Tag Archives: philosophy

Timothy Morton: Hyperobjects, Climate Change (and Trump)

hyperobjects-timothy-mortonI found Timothy Morton’s book Hyperobjects fairly incomprehensible — I know next to nothing of OOO, or Object Oriented Ontology — but find the concept of the hyperobject compelling and incredibly useful in thinking about the world. I thank Mark, and Karolina and Anya giving us our time in Poland for bringing it to my attention…

Climate change is the hyperobject under discussion

massively distributed in time and space relative to humans (1).

it is bigger than we can comprehend but is also something caused by us. It is out there impacting in multiple different ways across the world and yet it is also the heat wave and the hurricane we experience directly against our skin. It started long ago yet it defines our future and thus squeezes upon our present. As Morton writes,

The very feeling of wondering whether the catastrophe will begin soon is a symptom of its already having begun. (177)

Because of all this, hyperobjects are reflected in our thought art action, conscious and unconscious. Capitalism is another hyperobject, and to me this opens up so many avenues of thought.

I’ve been trying to deal with the desolation and fear I have been flooded with since Trump’s election yesterday — a day in which I could not work, just restlessly do nothing much at all. In trying to understand this terrible thing, I think a lot can be argued for this idea of climate change as a  hyperobject. I think ultimately Trump rode to power on the fear of the immensity and unknowability of climate change and these crisis days of capitalism. This terrifying future that people can feel approaching, the knowledge that everything is shrinking and everything is changing and resources do not exist to sustain America’s current way of life — or ever bring back the days when a high school diploma and a manufacturing job could get you a house and a decent life. The fear this inspires, even when not acknowledged or outright denied.

So the scramble for resources has begun I think, they will be saved for the few, the ‘deserving’, and Trump has made clear who those few are — based on the historic divisions emerging from Native American genocide, slavery, class warfare, and of course our current wars that are all about oil resources. So white folks earning over $50,000 a year voted Trump in through the electoral college once again — he lost the popular vote. Even among, especially among, the climate change deniers there is a bunkering down without any sense of irony. There will be a gathering of resources behind high walls and ever deeper divisions between ‘us’ on one side and ‘them’ on the other. A growing violence and ruthlessness towards ‘them’ in the name of survival — and god knows it has been terrible enough already. My mother will be one of ‘them’, most of my friends and all of those I stand with in solidarity. People of colour, muslims, the poor, immigrants, LGBTQI folks, the disabled. It is like my dad’s old pistol-packing coworker who he helped move a truckload of canned peaches into her bunker for the end of days. A kind of insanity that is based on the philosophy of getting mine, and fuck everyone else.

I sit here, sick with worry. Even more helpless given my distance. So Morton’s abstractions and rhetoric seem a little too abstract — as they did before the election to be honest. But I shall give you a large taste — the opacity of the language may or may not hide something deeper that I am missing. I’m honestly not sure. I think this is a valuable concept to examine today’s world but this is quite a pick’n mix approach to the book that will probably horrify philosophers. I apologise in advance.

Morton’s summation of hyperobjects:

They are viscous, which means that they “stick” to beings that are involved with them. They are nonlocal; in other words, any “local manifestation” of a hyperobject is not directly the hyperobject. They involve profoundly different temporalities than the human-scale ones we are used to. … Hyperobjects occupy a high-dimensional phase space that results in their being invisible to humans for stretches of time.  And they exhibit their effects interobjectively; that is, they can be detected in a space that consists of interrelationships between aesthetic properties of objects. The hyperobject is not a function of our knowledge…  Hyperobjects are real whether or not someone is thinking of them. (1-2)

They are so big they impact everything, and we don’t have to be aware of it to be true. Which is what I find fascinating about this idea:

No longer are my intimate impressions “personal” in the sense that they are “merely mine” or “subjective only”: they are footprints of hyperobjects… (5)

The world has already ended, Morton argues. The first time in April 1784 when James Watt patented the steam engine. The second in Trinity, NM in 1945, the first atom bomb test. I feel like it has ended a third time in a way. But I mostly hate this rhetoric because while Morton argues this liberates us, I think it does the opposite.

I do however, like to recognise how small we are made by what we face:

For what comes into view for humans at this moment is precisely the end of the world, brought about by the encroachment of hyperobjects, one of which is assuredly Earth itself, and its geological cycles demand a geophilosophy that doesn’t think simply in terms of human events and human significance. (7)

An aside on OOO to place it within philosophy’s canon — this is part of

speculative realism is the umbrella terms for a movement that comprises such scholars as Graham Harman, Jane Bennett, Quentin Meillasoux, Patrica Clough, Iain Hamilton Grant, Levi Bryant, Ian Bogost, Steven Shaviro, Reza Negarestani, Ray Brassier and an emerging host fo others… to break the spell that descended on philosophy since the Romantic period. The spell known as correlationism, the notion that philosophy can only talk within a narrow bandwidth, restricted to the human-world correlate: meaning is only possible between a human mind and what it thinks, its “objects” … The problem as correlationism sees it is, is the light on in the fridge when you close the door? (9)

 

Part 1 What Are Hyperobjects?

The awful shadow of some unseen power
— Percy Shelley

This book draws on two things I enjoy, SF and quantum physics — all the things I struggled to come to terms with in Green and Hawking’s work (and failed, significantly in grasping really). Things like tiny forks vibrating and not vibrating simultaneously — visible to the human eye. I wish my own eye could see such a thing.

Nonlocality

Hyperobjects are touching us, making our hair fall out, our skin blister, yet they are nonlocal — we are not the centre of the universe nor are we privileged actors. He writes:

Locality is an abstraction…Heavy rain is simply a local manifestation of some vast entity that I’m unable directly to see. (47-48)

In grasping at the local, the individual, we destroy the sense of the larger whole:

Stop the tape of evolution anywhere and you won’t see it. Stand under a rain cloud and it’s not global warming you’ll feel. Cut your throat into a thousand pieces — you won’t find capital in there. Now try pointing to the unconscious. Did you catch it? Hyperobjects compel us to think ecologically, and not the other way round. … Nowhere in the long list of catastrophic weather events…will you find global warming. But global warming is as real as this sentence. (48)

It touches all of us.

In a sense, we can expect human egos to be pockmarked with the traces of hyperobjects. We are all burnt by ultraviolet rays… We are poems about the hyperobject Earth. (51)

Yet this does not negate the specificity of things themselves.

When I think nonlocality in this way, I am not negating the specificity of things, evaporating them into the abstract mist of the general, the larger or the less local. Nonlocality is far weirder than that. When it comes to hyperobjects, nonloocality means that the general itself is compromised by the particular. When I look for the hyperobject oil, I don’t find it. Oil just is droplets, flows, rivers, and slicks of oil. I do not find the object by looking sub specie aeternitatis, but by seeing things sub specie majoris, sub specie inhumanae. (54)

He looks at Negarestani’s Cyclonpedia, suffused with oil — I struggled my way through this book when I first came to London. It is rather weird and wonderful.

Because we can’t see to the end of them, hyperobjects are necessarily uncanny. (55)

It is interesting to think that a bounded object we cannot see the limits of should seem greater than infinity, but I think he’s right:

There is a real sense in which it is far easier to conceive of “forever” than very large finitude. Forever makes you feel important. One hundred thousand years makes you wonder whether you can imagine one hundred thousand anything. (60)

Two asides (for me) on Einstein’s physics and things I don’t understand but rather enjoy grappling with:

…the pencil you are holding in your fingers is only a rigid extended body on account of a false immediacy. Nothing in the universe apprehends the pencil like that, really. Not even the pencil apprehends itself like that. (62)

Spacetime turns from a grid-like box into what Einstein fantastically calls a “reference-mollusk.” Reference-mollusks exist precisely because of hyperobjects that emanate gravitational fields. In these fields geometry is not Euclidean.  (63)

There is quite a lot about space in here, theorised in opposition to Newton rather than sociology, which is more familiar to me. So Morton writes

To understand hyperobjects, however, is to think the abyss in front of things. (63)

and then this, which I thought Lefebvre and other had ended decades ago, but I suppose not in physics:

Hyperobjects end the idea that time and space are empty containers that entities sit in. (65)

Phasing

Hyperobjects are phased: they occupy a high-dimensional phase space that makes them impossible to see as a whole on a regular three-dimensional human-scale basis.

We can only see pieces of hyperobjects at a time. (70)

I struggle with how this is different from non-locality

As it is, I only see brief patches of this gigantic object as it intersects with my world. The brief patch I call a hurricane destroys the infrastructure of New Orleans… (71)

Also with how this is not quite another argument for networks, for connection the way permaculturists would see things, or Capra — but Morton is fairly dismissive of emergence.

Hyperobjects don’t inhabit some conceptual beyond in our heads or out there. They are real objects that affect other objects. Indeed the philosophical view behind thinking that objects are one thing and relations (which is what we’re really talking about when we talk about math or transcendence) are another positively inhibits our transition to an ecological age, even as it poses sophisticated theories of emergence or process. (73)

I need to think more about objects and relations maybe. This too I find rather difficult to get my head around:

The abyss does not underlie things, but rather allows things to coexist: it is the nonspatial “betweeness” of things. Whenever I put my hand into the toaster oven I am thrusting part of my body into an abyss. (79)

Interobjectivity

The abyss in front of things is interobjective. It floats among objects, “between” them… On this view, what is called intersubjectivity— a shared space in which human meaning resonates–is a small region of a much larger interobjective configuration space. Hyperobjects disclose interobjectivity. The phenomenon we call intersubjectivity is just a local, anthropocentric instance of a much more widespread phenomenon… (81)

Stop privileging the human, the anthropocentric. There are many indigenous systems that do this, to all my relations is this same idea, no? Easier to understand, easier to incorporate into a better way of life. But I continue the struggle with these words, where everything is connected interobjectively through what he calls the mesh, and goes on to write things I am not entirely sure I find useful or not:

Hyperobjects simply enable us to see what is generally the case:

  1. Protagoras notwithstanding, objects are not made-to-measure for humans.

  2. Objects do not occur “in” time and space, but rather emit spacetime.

  3. Causality does not churn underneath objects like a machine in the basement, but rather floats in front of them.

  4. The causal dimension, in which things like explosions are taken to happen, is also the aesthetic dimension, in which things like Nude Descending a Staircase are taken to happen. (89-90)

There is some interesting stuff about cities I shall collect together at the end, but a final thought:

The present does not truly exist. We experience a crisscrossing set of force fields, the aesthetic-causal fields emanated by a host of objects. (93)

PART II: The Time of Hyperobjects

A hyperobject has ruined the weather conversations, which functions as part of a neutral screen that enables us to have human drama in the foreground. In an age of global warming, there is no background, and thus there is no foreground. It is the end of the world, since worlds depend on background and foregrounds. (99)

Ah, the end of the world! I still can’t quite grasp this, but unlike some of the other concepts to be found here, I rather want to. This too:

Lifeworld was just a story we were telling ourselves on the inside of a vast, massively distributed hyperobject called climate… (103)

On sustainability — a major development engine and fundraising mechanism these days, making perfect sense of this:

The common name for managing and regulating flows is sustainability. But what exactly is being sustained? “Sustained capitalism” might be one of those contradictions in terms along the lines of “military intelligence.” (111)

I like, too, the insight that given the way capital operates and how it is based on raw materials –

Nature is the featureless remainder at either end of the process of production. (112)

This is one of the lies our world is built on that is crumbling at the approach of climate change as hyperobject.

I rather like this sentence, what does it mean? I don’t know.

Marx was partly wrong, then, when in The Communist Manifesto he claimed that in capitalism all that is solid melts into air. He didn’t’ see how a hypersolidity oozes back into the emptied-out space of capitalism. (115)

So to come to the end, to look at the city metaphor he uses for the hyperobject — I am actually fascinated that we should have built something so legible, so mappable, that yet could serve as a hyperobject. That is rather fascinating. Morton writes:

The streets beneath the streets, the Roman Wall, the boarded-up houses, the unexploded bombs, are records of everything that happened to London. London’s history is its form. Form is memory. …

Appearance is the past. Essence is the future. The strange strangeness of a hyperobject, its invisibility–it’s the future, somehow beamed into the “present.”(91)

Later in the book he returns to this:

A hyperobject is like a city — indeed a city like London could provide a good example of a hyperobject. Cities and hyperobjects are full of strange streets, abandoned entrances, cul-de-sacs, and hidden interstitial regions. (120)

I’m playing with that idea more. But a final glimpse at Morton’s own descriptions of hyperobjects

What best explains ecological awareness is a sense of intimacy, not a sense of belonging to something bigger: a sense of being close, even too close, to other lifeforms, of having them under one’s skin. Hyperobjects force us into an intimacy with out own death (because they are toxic), with others (because everyone is affected by them), and with the future (because they are massively distributed in time.) (139)

[Morton, Timothy (2013) Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.]

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Masanobu Fukuoka: One-Straw Revolution

Masanobu Fukuoka - The One-Straw RevolutionThis is a book that is a lot about food, food chains and agriculture, but more about how we live on the earth and the nature of knowledge. It owes much to Buddhism, here is the moment of Masanobu Fukuoka’s initial enlightenment:

One night as I wandered, I collapsed in exhaustion on a hill overlooking the harbor, finally dozing against the trunk of  a large tree. I lay there, neither asleep nor awake, until dawn. I can still remember that it was the morning of the 15th of May. In a daze I watched the harbor grow light, seeing the sunrise and yet somehow not seeing it. As the breeze blew up from below the bluff, the morning mist suddenly disappeared. Just at that moment a night heron appeared, gave a sharp cry, and flew away into the distance. I could hear the flapping of its wings. In an instant all my doubts and the gloomy mist of mu confusion vanished. Everything I had held in firm conviction, everything upon which I had ordinarily relied was swept away with the wind. I felt that I understood one thing. Without my thinking about them, words came from my mouth: “In this world there is nothing at all….” I felt that I understood nothing. (8)

Nothing as a positive thing. The thing you reach when you realise how insufficient intellectual knowledge is, and struggle to see everything for what it, learn again. This moment so prized in so many cultures apart from the western, European one — and even then it is well know to some of the meditative strands of Christianity.

He left home to further this insight, share it.

At one stop, I saw a small sign which read, “Utopia.” I got off the bus and set out in search of it. …. (12)

Even in Utopia no one would listen to his ideas of nothingness, so he returned to his father’s farm to practice them. I remember reading about this book many years ago when I was in LA, trying to get it, not being able to afford it given its rarity. It’s affordable now, and quite awesome.

Over thirty years he has worked immensely hard to perfect a system that works with nature to grow as much food as any other farm with immensely less effort.

I fucking love that. You still work dann hard because it’s a farm of course, but the goal is always to work less, to have leisure, to enjoy life and live well and to leave the earth you farm better than when you started.

Masanobu Fukuoka notes that in the traditional farming year, the New Year’s holiday was three months long (though did women ever experience such a thing I wonder?).  He talks about the village shrine, and the many faded haiku villagers had composed and offered. Because they had some leisure. Over time and ‘improvements’ the holiday became two months, and then two days. Poetry is no longer written.

Modernised agriculture has always taken a different route, an arrogant route that demands ever longer hours of work for those who can still make a living through farming, and in solving one problem caused a cascading set of others. And now?

The reason that man’s improved techniques seem to be necessary is that the natural balance has been so badly upset beforehand by those same techniques that the land has become dependent on them. (15)

Ivan Illich could have written some of what follows, both books contain the same insight that beyond a certain point there are limits on how technology and specialist knowledge can improve our lives, and many points at which it can become damaging. Modern agricultural methods of mass production, mechanization, monoculture and chemicals must be among the best examples:

The path I have followed, this natural way of farming…was first interpreted as a reaction against the advance and reckless development of science. But all I have been doing…is trying to show that humanity knows nothing.

During the past few years the number of people interested in natural farming has grown considerably. It seems that the limit of scientific development has even reached, misgivings have begun to be felt, and the time for reappraisal has arrived. (19)

For those of who who research and write, we know that this should always be true and rarely is:

Before researchers becomes researchers they should become philosophers. They should consider what the human goal is, what it is that humanity should create. (74)

He writes too:

I think an understanding of nature lies beyond the reach of human intelligence. (25)

In the West natural science developed from discriminating knowledge; in the East the philosophy of yin-yang and of the I-Ching developed from the same source. But scientific truth can never reach absolute truth, and philosophies, after all, are nothing more than interpretations of the world. Nature as grasped by scientific knowledge is a nature which has been destroyed; it is a ghost possessing a skeleton, but no soul. Nature as grasped by philosophical knowledge is a theory created out of human speculation, a ghost with a soul, but no structure. (125)

The argument is not that we should stop trying to understand it or work with it, more that we respect its intricacies, approach learning from it with humility, never assume we can untangle all of the symbiotic relationships developed over millenia, and so tread lightly.

An object seen in isolation from the whole is not the real thing.

The difference in the results of respecting, observing and working with nature, and not:

Make your way carefully through these fields. Dragonflies and moths fly up in a flurry. Honeybees buzz from blossom to blossom. Part the leaves and you will see Insects, spiders, frogs, lizards, and many other small animals bustling about in the cool shade. Moles and earthworms burrow beneath the surface. This is a balanced ricefield ecosystem. Insect and plant communities maintain a stable relationship here. It is not uncommon for a plant disease to sweep through this region and leave the crops in my fields unaffected.

And now look over at the neighbor’s field for a moment. The weeds have all been wiped out by herbicides and cultivation. The soil animals and insects have been exterminated by poison. The earth has been burned clean of organic matter and micro-organisms by chemical fertilizers. In the summer you see farmers at work in the fields…wearing gas masks and long rubber gloves. These rice fields—which have been farmed continuously for over 1,500 years—have now been laid waste by the exploitive farming practices of a single generation. (33)

It is the same picture as that laid out by Michael Pollan in Botany of Desire and his other works, by permaculture and organic farming experts. It’s crazy and the toll on the earth, the agricultural workers and those who consume this produce is still not fully known. Except that it is deadly, especially for workers, the soil and the multiple layers of life that once abounded here — those things least valued by capital.

The Four Principles of Natural Farming:

  1. No Cultivation — no plowing, or turning over of the soil.
  2. No chemical fertilizer or prepared compost
  3. No weeding by tillage or herbicides
  4. No dependence on chemicals (33-34)

A rhythm of growing and planting that allows desired crops to establish themselves without need for weeding, grown amongst cycles of clover or other such plants grown to keep down weeds and the use of the straw after the harvest to build the soil and protect the new crop. Companion planting. Allowing monsoon rains to sit for just over a week to kill unwanted weeds, weaken the clover, strengthen the rice. The use of hardy plants without fertilizer other than compost (or ducks loose and nibbling the fields) to grow strong and compact and thus resistant to pests. Allowing the natural ecosystem to flourish that ensures where pests exist their predators do also. Careful attention to weather and soil and plants native to the site. Trial and error.

Instead we kill the earth and everything in it dead, and pour chemicals into it. We eat them on our food, lacking in flavour and vitality, often dyed and waxed and grown only for perfection of form. Its medicinal power is completely lost. The chemicals run off into our waterways and oceans causing blooms of algea, doing god knows what else. Compare these two ways and you wonder what the fuck we were thinking.

Not that Masanobu Fukuoka’s system to grow food with little effort has come easily — like all good things it has taken a long time:

It involves little more than broadcasting seed and spreading straw, but it has taken me over thirty years to reach this simplicity. (45)

And of course, he understands that all of this challenges power and wealth. He describes going to conferences and speaking about it and always and immediately being shut down – ‘To do away with machinery and chemicals would bring about a complete change in the economic and social structures.’ (81)

A problem cannot be solved by people who are concerned with only one or another of its parts.

To the extent that the consciousness of everyone is not fundamentally transformed, pollution will not cease. (82)

Much of the philosophy comes at the end, along with some of the most powerful statements. My favourite was: ‘they trapped themselves in the endless hell of the intellect.” (165).

All too familiar, and funny for that reason. The other two are just true and deep:

If we do have a food crisis it will not be caused by the insufficiency of nature’s productive power, but by the extravagance of human desire. (104)

It is said that there is no creature as wise as the human being. By applying this wisdom, people have become the only animals capable of nuclear war. (156)

Depressing. So I will end with an offhand report of a true wonder:

In southern Shikoku there was a kind of chicken that would eat worms and insects on the vegetables without scratching the roots or damaging the plants. (65)

I once accidentally let two chickens in our vegetable garden and they had destroyed the whole of it in about 2 minutes, so this seems to me a most mythical creature.

For more about no-dig agriculture, food chains and permaculture…

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Baudelaire, Benjamin, Gramsci

Who among us has not dreamt, in his ambitious days, of the miracle of a poetic prose? It would have to be musical enough to adapt itself to the lyrical stirrings of the soul, the wave motions of dreaming, the shocks of consciousness. This ideal, which can turn into an idee fixe, will grip especially those who are at home in the giant cities and the web of their numberless interconneting relationships.
–Baudelaire, quoted in Walter Benjamin “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire”

I’ve been thinking about dreams, prose, cities…

Benjamin collected quotations, in the sense of the ‘true’ collector, which is just one of the reasons I love him.

He was also haunted by “The Little Hunchback”

When I come into my room,
My little bed to make,
A little hunchback is in there,
With laughter does he shake.

And I wonder at the coincidence of myself reading Gramsci at the same time, himself a little hunchback, a man of action not reflection (though prison changed that), a man who would never have yearned for a kept life where he could wander aimlessly, collect books he valued more for never wanting to read, but who instead starved and sacrificed himself remorselessly to finish his studies and change Italy…both variations of Marxist, and both dearly loved by me. I was originally struck by how they were opposite, but as I think about it, they approach one another…

The politics of my street

I walked down my street today, past the thick smoke of Bernie’s, fragrant with teriyaki chicken, past the house slowly collapsing on itself (its porch the latest casualty of neglect, and boasting a new chain link fence compliments of the city, a stopgap measure to deal with a 10 foot retaining wall straining to comply with gravity). The owner of the Korean store was outside, smoking on the corner.

Diamond Street has tagged up many of the walls, con safos, I live within territorial boundaries and contested terrain. Physically I am here, they are here, but our worlds don’t overlap except in the pounding of their subwoofers at random times of day and night. Their peeling out of tires. You take these things for granted. But today I wondered at these small wars, fought entirely by youth of a certain age. For corners. For drug sales. For machismo. For friendship and family. And it builds fear in everyone, but if you are not young and from the hood, it is simply of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I live in the zone, yet it has nothing to do with me unless I make it my business. Modern warfare, an attempt to hustle money and respect from these streets. To be big here and fuck everywhere else. Everywhere else doesn’t exist, it is nothing more than an ill-defined fog of a world that hates, rejects, exploits, locks up.

I think about the shooting that just happened on my street, violence seems impossible on a day like today. The birds are singing for fuck’s sake. And the flowers fill well kept gardens with gorgeous color, in front of well-loved houses full of kids. And here are generations defined by race and geography who simultaneously believe that they are invincible, and that they will be dead by 25. They make me angry for the absence of critical thought, but nothing compares to the rage against the system.

I sat at the bus stop and watched one of them (pelon, huge white T-shirt, baggy jean shorts, white tube socks pulled up to his knees) crossing and re-crossing Temple just below the ridge of the hill on an electric scooter. High. Or just feeling the need to defy death. Or waiting for someone and bored. I don’t know. Families walked past me, pushing strollers. A father and his beautiful daughter eating cheetos, flaming hot for him, regular for her. Some old pilipinos were playing tennis across the street. The sun shone through the marine layer, I wondered what the haze was until I suddenly remembered that LA is actually on the ocean. It is so easy to forget, because without a car? You almost can’t get there from here, it is a trip of hours. The paletero walked past ringing his bells and I wanted an ice cream, but then the bus came.

This is my world. I love it and hate it, some days it is enough. Some days though, some days this is just the reflection. Some days hadas laugh around the edges of my vision, and the world of my imagination takes the fore. My street takes on a spanglish personality and rhythm in her fall down the hill; the collapsing house hides an interior full of strange creeping life eating dust and tendriling up walls with lazy sentience. Some days history walks, ghosts whisper from the shadows and lurk in old doorways or peer from dirty windows. Some days words turn upon themselves and writhe and wriggle into new configurations, channeling  along the lines of the cracked walls in spraypaint and reflected heat. But always con safos. Some days the dogs forget to bark at me, and I wonder why. Some days I think thoughts I have never thought before and I see things I have never imagined. The street is my inspiration.

And the world of my imagination is part of my neighborhood, part of its richness.  I ride the bus away into other L.A. places farther removed from this street than my imagination could ever be. And they are removed on purpose. By plan. They are walled and made safe by cops, not terrorized by them. My imagination could never come up with that. The way we treat each other. Some days just going from street to street is a struggle.

El Salvador and such…

It’s early but feels late…a great dinner with old friends from Carecen days, veggie sausages and Belgian beer and amazing fries and good conversation, everything you could ask for from a Wednesday evening really.

Dan was down in El Salvador for the elections, and I was rather jealous…I was invited and considered it for a hot minute and then just didn’t bother to put it together…I did have a lot of deadlines, and vanquished them all to be fair. Had everything not been crumbling I would have felt on top of the world. El Salvador puts South Central into perspective though, and I know millions before me have loved and lost, tried and failed. Somewhere we are winning, and that’s what matters.

God damn, but it was 10 years ago now I was down there. With Don White, who just died. And I fucking miss him. The crazy thing about the elections this year…Dan was saying that TPS was almost a defining issue…Temporary Protected Status, it’s a temporary work permit that allows Salvadorans to stay in the US legally and work. Americans have no idea what it is of course, but it is everything to the immigrant community. I remember those applications, and the charlas for a hundred people at a time, and the lines of folks waiting at Carecen’s doors. And apparently the night Dan went down a couple of the hard right-wing people in the congress and the house stated that the FMLN were known terrorist collaborators and that if they won, it would put TPS at risk. And something that wasn’t even news here, well, it was front page headlines down there. And Arena milked it for all it was worth, saying that if Funes won, then everyone in the US would lose their status, the remittances would stop. And it closed up the difference and instead of winning in a landslide Funes won by a couple of percent. Arena owns the media of course. And the tragedy that losing TPS would cause…well, it gave a lot of people pause. And many voted against their consciences.

And Arena still didn’t win. I was there in ’99 for the presidential elections, and monitoring the elections in La Libertad. And there was this one guy in Arena colors, I still remember him sitting at a table, staring at me, hating me. I took his picture, my way of refusing fear. It wasn’t very brave of course, I knew he couldn’t touch me.

The thing is, I carry people’s stories inside of me. When people tell me things it lives in me, I know it has none of the crippling strength as it does for those who lived it. But I am still afraid of helicopters. I am still afraid of anyone in a uniform. I hold memories of rape and torture, and they are dear to me now, as were the people I knew who had suffered these things, who survived these things, who taught me what strength really is.  I remembered Raul, who only a few years before had been forced to flee for his life. From Arena. They burned down his house, assassinated someone they believed to be him, threatened his family and anyone who spoke to him. And this was years after the peace accords. I knew fear while he watched me, I can still feel it wriggling in my stomach though as a white American I knew damn well that in that time and place I was perfectly safe.

Arena won that election. We were staying in the local school, and that night we were kept awake by Arena’s supporters who ran in a large crowd around and around the town, setting anything that said FMLN on fire and waving it in the darkness, clapping and yelling.

And I knew fear then too, peering between the crack in the large wooden doors that separated the school’s courtyard from the street.

I remembered Arcatao in Chalatenango, a center for the FMLN and one of the places hardest hit by right wing forces during the war. The beauty of the church there, it was one of the most beautiful places I have ever been, both for the scenery and the people who lived there, though everyone and everything carried the mark of war.

and they honored those who were murdered thus, a church lined with crosses

There the stations of the cross are represented by the stations of a people in struggle, few things have moved me like that place.

And there is also the memorial of Monsenor Oscar Romero in San Salvador, with drawings on the wall of torture and death, a memorial of all who fought for something better, and whose lives were taken.

I have not believed in organized religion for a very long time, but I could pray in a church like this. And I did. Romero once said that a priest’s place was with his people. And if the people were living in poverty, were fighting for justice, were being killed, then the priests should also be facing death by their sides. And so they killed him. He is one of the people I have been thinking about in my own little crisis of faith. It is tiny. It is a tempest in a tea cup. I am getting over it.

So I cried when Funes won, for someone who doesn’t really believe in elections, I have been doing a lot of crying I must say! But after years of civil war and torture and disappearances and an intense war of the people against the oligarchs, well. For everyone I know who had been raped, tortured, had family murdered…I cried when the FMLN took power. And I am thankful that a few nut jobs in the senate and a media that made them seem far more important than they were weren’t enough to change that. And now I sit with the same feelings I have about Obama, thinking things will get better. But probably not much. But it was a symbolic change and that carries its importance. And god knows we need to celebrate any victory that comes along, we just can’t think that’s anything but the start of a new struggle.

So…I dunno. I dunno where I’m at as I sit crouched in the echoing space that used to be filled with things I believed in. I’m getting used to that. I biked home rather tipsy, my favourite sweater streamed behind me in the darkness and my shadow rode before me in the street lights like a crow, a harbinger of things to come. I looked cloaked and daggered, something from times long past or times to come, I’ve been feeling like that. I’ve been living in the moment and living well and loving every minute of it until I am alone, and then I am outside of time somehow, poised on the edge of something. I’ll find out what it is I suppose.

And my packet arrived today from LSE so it all feels truly official and done and dusted and I’m in and I’m moving to London, and life really feels pretty good. It doesn’t really matter that everything else has crumbled into dust, because where else do amazing beginnings start from? A big packet in the mail gives such happiness.

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Good Omens

I’ve always really liked lying on the floor when I need to think things through. It helps me…think things through. I see everything from an entirely new perspective. I’m comfortable, but not too comfortable. And when I’m wearing blue, I’m camouflaged nicely to blend in with the carpet in case of possible attack. Zombies, horseshoe crabs…you never know who or what is out there. Apart from the truth, but the truth is pretty damn slap-happy, so I’m content to curl up and blend.

You also can’t get any lower than the floor, and so I have spent a lot of time there this year through this long and constant process of great humbling, the loss of one happiness after the other, the reduction of my ideals and years of love and work to specks in time and space that could not and did not last. I know history, why did I think it would turn out differently? And people? I utterly misjudged them. And myself. I’d like to think it stops now and I’ve figured people (and myself) out, but in my new humility I doubt it, though I won’t say I haven’t learned a thing or two! I haven’t many illusions about LSE, though I am still happy about that! And moving to London makes me want to sing (and I do). I definitely feel finished and done with LA.

I read Good Omens last night and this morning, and it restored my ability to laugh and love the world and even the people in it, and the only downside was the sadness that arose from the knowledge that I will never have a job interview like this one:

“Mr. Shadwell’s  accent was unplaceable. It careered around Britain like a milk race….” (This is just to set the stage. Here are the interview questions for the ancient, yet current, position of witchfinder.)

“Have ye all your own teeth?”
Check.

“Are ye fit?”
Check.

“How many nipples?”
Two (check).

“Have ye got your ane scissors?”
Yes!

And I’m hired! It would be almost as good as ornamental hermit…I’d read papers all day looking for

1. Witches.
2. Unexplainable Phenomenons. Phenomenatrices. Phenomenice. Things, ye ken what I mean.

I think even if I hadn’t just hit a rock bottom of sorts last night, that this would have brought me extreme joy!

The gaps

I discovered a small truth today. Or a big Truth. You could write reams about the meaning of truth and that’s not at all what I want to do. To me, there are simply those moments when you realize something and it’s like a glorious golden tone, a sense of rightness where everything moves slightly, settles into comfortable place.

It has been inspired vaguely by the last two books I’ve read. China Mieville’s The City & The City…soon available to those less lucky than I, this is a book I truly love. And Michael Chabon’s Maps and Legends, which I really liked, and is a good read. The City is all about interstices, visibility and invisibility, cities lying both beside and inside of each other. And it gave me chills because these are things I mull over all the time in many different ways. And yet this book created a world that I have never yet come even close to imagining and that is an incredible gift. This is my first reading of course, it is the kind of book that will yield up additional meanings as I reread it I know. It inspired a sideline of my own thought, and Chabon cemented it though the cementing was a tiny sideline of his work as well.

There are no margins. When I get these golden moments and write them down, they always appear absurdly simple, hardly worthy of mention. And they are so often things I have been thinking for a long time, and never found words for, so they remained fuzzy and ill-defined. Margins, the marginalized … these are words used all the time, especially in social theory, the world of urban planning. I have used them myself. And I am sure my little truth is not new, so I apologize to others ignored in the flush of my discovery… a discovery for myself, not for the world. And I’m still exploring it, savouring it like a bar of dark chocolate, so forgive that to.

Margins only exist from the perspective of one seated firmly and comfortably in the center of their own world. These people look out and see from great distance others behaving in ways they don’t understand, and usually do not condone. In the worst case scenario they see their margins as something to be fixed or eradicated. And they always look at it with varying shades of wonder, jealousy, disdain, voyeuristic interest, judgment. And the rest of us buy into it almost without thinking. I’ve been imagining that instead of a dominant world, the earth is peopled with many such worlds, like spheres, they pile up and jostle one another, their thin membranes can overlap others sometimes, they exist in permutations of inside and outside and crosshatched shades (crosshatch comes from China, it has made me extraordinarily happy).

Some people, many people, are lucky enough to navigate worlds from early ages, but these worlds are afforded different values. Marginalization is entirely in the mind, and entirely political. For most the margins mean the underworld, the underbelly, the world of the poor, the criminal. In the States it is the spaces inhabited by people of color, the poor, immigrants, strange languages, smells, foods. The reality is that these are their own worlds of equal value if not economic or political strength. The reality I think, is that to those inside of them, their codes and beliefs and comfort levels are just as much defined for them by their surroundings as for anyone else, and their own margins just as real within them. South Central, like South Tucson, is actually a vibrant and beautiful place of incredible culture and history, though with codes and violence shaped by years of poverty, racism and eploitation. The worlds of my UCLA professors who theorized on improving the inner city, and the women I worked with who spent hours on a bus to go and clean their houses…to move back and forth between them was like a jolt, an existential disconnection. Neither understood the other, both saw completely different sides. To stand outside both but with a foot in each yielded entirely new facets again.

There are even worlds that people choose to belong to, that become as bounded as anything else. To me much of the Bay Area, for example, has always been too uniform for comfort in its own comfortable counterculture-ness, and unspoken standards of politics, behaviour, shopping, and intellectualized relationships. They seem as much wrapped inside their own place as the girls I used to know who would never have dreamed of moving more than a few miles from their mothers, being unmarried beyond 25, living a life untethered to church, hometown, family.

None of this thinking about margins is new really, the whole point of nationalistic and identity movements, the best of postmodernism, have all had the aim of rejecting the term marginal, establishing an identity and a value that is separate and different from that which dominates, yet equal to it. Ha! Never thought I’d ever use separate but equal in a positive light. In a sense it is, but in many ways it is not. The feeling of belonging, however much I long for an idealized version of it on days when I am lonely and sad, always implies the existence of those who do not belong. At its best it coexists happily and does not judge, but even then it seems to carry within it the seeds of judgment, of believing everyone else incapable of knowing, understanding, partaking. And intellectuals always seem to push it, hone it, create walls that cannot be bridged. Regular folks I know who never stay up nights thinking about these things seem much more able to cross boundaries, build friendships, find humor in misunderstandings and cultural miscommunication. It’s what I loved most about Tucson’s southwest side, and gives me faith.

There are no margins, but there are people between worlds. One of my favourite books is called La Maravilla by Alfredo Vea Jr., I read it many years ago and have reread it many times. It is what first started me thinking about these things. It is the story of a boy living in Buckeye, a tiny world of squatters and outcasts outside of Phoenix. He is being raised by his Grandparents, an old Yaqui indian and a curandera from Spain, in uneasy and strained relationship with her Catholic beliefs. The grandfather takes his grandson into the mountains with some of his friends for a peyote ceremony, and he explains to him that all of the best people, the ones most worth knowing, are found within the gaps. They belong nowhere and that gives them immense freedom to create, to love, to understand, to be. And they are of every race, nation, culture, belief … anyone is capable of stepping into the gaps.

And I have always found it to be true, much as I love so many I know who are comfortable within the confines of their own worlds. It is a lonely place many times, true. But I think it allows the space to grow into the full measure of your own humanity, to explore worlds on their own terms, to dream of a world that doesn’t yet exist. Many are born into it, but spend their lives trying to belong to one place or another, to define themselves by geography or race or class or sexuality or intellect. And that is complicated by the fact that the dominant culture has for centuries defined people as it wishes, and used that as a whip to tear down, enslave, destroy. The dominant world in this country of a white middle America is very much a myth I think, but I don’t forget for an instant that the power of media, government and corporations are propping it up with brutal force and great power.

But there is such strength in stepping into the gap, embracing it, exploring it as something not simply thrust upon you. So I reject margins and believe in these gaps, crosshatchings, borderlands, wild spaces. And exult in them.

Sonoran Desert in the Springtime

This year there are no carpets of golden poppies or sunflowers, there are no giant swaths of color splashed across the Tucson desert, and part of me is disappointed of course. I love glorious abandon.

This is one of the years that requires a closer eye, a delight in the subtle, the ground-hugging, the tiny. I love that too. The desert is still full of flowers, they riot across the stones in perfect blooms the size of a fingernail.

Eriastrim Diffusum or Miniature Woolystar

Monoptilon bellioides, also known as Mojave Desert Star. I think. There’s something about seeing what is usually unseen. there were a couple of phacelias, though I remember years when they have filled the grasses alongside the washes in deep gorgeous blues unfurling.

The flowers have definitely seen better years, and the same goes for the prickly pear. While you’re looking for what is always missed, seeking out the small beauties and the things that are hidden, you also find these guys

The only thing that seemed to be blooming as normal were the mallows.

And when you look up the desert is still wide open, beautiful

You can’t even tell that tiny flowers blanket the hills, and that lizards crouch frozen in the mottled shade of bushes.

Dad and I found this off the beaten trail, beneath a mesquite tree where a small arroyo split into two

It could be a shrine, a joke, a memory. Plastic flowers in the desert almost always commemorate death, marking graves or the sites of accidents where flesh failed and souls left bodies. In the desert death is as present as life, they twine around each other, you see it and traces of it everywhere. Scattered bones, skin, remnants of bodies.

I love life even more beside death. Beauty hidden in an arid landscape and draped around cacti skeletons, or exploding after a good winter of rain in a riotous celebration of color. High arching skies and heat. The smell of creosote and dust. This I understand. I love. I leave it for the world of people and there is so much I don’t understand, though I love there too. I walk through the desert in sandals fearlessly, it is my place. It is a beautiful dangerous place, but I know where the danger lies. The human world? I walk through that in sandals too, but never fearlessly. It hurts much more.

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Late night meanderings far too early…

I ran into someone last night I’ve known for years, since he was a kid and he’s practically family. Now, luckily, the distant kind. He’s still the same. He was drunk, and showed me how he’d just been stabbed several times, and told me three different gangs would have my back if anyone messed with me. He was still hustling and still saying he was sorry. He was sorry all the time, and I believed it for a long time until I realized it was just to ease people into doing things for him. Because he always needed something from you. That hasn’t changed seems like.

I still remember once he was really drunk and who knows what else, and crying his eyes out and confessed to doing all of these truly horrible things that had truly fucked people over. And I sat there horrified, realizing for the first time that in reality he was just sorry for himself, and for the fact that none of these people (including me) liked him anymore. The real damage and impact of his actions on others hadn’t entered his mind at all, nor any conception of making up for what he had done, or doing things differently. Such a strange mixture of utter self absorption and the need to be liked by others, while using them for all he could get. And lies, all the time. Last night he told me I used to annoy him when he was coked out and he was sorry about that too because he really did love me. Made me want to cry really.

It’s funny timing I suppose, I’ve been realizing that someone else I know is almost entirely the same. Apart from being much more clever, well educated, and able to quote feminist theorists to prove his sensitivity. And also apart from the coke and gang affiliations, though funnily enough both share similar stories about the glory days of past violence. He also says he’s sorry all the time to get you to do things, and is better at backing it up with reasoned arguments and assurances. Though not by much, being a smooth talker comes with the hustle. Both of them are generous with what they have, the problem is that they always need so much more. The second doesn’t drink so there was no chance of such brutal honesty, it’s a bit more devastating, though, to fall for it all a second time. I suppose if you come from the ghetto this hustling without conscience will generally get you killed, and if you’re from a good family it means you excel at your profession.

The thing is, you never know what the word sorry means to someone else until you actually know them well. And giving people the benefit of the doubt and believing the best of them can make you a victim. And I don’t know quite what to do with that. I don’t mind being cynical about the world and how it works, but I’ll be damned if two sociopaths can make me cynical about all the people in it. Maybe just because that would be too easy. You so often see what you want to see, good or bad. But I would like to see what is actually there. And believe in spite of everything that there is much of both.

And me? I’ve been bending my own rules to protect myself. I don’t hold with lies, but turns out not telling the whole truth is almost as bad and hurtful. In a world like this, with people like this, trust and all it is built on is so fragile. When my own trust has been betrayed it has been utterly devastating, and to be in turn someone who breaks trust is equally so. So it’s been a rough few weeks, and the past two days especially.

Ah well, I suppose this is one of the great human questions…the nature of humanity itself really. I have far too much love for people (and kittens and flowers and old buildings and wine and good writing and etc) to be properly cynical, but every day less trust than before. And I wish there were a political framework that could deal with this microlevel and give me a vision of life after capitalism I could believe in. You can see what’s so pursuasive about religion, sometimes I wish I could belive in that stuff. I read Camus instead. And try to be moral. And try again when I fail. And make fun of myself and everything else that’s fucked up while doing so, because honestly, what else can you do?

Downtown Los Angeles at night

I suppose this could be the title of a number of posts…

It’s the end of January. The night was cool but not cold, I rolled up the sleeves of my sweatshirt and felt the air sweet against my naked skin. The streets between Mals bar and home are my streets. Along Olive I rode through the darkness, glad I didn’t go home with the car salesman. I turned on Pico, passed the corner where I always used to find Mark, before we lost the Morrison, before he lost his home, before he died.  He’s been on my mind a lot, his county issue wheelchair sits empty at Saje now, right by the back door. I see it and think of him, feel a little of the despair and loss and…I don’t even know what you feel about someone you love who died an alcoholic on the streets. And I passed the Morrison and it’s still boarded up, Hope has never been well lit there. Hope. I don’t want to hope any more, I want to see my way to winning.

I headed towards the convention center, all brightly lit, welcoming people with degrees like mine to network and shmooze and score business deals. It offers shit jobs and shit treatment to all those I work with, stand beside. I belong to neither world, though I look to be part of one, and have chosen to stand in the other. For my job, I became part of the first for a couple of days earlier this year. It made me feel split into two people, uncomfortable in my skin as I walked down carpeted corridors and flashed my badge and talked books. And wished I were chatting to the janitors instead. I felt traitorous. And lonely. I wanted to know someone who understands these things.

Down Figueroa I passed the Staples Center and the new L.A. Live, it is like another city. The other day I was biking down Olympic and suddenly didn’t recognize where I was. I can’t tell you how strange it is to feel that way about a section of street you have worked off and on for 8 years. The Baker Building is gone, all of the families I knew there gone. A skyscraping hotel rises to the left unfinished beneath its giant crane. The cold clean unwelcoming space of LA Live bristles alongside it, over 200 families used to live there in 1998. They tore the buildings down to turn the land into parking lots. And now they have created something that Narnia’s Ice Queen might have built. Though she probably didn’t know enough about surveillance cameras. It’s yet another of LA’s quasi-public spaces, easily controlled for the right kind of people, easily managed with its up-scale chains that represent conspicuous consumption without taste or orginality. Figueroa was crawling with cop cars as the great searchlights proclaimed it the place to be against the night sky. Superficial glitz and implicit violence dominate this city.

I biked through downtown, Orishas on my i-pod, every traffic light against me. Office buildings towered into the sky, their patchwork of lights replacing the stars. The spatial inequalities of this city, the pain and displacement, the contrast between ultimate wealth and ultimate poverty, all of these things carved into my heart. I like biking through the darkness, even though it hurts. It is time and space to think, a way of experiencing LA like no other, a physical release of stress and memory. And it is nice to come home at the end of it. To write.