that there’s a long history, going back to the Book of Revelations—apocalyptic thinking—that always comes up in new guises. Whatever the newest technology is, people always imagine how it could be an existential risk. And the history of apocalyptic predictions is actually kind of amusing in retrospect. In the 1930’s, it was fear that if you combined the poison gas from WWI with airplanes, then you could have the threat of airplanes spreading poison gas over the surface of the Earth and extinguishing humanity—something we don’t really worry about anymore, even though it’s still technologically possible. And when I grew up, there were both scientists and political scientists who said that it was a certainty that the US and the USSR would fight a nuclear war, ending humanity. And that certainty didn’t happen. And then there was polywater, a polymerized form of water that would turn all of the world’s water into thick goo; there were the nanobots that were going to consume every bit of organic matter and smother us in grey goo. The problem with existential threats is they’re very easy to imagine. If you play them out on the stage of your imagination, they often speak more to our anxieties than to credible threats. I guess I’m more worried about sub-existential threats; that is, rather than worry about the very last of the 7.2 billion people on Earth today, I think it’d be bad enough if there’s ten thousand or a hundred thousand or a million who get killed, and we know that there are things that can do that kind of damage and we don’t have to play out farfetched scenarios to imagine that people are going to be dying from hunger and disease and war and genocide. My priority would be these sub-existential threats that are certain—they’re happening every day—and that affect the fortunes of actual people."
This is essentially the same move made repeatedly and incisively by John Michael Greer, in books like Apocalypse Not and at his blog, the Archdruid Report. While there is much to be learned from Greer, his argument about existential risk—that there can be no such thing on humanly meaningful timescales, since people have anticipated it so many times before, without result—seems to me quite fatuous. I recently addressed this in “Collapse Awareness and the Tragic Consciousness (a blogpost at Nature Bats Last):

It is well to point out (Greer, 2009) that apocalyptic claims have always proven erroneous in the past, and they may do so again. But the human past never included environmental stressors that were planet-wide, beyond which there can be no appeal. Fossil aquifers and fossil fuels cannot renew, except on a geological timescale irrelevant to human affairs. Radioactive elements (like nuclear waste, nuclear plant leakages, or the depleted uranium the U.S. shot all over Iraq,) have half-lives in the thousands and even millions of years. Four hundred ppm of CO2 makes for a hell of a greenhouse effect, complete with positive feedback loops; the most dangerous of these is the methane cascade problem. There is no remaining “New World” by which to repeat the surprise of 1492 — the frontier is closed, and the world is round.

Drop a baseball from the top of the Empire State Building, and there will be many opportunities to point out that it is going down and must hit the ground. Each presents a corresponding opportunity to reply that yes, it may be going down, but it hasn’t hit — and that you pessimists have repeatedly claimed that it’s going to hit the ground, yet it still hasn’t, so maybe it never will. So it is with claims of apocalypse.

Having addressed the central point of Pinker’s argument, let’s consider the tone and substance of the remainder. Consider the first example of the “amusing in retrospect” pseudo-existential threats that so troubled our naïve predecessors: poison sprayed from planes. During the Vietnam War, the United States denuded Vietnam of some five million acres of forest, causing around 400,000 deaths and 500,000 birth defects for decades after.[1] Monsanto and Dow Chemical Company manufactured most of the herbicidal defoliants used by the US (the most common of which was known as Agent Orange (after the color of the barrels that stored it), totaling over seventy million litres of poisons, notably the amazingly toxic dioxin (Stellman, 2003).[2] Today Monsanto douses agricultural fields with vast amounts of somewhat comparable[3] poisons like Roundup, whose active ingredient glyphosate has been associated with a range of serious health effects.[4] According to Carey Gillam of Reuters, “In 2007, as much as 185 million pounds of glyphosate was used by U.S. farmers.”[5]
Call it agribusiness or sociopathy, this amounts to: spraying poison from planes. While Pinker is obviously correct in observing that the practice has not killed everyone on Earth, he sounds too glib to have considered that fossil-fuel dependent agriculture (of which petrochemical toxins are a crucial part) is in fact an existential threat. The soil of the US and many other countries is no longer a living ecosystem that sustains itself through the natural cycling of nutrients and water among thousands of interdependent species; it has become an inert sponge for inputs of fossil fuels—ammonium nitrate fertilizers from natural gas, pesticides and herbicides from petroleum. These are used with GMO crops whose two commercial merits are, first, their ability to resist (briefly, until the target organisms develop resistance) the expensive weed-killing herbicides Monsanto and Dow manufacture, and second, their engineered sterility, which forces farmers to pay Monsanto for new seed every planting season, or face starvation. The mass suicides of farmers in India are associated with this extractive model of agriculture. It is, in Pinker’s words, one of the “sub-existential threats that are certain—they’re happening every day—and that affect the fortunes of actual people.” But if we leave Monsanto and Cargill and Syngenta and Dow Chemical to their own devices, they will happily compromise the food chain until it fails.

Pinker’s next example is the Cold War: “when I grew up, there were both scientists and political scientists who said that it was a certainty that the US and the USSR would fight a nuclear war, ending humanity. And that certainty didn’t happen.” The fallacy here is the implication that because a nuclear holocaust did not happen, it was never an existential threat. Of course it was. Worse, scholars have come to appreciate just how close we came to annihilation at several points in the Cold War, notably the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis in which President Kennedy’s resolve—his moral courage and psychological maturity—was the only thing between a mad pack of warhawk generals and the missile launch buttons.[6]

Pinker summarizes: “The problem with existential threats is that they’re very easy to imagine. If you play them out on the stage of your imagination, they often speak more to our anxieties than to credible threats.” There are real threats and imaginary ones, just as there are real people as well as fictional characters, real diseases as well as socially constructed syndromes, many real plants and many plastic ones. The rub lies in the ever-present task of properly sorting the real threats from the unreal ones. It may be “amusing” to look back on false positives in the history of threat-assessment, but it would be foolish to neglect current risks on those grounds, as if there were no such thing as a false negative—something which doesn’t look like a threat, but turns out to be one.  Left unchecked, CFCs might well have permanently ruined the ozone layer, exposing most of the biosphere to damaging and potentially lethal ultra-violet and other forms of radiation. Neonicotinoids are a group of agricultural petrochemicals which now threaten to eradicate bees, without whom there is almost no pollination—a potential disaster for the terrestrial food chain. Plankton in the oceans are the basis of the marine food chain; their numbers are down 40% since 1950.[7] Since no human being can live without food, these are existential threats to humanity.

On Pinker’s reasoning, to consider existential risk is to “worry about the very last of the 7.2 billion people on Earth today,” a rhetorical sleight of hand, since (of course) the issue is the 7.2 billion deaths of the whole lot of us, not the individual death of the last remaining member of the species, even though both of these are involved in extinction.

Lastly, we are invited to neglect what the speaker calls “farfetched scenarios.” Here again, there always farfetched scenarios out there, but the interest lies in determining just which scenarios are farfetched. Though concrete facts constrain the social construction of risk perception, it is still a social construct. Such constructs are rich with biases of class privilege and other identity elements. It is part of the culture of Harvard University, and of the One Percent in general, to ignore those who try and call their attention to serious threats; then mock them with scorn, derision, and contempt; and then forget all about the whistleblower once his or her warning has come true.[8] They often announce that absolutely nobody could have predicted the problem, which is an attempt to erase from history whoever did make such a prediction, along with the necessary sacrifices exacted from people who dare to play that role. This happened with Semmelweis and his discovery that thousands of lives are saved when a hospital decides it’s a good idea for surgeons to wash their hands before operating; it happened with Marion King Hubbert’s accurate prediction of the peaking of conventional oil production in the US and in the world as a whole; it happened with Trotsky’s prescient warning that Stalin was going to murder the revolutionary generation of Bolsheviks to consolidate his power; it happened with Michael Ruppert’s warnings in the late 1990’s that the US was headed toward a petro-police state, and so on.

In the twenty seconds following 23:08, Pinker says "If you set climate change as a problem to be solved, as opposed to thinking of it as an apocalypse that we have visited upon ourselves and deserve to be punished for our sinful ways, and our only solution is to completely and radically change our lifestyle and value system. I think that's unlikely to solve the problem. I think thinking of it as a big mess that we've gotten ourselves into and what are the ways that we can get the numbers to match up with reality, I think a solution exists." There it is. Watch the clip. What Pinker disagrees with is this fundamental truth, agreed upon by all reasonable people with whom I am at all acquainted: "our only solution is to completely and radically change our lifestyle and value system."

Seated near Dr. Pinker on the panel was Elizabeth Kolbert, author of Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change (2006) and The Sixth Extinction (2014), giving the panel the gravitas that helps express the nature of our predicament.

Evidence of abrupt and dramatic climate change is nearly everywhere you look: unprecedented high temperatures, storms, floods, droughts, migrations, wildfires, crop failures, species extinctions (as many as 200 per day), sea ice loss and sea level rise, and the triggering of perilous positive feedback loops like the methane releases from both thawing permafrost and the warming ocean floor. While there is meaningful controversy about just how quickly these will converge and just how screwed we really are at this point, everybody knows that exponential growth on a finite planet is the murder of the whole world. Everybody knows about the critical state of the ecosystem without which life is impossible. 

Until I saw this conference footage, I thought even Harvard knew it.

[6] JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters. James W. Douglass (Orbis Books, 2008).
[8] John Michael Greer is particularly good on this issue. See “Heading Toward ther Sidewalk” and “Dark Age America: The Senility of the Elites.”