Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Wobbling

Cellini's Perseus savagely defies death, time and the domination of magic.
                  There is a general life cycle common to organic systems, from bacteria to mammals, up through evolutionary styles, countries, empires, civilizations, and possibly even the hypothetical/metaphorical organism Gaia herself. We all know the stages of the cycle instinctively:

Impregnation: fertilization/initiation of an unfolding sequence;

Growth: strife/exuberance/expansion to the available maximum;

Spinning gloriously: successful consolidation/stabilization;

Senescence: slightly over the hill, contraction, decay;

Wobbling: a period of increasingly erratic behaviors;

Failure: catastrophic system breakdown, dissolution.

"Ciao, nun."

                     Finally, the detritus left behind furnishes the elements that will assemble into a new organism, either fairly similar to its predecessor, or possibly mutated into something noticeably different, and from that zygote all begins again.

                    We can observe this pattern in many forms in the history of human civilizations, but it is perilous to try to place our own civilization's position in the cycle, because we are inside it, and can not have the perspective and context that a millennium or even a century will bring to future observers. Nevertheless, the knowledge of this cycle is so deeply ingrained in our individual and collective consciousness, that we make decisions and experience feelings every day based on our intuitive estimate of where we are in the cycle right now. And so there is a hypothetical but fascinating group feeling or opinion that we suppose to be out there, that we call the Zeitgeist, or the tenor of the times, or some such phrase. We spend a lot of effort trying to pin down that feeling, taking polls and watching the mighty opinion stream that we now have access to, but it is a lot more difficult to really assess than, say, estimating the flow rate of the Mississippi at any one time.

"and how miserable life among the abuse of power... cop slave!" Graffito in Florence 2008

                      And, is this Zeitgeist, if it were in fact observable, of any actual use? Does it correspond to reality in assessing where we are in the Cycle? Interesting studies have shown tantalizing evidence that crowdsourced wisdom, when aggregated in large blobs and averaged, is sometimes more accurate than expert analysis. Also, in the case of such informational aggregations, there can occur a feedback loop in which an opinion gains strength and through its own existence causes effects that appear to validate it, making it even stronger, sweeping many human brains before it, but not necessarily correlating to or much affecting the actual cycle of the civilization experiencing it. Hence various panics, religious manias, irrational market swings, exuberant fads, and senseless violence by the occasional feebleminded individual or cult tend to reinforce the fear that we are now Wobbling, as the Golden Age phase has lost much of the high-speed rotation that kept it gloriously spinning as we danced. But are we in fact Wobbling? I refuse to assert that we are; but here are some minor examples for your consideration.

From Reuters, 2/9/2013: Amish Leader gets 15 years for attacks

                      “An Ohio Amish sect leader was sentenced Friday to 15 years in federal prison for his role in leading hair- and beard-cutting attacks on members of other Amish communities in 2011.
“Prosecutors had recommended a life sentence for Samuel Mullet Sr., 67, who was convicted of a hate crime in September for orchestrating attacks carried out on six Amish men and two women. Prosecutors said the attacks were motivated by religious disputes between Mullet and other Amish leaders.
“Fifteen of Mullet's followers in the breakaway Amish sect, from Bergholz, who were convicted of multiple counts of conspiracy and kidnapping, received lesser prison sentences Friday, ranging from one year to seven years.”

Throwaway detail carvings among the mismatched materials on a church wall not far from the Leaning Tower.

                   A vignette on the human condition writ small: a dominant male seeks to extend his dominance through intimidation; his chosen avenue of attack, the sexual vigor of his rivals as expressed in hair, a very traditional and ancient method. Samson's strength was sapped, when his woman cut his hair; but his captors neglected to keep him shorn, and eventually his strength returned long enough to bring the temple down, the legend goes. Newly captured slaves and young army recruits are shaved to subordinate them, to separate them from their original strong self-image. Most small, insular tribes have rigid rules of appearance and style, because it is a simple and highly visible means of demarcation – members can be distinguished from non-members at a glance – and because it serves as a marker for the effectiveness of the dominant meme of the group in keeping tight social control. A cadet at any military academy who fails to shave, who neglects the current standards of clean and shiny, will soon be cast out, if punishment fails to bring him to heel. This is all so common that it might startle us at first that Mullet's offense could merit a life sentence; but then we see that his actions were deemed to be hate crimes – far worse than, let us say, the roughhousing of teenage boys, also seeking to establish dominance, holding one down and cutting his hair. The identical motive is not nearly so odious when conflict over religious dogma is absent.

The grand Renaissance fountain in the center of Florence.  The frenzies of a golden age, gloriously spinning amid the chaos of the time.

                             Let us try not to snicker over trivia: that the man's name is also the name of the least stylish of all hair styles, and that in the mug shots we see that, to a man, they would all benefit immensely from the services of a skilled barber, because their hair and beards are all as ugly as so many mud fences. But I speak from the arrogant and narrow point of view of the Roman, who loves a smooth-shaven face and a well-proportioned, elegant haircut precisely because it marks him at a glance as the infinite superior of the smelly, hirsute, inarticulate savages living beyond the pale. In America we mandate not only that all ideologies are to be equally respected, as long as they do no violence to others, but also that hatred itself be suppressed entirely, lest we sink back into the savage mire. But these mandates cannot change our innate drive for dominance, and their suppression becomes just another weapon to use upon each other.

                             Why though is it necessary for tiny groups to struggle with each other? In the context of a much larger society that is prosperous and at peace, it is nonsensical. But our primitive habits of behavior were forged through long millenniums when peace and prosperity was invariably destroyed, either gradually or suddenly, and we were forced to struggle by whatever means came to hand. Instinct will surface even in a Roman, highly educated and indoctrinated in the idealistic hatred of hatred itself. One trigger of such instinct might be the deep feeling that there is nowhere to go, to escape the press of other human individuals and tribes. One can no longer break away from your stuffy elders and head west. Instead one must somehow create some space in the midst of the endless crowd.

Near the Leaning Tower, Romulus and Remus suckle from their wolf mother, absorbing the weird strength that sent that obscure tribe out to dominate all others.

Also in the Post on 2/9/2013: Two more Marines charged in urination case

                        “Two more Marines face criminal charges over a 2011 YouTube video showing members of a scout sniper platoon urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. The Marine Corps announced charges against Sgt. Robert W. Richards and Capt. James V. Clement on Friday. Two other marines have already faced court-martial in the case. Staff Sgt. Edward W. Deptola, who pleaded guilty in December, was reduced in rank to sergeant and fined $500.”

Hunting along the crumbling balustrade as weeds grow in the cracks.

                     Here again, a far more primitive behavior, with its roots in arboreal primate evolution. Monkeys throwing shit to discourage enemies could evolve easily into the human custom of expressing total contempt for enemies by urinating and defecating on their corpses. This behavior unnerves modern man, trained to think of his own species as having some irreducible value; when circumstances become sufficiently competitive, though, we kill each other, and in order to be able to do that difficult thing, the individual needs to erect a barrier against any feeling of community with his enemy, and so the act of contempt, not only in the physically disgusting aspect but in the disregard of all normal social barriers, redefines the enemy as being of a different, non-human species – a process of redefinition pursued routinely by many other means as well. Of course the enemy becomes, not an animal, which could be respected in some way, but a sub-human, the wretched mirror-image of ourselves as degraded savages – an image that we fear as a part of ourselves, and therefore seek to cast out onto some other tribe – preferably one whose land and resources we need. Hence are the Jews called baby eaters, and all the other million idiotic permutations of hatred bloom in red riot. A small boy points a finger at another child and says, “Bang.”; he is reported by school personnel and arrested by police – another increasingly generic news story, reflecting deep-seated fear of the violence simmering below.
                        So the staff sergeant was busted down to sergeant and fined $500. After all, as war crimes go, this was pretty small beer. Had he instead cut the beards from the corpses and hung them from his belt like a Comanche, perhaps he would have merited a more serious punishment.

"I love you Mom / Burn the prisons"

                        The other day the Post printed a generic letter from a self-identified avid birder as a coda to the recent kerfuffle involving research done on just how many small animals are killed nationwide by cats, domestic and feral. The letter writer went further than the usual demand that all domestic cats never set foot outdoors; he also demanded that all feral cats be killed. This is a refreshingly honest (though painfully stupid) manifesto. It perfectly encapsulates the innate attitude of the world's hyper-dominant predator species. The moment we were able to utilize our thumbs to good advantage, to use projectile weapons and clubs, we made it our policy not just to hunt game, but to kill predators. We quite naturally wanted to maximize our own food supply and remove ourselves permanently from the list of prey species; hence we killed all predators but the few that we could suborn for our own use: the dog, the cat, the falcon, the occasional ferret or mongoose. After farming was developed we also did our best to discourage species that 'steal' our grain; cats and small dogs came in handy for that.

A member of the world's Hyperdominant Predator species, with his feline ally.

                        This policy of total ownership of nature results in profound changes, of course, with many unintended consequences. The bird lover cares little for our immense destruction of natural habitat and climate, or the chemical problems inherent to the immense machine culture that tends to all human needs; he just wants his pretty birds to thrive, and not suffer the 'cruel' death by predator that has always been the lot of a goodly majority of all the birds that have ever lived. Birds reproduce very efficiently; all they need is ample food and suitable habitat, and they will easily stay ahead of the predations of feral cats, or indeed all cats. Something – either predators, or pollution, or starvation – must remove a substantial number of offspring before they reproduce, or the system goes haywire, with greater cruelty – the blind mechanical boom-and-bust cycle of unbalanced ecosystems, and indeed, of civilization itself. This will eventually apply to us as well as to birds and to cats.

Sugar - a small, affectionate female who killed five rats last spring - that we know about. She played with one rat corpse so enthusiastically that it ended up inside the piano.  Were we horrified? No.  We laugh every time we think of it.

                        In theory we, who consider ourselves 'sentient' and allegedly 'sapient', could deliberately avoid this imbalance; but we just cannot bring ourselves to do it. With infinitely resourceful rationalization we try our best to save all those nestlings, and give birth control to the deer, and to bring all human zygotes to term and a long life no matter what, and excise hate from the human heart by fiat. We simply cannot bear to face the truth, and because of that we remain afraid and savage at heart. I still have not decided whether it is better this way. A rational and stable society would perhaps be unrecognizably weird after a few centuries, and perhaps all sense of an expanding future would disappear; we would no longer dream about interstellar flight, or faraway worlds.

Gatepost at the Verrazano estate.  The foundation stones of the winecellars were laid down roughly a thousand years ago

                        Nevertheless, this is my manifesto, however ridiculous: that scientific method should become the official standard for all knowledge used in public policy. Not superstition, not faith, not emotional conviction, not anecdotal rhetoric, and not political ideology. I realize that the logistical problems of my proposal are formidable and vulnerable to infinite political distortion; nevertheless, the world has inched, ever so slowly and painfully, toward this standard for roughly the past 2500 years. I might take heart in the decomposition by attrition of the Catholic Church, but offsetting that is the strong religiosity of America, the nation most dependent on science to maintain itself, and also offsetting is the decline of rationality in public education, and the apparent ascendency of ideological bias in education both public and private. Is anyone measuring these factors? I would assume so, since we measure just about everything nowadays. But how can we officially encourage rational thought and establish a hegemony of the scientific method, without triggering the revolt of the Mullets, and all those others who cling to their emotional mainstays no matter what?

The Ponte Vecchio in Florence, also more than a thousand years old, has been rebuilt several times after Arno River flooding; the two central supports may be original.  In the center of the span is the bronze bust of Benvenuto Cellini, ready to challenge all who pass by.

                       As has been amply noted by many brilliant thinkers, a hegemony of scientific method can just as easily lead to dystopia as to utopia. Without a clear vision for the type of life we would like our species to lead on this earth, science is no better steered than the rudderless ships of religion and totalitarianism. Such a vision should place paramount value on this earth itself, and let the yearning and striving for an eternal Heaven go. What is a good life for a human on this earth, and how could it be made possible for most of us? And this is a more difficult question than those that can be answered by science. I'll save my speculations on that for a later essay. Meanwhile I've got to pay attention to the amusing gyrations of the Wobbling.

I can't think of any caption for this iron ring.  It stands alone.

Disorder in the house
The doors are coming off the hinges
The earth will open and swallow up the real estate

                                             - Zevon/Calderon

The poor guy in Florida who just got swallowed up by the earth in his own bedroom – and his brave, ever-lovin' brother who jumped in after him in a futile rescue attempt; the fault of our faltering civilization, or just a natural tragedy like any other? Every death is a sudden swallowing of a singular, irreplaceable world inside that arching skull. How could we not be uneasy? The wheels on the bus go round and round; and one day they start wobbling and falling off. Hang on tight, kids!

Somewhere there in the distance lies the Future.  Look hard.



About Me

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He clasps the crag with crooked hands; Close to the sun in lonely lands, Ring'd with the azure world, he stands. The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls; He watches from his mountain walls, And like a thunderbolt he falls.