Category Archives: History
Indian Naturalism: An Emic View
The naturalistic bent of contemporary Indian thought is a product of the materialistic philosophy of Lokāyatas or Carvākas from the Nāstika School, and, it is also, as is claimed by the movement, in contiguity with the ethos of European Enlightenment (Quack, J., 2011, p. 9). The Lokāyata is described, traditionally, with its origins being in heretical opposition to Vedic thought, as a technique of critique which did not propose a negation as logical refutation; its modus operandi, being the generation of inevitable absurdities [nigraha-sthāna] in an “…argument by adopting false and puzzling analogies [jāti]…”, is vitandā which can be translated into an oxymoronic appellation, in its substantive form, as illogical logic (Dasgupta, S., 2007, p.512).
There is here an ambivalence lieu of the oppositional tendency of the epistemic systems between the Hindus and the Buddhists as it can aid a more holistic comprehension of the metaphysical chasm between the two religions, as for the latter there is no distinction between tricky argumentation and correct argumentation. Although Buddhists do not accept distinction between modes of argumentation the do distinguish between arguments that provoke virtue and those that abet vice, yet what is illogical logic for rationalistic Hindus [upholders of Lokāyata, in terms of soteriological historiography] may be called logical in the Buddhist view (Ibid 2007). May one not say, then in the heretical and solemn timbre of the Lokāyata, an argument is an argument is an argument?
“All is impure; all is not impure; the crow is white, the crane is black; and for this reason or for that” says the Lokāyata, or the book of unbelievers (Ibid 2007, p. 515).
The popularity of this vein of sophistry was associated in public consciousness with science, and there was an entire discipline which concerned itself with the study of this modality of argumentation (Ibid 2007). This, contrarianism at the heart of Hindu hermeneutics, is sometimes taken as reason to propose that the truth of idealist Hindu philosophy can be attained sola scriptura (Ibid 2007) — by definition, cutting off the role of the hermeneutic subject, or interpreting authority as extraneous and even a priori nihilistic. The distinction “…between the natural and the supernatural…”, says Quack (2011), “is…extremely complex and treacherous” (p. 10); contemporary Hinduism would, however, by and large, treat of the naturalistic materialist position as atheism (Ibid 2011). This blanket term of atheist would also be used to describe rationalists who try to broach the question by adopting a syncretic view, inclusive of humanism, scepticism, ethical attitudes (Ibid 2011).
This blog-post is a continuation of an ongoing series on Indian Aesthetics…
Dasgupta, Surendranath (2007) A History of Indian Philosophy: Volume III. India: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Pvt. Ltd.
Quack, Johannes (2011) Disenchanting India: Organized Rationalism and Criticism of Religion in India: Organized Rationalism and Criticism of Religion in India. USA: Oxford University Press.
By Cain Pinto
TechGnosis: Myth, Magic and Mysticism in the Age of Information(1998) by Erik Davis is a level headed exploration of the collective fetishes and taboos of our technocratic agon. Let not the book’s breezy tone and tongue in cheek yet pyrotechnic proclivity for floating self-conscious portmanteaux like ‘eschatechnology’ and ‘datapocalypse’ among its serious enumerations be an impediment to the receipt of delightful, well considered and erudite insights that are packed in for good measure.
The thesis of the book is not original but is fleshed out in a highly persuasive way and is wide in its reach of resources and analytical framework: that the project of the Enlightenment, seeking to dethrone religiomystical ways of understanding the world, by the use of instrumental reason, perpetuated magical ways of thinking while occulting them into the deeper ordering, unconscious structures of technological rationality is a proposition we have been made by theorists before. All in all, the dispassionate eye of Davis is an excellent vantage for the uninitiated and a succinct recapitulation to the blasé psychonaut and acquisitive dabbler.
The profusion of cults, the rash like irruption of mass entertainment products that gather attention across the globe among diverse audiences, the giddy ecstasy of communication and the tenacious optimism of cutting edge science which rivals the mystical pull of the numinous hearken back to a tribalism that never really ceased to breathe animating pneuma into the erstwhile deus ex machina of bellow-and-cudgel positivism. This book, though several years old in a world that ages by the minute, in sync with sound bites and giga, has aged remarkably well, and I suspect it will remain relevant until man’s elusive pursuit of the apocalypse will meet its resolution by coinciding with some trite prophecy.
Davis’ work is a fine piece of writing, capable of entertaining D & D nerds and tree-hugging ecofeminists alike, while cozying up with oddball, well read history buffs and pop culture connoisseurs. It is must read for the terminally optimistic empiricists of today, as a word of caution, a grain of salt, an obsidian mirror, a quick read in fast times.
My Rating: *** ½
Davis, Erik. (2004). TechGnosis: Myth, Magic and Mysticism in the Age of Information. New York, NY: Harmony Books.
Arguably the first novel ever, Bānabhatta’s Kadambari is a rollicking ride in a rickety machine of transcendence. The plot so convoluted is yet humane and filled with the awe, empathy and openness of attitude that is lost on our contemporary society: Bānabhatta’s critique of individualism is more than mythologically bolstered legalism; it is coloured in the soil of its culture and yet seeks expression, authenticity, in those breaches where tradition and reason collide in individual experience.
The lexis and idiom is circumlocutory, exotic and immediate to the point of seeming to want in variety; one must however bear in mind the peculiar geography implicated in this work and its evolved, involuted, characters and their loves and strifes in a uniquely lived cosmology. The possible encumbrance of ubiquitous hyperbole, the sheer profusion of alaktha, lotus stalks and parijata petals, rut fluid dripping from scent elephants and the floral fugleman, Manmatha’s- an Indian Cupid’s- carnal elicitations in the graduated litanies of metaphor and stretched similes are all to be savoured as served if one must arrive at the strange experience laid out for perusal, demanding a suspension of disbelief.
The book may seem, to some, a lure in its promise of strange, alienating, pleasures and a trap in its effusiveness and wild itinerary to others: the force of gods and goddesses, imps and monarchs who only long for the ascetic life populate its teeming landscape. Our unreliable narrator, Vaishampayana- who is, in fact, Pundarika- cursed again by his erstwhile, petulant suitor, is no less steadying in his relating of the tale. This relating being a game of leading to us on to another narrator, and who does likewise to another, so on till the resolution of the plot where all lovers unite against hitherto improbable seeming odds. A rare and osmotic book, dense with ingenuity, liberality and an innate capacity for finding enchantment in the most traumatic and profound of human experience and also the most tender; love and separation from the beloved that one can never anticipate until begged the occasion are laid bare in their ancient sangfroid, tainted by the alaktha of Bharatavarsha’s vision and cultural identity
My Rating: ****
Bāṇabhaṭṭa. Trans. Rajappa, Padmini. (2010). Kadambari. India: Penguin Books.
“This is Not the End of the Book”, Umberto Eco & Jean-Claude Carrière (2012) is a brilliant book of conversations; on display, here, are the spontaneity, capacity for retort and the embattled witticisms of two thoroughly entertaining, and well-informed, litterateurs. The book sets itself an ambitious project and then talks its way out of the bargain, but this is its eminent success: the pomposity of the claim to unearth the selcouth provenance which has watched over the longevity of the book recalls Eco’s delightful and rigorous book, exploring the search for man’s primordial, pre-Babel, language- and the motley claims of ragtags and half-witted geniuses about its divine primogeniture: Serendipities: Language and Lunacy (1998).
Screenwriter and actor Jean-Claude Carrière, known for his academy award winning work Heureux Anniversaire (1962) with Pierre Etaix, and the surreal Diary of a Chambermaid (1964) with Buñuel, comes out sporadic aces to club Eco’s glib digressions pertaining to his own older fictions and essays, and his inventive restatements about the sheer resistance of the book as a form that has rendered itself archetypal. The two men take convivial jousting to a degree that belongs, only too sadly today, to the mere demography of readers of books- televised debates by and large having been co-opted for the quintessential sound bite.
The book is rapid fire and the numerous steerings and renegings of Jean-Philippe de Tonnac, perhaps in his curatorial zeal and general diplomacy in interposing for the breathless reader, serve to close off the loose ends of rare bindings, and incunabula appropriated by wealthy universities that preoccupy Eco and Carrière’s restless, eclectic education.
A sparkling moment, here, symptomatic of the book’s general joie de vivre:
Jean-Claude Carrière: “…During the Restoration, the ultra-conservative Archbishop de Quélen declared from the pulpit of Notre-Dame to an audience of French aristocrats newly returned from abroad, ‘Not only was Jesus Christ the son of God, he was of excellent stock on his mother’s side’…” (207). Umberto Eco: “…it seems to me that saying Jesus was ‘of excellent stock’ is not entirely idiotic. Simply because, from an explanatory point of view, it is true. It is, I think, more a case of foolishness: I can say that someone is of good stock, but I can’t say it about Jesus because it is obviously less important than him being the Son of God. So, Quélen was stating a historical fact, but an irrelevant one. The fool tends to speak without consideration” (210).
Of course, as with all the older work of Eco- bristling with encoded references-, and Carrière- famed peddler of familiar rarities of surrealism-, this book too bears its precursors as a presentiment: there will be no original turn now, the wheel once invented will never be bettered, like the spoon. Umberto Eco, (1990): “There are four kinds of people in this world: cretins, fools, morons, and lunatics…Cretins don’t even talk; they sort of slobber and stumble…Fools are in great demand, especially on social occasions. They embarrass everyone but provide material for conversation…Fools don’t claim that cats bark, but they talk about cats when everyone else is talking about dogs. They offend all the rules of conversation, and when they really offend, they’re magnificent…Morons never do the wrong thing. They get their reasoning wrong. Like the fellow who says that all dogs are pets and all dogs bark, and cats are pets, too, therefore cats bark…Morons will occasionally say something that’s right, but they say it for the wrong reason…A lunatic is easily recognized. He is a moron who doesn’t know the ropes. The moron proves his thesis; he has logic, however twisted it may be. The lunatic on the other hand, doesn’t concern himself at all with logic; he works by short circuits. For him, everything proves everything else. The lunatic is all idée fixe, and whatever he comes across confirms his lunacy”. You can tell him by the liberties he takes with common sense, by his flashes of inspiration, and by the fact that sooner or later he brings up the Templars…There are lunatics who don’t bring up the Templars, but those who do are the most insidious. At first they seem normal, then all of a sudden…”.
My Rating: ****
My Copy: http://goo.gl/AKoNx
Eco, Umberto & Carrière, Jean-Claude. Trans. McLean, Polly. (2012).This is Not the End of the Book. London, UK: Vintage.
Eco, Umberto. (1990). Foucault’s Pendulum. London, UK: Pan Books.
A Series of explorations in the Indian Aesthetic Universe
The aesthetic object, in Indian consciousness, is mediated by a syncretism which owes its rubric to the friction between ancient religious philosophy, colonialism, nationalist revivalism and post-globalised cultural invasion. To talk of indigenous artistic vision is to invoke a large tradition of self-assertions that hark back to the constructed unity of fragmentary social strata, it is to evoke the mythic idea of a unified Bharatavarsha, in so far as personal identities find their definition in relation to the traditionally delineated mythic structures of cultural memory. In short, the unity of non-dualist religion is not responsible for the Indian aesthetic, which seeks to combine sensate and supra-sensory experience in the aesthetic event. It is more a product of a burgeoning nationalist revivalism in the event of the Hindu encounter with religious Others.
Beauty, a western concept, is a transition of Western historical self-narratives corresponding to sates of social evolution in the reflected light of Occidental cultural vestiges (Eco, 2004; Eco, 2007). An analogue to this Western concept for India’s aesthetic domain is to be found in the notion of saundarya. This theoretical distinction attains laudable weight when it is used to cleave at the excessive nature of constructed formalisation of aesthetic attitudes in Indian society which is not to be subsumed by the theistic schema of Advaita Hinduism in isolation. One may contend that the non-duality of Advaita Hinduism, which enjoys numerical predominance, is not responsible for the Indian aesthetic vision, where artifice must produce affect to insinuate beauty is more in line with the materialistic naturalism of post-colonial India.
Saundarya means the whole gamut of aesthetic experiences, as enunciated by Indian aesthetic traditions, and is, therefore, the formal localisation of beauty. Saundarya is the product of that which arouses rasa. Rasas are, as concepts quite selcouth and polyvalent, determinate states of affect engendered as sensuous experience through the instrumental provenance of artifice. Artifice, in its turn, is defined by Jagannatha as the collocation of circumstances of cause, effect and comprehension that produce a sensation that bespeaks an affect which belongs to the “…super-mundane [lokottara] (Prasad, G., 1994, p. 132)”. The beauty of painting is said to emerge from harnessing the representative faculty of mimetic gestures, which draw on the skill of “…abhinaya [acting], an integral part of dancing” as a repertoire of stylistic gestures and postures that elicit, or produce, “…rasa and saundarya” (Dehejia & Paranjape, 2003, p.55).
Bharatas’ Natyashastra enunciates the inherent aesthetic values of dance while evading their qualia, and instead alluding to the means of their genesis (Dehejia & Paranjape, 2003, p.54). Traditional exegesis of aesthetic characteristics of dance has often involved the study of analogical hierarchies, such as the one found in Vishnudharmottara-Purana (Ibid 2003). The analogy offered here is revelatory in relation to the experiential provenance of aesthetic creation and criticism: a gradation from sculpture to music is implicit in traditional accounts- since, according to the allegory offered here, sculpture captures an image which is vital to the art of painting, but painting needs dance since it implicates the conscious interpellation of images and mental states that “…imitate the world”, and mastering dance demands an understanding of music and musical instruments (Ibid 2003, p.54-55). The implicit definition of beauty is, thereby, “…imitation”, which is the forte of dance (Ibid 2003, p. 55).
Traditionally, the inadequacy of painting in relation to dance consisted in its failure to represent, through mimicry, the flux of objects at home in the world of experience (Dehejia & Paranjape, 2003). Thus, the operational distinctions between the arts were always taken to impute a hierarchy of the faculty of reproducing material reminders of the mythic cultural homology of the Hindu universe. Housden, pithily, illuminates the uniquely Indian production of a notional monad from the dualistic stuff of cultural memory and communal memory: “The sacrality of the land of India, not any political vision, is what, still today, gives a sense of unity to this country of so many religions, cultures, races and factions” (Paranjape, M., R., 2012, p.97). This reassessment of ancient thought in aesthetics represents the reassessment of cultural memory in relation to historical experience.
Since the body is the frontier where dance must invoke its mimetic lines of production it is apposite to define the codifications of body language as they have come to be embodied in filmic representations as a product of colonial influence. The side effect of Western education which led to self-consciousness of victim-hood among Indians under British rule was a simultaneous revulsion towards the dislodging of the Indian subject from local culture into foreign mores, and thereby a reinvigoration of the same by reclaiming the cultural narratives which defined contemporaneous disillusionment (Clark-Deces, 2011, Ch. 6). The most popular form of dance in India today is Bollywood film music oriented, and despite film music’s syncretic character, by its nature of inclusion in films, is in keeping with the spontaneous trappings of the of the nautanki tradition (Richmond, Swann & Zarrilli, 1993, p. 272; Stange, Oyster & Sloan, 2011, p. 175).
This blog-post will be continued as a series of posts about Indian Aesthetics at later dates catagorised under Art.
Clark-Deces, Isabelle (2011) A Companion to the Anthropology of India. USA: John Wiley & Sons.
Dehejia, Harsha, V. & Paranjape, Makarand (2003) Saundarya: The Perception and Practice of Beauty in India. India: Samvad India Foundation.
Eco, Umberto. Ed. (2004) History of Beauty. Italy: Rizzoli.
Eco, Umberto. Ed. (2007) On Ugliness. Italy: Rizzoli.
Paranjape, Makarand, A. (2012) Acts of Faith: Journeys to Sacred India. India: Hay House.
Prasad, Gupteshwar (1994) I.A. Richards and Indian Theory of Rasa. India: Sarup & Sons.
Richmond, Farley, P.; Swann, Darius, L. & Zarrilli, Phillip, B. (1993) Indian Theatre: Traditions of Performance. India: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Pvt. Ltd.
Stange, Mary, Z.; Oyster, Carol, K. & Sloane, Jane, E. (2011) Encyclopedia of Women in Today’s World, Volume 1. USA: Sage Publications.
From the Iron Age to the Age of Irony
SIC “The forest ministry [in India] had for long classified bamboo as a tree despite its scientific description as a grass. The classification ensured that under the Indian Forest Act, 1927, fallen bamboo got classified as timber and remained under the firm control of the forest bureaucracy which harvested and sold it to the industry. The tribals got a pittance on some occasions even as the industry got bamboo at low rates over long lease periods” (Sethi, 2012). The striking, enigmatical nature of the above developments is not the impression that accompanies a novel experience but the rude epiphany that an old delusion’s recognition in its present guise occasions.
The Iron Age
The Mauryan period in its social composition embodies the form of a crude analogy to present Indian civilization. The prism which illuminated old atrocities continues to be held in place by the armature and buttress of caste baiting and routine mystification of class struggle. The simultaneous unease towards, and exploitation of, ethnic minorities on one hand and the flux of socioeconomic realities that necessitated their unresisting presence as subjects of the Mauryan empire on the other bespeak an anachronism that is at once more than infelicitous and yet less than surprising in its contemporary Indian instantiation. It is infelicitous in that it’s in lewd symmetry with the bigotries of the past, and not surprising in that, in several ways, the past has never really ceased to exist.
But this is not to mitigate the case against a retreat into Iron Age expansionism, and in fact is an impassioned indictment of the present, which further heightens the impropriety of legally enforced tribal privation. The Mauryans to their credit, at least, had a well disclosed and uniformly instated religio-mythological cosmogony that equated forest dwelling tribals to mixed breeds, inherently inferior to contemporary civilization and thereby subject to them (Kapur, 2011). India today, however, would insist on the irrelevance of the mythological striations that cut loose the literal marginalia of the past in their bid to bolster erstwhile rhetorical inclusionism, while their actions fall short of even the pretensions of hypocrisy.
The Mauryans were an expansionist empire that appropriated whichever territory complemented its particular shortcomings in its plenitude. Romila Thapar argues that their expansionism and the displacement and subjugation of tribals which went with it were their defining hallmarks (Kapur, 2011, p.3-4). The subjection of tribals was par course, from a religious perspective, since the distinction between those from civilised centres and those who were forest-dwellers was one of purity; those from forests were ritually described as barbarians (Kapur, p.4-8). The strategic governance extended to them in the Mauryan empire took the form of a gradualist policy of “…disintegration…”and reassimilation into a “…class society based on individual private property” (Kapur, p.9).
The, thus far, unimpeachable lacuna between legislative provisions for the enfranchisement of Indian tribals and their actual experience at the hand of the executive and judiciary[i] only indicates a deep rooted, meta-structural fissure in the egalitarian edifice of unified India. For one, the Mauryan period marked the prominent secession of Buddhism and Jainism from Hinduism (Lockard, 2010, p. 116), and their literature before this juncture abounds in the description of forest-dwellers as “…unlearned, barbaric…half-civilized, unconverted people…who rose and ate at improper times” (Kapur, 2011, p.6). By the time of the ascent of Aśoka the traditional attitude towards tribals was undergoing a pseudomorphosis, they were being differentiated by various technical names as well as being painted into a corner by “…ideological dominance” (Kapur, 2011, p.6).
The post-Aśokan phase of the Mauryan empire saw the fall of Jainism, and the rise of Hinduism fueled by the re-emergence of interest in Śaṅkarācārya’s and Rāmānuja’s philosophies (Bentley, 1993, p. 46). It is interesting to note the oppositional tendencies between their respective philosophies are emblematic of the paradigmatic shift in the consciousness of Hindu thought, which maintained its hegemonic hold on an administrative level. The main contention between Rāmānuja and Śaṅkarācārya schools is about the nature of reality, which for the former is a dualistic metaphysics sustained in an immanent god while for the latter all nature is one and so all knowledge is illusory (Dasgupta, 2007, p. 165-86).
To extrapolate the inimical worldviews as constitutive of the empire’s attitude towards administration is a legitimate intervention, given the central expansionist agenda of the Mauryan dynasty was keeping in line with the Hindu capacity for assimilation by containment. The material dispossession of forest tribals was seen not as an inimical intrusion but an economically expedient procedure for dynastic interests, and with its share of exceptions. There was no uniform system of administration, even since Aśoka (Kapur, 2011, p. 12). May one not contend that the lack of uniformity in administrative action in relation to tribals represented the fragmented core of Hindu consciousness, with its coextensive metaphysical chasms as epitomised by the coexisting relevance of Rāmānuja and Śaṅkarācārya?
Age of Ironic Amnesia
The ambiguity of contemporary governance with regards to tribal populations harks back to an ancient rift in the cultural logic of Hindu India. As if in obeisance to Śaṅkarācārya’s notion of avidya [non-knowledge], on one hand, the law continued to misrecognise the true genus of bamboo as a grass, and, on the other hand, taxed the tribals on the same premise which was leveled as justification for Mauryan impunity in acquiring tribal resources.
Implicit in this violence is the underlying assumption of the economic irrelevance of the tribals, whose land and stead could be put to better use in strengthening the nation. Strengthening the nation that is, in constitutional terms, egalitarian and secular, and which in practice behaves as though the old traditional markers of ethnic barbarity in their transformation into economic jargon are neutralised, or somehow shown to be nominal, by regressing to old preconscious habits. Indeed, the inertia of the past is still visible in the controversial and, no doubt, complicated issue of Christian ministries’ involvement with Indian tribals- which deserves another essay for itself.
On one hand the ministries have been victimised by nationalist brigands on the bases of Hindu narratives of tolerance, freedom and equality, which it is alleged are violated by Christian missions[ii]. On the other hand, there is the glaring fact that none of these self-appointed keepers of traditional cultural memory came forward to alleviate the tribals from their national irrelevance and sheer distance from the state mechanisms that represented their access to the tolerant, free and egalitarian ethos now retrospectively suggested as worthy of their people (Ilaiah, 2010, p. 37). Convent schools set up by these missionaries have been used by the children of the vanguards of Hindu nationalism, while the tribals for whose alleviation the missions had arrived are strategically severed from their beneficence (Ilaiah, 2010).
The same pernicious self-contradictory timbre is to be heard in the application of the egalitarian rhetoric of inclusionism by the government in the same breath as industrial expansionism. The issue of the oustees of the Narmada dam project continues to play itself out amidst governmental mystifications that predict eventual uplift of local tribals as an event that will follow the submersion of their villages (Gadgil, 1995, p. 61-2). It has been contended that the eventual benefits of the Sardar Sarovar Dam Project will outweigh the immediate displacement of tribals (Cullet, 2007, p. 60), but it remains tentative and unspecific about the issue of their reassimilation into the better accommodation promised.
In the issues that generate a contest between the immediate lives of tribals and the putative allures of industrial expansionism for the beneficiaries of erstwhile civilization what subtle balance implicates the chain of action? The recognition that bamboo was grass and thus legally salable by tribals took several decades to come through (Sethi, 2012), because the merely material nominalism of knowledge [aka Śaṅkarācārya’s shadow] refused to reify itself in the dualistic split between the us versus them narrative of an ever urgent administration, reflecting the merit of lives vis-à-vis other lives in the comfort of its reactive, if sometimes tacit, Hindu nationalism. The ironic descent into solipsism on part of Indian governance comes to its nauseating fore in the open contradictions between the espoused constitutional jargon of equality and the facts of the subject matter of exploitation as they emerge in the public space. The public space, where history is a constant improvisational gig, a cultural confabulation, which regulates the dreams of our future in the waking nightmares of those caught in the thrall of mystified, disavowed, systemic violence.
Atal, Y. Ed. (2009). Sociology and Anthropology in India. India: Pearson Education.
Bentley, J. (1993). Old World Encounters: Cross-Cultural Contacts and Exchanges in Pre-Modern Times. USA: Oxford University Press.
Cullet, P. (2007). The Sardar Sarovar Dam Project: Selected Documents. USA: Ashgate Publishing Ltd.
Dasgupta, S. A. (2007). History of Indian Philosophy: Volume III. India: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Pvt. Ltd.
Ilaiah, K. (2010). The Weapon of the Other: Dalitbahujan Writings and the Remaking of Indian Nationalist Thought. India: Pearson Education.
Kapur, N., S. Ed. (2011). Environmental History of Early India: A Reader. India: Oxford University Press.
Khongsai, C. “Manipur Tribals and Issues of Social Inclusion and Exclusion”. Journal of North East India Studies. Website. Updated July 17, 2012. Accessed September 6, 2012 <http://www.jneis.com/?p=264>.
Lockard, C., A. (2010). Societies, Networks and Transitions: A Global History, Volume I: To 1500. USA: Cengage Learning.
Sethi, N. “Bamboo Trade May Open up For Tribals”. Times of India. Website. Updated September 3, 2012. Accessed September 6, 2012. <http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes .com/2012-09-03/india/33562268_1_bamboo-trade-tribal-affairs-ministry-minor-forest>.
Continued from part 1. A note: it took KMO a few days to answer the last two questions because he found them much more perplexing upon reflection than he thought at first.
Skepoet: You and Doug Henwood have been calling out NPR lately. Why do you think it has so much cache among liberal and lefty types?
KMO: I love NPR. I’m a lifelong listener. I think it appeals to lefty Baby Boomers because that’s the target demographic. It’s clearly aimed at people with too much education, critical thinking facility and attention span to take more ‘mainstream’ news and current events programming seriously, and so it flatters its audience with the tacit message, “You’re so smart for not settling for low-brow sound bite journalism and fake debates between shrill talking heads.”
NPR, particularly it’s flagship programs, Morning Edition and All Things Considered, annoys the living shit out of me because they respect all of the same taboos that the corporate media hold dear and actually serve to reinforce and legitimize those taboos by posing as a free and unbeholden actor. I think they function as what people more steeped in political language than I am like to call a ‘left gate-keeper.’
That said, let me reiterate; I love NPR. I listen to it all the time, although less so now that I live in New York City and have more alternatives to choose from.
S: You have been working with Occupy Cafe and you have recently moved to New York: what are you thoughts on the developments of Occupy?
KMO: You may have heard that Occupy Wall Street has moved from Zuccotti Park to Union Square. I’ve been by Union Square a couple of times to check out the vibe, and except for the inordinate police presence and a table holding up an OWS banner with a donation jar on it, I saw nothing to indicate that there was anything at all out of the ordinary going on there. I know there have been a few Occupy events at which people were arrested, but I think the mild winter weather has not been a blessing to Occupy. I think people need some recuperation, and I think that 70 degree days in February put psychological pressure on the Occupiers to get back in the game before their batteries were sufficiently re-charged.
As exciting as OWS was last year, I don’t really want to see what it will become now that it has solidified into a recognizable brand and a more-or-less fixed organization. I would rather see everybody change clothes, change dance partners, and let the spirit of protest manifest itself in a new form in 2012.
S: What would you like to the see the spirit of occupy become?
KMO: Last year, Occupy changed the parameters of the mainstream conversation. At first the corporate media ignored OWS, then they thrashed about, grasping at any possible means of discrediting or discounting it, and then the 1% / 99% lingo entered the mainstream conversation. Suddenly, the vast disparities of wealth and privilege in our society materialized in view and required acknowledgement and comment in the mainstream narrative. That is but one of a herd of elephants in the proverbial room. This year, I want more elephants to
The Drug War has become an invisible Juggernaut. It’s excesses and the resulting prison nation that have resulted from absurd mandatory minimum sentencing laws are completely indefensible from any rational perspective. In the 80s and early 90s, Drug War propaganda was everywhere. Now, prohibition-themed public service announcements are
rare. The whole monstrous program barrels forward under its own steam, but discussion of its utility or whose ends it serves is completely absent from the mainstream narrative. I think this is starting to change, and the recent Summit of the Americas at which Latin American leaders insisted that we examine alternatives to the Drug War now has
president Obama explicitly defending prohibition and the prison industrial complex. By the time November rolls around, I want it to be glaringly obvious to anyone tuned into the mainstream narrative that Barrack Obama and the Democratic Party are the party of Empire, the party of prisons, the party of the surveillance state, and the party
of the financialized economy. Whether it is OWS or some other mechanism that effects these changes in perception doesn’t matter much to me. I think that Ron Paul’s candidacy has done a lot more good on this front than has OWS.
S: The drug war is one of the few policies outside of the wars in the Mideast in which the majority of the population, outside of law enforcement, don’t support anymore. It costs the states incredible amounts of money, and it destabilize Latin American countries. Why do you think it continues?
S: Money for whom? That’s the real issue for me. It actually costs most parties involved more than they make in the long run, so the question becomes “who benefits.”
KMO: I think the key phrase there is, “in the long run.” The Drug War creates huge flows of money, the channeling of which provides short term benefit to entities like governments and corporations. This comes at an enormous short-term cost to millions of individual humans and an ultimately catastrophic cost to society, but the pressure to favor short
term gain over long term well-being is certainly not the exclusive province of the Drug War.
S: What are the best ways to frame the issue in the general public ?
KMO: That’s a really challenging question for a number of reasons. At one level, it seems that my own perspective is so deviant that what seems obvious for me is completely alien to “the common man,” whoever he is. So what are my intuitions worth when it comes to a successful re-framing of the Drug War? That viewpoint is laden with a blinding payload of self-flattery. I suspect that when the Greatest Generation dies off and the Baby Boomers are panicked over the fact that their retirement security has evaporated, we can frame the question as, “We can’t afford to fund your retirement AND the Drug War, so what’s it gonna be?” That, I think, will be a no-brainer for the Boomers.
Finally, the whole Drug War stands or falls with the prohibition of marijuana. The propaganda is all about cocaine and heroin, but without the prohibition on marijuana, there are not enough “drug criminals” out in the world to justify the gazillion dollar Drug War budget. Depending on how you massage the poll results, we’re pretty close to having half of the existing population, complete with members of the Greatest Generation who participated in lynchings, already favoring the decriminalization of marijuana for personal use. I heard Ethan
Nadelmann give a talk at the Cato Institute in 1999. He said something that stuck with me for more than a decade. He said, “Support for the Drug War is a thousand miles high, a thousand miles long, and one inch thick.”
S: Do you think pointing out how insane the prison-congressional complex has gotten which actually privatized profits from prisons at extreme cost to the tax payer could be a way forward? Recently I saw that even at the most high estimates we have beat Stalin’s gulag in raw numbers of people in prison and almost all of it is drug related. One almost sees this as a political crime, like “speculation” was in the Soviet Union, rather than a purely administrative category.
KMO: The Drug War started in a fairly honest way. It was clear that the prohibition of certain drugs and the enforcement of those prohibitions were intended to single out blacks, Mexicans, and politically and culturally disobedient youth. The architects of the Drug War were fairly open about this motivation, and the majority population favored the suppression of these groups. Now, the official policy of the federal government is one of color-blindness or the embrace of ethnic diversity, and our current cultural narrative condemns racism. While the cultural narrative has changed, the existing apparatus of the Drug War, which systematically imprisons blacks and Latinos, remains in place. Even worse, in the decades since the enactment of the Controlled Substances Act, marijuana has entered the mainstream. It’s prohibition, originally meant to criminalize ethnic minorities and rebellious youth, now criminalizes huge swathes of mainstream society. Because the racism at the heart of the Drug War cannot be admitted, the fact that the same Drug War now criminalizes the lifestyles of tens of millions of otherwise obedient whites cannot be acknowledged as an unintended consequence and corrected.
Those who profit from the Drug War (a set that includes just about everyone, if Catherine Austin Fitts is to be believed – perhaps link to her essay Narco Dollars for Dummies) cannot acknowledge the size and composition of the prison population without self-condemnation. No rational discussion of the topic can be permitted at this point, as
the avoidable and egregious harm produced by the Drug War is so glaring. It’s grounding in systemic racism and repression of political dissent is so obvious that it cannot withstand even the most cursory examination.
One reason why many whites still favor prohibition and mass incarceration is that most drug criminals are arrested in cities but housed in rural prisons. Prison jobs prop up many otherwise failing local rural economies. I saw a news story (which I posted to the Friends of the C-Realm) the other day (it was really a piece of corporate propaganda branded with the CBS News imprimatur) touting the benefits of a robotic prison guard. Corporate profits generated by mass incarceration can be increased by increasing the prison
population and decreasing labor costs. If labor costs can be lowered in the short term by replacing human prison guards with robotic systems, then the logic of the corporate mandate to maximize shareholder value in the short term will dictate that this sort of automation be adopted even if it is obvious that doing so will undermine one of the few remaining pillars of support for the Drug War. This doesn’t give me much reason for hope however. Modern-day logging operations employ very few people because technology has allowed one heavy equipment operator to do the work of an army of men wielding saws and axes. Even so, people who live in the economically devastated husks of rural towns that used to thrive on the basis of logging industry jobs still revile environmentalists as enemies of economic vitality. People in these communities still favor logging industry jobs over forests even though the logging industry no longer provides jobs to a sizable percentage of the local population.
S: The issue of stacking districts with prison populations is an interesting problem. Even though in many of the states that do this felons cannot legally vote ever, the prison population is counted for appointing state representation. So it can be a form of “empty district building” and this increases rural, generally Republicans, representation against urban centers. This leads me to think that there structural problems of electoral reform, not just for the drug but for many elements of our society, will actually not be particularly responsive to public pressure.
S: What gives you hope right now?
KMO: I hate to give a nit-picky answer to a straightforward question, but as someone who voluntarily engages in philosophical discussions, I figure it’s par for your course.
Channeling Paul Kingsnorth, now. “Hope for what?”
Hope for the future of life on Earth? I know some people who think that human industrial activity will turn the Earth into a Venus-like world, unfit even to support microbial life. This fear clusters in my own consciousness with the fear that the CERN particle accelerator will destroy the universe or that the Bible is literary true and that Christian true believers will soon be raptured into heaven leaving the rest of us in the clutches of the Anti-Christ. I’m not saying that the danger of a run-away greenhouse process is as remote as the other two I mentioned, but I have as much trouble working myself into a state of genuine concern over it as I do taking seriously a Left Behind scenario.
Hope for the future of the human species? Ninety nine percent of the species that have lived on Earth are now extinct. Perhaps humans will transcend our biology and project our consciousness out into the larger universe to take our place among the gods, but it’s also quite likely that we will go the way of most of the species that have arisen on this planet, and I’m fine with that. Even if industrial civilization has a short future, I do think that humans will be on the scene for hundreds of thousands of years yet. I’m not worried about
the survival of the human species.
Hope for the continuation of the status quo of global corporate capitalism? For the sake of the non-human life on Earth, I hope it does NOT continue.
Hope for a version of the technological singularity that preserves and advances those aspects of human intelligence that I value? There are people working on so-called Friendly AI, but given the fact that so much robotics research is driven by the military and that the leading forms of artificial pseudo-intelligence operate in the service of corporations and their overriding mandate to maximize short-term financial gain by externalizing costs at the expense of future prosperity, which is to say denying the consequences of their actions, I think that the Vile Offspring of Charles Stross’s Accelerondo is the more likely outcome.
Hope that industrial civilization can execute a deliberate soft-landing and transition to a low-power existence without leaving the survivors in a state of collective PTSD? It’s certainly within our power if we decide that that is what we want to do. The real barrier to this is our conditioned expectations and the psychology of previous investment.
Paul Gilding gave an optimistic TED talk recently in which he basically affirmed the Doomer vision that I’ve been articulating in answer to your question, and then he ended by pointing out that 4 days after the USA entered World War II our ancestors halted all domestic automobile production and converted that manufacturing capacity to the
service of the war. We CAN turn on a dime, but we won’t until a serious crisis smacks us in the face. Gilding’s faith is that the crises are coming and that the turning on a dime will follow. He might be right, and I guess that’s where my own hope finds a bit of traction. I hope he’s right.
My fear is that the media apparatus for worldview management has grown so sophisticated and effective that the majority of people will regularly be stepping over corpses on their way to work and that they will continue to believe that everything is on track for a brighter tomorrow and that better times are just around the corner so long as we all keep the faith and keep plugging away at our assigned tasks.
Hope that we can arrest the slide into a high-tech totalitarian society? Occupy Wall Street, the mass demonstrations around the globe,the work of Anonymous and WikiLeaks all give me reasons to hope.
The hope that I hold closest to my heart is that my two sons will get the chance to live full-featured human lives that include education, romantic love, family life, and satisfying work. What gives me hope here is John Michael Greer’s argument that civilizations in a free-fall state of collapse still move so slowly in comparison to a human lifetime that, for the people living through the collapse, everything seems normal. Unfortunately, his arguments are all
historical, and I think that some aspects of our current situation are unprecedented.
S: Anything you’d like to say in closing?
KMO: Last week I gave a talk at Bluestockings Bookstore, Cafe, and Activist Center, and after I had described the seemingly-inevitable and traumatic transition from a growth-based civilization to a steady state or contracting civilization, one audience member asked me what the magic lotto ticket out of our situation was. I said that I didn’t see one that seemed likely. He said he knew what it was, and I invited him to stand up, take the mic, and share with the audience. He did so. His magic lotto ticket: aliens.
He claimed that non-human intelligence from outside of space and time stand ready to resolve our dilemma any day now and that we can make contact with them via psychedelics. I myself have made a sustained and good faith effort to contact and partner with non-human intelligences via entheogens (psilocybin mushrooms, ayahuasca, and San Pedro cactus). I’ve had provocative encounters, but nothing that has convinced me completely that I wasn’t encountering myself within the confines of my own skull and nothing that engenders faith in an immanent helping hand from beyond. I remain open to the possibility, but I’m not pinning my hopes on it. It could well be that aliens or spirits have converged on the Earth to grieve for us and comfort us in
our passing. Or to gloat and feed on our suffering.
I do think that the eager Doomers of the world, the ones who see humans as a plague upon Mother Earth and who want Her to rid Herself of us, have adopted a willful blind spot concerning the progression of information technology, robotics, genetics and nano-materials. What’s more, I feel no sympathy or resonance with their condemnation of humanity. I reject and repudiate misanthropy. I value human imagination and intelligence, and I want to see it continue into the future.
I think that the Techno-utopians of the world have adopted a willed ignorance of hard resource limits in the short term. I agree that some elements of their grand vision, elements that Doomers reject as baseless fantasy, may well be achievable in the long term, but that doesn’t mean that they will come to fruition in time to avert what looks like a looming Malthusian Correction. Techno-utopians like to say that Malthus was wrong, and certainly Malthus failed to predict the Haber-Basch process, mechanized agriculture, and genetic engineering. Even so, by failing to incorporate these factors into his thinking, Malthus may have underestimated the magnitude of his predicted population contraction. It may be true that Malthus was wrong, but that shouldn’t necessarily be cause for celebration.
I’ve related this basic narrative to several live audiences, and it’s always hard for me to end those talks, because I don’t have any rousing conclusion in which I offer reasonable optimism. Some people think that suffering builds character and that we’ll be better humans for having endured the coming hardship. I don’t think so. I think that damaged, victimized people are as likely to harden themselves to the suffering of others, spread the damage, and perpetuate the cycle of victimization as they are to achieve some kind of awakening.
Conclusions are hard, I think, because they are fake. Ends can’t justify means, because there are no ends. The drama continues even though every player will eventually leave the stage.
It’s too nice a day to really go off on Foucault.
I have oft wondered about the supposed radicalism of Foucault? He and Chomsky are two of the most cited intellectuals in the world, and yet I have wondered about his radicalness. His historical understanding seems to be rooted in Althusserian structuralism, and his notion of power seems to be nebulous in a way that his refusal to define for reasons of avoiding “reduction” seemed both arbitrary and a mystification in and of itself. Indeed, his turn just before the end of his life was an ethical turn aimed at the self, which seemed to come out of some of his particular failures of predicting politics in localities (Foucault’s failure to understand Iran seems key.)
While I do deeply respect Foucault’s historicism and think his structural critiques of differing European periods are key as well as his points about the basic failures of the liberal state, I think the failure to truly address what power is and what the self is the point where Foucault can be seen as less profound as both the Nietzscheans and the structural Marxists that he built on. Listening to Hans Sluga interview on Entitled Opinions, the fact that power is kept nebulous leads Foucault to want to critique without being unable to question any of the basic assumption of his own epoch/episteme. Sluga actually that Foucault’s slipperiness on his relationship to Nietzsche is key. Foucault mystifiies power in a way Nietzsche does not in which power is both a net good but it is the ability to assert the will and make values through Umwertung aller Werte, or re-valuation itself. So power is not just violence but the means to create values. Foucault is not that precise, and thus avoids the “right-ward” drift of Nietzsche, but does this at cost of radicalization or the ability to more radically against general trends in specific moments.
This is why Foucault seems so useful: He gives us means to talk about the past and critique, but his central analytic of power is vague and even quietistic. Sometimes a little Hegel does one good.