Ralph Melcher is a writer and photographer living between Santa Fe, New Mexico and Denver, Colorado. He has published in the areas of media theory, psychology and literature. The Arclist began in 2001 as a group email list to which has been posted essays, poetry and occasional fictions. To receive all postings, including those that do not appear on the Web send me an email note at email@example.com.
From the NYTimes: Legal experts say that broad provisions given to the federal government and the public health emergency caused by the coronavirus could ultimately protect against legal challenges. Jennifer Shinall, a law professor at Vanderbilt University, said in an interview that the mandate for federal workers is almost certain to encounter lawsuits, but these are likely to fail. As long as there are provisions for workers not healthy enough to get the vaccine and probably to some extent religious accommodations,” Ms. Shinall said, “I think that the legal challenges fail.”
From Ron Chernow’s book on ‘Washington: Washington felt powerless to stop this sometimes-ludicrous barrage of falsehoods. Owing to “party disputes,” he complained to Pickering, the “truth is so enveloped in mist and false representations that it is extremely difficult to know through what channel to seek it.” Washington was especially pleased when his ex-treasury secretary (Hamilton) launched a lengthy series of essays under the signature of ‘Camille,’ providing a detailed defense of the Jay Treaty. Washington gave way to gloomy musings about republicans government, viewing his Republican opponents as full of passionate intensity – “always working, like bees, to distill their poison” – while government supporters were either cowed or spineless, trusting too much to the good sense of the people.
Again, from the NYTimes: Mr. Biden had anticipated the attacks. In announcing his plan on Thursday, he said that he would do what he could to “require more Americans to be vaccinated to combat those blocking public health,” adding “If those governors won’t help us beat the pandemic, I will use my power as president to get them out of the way.”
My own comment: This is like the ‘Whiskey Rebellion’, a test of the powers of the Federal government. Getting to be time to call in the National Guard and wrest the power to control mandates from the states. We are either one country or we are not. Time to find out.
What do you think? An exciting time to be alive.
______________________________________________ “Only under the stresses of total social emergencies do the effectively adequate alternative technical strategies synergetically emerge.” – Buckminster Fuller
Listen to the sound of tree limbs clashing deep in the primeval forest. ‘Klick!’ – It’s Doctor Strange on the offense, striving – ‘Klack!’ – to drive off the nefarious mystical spell castings of Baron von Mordo. My brother and me among the giant virgin pines in a Pennsylvania forest in 1963, acting out our favorite comic book fantasies as our parents set up our overnight camp. In those days we played at adventure and wandered magical worlds that are always open to imaginative travelers and children. Our family roamed the highways from Cleveland and the Midwest, circling the Great Lakes into Canada and driving south to Florida and east to Maine and the coast and along Appalachian ridges. We stopped at ocean beaches, floated in ‘glass bottom boats’ among the Everglades, gazed across rural landscapes from high mountain perches, peered up at the tall canyons of Manhattan and took in the futuristic wonders of the New York World’s Fair in 1965.
Growing up in the shadow of World War, I remember military aircraft flying in formation over the neighborhood when I was very young. Every Sunday we drove past an enormous parking lot filled with surplus tanks parked in the General Motors lot on our way to church. The weeks were punctuated by air raid sirens and school was interrupted by ‘duck and cover’ drills designed to stimulate the vivid nightmares of those of us who could contemplate the final fate of humankind.
An older boy who lived down the block kept pigeons in a coop on his upstairs back porch. The pigeons would circle over our houses every day. We kept a turtle in the back yard that our grandparents brought back from the road on one of their exotic yearly trips to California. This was before the Interstates were built, and the turtles were found crossing the two lane highways that made America interesting. In the winter the turtle would dig a hole in its little enclosure in which to hibernate. Every spring we anxiously awaited the resurfacing, coaxing the displaced beast with offerings of earthworms. Sometimes the turtle wouldn’t appear and that year our grandparents would bring us another.
My mother told me stories late in life about my very early childhood as an infant caught in the midst of a rivalry for attention between her and my grandmother, her mother-in-law. I carry almost no conscious recollections from those very early days when my parents shared a house with my grandparents. I have one dim memory of being pushed in a baby carriage by a very nice young woman who was my babysitter. She died of leukemia when still a teenager. Perhaps this was my first taste of grief. It could be that my mother only told me these stories in dreams. Maybe I’ve mixed up her stories with those of other relatives who are long gone.
The house I remember growing up in was located in an older part of town across the street from my great grandmother’s large corner dwelling. I spent hours upstairs in her kitchen, drinking coffee tempered with evaporated milk, listening to her tales of coming to America from the old country with her brothers early in the century. They opened a butcher shop in the neighborhood, when that part of the city was still mostly rural, the streets mostly dirt, yet to be covered in red bricks and later with asphalt when I was a teenager. There was still a butcher shop on the corner downstairs in the front of the large house, run by another family at the time. The large back yard was full of fruit trees and flower beds that my family would help her maintain. Just outside of the second story kitchen windows was a cherry tree that became the centerpiece of every summer when we climbed and picked the ripe and sour cherries. My younger brother fell from it one year and broke his leg, spending the remainder of that summer as an invalid perched in a bed that was set in our narrow downstairs dining room.
When I’ve gone back recently to visit the old neighborhood our old house still stands, in the very center of the block, slightly raised above the neighbors, and incredibly small. It’s hard to believe that four kids and two adults occupied that space for so many years, while my mother dreamed of the suburbs and argued with my father, who always hesitated, not one to take chances risks. Only after I had moved on into my independent life and my father died of lung cancer did my mother finally make the move that she dreamed of.
An Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser careens through the night along the rural roads of northern Ohio carrying three boys, almost men, probably stoned or drunk on something, composing poems out of the romantic words on road signs; “Pass With Care”, “Soft Shoulders”, “Narrow Curves.” The car was borrowed from someone’s parents. With the windows wide open and the moist breezes of northern forests wafting over us, we exulted in our futures and the promising scents of freedom and all things that grow.
I left home with a cloth sleeping bag slung by a rope over my shoulders, on my back my uncle’s old Korean War rucksack, the ‘Whole Earth Catalog’ and an ‘Oxford Annotated Bible’ from my college years, a change of clothes and a few sandwiches and provisions stuffed inside. I’d spent three and a half years at a prestigious institution (Case Western Reserve University), learning much and experiencing much during years of upheaval (1968-1972) and finally left after my number came up late in the lottery for the draft. The experiences I had were mostly outside of classes that were interesting but appeared rather irrelevant at the time.
I said farewell to my mother (my father was at work) and walked down to the embankment alongside the brand new interstate. (As a teenager I’d watched it tear through my neighborhood several years before. We’d watched the bulldozers turn my best friend’s house into a pile of broken pieces, set fires to excavated piles of discarded brush, fought snow battles in abandoned dwellings, stalked and vandalized the huge road builders in the middle of the night.) I put out my thumb and was subsequently propelled across the whole wide land, to Colorado and California and up the West Coast through to Oregon and Washington to Canada, across the Rockies and the great wide flat northern plains and along the pebble beaches of Lake Michigan and back toward Cleveland. (My dad drove out from Cleveland to meet me and we had a glass of wine together in Ann Arbor. Between that meeting and my later departure toward the beaches of Florida I felt our connection deepen as we had grown beyond our frequent ideological conflicts over the war and he had come to acknowledge me as an adult.) I was young during my travels and learned very little, but I took it all in with a feeling of constant awe, collecting inside of me a map of memories, of North America and so many of the people that drift within it.
After all of these travels and all of these adventures, where have I arrived? Who and what am I exactly? Where do I live in relation to the boundaries between order and chaos? Am I descended from the sweet young boy that I see in an old picture feeding the gentle deer at a petting zoo? Am I the instigator of plots to vandalize the enormous machines that cut their way through my neighborhood to build the Interstate? Am I the respectful Zen practitioner bowing before his teacher, or the smartass student telling the President of the University approaching a student occupied ROTC building that I was a ‘gargoyle’ guarding the doors? Do I prefer to wander along the edges of civilization where artists and pirates, nomads, shamans and assassins are created?
I passionately defend what I believe in but hold all beliefs lightly. I welcome the challenge of argument. I’ve always been a terrible student, unable to stick with a specific teacher or any specialized program for very long. My mind is both expansive and contrarian, drawn to whatever knowledge threatens to challenge the prevailing view. Learning for me is a labor to fit what is novel into the larger pattern of what is known. Having found an accommodation between them my intellect has to move on. I’m open to all possibilities and apply equal amounts of skepticism and belief to anything that opens the doors to new encounters. I absolutely won’t tolerate the tunnel vision that substitutes repetitive memes of ideology for actual thinking and I avoid such as I would a reeking mound of decaying garbage.
I’ve been called ‘narcissistic.’ Perhaps anyone who parades their thoughts in public is a bit narcissistic, presuming to believe that anyone else would be interested in them. In a world of so much diversity and argument one has to be a bit narcissistic in order to call attention to oneself.
I’ve also been accused of being terribly judgmental and even intolerant. I believe that the good of the whole transcends the good of the few, but that the few have the absolute right to speak and I have the absolute right not to listen. I can’t decide for others the difference between right and wrong, true and false, sense and nonsense, but I reserve the right to exclude from my presence those who insist on unquestionable absolutes.
Also true is that I possess an undercurrent of terrible anger, passed down to me through generations of injustice, unkindness and the undercurrents of loving abuse. My primary struggle in this life is against being governed by the rage, instead using it as a barometer that fuels a kind of hypersensitivity and compulsion to expose the undercurrents of lies and tension encountered in the environment around me. This has lead to the most profound progress and the deepest damages in my life. It’s a catalyst that moves me from states of stasis to states of movement and change. For those around me and the collectives and organizations in which I participate it uncovers the cauldron, and my passion provides some of the fire and the heat.
My most influential teachers have been the cities I’ve lived in. Cleveland taught me that I could swim against the strongest tides of family, of religious and societal expectations, of powerful and destructive establishments, of accepted reality itself. In Cleveland I first walked through the doors of perception to glimpse the hidden schematics of the brain and its relation to the universe. Denver taught me about the irrefutable strength of collective will and how it can be activated, directed and abused by effective and charismatic voices. In Denver I learned about the secrets of leadership and it’s ability to channel the collective will. Since coming to Santa Fe I’ve learned to approach the world with a larger degree of skepticism and to examine every belief carefully before confusing it with ‘truth’.
In Santa Fe I’ve lived for 35 years, longer than anywhere else. Here all the previous lessons and teachings have coalesced, as I’ve been brought repeatedly face to face with myself and my shadows. Through two marriages, the raising of a child, my interaction with organizational structures both large and small, and in my most recent confrontations with cancer, disunity and extended solitude, I’ve come to view myself more clearly in all of my urgent creative and destructive glory. In the process I’ve gained and lost friends, loved and tormented myself and others, tasted the mechanics and powers of leadership and the dynamics of failure, and come to understand and accept the role I’m here to play.
Through all of this I’ve learned the deepest lesson of real magic; that it’s primary fuel is the human will. How, like the mysterious force of gravity it can bend and reshape the contours of the universe in strange and subtle ways. I’ve arrived after all these years at the boundaries of a world of perception that my comic book hero would find familiar.
In these days there’s a growing atmosphere that breeds bad mojo – bad magic born out of magical thinking, along with an army of con artists who thrive on fear and fantasy. It feels increasingly like the universe of Doctor Strange, where delusions and demonic forces constantly seek to break through and disrupt all sense of order, enslaving the populace to chaotic forces by encouraging their worst tendencies. In the process those whose greed for power compels them to pull the strings strive to gather more influence to themselves, using the maze of politics to entrap our best collective intentions.
I’ve long observed that the rules of our politics are almost identical to those of magic, both being forms of a somewhat occult practice of weaving spells of language intended to influence and manipulate perception and reality. The tools and technologies are the same, revolving around the language of signs and symbols, fueled by elements of human desire, collective will and the necessity of belief. Neither practice is inherently good or evil, although both magic and politics are concerned with an accumulation of power, and there are inherent dangers in such pursuit. The division between our intentions toward compassionate and self serving ends can become very cloudy when certain rules and cautions aren’t respected.
When battling demons or conjuring new possibilities it’s important to remember that no matter what we do or what we intend, the rule is that any consequences, intended or not, will inevitably come back to us. (This is the rule of karma.) It’s also important to realize that those around us, even our ‘enemies’, are mirrors, and we must strive to show them the same compassion we have for ourselves. It’s most important when exercising power to stay awake, to remember where we are and what is our intention. Aside from these three, all other rules are subject to change at any time and it’s a wild and utterly changeable reality out there.
Ultimately the barriers to our imagination and our creativity will continue to be thrown open. The more they open the faster we must collectively adapt to the changes entailed by new technologies and new ways of thinking and perceiving. I’m optimistic that we will ultimately succeed and survive, only because we always have up to this point.
Meanwhile we drift, moving across worlds of fantasy through the outer space of our imaginations, with David Bowie’s song ‘Life On Mars’ rising behind us, the cold star-flecked blue screen backgrounds making us feel contained within a dark velvet sparkling blanket of the infinite. We travel through imaginary light-years, our sense of security wrapped and belted within capsuled contraptions, religions, ideologies and conspiracy theories, breathing through failing apparatus, imagining new colors and new planets in the dark. At this point we require more than a destination. We need redemption and forgiveness for one another. I know there’s better light far ahead, but I don’t know what remains to be seen. When truth has been abandoned to illusion its anyone’s guess what will survive when daylight comes.
Evolution never passes at a familiarly comfortable rate. The entire world can leap forward in an instant, or else changes take decades and centuries longer than human memory can track. If my great grandmother, who told me stories over the kitchen table, were transported to the present a good part of her sensory apparatus would no doubt go into shock, able only to process small quantities of totally unfamiliar data at a time.
Evolution doesn’t stop for us or for any other part of this ever changing universe, or for anything on this infinitesimal pebble we call the earth. Energy becomes matter, matter becomes atoms and atoms molecules. Molecules evolve to become the elements and elements combine to become life. Life goes through billions of years of creation and extinction, followed by resurrection, and so it goes, over and again. Evolution in matter becomes evolution in biology, plants and creatures emerge out of the earth and perish in amazing spectacles of life, struggling through extremes of hot and cold and countless changes.
Various proposals have been made for the start date of a geological epoch called the Anthropocene, which marks the significant impact of human culture on geologic ecosystems. Some proposals date this as far back as 12 – 16,000 years and the birth of agriculture, and others to the rise of the industrial revolution in the last century. I believe both of these views to be extremely short sighted.
About six million years ago, at the end of the Miocene, heading toward the ice ages, appear the hominins, our most ancient biological tribe, largely defined by the length of our legs being greater than that of our arms as we began to walk upright. While the biosphere was coming to resemble what exists today our ancestors struggled to come to terms with their expanding brains until, age after age, we arrived in our present form of homo sapien around 315,000 years ago, and evolution at long last crossed a critical threshold. While biological evolution proceeded in obscure niches and mostly through extinction, life entered a new phase, one that can no longer be adequately comprehended outside of the mental space of the self-reflective human mind.
Human beings have taken evolution in a new direction, possibly beginning with the emergence of the first tribes and the creation of the first cultural artifacts. When we began to shape the objects around us to reflect the images that appeared in our minds, we moved beyond the instinctive collectivity of the insect colony, the herd and the protective hunting community and began to consciously and deliberately reshape the world around us in our own image. Human evolution can’t be understood in strictly biological terms, for it occurs within the complex interface between the self-conscious individual and the ever changing forms of the collective. Humans are artisans of culture.
What’s become evident in our time is the pervasive effect of our evolutionary process on the atmospheric and geologic environment that surrounds us. It’s becoming obvious that human culture is now the dominant influence in the ecosphere, as our collective decision making largely determines what will perish and what will survive on our world. We are the caretakers and the destroyers. The dialogue between the individual and the collective has come to fully govern the dialogue between human civilization and the natural world. In the end, nature itself becomes, in effect, a human artifact.
Evolution is generally depicted in visual models as a vertical structure, where simplicity advances through complexity, leading to ‘higher’ developments along a continuum of molecules, organisms, species, etc. The focus of evolutionary theory in biology is on the structure and development viewed through the lens of individual organisms or species. Human evolution is no longer determined by individual divergence and biological mutation, but by collective structures and behaviors in which the uniqueness of the individual can’t be separated from the circumstances and influences of the social construct of which they are a part. The visual depiction of this structure could be more appropriately horizontal, characterized by recurring themes that arise periodically along a timeline, then disappear, only to arise again and again amid novel historical contexts, their ‘permanent’ influence determined by the qualities of the interchange and the impressions left in a particular time and place.
There is a quality of ‘eternal return’ in the unfolding of human societies. It’s as if the species is on a quest to replicate externally hidden structures already present in human consciousness in order to perfect them within the contexts of ever new levels of social organization. In light of this I recommend pulling back from the insanities of the present to take a long view toward the possible future.
Adam Curtis considers his films to be strictly journalism.
Having unlimited access to the vast archives of the BBC library, Curtis snips and cuts the myriad fragments of visual history to arrange them around themes guided by his own narrative and analysis. To relegate these works to the narrow field of conventional reporting would be to entirely miss their import and effect. The subjects of his films dive deeply into the wilderness of inherent contradictions between reality and the artificial reproductions of reality, between fact and imagination, between linear narrative and memory, and the many ways we rearrange our perceptions of reality to serve our own agendas. His most recent work, the six part series titled Can’t Get You Out Of My Head focuses on the dialectic between historical and psychological forces that drive individuals into increased feelings of isolation and helplessness and the barriers to effective collective action.
The emotional power of well selected images poised in sharp juxtaposition has been explored as long ago as in the montage techniques pioneered by early filmmakers like Sergei Eisenstein. The use of montage takes us out of the illusory realms of objectivity and well into the territory of ideological expression. Directors like Jean Luc Godard and the ‘underground’ filmmakers of the sixties made radical use of the technique to purposely challenge the conventions of narrative film. While their work was perceived at the time as radical, our immersion in the frenetic medium of television makes them appear prophetic. The rapid disorienting shift between scenarios, the intrusion of seemingly unrelated sequences in commercials and the use of sound as compliment and contrast has increased our ability to shift attention rapidly from one image to another without loosing the narrative thread. Adam Curtis takes advantage of the growing sophistication of our visual language while pushing the form further with each successive work, encouraging us to take larger leaps along with him.
(My favorite film makers of the sixties were the French New Wave’director Jean Luc Goddard and the English director, Nicholas Roeg. Being a contrarian by nature I was always thrilled at the premier of a Godard film on my college campus and particularly pleased when a third to half of the audience walked out in bewilderment or disgust. This I deemed an indication of the film’s success. Both Godard and Roeg used techniques of radical montage to pit direct and sometimes disjointed, emotionally charged images against the linear revelations of plot. Godard went the farthest, often rejecting the very structure of ‘beginning, middle and end’ in films like 2 Or 3 Things I Know About Her, Sympathy For The Devil and See You At Mao. Nicholas Roeg managed to corral these techniques into challenging narratives interrupted by out of synch and out of time sequences taking the viewer out of the linear present into realms of memory, imagination and pure emotion. His use of popular musical icons as actors in films like Performance and The Man Who Fell To Earth became immensely popular with the psychedelic generation.
At least since 1992 with Pandora’s Box, followed by the more ambitious Century Of The Self and into the present Adam Curtis has employed montage with increasing ambition to deliver films that offer historical analysis along with imagery that comes across with devastating emotional impact. To Curtis the purpose of journalism is not merely to report, but to explain. His method is to distill and arrange out of the many sounds and images of a given historical period a presentation of coherent themes that persuade the viewer that his interpretation matches the reality. Journalism in this sense is the art of persuasion.
Human beings are addicted to narrative. If presented with a random set of images our minds will eventually assemble them into stories. If we stare at a wall long enough our minds will weave narratives out of the imperfections in the paint. This is a key to the methods of psychological testing that is critiqued in much of Curtis’ work. Ironically perhaps, it’s the key to his own art and his approach to journalism. When the reporter in a war zone decides to point the lens of their camera they are continually selecting the elements of their own narrative. When Adam Curtis wades through the BBC archives the images he selects are made to fit the preconceived patterns of a story he wishes to tell.
Episode four of his most recent work is titled ‘But what if the people are stupid.’ It’s primary theme is how our disillusionment with institutions born out of the emphasis on individualism in the sixties and seventies morphed into a retreat into nationalism in the eighties and nineties. Curtis pulls together accounts that range widely across the period, from the unsuccessful coup of the Gang Of Four in China to the somewhat tragic life of a transexual pioneer in England, the rise of Al Queda in Iraq, disappointment in the wake of the Live Aid effort and events that led to the crushing of protests in Tiananmen Square. All of these events are bracketed by accounts of psychological experiments carried on by Daniel Kahneman in the seventies leading to the thesis that people’s choices aren’t made primarily on a rational basis but are determined by their previous experiences and how they effect the deeper, mostly subconscious structures in the brain. By focusing on the personal dilemmas and contradictions faced by particular individuals against a backdrop of massive social movements Curtis dramatizes a specific and worldwide shift in our collective experience serving to frustrate our ability to organize coherent resistance to the growing power of elites. This sets us up for the next episode, ‘The Lordly Ones’, which explores the comforting national myths we construct to justify the blunders and atrocities carried out to maintain the rule of dominant capitalist elites over the rest of the world.
On the surface Curtis’ approach resembles that of an historian or archaeologist as much as that of a journalist. All are storytellers and agents of artifice, weaving our perceptions into coherent streams of interpretation and all deal with data fragments from moments gone by. The stories Adam Curtis chooses to tell center on the influence that modern psychology has had on the manipulative techniques of advertising, the growth and dominance of consumerism, and most importantly the isolation of the individual in the shadow of the capitalist state, rendering concepts such as personal freedom and choice almost entirely irrelevant.
We’ve become helpless as collective societies to effectively act to change our circumstances. Instead, our every activity is measured, tabulated and arranged in predictive models that serve to anticipate and then to manipulate our behaviors. Human behavior has been programmed into machinery that uses algorithms to further the power and wealth of economic elites. Only by breaking free of the conceptual prison of the techno-capitalist state can we even begin to imagine a future that meets actual human needs.
Perhaps we expect that journalism and documentary gives us a more accurate glimpse of the real and the true. What we should have learned in an age of propaganda, ‘fake news’ and the Internet is that in the selection and manipulation of images just about any version of ‘reality’ can be made to appear as truth. In the view of Adam Curtis the true value of journalism is to ‘make sense’ of the world in new and original ways that evolve continually with our continual appetite for the new. This is the only way that we can cast off the oppressive chains of the past. We might do well to make his revolution our own.
Thoughtmaybe.com for access to a full catalogue of Adam Curtis Documentaries and many other worthwhile films.
An outstanding interview with Adam Curtis at: Jacobin.com
It’s like a fire came through here,
even though everything is concrete and asphalt.
Whatever it was, it reduced everything to one or two rooms,
concealed behind masks, wearing protective clothing like prison uniforms.
My friends were made crazy, and so was I,
burrowing into ourselves, creatures I no longer recognize.
We are like the abandoned buildings of bankrupt businesses,
withdrawing behind curtains, looking outside and seeing only a strange desert.
The only time I’m not alone is when I leave this empty city, traveling in landscapes, listening to the words coming out of speakers in my metal travel pod.
These voices are my new friends, reliable, regular,
opinionated but never threatened, storytellers.
As I drive among these hills, under the sky,
they comfort me, never judging and never giving advice.
There is always sunlight here,
and these places on the road are never empty.
There is nothing I can do for anyone.
Living through the plague and having cancer at the same time is sort of like entering a mysterious room where all the doors and windows are locked, then finding at the back of the room a strange door. Behind that door is another room, smaller, with fewer doors and windows. You get used to the fact that there are at least two exits between you and anything resembling the world outside.
My body started mysteriously falling apart just before Covid descended. It began with my hands and wrists, and gradually it spread to my whole being, until I could barely stand without reaching desperately for breath.
I had ways been proud of my youthful appearance, my enduring health and stamina and ability to heal quickly those rare times I was injured or sick. When people told me they couldn’t believe I was as old as my age I’d tell them smugly, almost arrogantly, that it ran in my family. Perhaps I thought I’d never truly get old, or even die. At seventy most people saw me as fifty, and until this turning I’d mostly felt the way I looked.
In those first months, just when I’d passed the age of seventy, I assumed that the vicissitudes of age had finally caught up with me. The work I’d done for a living had taken its deep toll on my body. My shoulders were a tight mess, the tips of my fingers had grown numb with the effects of carpel tunnel, and when I took out my bike for the first time in the Spring I had trouble lifting my leg high enough to mount. My plans for the future, the paying off of debt and for another sort of life were all in serious question. Suddenly the question of mortality descended like a mysterious spirit taking possession of my bones.
One day early on in the pandemic, before things became really dire and after the panic closed down most of the tourist businesses and bars I took a walk into the center of my city to find a public mailbox and to appreciate the beauty of an early spring day in Santa Fe. The streets were mostly quiet, except for occasional cruisers in huge pickup trucks and a flotilla of motorcycles that wove themselves in circles around the Plaza. A few couples and isolated characters wandered like me, past closed galleries and restaurants, museums and churches, appreciating outside of our dwellings the blossoming trees and an opportunity to briefly breath without our masks and appreciate their scents in the open air. As I walked I listened to podcasts of Zen talks from Mount Tremper in New York while contemplating my own conflicts and contradictions in regards to the present and the future.
Although the final diagnoses wasn’t yet in I could see that the world around me was in straights that reflected my own distress. All that was familiar had changed.
It took months to find answers, the search delayed by the plague, as alarms were sounded and offices for inquiry and treatment were closed down. At long last I was diagnosed with cancer and by that time my hands were severely crippled and I was no longer able to work. As the plague spread its shadow across the land I was, like most of us, forced to retreat into my own private wilderness.
Meanwhile, as we careened toward an election and a clash of alternate realities, the deeper shadows of collective victimization had become the undercurrent of an American culture overcome by grievance fed by media madmen. America was sicker than I was. The creeping diseases that we’d been feeding for decades had broken fully to the surface and the future filled with hope had been replaced with a question of survival. Most of us prayed that whatever was overcoming us would just end, but it had become harder to see the future beyond the violence, the isolation and the plague.
My birthdate is the same as Thomas Jefferson’s, April 13th. From what I’ve read, I can personally relate to his personality of restless passions and contradictions. Particularly familiar to me is a sense that my vision far exceeds my own grasp. Jefferson was a privileged and prosperous inheritor of great wealth in an economy based on slavery. As an obsessive tabulator of facts and figures and an elevated member of a race and culture that considered itself inherently superior to all others, his restless mind wouldn’t allow him to reside in any fixed station. His thoughts propelled him toward an ideal world – nonexistent in his time, where every human being had – by virtue of being, inherent and inalienable rights. His was a world where the term ‘human being’ hadn’t yet reached an equitable definition. I live in a different world, where the notion that the welfare of one is inseparable from the welfare of the whole is contradicted daily. As a nation we worship the pursuit of personal wealth as the perfect embodiment of pure ego and self interest, substantially devoid of considerations that transcend the possession of individual power and the illusion of control. We have, in fact, managed to turn every ideal taught in our various catechisms of church and school entirely on their head.
Now, one year since the plague jumped us I’m looking at a civilization that is slowly coming apart. Although the traffic is once again flowing as people strive to maintain some kind of life as usual, there are more closed and abandoned businesses, empty real estate and a pervasive feeling of alienation and wistful uncertainty. Friendships have become more distant and physical contact still mostly a wishful dream. The brief month-long sigh that so many of us felt after the election is replaced already by the anger and dread and fallout promoted leading up to it. Even if the Covid shadow passes us by we’ll still be left with the deeper shadows of racism, bigotry and general thuggery at the heart of the long American nightmare. The monster has been unleashed and is tearing out our heart. The next two years will most likely resemble the past five years. We are in parallel acts of slowly dying and transforming as a culture and the serpent is not about to let us off the cross.
When I look in the mirror I see an emaciated old man, someone who has aged ten years in one. There are red rings around my eyes, my teeth and gums are hurting, I look like a starving inmate. At the same time the doctors tell me that my numbers are improving. My stamina is up. My hands are still crippled but may be slowly getting better month by month. I still can’t walk very far and I can’t get on my bicycle. Soon I’ll be seeking another place to live, and it may be somewhere out on the road.
We are told as Americans that there’s a light at the end of this tunnel, that our numbers are improving. I’m not sure what the numbers mean anymore. I’ve been on the list for a vaccination for several months but haven’t been given a date. That all appears distant and unreal, more than two exit doors and a couple of hallways away. Whenever I hear the phrase ‘back to normal’ it evokes a feeling of mass delusion. Life is something that passes quickly, day by day.
The Ministry For The Future by Kim Stanley Robinson
Kim Stanley Robinson’s ‘The Ministry For The Future’ is much more than a novel. It’s a book on Revolution, the closest thing to an ecological manifesto I’ve ever read. As a work of fiction it’s even more ambitious than his much acclaimed ‘Mars’ trilogy, which could be seen as an early preparation for this book. Like the Mars books it unveils a complex weave of systems embracing every aspect from molecular biology and atmospheric science to human psychology to political and economic philosophy.
But ‘Ministry’ has no interplanetary or futuristic disguise. This is a book about the present and the immediate future of our civilization, specifically projected over the next 30 years. There are chapters on ecology, economics, geology, political philosophy, environmental devastation, human exploitation, mass extinction and geoengineering. There are chapters addressing all forms of resistance and revolution and the inevitable dismantling of capitalism through systemic collapse, civil disobedience, sabotage and assassination. Central to everything is informed speculation on the likely consequences of climate change and the forces that have already been set in motion.
The future is a puzzle and we need a framework in order to make coherent sense of our daily diet of news in the present. The philosopher Slavoj Zizek once said, “It is easier for us to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.” At a time when such visioning becomes increasingly urgent, Robinson’s novel is a bold attempt to see our way to the other side of disaster.
Perhaps not since Karl Marx has there been such a bold and compressed dissection and set of proposals for the total reorganization of society toward a sustainable future.
Driving west across the long and high desert landscape of northern Arizona with nothing but clouds on the horizon one passes occasional reminders of a distant prehistoric past. The landscape is briefly broken by flat windswept mesas and ancient water scored canyons where pockets of the ravaged and looted remains of petrified forests linger. Most of what was here when European nomads encountered these magnificent ruins have long since been removed and scattered elsewhere. What’s still preserved in shrinking pockets reminds us that the land has changed drastically over the eons. There have been oceans here, and forests and beasts that now exist only in souvenirs and billboards and plaster replicas occasionally parked along the side of the highway.
On the route west are a few small cities filled with retirees and refugees from big cities, visited by tourists and travelers, traveling fairs, flea markets and gun shows. After a long flat journey the road enters another kind of landscape of steep ridges, craters and deeply carved and colored canyons, and then it turns south near Flagstaff, winding downward following carved watercourses on the long twisting route toward the Martian valley that contains the city of Phoenix.
When my son was twelve or so we visited Arcosanti, architect and student of Frank Lloyd Wright, Paolo Soleri’s experimental prototype for a city of the future, located on the edge of a canyon about 70 miles north of the sprawling air conditioned metropolis of Phoenix.
We took the exit at Arcosanti Road, a gravel paved track that heads into the backcountry and eventually arrives at the destination. We parked, entered, signed in and located our room along a balcony that overlooked a long and inviting looking swimming pool. The room was cheap, comfortably simple and functional. After settling in we set off to explore the facility and the grounds of Arcosanti. I can still picture the impressively arched and vaulted structure overlooking the shallow canyon and featuring sweeping concrete forms of arches, chimneys and balconies surrounding a wide central well. That day we explored the bell casting workshops, the cosy and cool living units around the core, a communal kitchen and coffee shop and a gacefully vaulted concert and performance space ringed with beautifully tall forms of Italian cypress trees. At the edge of the desert were a couple of cranes for hoisting sections of concrete onto the still incomplete structure. Off the central well with its ascending balconies overlooking the commons there was a bookstore and gallery that featured the iron bells and artifacts made in the foundry that provided some of the funding for the project. It all had the feeling of a high tech commune.
While watching my young son scampering atop sweeping concrete walls and taking in the canyon views from the suspended balconies I had a revelation. I was surrounded with an architectural expression of a distinct set of evolutionary and philosophical ideas that I’d encountered years before and had fundamentally reshaped my views of the world, of cities and of the future. When I standing on the balcony looking down upon the floor of the commons at Arcosanti I could sense the life that flows through veins in the concrete and the movement of air and light through the central structure. I looked into a space that resembles a living organism, one that couyld be embraced by my limited individual consciousness and yet fosters a physical identification with community. Here is an experiment, a prototype, a demonstration of what’s possible. Arcosanti is a kind of high tech commune made of concrete and living ideas.
When I attended Case Western Reserve University in the late sixties, while studying english and history and anthropology, I was radically distracted by adventures in the world of psychedelics and cultural revolution. In my quest to integrate these divergent realms I’d came across a book,‘The Phenomenon of Man’, by the scientist, philosopher, paleontologist and Jesuit cleric Pierre Tielhard de Chardin. He wrote following the Second World War, a time when enormous destruction was followed by a vast reorganization in world affairs. I encountered his ideas when my world extremes of urban decay and suburban expansion. Cities were going broke, rivers and lakes and air were filling with industrial waste, we were caught in Vietnam, the first of our endless failing wars. While the moral and ethical foundations of the American dream were being questioned, new realms of possibilities were opening up. I needed an assist to help me straddle the gulf between rational thinking and the revelations of a wider world revealed when constricted barriers of conventional thinking are left behind.
Being both a man of the church and a scientific thinker Tielhard strove to weave together two trains of western thinking that had been sundered as far back as the times of St. Augustine. On one hand the pursuit to understand the workings of the material world through experimentation and empirical thinking was seen to be entirely separate from exploring the mysteries of faith in God’s Kingdom. He strove to reweave the two streams of thought by demonstrating that a careful empirical study of the processes of evolution revealed an ultimate and inevitable movement toward a divine revelation.
From the earliest stages of the physical universe being illuminated by modern physics Chardin described two interwoven and distinct trends. First, he perceived the material universe trending toward increased complexity and ultimately toward entropy. Counter to this he theorized an opposite movement manifesting within matter and connected with the spiritual destiny of all creation and the ultimate impulse behind evolution. As the universe initially expanded the simplest elements of atomic substance multiplied in density, combining into increasingly complex forms, from atoms to molecules to the entire table of elemental matter. The dust and gases of creation coalesced into stars and suns and planetary bodies. Within the primeval ooze on the surface of a planet, complex molecules combine to form the first elements of biological life. Ultimately, within the carpet of biology covering the earth consciousness emerges and eventually self-awareness. In this view the earth that we know can be viewed as a multilayered sphere with matter at its base, enveloped in a shell of biological life and a layer of consciousness and ultimately a collective consciousness that he referred to as the ‘noosphere’. All is drawn toward a final coalescence of spiritual awareness and transcendent unity that’s resolved in what can be conceived as the consciousness of Christ.
This decidedly Christian vision of a universe that has a distinct beginning and middle, with a final spiritual resolution, offers (a particularly Eurocentric) perspective that one can accept or reject without discarding some of its essential observations about the processes of evolution. Most relevant as a central tenet of Tielhard’s vision is the concept of ‘miniaturization’. In evolutionary terms, things become increasingly complex while occupying less and less space by arranging themselves in more centralized and adaptable structures. We see these trends in every branch of the evolutionary tree, from single cell to multicellular organisms, dinosaurs to hominids, to computer chips with their ever increasing storage capacity.
Paolo Soleri offers a reformulation reformulation of these concepts in his own words:
“Miniaturize or die had been the key rule for incipient life.”
“Society is still an awkward animal suffering from a kind of ‘flat gigantism’ that nails it to the surface of the earth.”
“Society must become a true organism that will perform adequately. This will be made possible through the power of miniaturization. The physical miniaturization of its container, the city, is a necessary step to this end.”
The principle of miniaturization is at the center of Soleri’s architectural ideas. The city is seen as both a container of human culture and as an evolving organism that must be evaluated in relation to the total environment. Like any organism our future depends upon efficiency and adaptability against the background of environmental conditions and environmental change.
My visit to Arcosanti was not my first contact with Solari’s work. From 1968 on I’d read every issue of The Whole Earth Catalog from cover to cover, and I’m pretty certain that it was in those pioneering pages that I first came across his thinking. In 1973 after moving to Denver I came across a full-size M.I.T. Press edition of the book, Arcology: The City in the Image of Man’ in a local bookstore. It was full of wide formatted drawings and plans for futuristic cities that resembled enormous spaceships tucked into wild landscapes. While crouched in basement hallways in elementary school, confronted with the possibility of nuclear winter in elementary school, I’d filled my head and later notebooks with my own sketches of vast self-contained underground cities. Solari’s cities seemed like a fulfillment of my own fantasies. I carried around a ragged paperback version of the book for many years and recently purchased a 50th Anniversary edition of the original tome.
The term ‘Arcology’ combines the words architecture and ecology. In Soleri’s vision the requirement for human survival is in the balance between the congruence of disparate elements in the natural world and the pursuit of equity in society. When this balance isn’t achieved the result is instability, chaos and eventually self destruction. When society fails to understand its congruent relationship with the natural world the pursuit of equity is bound to fail. The role of architecture is to provide containers providing a buffer between the factors that foster stability and survival.
When I returned briefly to Denver a few years ago I witnessed a monstrous example of incongruity, unfortunately typical of many if not most American cities. I lived in a suburb that had once been a small town which had been surrounded and absorbed by urban sprawl. The inherent efficiency of the city is offset by the amount of energy and stress required to accomplish anything. The scale is inhuman, based more on the needs and necessity of the internal combustion engine than the natural interactions of human commerce. As the city spreads across landscapes without limit the distance required to meet a person’s needs become greater while problems of congestion and pollution put increasing strain on resources and human stress. People are more isolated from one another as the street is given over to automobiles. The life of sidewalks and the commons is shifted to distant shopping centers. There remain only scattered pockets of centralized commerce not dependent on superhighways and vast parking lots, strip malls and rubber stamped franchises. Convenience is seen more and more in terms of parking rather than walking. I do not know my neighbors. I commute to work. I sped too much of my time in slow moving traffic. This way of life is neither congruent or equitable.
In the present we are confined collectively in this long march to overcome the plague. We are confined and isolated and the distance between us appears to have widened. In one sense we seem to be moving faster toward extinction. On the other hand the pandemic has exposed more clearly the inherent instability of our hitherto unconscious dash toward collective oblivion. It has in some ways moved us forward as we awaken to a sense of collective responsibility. Meanwhile the streets of some our biggest cities are reclaimed by human traffic as our technologies allow many of us to see beyond our dependence on the automobile. At the same time that technology is forcing us to rethink all aspects of our relationship to work and our collective well being. The lesson perhaps is that crisis more than ideals is what drives us forward. When faced by crisis we are above all a race of both storytellers and problem solvers.
Soleri’s cities accelerate and concentrate their natural function partly by building vertically rather than horizontally, in a model inspired by the upright human form. Essential services, heat and water, waste disposal, ventilation, illumination and shopping are arranged around an open central core, increasing efficient circulation and eliminating the need for long distance vehicular travel. Most human interaction is accomplished by walking, taking steps or elevators between levels. Every necessity is close at hand. Rather than spreading over the landscape the human container becomes a node in networks of communication, transportation and commerce that connect separate nodes to one another. Embedded within the natural environment rather than overcoming it, the life in cities allows it to be restored to the purposes of recreation, sustainable resource development and the production of food. Access to the natural world is made more accessible and less invasive because it’s no longer viewed as an adversary to be conquered but as the vital container of our well being.
Cities, even sprawling ones, are inherently more efficient on an individual level, as public services become more centralized in relation to where residents live and move. 68% of humanity inhabits cities and the number continues to scale upward through the decades, driven further by the results of climate change and the collapse of rural economies. Solari contends that the continued expression of ‘megalopoly and suburbia’ runs against the natural vectors of human health and evolutionary survival. He compares present cities, with their sprawl and inefficiencies spread across the landscape to the broken branches that fall from the evolutionary tree. Although the human animal has proven to be one of the most adaptable and complex creatures on earth, the advantage of self-reflection has brought us to the next stage of evolution and our collective future in society. To achieve both equity and congruence within our changing environment we must build our cities to be complimentary to the natural world rather than the devouring it.
Driving in any direction out of the city of Santa Fe takes me past the Pueblo villages of Northern New Mexico. The strict building codes of Santa Fe are in fact inspired largely by the colors and shapes of the Pueblo culture, deliberately designed to attract tourists who search for some reminder of a community long lost in many of our cities. When I first moved to New Mexico, and to some extent even today the pueblos were mired in poverty and loss and yet were magnets that drew people from around the world looking for an echo of the past or a vision of the future.
Leaving ancestral traces in the mysterious ancient ruins of Chaco Canyon, the still viable communities of Cochiti and Jemez and Santa Domingo and so many others are have adapted and endured for millennia. They threw off conquest and survived through the strength and cohesion of their traditions. With the onslaught of railroads and interstate highways and the rise of a casino driven economy some of those bonds are being challenged, but there remains an essential community structure that holds them together through all the changes over time.
Nowadays around the outer edges of the villages and near the highways there are new developments characterized by the crackerbox construction of government built housing that echoes the sterile tropes of suburban America. When one goes deeper toward the center of the circles surrounding the community’s timeworn heart it’s still possible to encounter places where the ancient soul of the people is protected and preserved. Although in many cases folks have abandoned the older dwellings that surround the central ceremonial plazas, a sense remains of interior spaces that define and preserve the collective sense of home and identity. While these structures have become templates for architecture copied by newcomers in the gentrified cities, I’m convinced that the expression of centralized self-sufficiency and environmental congruency was one major inspiration for Paolo Solari’s vision for the inevitable future of civilization.
When I began the Arclist in 2001 we were still within the early years of the Internet boom, a time before interpersonal communication had become overrun by commerce. We who dwelled in these virtual spaces were incredibly naive but infinitely hopeful. What was happening online was seen as an alternative venue for the creation of communities defined by a sense of common identity and the emergence of a dazzling array of public commons where creativity could thrive. For a time we felt ourselves moving along vectors toward possibilities of a more equitable and enlightened civilization. Unfortunately, as part of a highly educated and ‘enlightened’ elite we didn’t anticipate the horrific abuses that would inevitably emerge out of a commercialized commons.
I remain hopeful. A collective awakening to our common crisis rises as we’re faced once again in these very difficult times with the necessity to rearrange our collective priorities if our civilization is to survive. I named the Arclist in the spirit of Paolo Soleri’s vision, and that vision continues to inspire me with the possibility that the future offers radically new possibilities.
Bill Halas briefly attended Goddard College in the early seventies, a rather progressive college for that time. It was rather small, compared to the University I’d attended, tucked away in the snowy mountains of Vermont. In this, our first journey to the East after we’d both dropped out of our respective colleges, we stopped at Goddard to pick up a few artifacts that remained from his stay, and then we proceeded on to Boston.
There we met with another Goddard alumnus, a friend of Bill’s. We chased him down as he was selling green carnations and flower bouquets on the sidewalks near Harvard Square. With his imposing height, girth, burly beard and wide expressive face, he was a dead ringer for Peter Ustinov. With a performer’s verve he swooped along the sidewalk. Concertina in hand he pranced alongside his basket of flowers. He made barely enough money to eat.
We stayed with him for one night in one of the poorest sections of Roxbury. He’d claimed a small section of the second floor in a ramshackle, unkept three-story wooden house. The house had been abandoned and was now occupied by Bill’s friend and at least two other families. Someone had tapped into the city’s electrical grid by stringing a wire over to the cable on a nearby telephone pole. The place had a sharp stench of backed up toilets. It was one of the coldest nights of a Boston winter and the plumbing had burst. We tried to sleep curled up in our sleeping bags, crammed into a space the size of a closet. The only outside warmth was that of a hot pad used briefly before bedtime for making tea. We stayed up long enough to drink a cheap bottle of wine purchased with the proceeds from carnations, have a short conversation, and try to find a pocket of warmth to sleep in. That night somebody had an argument out front in the middle of the night and someone crashed in a front window while shouting in anger, adding to the cold.
The next day we crawled out to have breakfast somewhere and afterwards we crammed us all into our small compact car. After loading up at the flower store with green carnations we stood with Bill’s friend most of the morning, helping him to sell flowers on the street. We actually raked in a good bit that day. Bill and I collected a small but generous stipend for gas money and then we made our way out of Boston, heading south.
Roxbury is sometimes called, according to Wikipedia, the “heart of Black culture in Boston”. We arrived a decade after the Great Migration, and there were still some remnants of the English, Irish and German immigrants that had populated the neighborhood since the early 20th century when there were opportunities in the local foundries and breweries. Most had fled as blacks moved in and the property was arbitrarily devalued by the city. Eventually the foundries and factories were replaced by warehouses and retail businesses. The aging infrastructure, much of it built in the 19th century, began to seriously deteriorate along with the fading tax base.
Boston was known for its riots, going all the way back to before the Revolutionary War. There were 103 riots between 1700 and 1976. Everyone had their turn. There were riots over food, the British, the Stamp Act, race and slavery, anti-Irish, anti-Union, anti-busing and…you get the picture. When we arrived it was a couple of years after the riots of 1967, and large parts of the Roxbury neighborhood had been devastated, littered with abandoned buildings and homes. The poverty and discontent that had infested communities for centuries had been passed on to the latest group of people that had immigrated into the neighborhood in flight from poverty and brutal oppression where they came from. In this last instance the flight was from this very country and the Jim Crow policies of the South. They were poor, and in this instance most of the rules and regulations were stacked against them by reason of race and thus the opportunities for leaving were very much narrowed.
Before I came to Roxbury I’d skirted the edges of black culture, more or less as an invited guest. My family was poor enough and I was smart enough and ornery enough to be allowed into a government War On Poverty program called Upward Bound, that was part of Lyndon Johnson’s response to the growing unrest and uprising in the black community. I’d previously been considered for a similar privately funded program at Yale, and when I hadn’t made that cut I was offered a similar opportunity much closer to home. The program, which still exists, was for lower income students that had somehow demonstrated great educational potential but, without a major assist, weren’t likely to meet that potential.
Being in Upward Bound meant spending my high school summers attending classes and workshops and hanging out in the dormitories of University that I’d one day attend. Of the 80 or so students in the program at that time, about 65-70% were black. The rest were divided between mostly Puerto Rican and a smattering of white folk like me. Most of the graduate student counseling staff were of a similar mix and the local head of the program, who later took me under a wing, was black.
It was in the years between 1965 and 1968 that I attended the program. While there I was given a crash course in everything I couldn’t learn back where I was from on the West Side of Cleveland, one of the most segregated cities in the north. I soaked up literature, history, art, music and dancing, hair straightening, getting drunk and getting stoned, making movies, talking without being afraid. I was introduced to the sounds and words of Duke Ellington, Bob Dylan, Malcolm X and The Temptations. I participated in debates about civil rights strategies and black culture. We were all trying to determine our places in the world. In 1967, I sat with my friends, black and white, and watched from our dormitory windows a horizon filled with flames after the assassination of Martin Luther King. We were silent, filled with a stunned awe at the sheer immensity of the burning. In days after we watched the jeeps and personnel carriers of the National Guard enter and claim the campus, which was surrounded by the ghetto. At night we watched them leave the campus in convoys sent out toward the burning. On our way to classes we passed Guardsmen in the Student Union, some lounging, one playing beautiful Gershwin on the grand piano in the reception hall.
During the school year I’d take all of this back to my almost all-white high school in the western suburbs. Surrounded by fences and barbed wire and rules, I was slotted into a college prep channel and got to hang out with the nerds. I was pretty comfortable with my fellow nerds, but it always felt like I had a secret life and a secret identity born of unique experiences, that I’d never be able to truly convey to anyone.
The next years, those spent in college, were a blur of education and rebellion and drugs as the awareness and protests against the Vietnam War eventually merged with the ongoing struggle for civil rights. Like two rivers meeting, they fed a new level of interchange between races and cultures. The divides between black and white music fell down, fueled by resistance and protest and beautiful passion, accompanied by floods of psychoactive chemicals and a rising ecstasy of imagined futures. During those years my ‘secret’ identity was submerged or merely merged into the template of my upbringing. Although many of my black friends attended the same school, I found myself pulled more and more naturally and irrisistably onto the track of white privilege. There were simply more doors open for me, and I went through without much thought.
My chief nerd friend, Bill Halas and I, after we missed out on being sent to Vietnam via the lottery, decided that what we’d seen of the world rendered it difficult to just ‘follow the program’. We both dropped out of college and decided to take a trip together in his small compact to visit various friends on the East Coast. Thus, on a particularly cold night of the year, we came to Roxbury. Where we stayed was where the fires had burned back in 1967, here, there and everywhere. This was the damage and the aftermath.
At the end of 2019, while black men and women were being publicly executed by police and during the aftermaths of grief, protest and more police violence, an HBO drama vividly opened with a depiction of the Tulsa Massacre of black citizens in Oklahoma in 1921. ‘Watchmen’ traced the lifeline of a survivor of that massacre to a sort of poetic justice, ending where the descendants of the perpetrators of white supremacy and their army of thugs meet their just rewards. Whatever else that drama did, it brought into the conversation one of the biggest racial crimes of the last century. More satisfying and more challenging was another drama on HBO, ‘Lovecraft Country,’ which takes place in the 1950’s and brings the viewer deep into the visceral horror that lurks behind the day to day commonplace of being a black American and a black family in a racist culture. Most recently the August Wilson play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was produced and displayed by Netflix, offering a raw portrait of the passion, the creativity and the rage that fuels the black experience.
I see all of these productions and so many more as having cracked open the doors of memory so that more of us can face the sins and crimes of our history and begin to make amends. They bracket a particular period that began to incite conversations that can either lead to a national resolution or become the basis for a nation’s further fragmentation.
I’m told that Roxbury’s still the poorest section of Boston and, like in every northern city, the symbol of a segregated culture, but that there are efforts to revitalize the district with access to rail lines and shopping districts and revitalized housing. I hope that’s the case. During this long cold pandemic, however, when I see the statistics on joblessness, homelessness and increasing poverty my memory summons up that cold night in an abandoned house, with a family next door, surviving in almost impossible conditions on the edges of America.
I came here from Denver after an almost 14 year sojourn in Denver as a refugee of sorts from an intensely immersive experience in spiritual revelation, guru worship and community politics. I thought I knew what there is to know about cult behavior, the proliferation of memes, the sheer power of collective focus and the creation of dogma. I needed a change.
I arrived in Santa Fe to help start a grocery business with some friends and fellow refugees. When that fell apart, I ended up working as a deli manager at the only New York Style restaurant and sandwich shop in town at the time. I knew it was New York Style – or as near as we could manage – because it attracted all the expatriate artists, writers, actors and business people who’d moved here from the Coasts to get away from the traffic and the noise, I suppose.
Since high school I’d been writing and publishing a journal that I’d pass out to friends and a few of the customers I got to know while serving them cappuccinos and pastrami. Some who admired the writing or just enjoyed the conversation began to pitch me to apply as a sales assistant for a locally based publishing house.
At the time, this wasn’t just any ordinary publisher at the time. Bear & Company started as the brainchild of Matthew Fox, a radical and openly gay catholic priest who had been inspired both by the liberation theology born in Central America and the mystical earth based traditions of medieval mystics like Hildegard of Bingen. The company had recently been taken over by a wealthy couple who were steering the editorial direction toward the popular New Age movement that had emerged out of the political ashes of the sixties.
When I came aboard, the company had just published several visionary books by a Colorado based art teacher whom I’d met in my Denver/Boulder days. Jose Arguelles’ book about an upcoming ‘Harmonic Convergence’had been covered on the front page of the Wall Street Journal and sales for Bear & Company had blown through the roof.
Harmonic Convergence came and went. As with all apocalyptic prophecies it bred some degree of disappointment in those who took it literally or expected some awesome and incontrovertible manifestation of radical change in the outer world. Others like myself, who exist more comfortably in the world of metaphor and myth saw the ‘prophecies’ of Harmonic Convergence as part of what became a massive piece of global performance art. We were able to move gracefully toward the next imaginative performance, the next ritual, the next metaphor.
Looking back, I think that global event truly marked the peak of what’s generally regarded as the ‘New Age movement.’ Not the end by any means, but the marking boundary after which the most popular fantasies, pseudo-religious mythologies and channeled cosmologies began to be less coherent and less taken seriously. It also happened to be one of the first pseudo-religious movements that was seeded across the early private bulletin boards of the Internet. It’s explosion into a short lived mass movement presaged a new era dominated by the influence of digital technology.
While ensconced as a sales assistant I’d written a letter to one of my mentors, William Irwin Thompson, a cultural historian who worked on the boundaries between science and mysticism, and whose books had absorbed my attention for many years. I thought he might be a good fit to the catalogue and my letter asking whether he’d be interested in publishing with us. To my humble delight he replied in the affirmative. We published two of his books, one a reprint and one a cultural critique of New Age thinking. Around that time I’d also become involved in organizing a week long speaking and workshop engagement for a popular psychedelic guru and advocate, Terence McKenna. The event was a rousing success and it put me in touch with the west coast Esalen based community of intellectual visionaries, artists and poets. What followed was a book of speculative conversations between Terence, the English parapsychologist Rupert Sheldrake and Ralph Abraham, a chaos math pioneer and associate of William Irwin Thompson.
By this time I’d become part of both the acquisition and editorial effort. The company had gone beyond its very modest beginnings in theological reflection. Having veered toward the booming and more lucrative New Age market we’d arrived at a fork in the road where two paths diverged at greater and greater distance from one another. In one direction, advocated by me, was the slightly fringe but earnest attempts to continue a quest for knowledge and seeking that was more or less in continuity with western intellectual traditions. On the other road was the quick cash and fame and public adoration that could be gained by finding the right meme or popular trends that would attract the fleeting attention of those in quest of some transcendent explanation that could provide relief in a world full of chaos and disorder. Between the serious and critical inquiry with a visionary bent advocated by the likes of Thompson, Abraham, even McKenna and the politically charged messages channeled from the Pleiadians or Twelfth Planet invasions outlined in the work of Zecharia Sitchen there was an increasingly insurmountable gulf.
Things came to a head between myself and the owners in a struggle for influence that I had no chance of winning, and I soon found myself and my family cast out into the world of practical survival by whatever means available. Gone were the days when everything was possible. In spite of all of our speculation and utopian fantasies the new world had mostly failed to manifest to my generation in any recognizable form. Instead the New Age, with its prophets and messiahs and ascended masters, its apocalyptic visions of the ascent of the chosen in mother ships and collection of heavenly astral entities had come more and more to mirror the Judeo Christian mythologies against which so many of my generation had rebelled.
We weren’t the first generation to be disillusioned with the lies and excuses of our forebears, but we were the first to see those lies uncovered on television. Having thus lost our innocence and willing acquiescence, we searched for something we actually could believe in. Turns out we were willing to believe in just about anything. From UFO’s to Gurus to Harmonic Convergence to Jim Jones Rallies, we were willing to try any sort of Koolaid. Like the poster in paranormal investigator Agent Muldur’s office in the generational defining TV series, ‘The X-Files’ we ‘wanted to believe’. Like Muldur we were open to any possibility. Over time we became drawn to reductive explanations that would wrap things up in a simplified picture of what’s ‘really’ going on. Along with an ingrained distrust of authority these took us down paths of private obsessions, with Y2K predictions and UFO sightings and JFK assassination plots. Many found refuge in the more deeply rooted paths of American evangelicalism and were ‘born again’.
The proliferation of cults like QAnon is nothing new. Entire cohorts of seekers have disappeared into the dark rabbit holes of self-reinforced collective denial, where the confusing and isolating ‘real world’ is left far behind. Cult behavior is exactly like a fire in the forest. Once the smoldering starts beneath the quiet surface of leaves and ground cover, the potential for explosive destruction escalates. People are bewildered that your average QAnon follower or conspiracy theorist can accept what, on its face appears to be totally absurd. When shown evidence of incontrovertible facts that contradict whatever it is they believe in, they immediately put the facts through an amazing process of deconstructing reality into a sort of code, and then they reassemble the code to fit their beliefs. It’s an astounding thing to watch.
This shouldn’t be hard to understand. In most people the power of belief far transcends the powers of reason, or even of perception. For a generations steeped in contradictory narratives while the foundations of civilization are shifting, the need to find and cling to manufactured realities can be perceived as necessary for survival. It becomes the very basis for some sense of identity and connection. Reality be damned when a tunnel of explanation embraces you and comforts you and closes you in. With the confusing world outside explained, you and your community of true believers are soon beyond the reach of evidence or facts. In the electronic age, surrounded by the fragments of a deconstructed world, surrounded by screens and mirrors, the need for self identification and self absorption becomes an irresistible pull. When I look into the frightened and angry faces of the QAnon set I see mostly a desperate fear that their whole world could vanish with a thought.
Consider for example in my lifetime the transformation of the Republican Party in the United States, historically the home of both progressive and conservative philosophies, into a refuge for deranged paranoia and fascist cult worship. Over a span of decades I’ve watched with horror as a political party transformed itself at its base essentially into a terrorist organization. This isn’t an accident. At least since the reign of Reagan, an astute product of the dream factory of Hollywood and a promoter of the ‘Southern Strategy’, the transformation has been quite overt. To win national elections in a country growing increasingly diverse, the most paranoid aspects of racist conservative ideology has been deliberately fed and encouraged by those who profit from it. These days the ‘code words’ for bigotry and xenophobia and white supremacy that once hid behind ‘trickle down’ economics and acted as the magic lubricant for its success have mostly been discarded, exposing the weird ideation of fear that lies just beneath a surface of superficial hope and unrealistic expectations. While an aging population of white men and women fight to hold to their place of historical dominance, they inflame the delusions that ignite a fear of chaos in a shrinking base of privilege. ‘Race, abortion, socialism, black folk, and antifa gonna come and ‘steal your money, burn your suburbs, and murder your family’ – anything that separates people into warring tribes is used a tool to attain power or sow the seeds of division. In the end it’s all about the power of those who, like magicians, control the reigns of delusion in a fearful and shrinking majority. Thus are created enchantments so powerful that consensus about common reality becomes increasingly tenuous. The final break occurs when the line of reason held against an ongoing state of emergency is breached. Only through the force of Will and some luck and foresight can a society hold the line against the ‘true believers’ and the rising forces of conflict born of ignorance.
Apocalyptic movements come and go throughout history. How many false alarms does it take to finally outdo and circumvent the mind twisting rationales addressing the lack of results, the failure of ‘prophecy’ and frankly a total and monstrous gullibility? How to overcome the abject embarrassment that occurs when, inevitably, you’ve been totally made a fool of in front of family, friends and the general public? One can always apologize, but then what?
There are two ways to dispel the mysterious cloud cast by cult-leaders and their acolytes. The first and most short-lived victories are won against those who prove to be dangerous by seeking out, exposing and eventually purging the leaders of lies and the promoters of fear. Unfortunately replacements are usually found and when we become complacent they return. The other more long-lasting solution is a battle fought within our own individual and collective imaginations. By turning away, by disciplining our minds to erect walls against the spells and bullshit that surrounds us on screens and billboards and in social networks, and in rediscovering the path of true and open discovery, the forces of light become as strong as the illumination that fills a dark room when a candle is lit.
My personal approach is rather hard line and one of little tolerance. I won’t allow the creeping shadow of conspiracy thinking into my presence. Like with an addiction, I believe there is a firm line between serious inquiry and raving lunacy. I will not permit paranoid discourse to thrive in my presence. Even in small doses it’s advocacy becomes the seed that corrupts our future and degrades the collective consciousness, spreading dangerous poison throughout the body politic. For me, there is no other word for the promotion of mass psychosis in the name of power but ‘evil’.
This kind of thinking will always come and go, whenever and wherever humans fear the uncertain future. It’s no accident that many of those who’ve invested the most in the utopian future guaranteed by New Age thinking have wound up advocating violent fantasies in the virtual ‘community’ of QAnon. These fantasies throughout history, using different buzzwords or selecting different designations for victimizers and the victimized, take inevitably a familiar shape, pitting those within the initiated circle of true believers against everything and everyone who remains outside. For them, the final salvation, the Mothership, always coming, never arrives.