Wednesday, May 13, 2015

For Iphigenia (the Bacchus at Phelloe)

The house was built in Appalachian style,
No foundation or frame,
But windows cut from walls nailed to the sill,
On crude upright sandstone.

I thought of it in Aiges, ancient Aegira, which Homer called Hyperesia,
Where, in sight of Parnassus, realm of Apollo,
And of landslides from erosion, an old woman in living memory kept gardens
Behind a cottage built on Mycenaean walls.

It became Aegira, the city of goats, when the Hyperesians, facing war, drove
“Together all the goats that were in their land, and binding torches on their horns,
Enkindled them when the night was far advanced.”
The invaders fled before the river of lights.

That is Pausanias, travel writer for Roman tourists.
He goes on,  “where the most beautiful goat,
The leader of the rest, laid himself down,
They raised a temple of Diana, the Huntress.”

Pausanias notes fine statues of Jupiter and Apollo,
Serapis and Isis,
And an old statue in Diana’s temple, which the locals said
Was Iphigenia, Agamemnon's daughter,
Trades to the gods for a fair wind.

He reports a straight road from Aegira to Phelloe,
“An obscure little town, not constantly inhabited,”
With oak-trees, stags, and wild boars.
I scrambled uphill an hour through pasture, sometimes running,
To the base of Phelloe's acropolis, now just stone on stone,
And apple trees in the agora.
There were goats on the lower slopes, passing to the north.
A huge mastiff kept me back from them.  Their bells mapped them for miles.

The theater at Aegira was cut into stone, fronting Parnassus.
Today its bleacher seats are gulley-washes. 
The front rows hold, and the flagstone of the stage.

Carrying even a pebble from these places is a crime, heavy as drug-smuggling.
The Austrian School excavates a few weeks every summer.
Andreas the goat-herd, who helped them out for cash,
Reports the work is very slow, and not at all like digging.

I smuggled back a ram’s horn from his pastures,
Half-twisted and very dark.

The Bacchus at Phelloe was covered in vermilion.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Strange, Familiar Landscapes: Where the Gods and Spirits (might) Live

            A week in Greece, much of it in the Peloponnesian countryside, showed me something about what landscapes do to the mind.  I thought all the time of the gods and spirits that were supposed to have animated the peaks, forests, and streams.  Their presence was much easier to accept than where I spend most of my time.  I don’t think it was just the stories.  It was also the shape of the place.

            The instinct that gods live in high places seems intuitive in a terrain with steep, treacherous, almost unscaleable slopes that open up into broad terraces and generous mountaintops, level meadows shaped for revels.  Almost like an apartment building, the land has many stories, some hard to reach from others.  Above the village where we stayed was a sheer cliff, which I would estimate at a thousand feet high.  Why would there not be a life up there, inaccessible but imaginable, as there was a life on the hilltop acropolis of each ancient city of women and men?

            And the spirits?  I have never seen a place with such intense microclimates – not even coastal California, which comes close.  A slot canyon rips a cool, dusky, lush line into an arid and barbed mountainside.  Surrounded by dry pines, backed that thousand-foot cliff, a tumbling vertical stream throws out a fan of hanging grasses, then comes to ground at the roots of big, gnarled figs and planetrees (also called sycamore maples).

            It reminded me of the Banias, so named by Roman occupiers for Pan, a river cleft at the base of the Golan Heights in northern Israel.  In the spring, cold, blue-tinted meltwater races through a green, heavily shadowed rent in a near-desert baked in gold Mediterranean light.  Where a blade of that gold slices between wood and leaves and strikes the water, two worlds meet.

            This kind of anomaly is a place for spirits.  It’s a product of a place vitally unlike itself, always generating its own exceptions.   It’s a home for something of the place yet not entirely of the world – a dryad, say, or river spirit.

            In the modern west, the aesthetics of nature generally comes down to two categories.  One is beauty, the quality of a restful and regular place – a lovely farming landscape, for instance.  The other is sublimity, the half-frightening, half-elevating power of huge, alien nature: a volcano, a whirlpool, the ocean in a storm, lightning in the Sierra Nevada.

            It occurs to me that sublimity, in particular, is a monotheist idea: that there is one vast, brooding spirit in the world, whose unknowable power we glimpse in its display.  Sublimity is the Book of Job.  Most American parks, uninhabited sites of pilgrimage to vast and impersonal places, are terrains of monotheistic awe.

            The animated landscapes I’ve been thinking of fall into a third aesthetic category: the uncanny, the place we aren’t sure what to make of, which may or may be looking back at us with eyes like, but also unlike, ours.  With a mind like, but also unlike, ours. 
These are the landscapes of the strange familiar, where we recognize ourselves but are also frightened and baffled.  They are inhabited, personal, vital, and alien, all at once.  Animist, pagan places, they have a variegated vitality that fills me as I race and stumble across them, trying to reach the next strange grove.    

Monday, April 27, 2015

Bill Howley: a memorial

            I wish I could be in West Virginia now, with the redbud and dogwood blooming and the leaves still pale green, where so many of the people I care for are mourning Bill Howley.  The last time I was with Bill in this part of spring was at my sister Hannah’s wedding, at the Purdy house, which is maybe a twelve-minute drive from the Howley house, ninety minutes if you walk the ridges.  Bill and Lorie sat with my parents, Wally and Deirdre, because they were family, and had been my whole life.

            Calling him an uncle was easiest, and that’s what we said sometimes. I also felt him a bit of of an older brother – one that I wanted to impress, loved being around.

            I remember putting up loose hay with Bill, using his horses and a pair of pitchforks, rolling the hay into the barn, a load at a time, by hooking the forks underneath, tines up, and rolling the whole pile over like a breaking wave of half-dried meadow grass.  Sometimes Bill swore when the wave crested, and I tried to swear, too.

I also remember a day when Hannah and I were putting in a field of baled hay by ourselves, when our parents were away.  We turned our tractor too sharply and broke an axle on the wagon.  We knew somehow that we should borrow Bill’s blue farm truck so we could clear the field, and that he would understand that.  It didn’t occur to us to call anyone else. 

I also remember walking up the Howleys’ road in reflected moonlight one wintry night around Christmas and interrupting Bill on his way to bed.  We had been visiting, and now my car was in a ditch at the mouth of his icy hollow.  I knew he would drive down the snow-covered road and haul me out.  It was strangely comforting to go back to the house and knock on the door in the dark, not to have to say goodbye quite yet.

            I mention these moments because I didn’t have to reach for them. I realized after I heard the terrible news that these memories are part of the never-ending present in my mind.  I think of them every week or two, in the normal course of things.  They are some of my touchstones of how things should work: people helping each other, teaching each other, being there when you need them.  Bigger people helping smaller people to be.

            Bill and I spent an afternoon once – a different one – in his hayfield.  While we put in the hay, he told me about theories of history.  He talked about different ways of understanding how the world changes, what kind of power ordinary women and men have, what direction things might be going.  It was a revelation.  I have spent a lot of my adult life trying to think that way, teaching those things.  On April 16, I finished teaching a yearlong class called “Past and Future of Capitalist Democracy.”  Everything a professor teaches is a memorial to the people who taught him.  That class was partly a tribute to Bill.

            That afternoon in Bill’s hayfield is still a model for me of what happens on the best days: being outside in the sunshine, doing some work with your body, thinking and talking with real friends.  Those days are also a memorial to the people who teach you to live them.

            I think Bill read most of what I wrote – much of it, anyway.  It meant a lot to me that he took me seriously.  That was partly because he was a big brother, and also because he was a ferociously smart person by any standard, in a Yale classroom or outside with hand tools and a job to do.  Those were two worlds that I shared with him in a way I did with very few people.  That made our friendship a living bridge between my worlds, and it gave extra weight to his opinion.

He told me once that in my writing I was “just trying to be honest about the fucking human condition” and should ignore any critic who didn’t recognize that.  It was, honestly, one of the best things anyone has ever said to me.  Someone should say that to every young writer, not so much because it’s supportive (though they need support!) as because it sets a standard.  Of course that’s what you should be doing.

            Bill and I would occasionally remind each other of an ideal that Karl Marx sketched when he was still in his twenties: a person should be able to farm in the morning, hunt in the afternoon, and read and write in the evening – to live a full life without ever shrinking down to fit just one of those activities.   

            It was like a secret sign that this was what we were both trying to do, in our different versions.  As far as I was concerned, we had figured out this goal together.  Bill came closer to living it than anyone else I’ve known.   I’m going to carry him with me, as a picture of generosity and enthusiasm and a reminder of how the world should be, for just as long as I am around.


Monday, January 19, 2015

Democratic or Horrible: On what the Anthropocene will be like

            For all the talk of crisis that swirls around the Anthropocene, it is unlikely that a changing Earth will feel catastrophic or apocalyptic.  Some environmentalists still warn of apocalypse to motivate could-be, should-be activists; but geologic time remains far slower than political time, even when human powers add a wobble to the planet.  Instead, the Anthropocene will be like today, only more so: many systems, from weather to soil to your local ecosystem, will be in a slow-perennial crisis.  And where apocalyptic change is a rupture in time, a slow crisis feels normal.  It feels, in fact, natural.

            The Anthropocene will feel natural.  This is a problem for its potential as a discourse of responsibility.  Planetary changes are sure to amplify existing inequalities and produce new ones; but these inequalities, just as surely, are going to feel as if they were built into the world itself – at least for the lucky billions who watch rather than undergo them.

            Consider: Nature has always served to launder inequalities that people have produced.  Are enslaved people kept illiterate and punished brutally when they are not servile?  Then ignorance and servility must be in their nature, an idea that goes back in a continuous line to Aristotle.  The same goes for women, with some edits to their nature: docile, nurturing, delicate, hysterical, etc.  It was not until Harriet Taylor and John Stuart Mill worked together on The Subjection of Women (published under his name alone in 1869), that English-language philosophy produced a basic challenge to millennia of nature-talk about sexual difference.  The expulsion of Native Americans was “justified” on several versions of nature.  Maybe they were racially different.  Maybe their climate made them weak and irrational, unable to cultivate the land or resist European settlement.  (Colonists briefly embraced this idea, then grew uneasy when they realized that the North American climate was now theirs; by the time of American independent, they racing to reject climatic theories of racial character.)  Maybe Native Americans had simply failed to fulfill the natural duty of all mankind, to clear and plant the wilderness and make it bloom like an English garden – an idea that many theorists of natural law advanced in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  One way or another, nature was a kind of ontological insurance policy for human injustice.

            And now?  Well, it’s common wisdom that rising sea levels will first affect some of the world’s poorest people, notably in Bangladesh and coastal India.  True.  But it’s much worse than that grim geographic coincidence.  Wealth has always meant some protection from nature’s cruel measures.  In fact, that is the first spur to technology and development of all kinds: not to be killed.  Tropical diseases with changing range will find some populations well equipped with vaccination and medicine, others struggling with bad government and derelict health systems.  When seas rise fast, even the feckless but rich United States will begin adapting fast, and coastal flooding will be classified in the rich-world mind as a catastrophe of the poor.

            So will starvation.  A legal regime of unequal Anthropocene vulnerability is well underway.  Take the vast, long-term leases that Chinese companies have entered into for some of Africa’s richest farmland.  When drought, soil exhaustion, or crop crisis puts a pinch on global food supply, contracts and commerce will pull trillions of calories to fat-and-happy Beijing.  This is, of course, only the latest chapter in centuries of imperialism and post-imperial, officially voluntary global inequality.  But it is the chapter that we the living are writing.

                For the moment, Anthropocene inequality has a special affinity with neoliberalism, the global extension of a dogmatic market logic and increasingly homogenous market forms – along with an accompanying ideology insisting that, if the market is not beyond reproach, it is at least beyond reform: there is no alternative.  Where previous episodes of global ecological inequality took place under direct imperial administration – witness the Indian famines of the late nineteenth century, suffered under British rule- ours is emerging under the sign of free contract.  Anthropocene inequality is thus being doubly laundered: first as natural, second as the voluntary (and presumptively efficient) product of markets.  Because human activity now shapes the “natural” world at every point, it is especially convenient for that world-shaping activity to proceed in its own pseudo-natural market.

            But Anthropocene problems also put pressure on the authority of economics.  Much of environmental economics has been built on the concept of the externality, economist-speak for a side-effect: a harm or benefit that has no price tag, and so is ignored in market decisions.  Air pollution – free to the polluter – is the classic bad side-effect, or “negative externality.”  Wetlands – not valued on the real-estate market, but great sources of filtration, purification, and fertility, which would otherwise cost a lot to replicate – produce model of positive externalities.  So neoliberal environmental, which Peter Kareiva’s Nature Conservancy has begun to exemplify, aims to bring nature fully into the market, finding a place in the bottom line for all former side-effects and fully merging ecology and economy.

            In a climate-changed Anthropocene, the side-effects overwhelm the “regular” market in scale and consequence.  And there is no “neutral,” purely market-based way to put a value on side-effects.  Take the example of carbon emissions.  It is possible to create a market for emissions, as Europe, California, and other jurisdictions have done; but at the base of that market is a political decision about how to value the economic activity that emits carbon against all the (uncertain and even speculative) effects of the emissions.  The same point holds for every (post-) natural system on an Anthropocene planet.  Ultimately, the question is the value of life, and ways of life.  There is no correct technocratic answer.

            The shape of the Anthropocene is a political, ethical, and aesthetic question.  It will answer questions about what life is worth, what people owe one another, and what in the world is awesome or beautiful enough to preserve or (re-) create.  Either the answers will reproduce and amplify existing inequality or they will set in motion a different logic of power.  Either the Anthropocene will be democratic or it will be horrible.

            A democratic Anthropocene would start from a famous observation of economics Nobel laureate Amartya Sen: no minimally democratic society has ever suffered a famine.  That is, natural catastrophes are the joint products of natural and human systems.  Your vulnerability to disaster is often a direct expression of one’s standing in a political (and economic) order.  The Anthropocene stands for the intensifying merger of ecology, economics, and politics, and one’s standing in those systems will increasingly be a single question.

            This returns us to the basic problem that the Anthropocene drives home: as Hannah Arendt famously observed in The Origins of Totalitarianism, the idea of human rights – such as the right to democratic standing in planetary change – is a chimera and a cruel taunt without a political community that can make it good through robust institutions and practices.  Once again, the Anthropocene shows how far the world is from being such a polity, or a federation of such polities, and how much is at stake in that absence.  The world is too much with us.  Worse, there is no we to be with it.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Anthropocene and the Ambiguity of "Responsibility"

Officially, for the last 11,700 years we have been living in the Holocene epoch.  From the Greek for “totally new,” the Holocene is a blink in the eye of geological time. In its nearly 12,000 years, plate tectonics has driven the continents a little more than half a mile: a reasonably fit person could cover the scale of planetary change in a brisk 8-minute walk.  It has been a warm time, when temperature has mattered as much as tectonics: sea levels rose 115 feet from ice melt, and northern landscapes rose almost 600 feet rebounding from the weight of now-melted glaciers.  But the real news in the Holocene has been people.  Estimates put the global human population between one million and 10 million at the start of the Holocene and keep it in that range until after the agricultural revolution, some 5,000 years ago.  Since then, we have made the world our anthill: the geological layers we are now laying down on the earth’s surface are marked by our chemicals and other industrial emissions, the pollens of our crops, and the absence of the many species we have driven to extinction.  Rising sea levels rise are now our doing.  As a driver of global change, humanity has outstripped geology.

  This is why more and more voices, from the earth sciences to English departments, propose that we live in a new era, the Anthropocene – the age of humans.  The term was coined by ecologist Eugene Stoermer in the 1980s and has gained prominence since 2000, when Paul Crutzen, a Nobel-winning atmospheric scientist, urged scientists to adopt it. In 2008, the Stratigraphy Commission of the Geological Society of London – the people who set and enforce the boundaries of eras, the Pleistocene Police – took up a proposal to add the Anthropocene to the official timeline of earth’s epochs.  (It is still pending: straigraphers are well acquainted with geological rates of motion.) The proposal suggests that we have entered a new era of the earth’s history, when humans are a force, maybe the force, shaping the planet.

The revolution in ideas that the Anthropocene represents – the end of the division between people and nature – is rooted in hundreds of eminently practical problems. The conversation about climate change has shifted from whether we can keep greenhouse-gas concentrations below key thresholds to how we are going to adapt when they cross those thresholds – and change everything.  Geo-engineering, deliberately intervening in planetary systems, used to be the unspeakable proposal in climate policy.  Now it is in the mix and almost sure to grow more prominent. As climate change shifts ecological boundaries, issues like habitat preservation come to resemble landscape architecture. We can’t just pen in animals to save them; we need to build corridors and help species migrate as their habitats move.  There is open talk in law-and-policy circles about triage in species preservation – asking what we can save, and what we most want to save.   We can call the sum of these changes, the vast and irreversible human impact on the planet, the Anthropocene Condition.

             The other side of the coin is something more conceptual, which we can call the Anthropocene Insight.  Part of the meaning of the Anthropocene is as a political and ethical idea. Calling this the age of humanity is a way of owning up to responsibility for shaping the world.
In this way, talking about the Anthropocene is involves two very different registers.  On the one hand, it is predictive, like speculating about next summer’s weather and how we will keep cool (if we even can).  On the other, people who use the term are trying to get listeners to see themselves, their problems, and other people’s problems as aspects of a single pattern, which “the Anthropocene” is meant to name.  In turn, this second, persuasive aspect of the Anthropocene splits into two further faces.  First, it simply offers to unify events that might otherwise seem unrelated.  In this way, “the Anthropocene” is an attempt to do the same work that “the environment” did in the 1960s and early 1970s: meld problems as disparate as extinction, sprawl, litter, national parks policy, and the atom bomb into a single phenomenon called “the ecological crisis.”  Such a classification is always somewhat arbitrary, though often only in the trivial sense that there are many ways to carve up the world.  However arbitrary, it can become real because people treat it as real – for instance, by forming movements, proposing changes, and passing laws aimed at “the environment.”

            Here the Anthropocene’s persuasive sense comes into its stranger version, at once the most charismatic and the most dubious.  Anthropocene talk is a discourse of responsibility, to borrow a term from Mark Greif’s brilliant study of mid- twentieth-century American thought and letters, The Age of the Crisis of Man.  Greif argues that a high-minded (but often middle-brow) strain of rhetoric responded to the horrors of the world wars and global struggles thereafter with a blend of urgent language and sweeping concepts (or pseudo-concepts): responsibility, the fate of man, the urgency of now.  Two example stand out particularly.  Albert Camus told a rapt audience at Columbia in 1946, “We must call things by their right names and realize that we kill millions of men each time we permit ourselves to think certain thoughts….  One is a murderer if one reasons badly.”  In 1950, William Faulkner, accepting the Nobel Prize in Literature, told his audience (in a widely republished speech), “I decline to accept the end of man….  I believe that man will not merely endure; he will prevail.”  Whether you find this admirable or ridiculous (Greif leans toward ridiculous) it is an attempt to turn words and thoughts, uttered in a certain attitude called “responsibility,” into an effective, even imperative, way of engaging the world’s events.  It treats serious thinking, right naming, heroic intentions, as a high form of action.  In using the language of responsibility, it purports to bring into being the agent of responsibility.

            Well, you might think, the worst it can achieve is nothing.  Unfortunately, that is overly optimistic.  Discourses of responsibility distract and confuse: they charge up the heart and blur the mind; they invite bloody-minded shadow-boxing and a misplaced sense of having done something by willing an argument over whether a thing is called by its right name, and about the difference between enduring and prevailing.  Indeed, the Anthropocene has inspired the New York Times to publish a piece of high-seriousness worthy of 1950, an essay titled “Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene,” which concludes, “this civilization is already dead” (emphasis original) and that the only way forward is “to realize there’s nothing we can do to save ourselves” and therefore “get down to the hard work … without attachment or fear.”  It concludes, “If we want to learn to live in the Anthropocene, we must first learn how to die.”
            Frankly, I have no idea what this is supposed to accomplish.  It makes me feel vaguely Stoic, which, in the twenty-first century, means vaguely American-Buddhist.  It confirms my sense that halfway measures won’t do much for climate change, and it also leaves me feeling that, if I compose my feelings in the right way – with a little help from some sonorous phrases – I will already be getting down to the hard work.

            Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Times you can read the paper’s roving environmental maven, Andrew Revkin, touting Peter Kareiva, the Nature Conservancy’s lead scientist, who has drawn controversy by trashing environmentalism as philosophically naïve and urging fellow conservationists to give up on wilderness and embrace what the writer Emma Marris calls the “rambunctious garden” of a world that is everywhere changed.  In other words, the Anthropocene is both a discourse of responsibility and a discourse of complacency.  In some hands, it is the ultimate catastrophe, the epochal disruption that will finally confront us with our real situation in the world (as earlier generations thought the atom bomb, or World War One, or the Holocaust might do).  In others, it is business as usual – and the business of business is business, as the Nature Conservancy’s partnerships with Dow, Monsanto, Coca Cola, Pepsi, JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs, and the mining giant Rio Tinto remind us.

            This is the problem with a charismatic, all-inclusive idea like the Anthropocene: it becomes, more or less instantly and unavoidably, an all-purpose projection screen and amplifier for whatever one happens to believe already.  Today, at least, it also becomes a branding strategy, a way to claim newness and relevance, and an opportunity to slosh around your old plonk in an ostentatiously factory-fresh and gleaming bottle.

            More interestingly, if no less frustratingly, Anthropocene talk also becomes an inadvertent meditation on the devastating absence of any agent of responsibility – a state, or even a movement – that could act on the scale of the problem.  Indeed, it reveals that there is no agent that could even define the problem; that is, if the Anthropocene is about the relationship between humanity and the planet, well, there is no “humanity” that agrees on any particular meaning and imperative of climate change, extinction, toxification, etc., etc.  The different negotiating positions of India, China, Russia, Europe, and the United States over twenty-plus years to climate talks are as much evidence of this as the chattering schisms of elite media and even environmental movements.  To think about the Anthropocene is to think about being able to do nothing about everything.  No wonder the topic inspires compensatory fantasies that the solution lies in refining the bottom line or honing personal enlightenment – always, to be sure, in the name of some fictive “we.”

            The Anthropocene might be particularly susceptible to this kind of confusion.  Discourses of responsibility would make full and complete sense only in certain elusive circumstances: a religious context where words created an ontological community of meaning among speaker, listeners, and a created world; or a political setting where a genuine unity of attention made words in the public forum a fulcrum of joint action.  The first of these is an object of nostalgia, the second a project of utopia.  It is crushingly clear that neither of these conditions holds around here today.  But “nature” has always stood for the mind of God, and environmentalism has always traded in calls for “us,” the “community,” and “humanity” to act on its supposedly self-evident truths.  It has been a way of pretending to, or seeking, more unity and clarity, and more integrity and force for words, than there otherwise is.

            Without that prop, talk of the Anthropocene as a discourse of responsibility cannot make, to repeat, full and complete sense.  The question remains: what kind(s) of sense can it help to make?   

Friday, December 12, 2014

Ambergris & Constitutional Prophecy

            The first constitution to govern what is now North Carolina, other than the original royal charter, was written for hire by the political philosopher John Locke, who served as secretary to the colony’s Lords Proprietors.  These rich Englishmen directed their draftsman to open with a statement of purpose: “that we may avoid erecting a numerous democracy.”  Government of the Carolina Colony would belong to its owners, not those who merely lived there – especially not the hereditary serfs and “negro slaves” that Locke’s constitution excluded from ownership or government.

It was an ironic moment for the theorist of natural freedom and self-government, who later founded a theory of human equality on the ways that people are “promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature.”  It makes the Lords Proprietors’ hired pen the perfect namesake for Art Pope’s John Locke Foundation, which also blends the rhetoric of liberty and equality with a strong commitment to keeping ensuring that those who own the state also rule it.

Locke’s phrases sometimes swam through my head at Moral Mondays rallies in 2013 and 2014.   There we were, still trying to erect a numerous democracy.  We were promiscuous in our equality, the kind of proud motley Carolina that generations of white supremacists feared.  But we were also still unequal among ourselves, marked by lines of wealth and privilege, and subject to laws that made the state less democratic than before: Locke’s Lords Proprietors would not have been entirely displeased by Thom Tillis’s North Carolina.

You don’t have to be, like me, a constitutional lawyer and political theorist to think of constitutions at a Forward Together rally.  Constitutional language is sacred text in the mouth of Reverend William Barber, head of North Carolina’s NAACP and the visionary of Moral Mondays and the Forward Together movement.  As those who have so much as dropped in on a rally know, Reverend Barber works with two canons: one religious, the other and civic.  The Bible resonates everywhere in his speeches.  “Without vision the people will perish,” he quotes from Proverbs, and you realize that everything you have been hearing is in cadences and phrases that English speakers are trained to vibrate to, whether we are churched or unchurched. 

But the civic canon really catches me.  When Reverend Barber raised the roof at 2014’s Netroots Nation, an annual gathering of progressive activists, he opened with several minutes of provisions from North Carolina’s 1868 constitution.  This Reconstruction document established a principle of equal and universal citizenship to the state for the first time.  It outlawed slavery forever in the state.  Its drafters deliberately echoed the Declaration of Independence, declaring it self-evident that all people are created equal.  They also added “the enjoyment of the fruits of their own labor” to the people’s inalienable rights, a potent statement of the anti-slavery principle.  The Reconstruction constitution took Thomas Jefferson’s words, the fine phrases of a slaveholder, and applied them to everyone – restoring them to their right meaning, or, if you prefer, dismantling the master’s house with the master’s tools.

Constitutional language is living tissue in Reverend Barber’s fierce, looping rhetoric.  The speeches move in several dimensions at once.  They interpret the history of Reconstruction, interracial fusion politics, and white reaction, following time’s arrow in a kind of mythic loop, in which the present becomes the past, a second Reconstruction in the Civil Rights movement and Barack Obama’s election, a second Redemption (white supremacists’ favored term for their attack on Reconstruction) in the Tea Party and North Carolina’s right-wing legislature.  The language loops, too, phrases and images recurring and gathering force with each pass.  These cycles of ever more forceful recitation come to suggest an upward spiral, in the energy of the repeating words and the historical promise of the echoing events, until both explode into prophecy, which is not a promise of help from above but a call to act where you stand.  In dark times, the speeches manage to say that history is on your side, that language itself is on your side.

North Carolina’s Reconstruction constitution was written with the ashes and blood of the Civil War still present to the minds of its authors.  Some of those authors were freedmen, recently enslaved people like Abraham Galloway, one of the Reconstruction constitution’s 15 black authors, who freed himself by escaping to Canada in 1857, then returned to North Carolina as a Union spy and abolitionist tactician during the Civil War.  It is in part a peace treaty and document of surrender, abjuring secession forever and thanking God for the preservation of the Union.  It is a victor’s document, but one written to enshrine the rights of those its own canon – the Declaration and the US Constitution of 1789 – ignored.   Today it is the civic sacred text of a movement of underdogs, the charter of a dream deferred.

Civic sacred texts, like the Christian Word, carry the memory of blood and wounds.  The idea of equal citizenship took on life and power among slaveholders, and among settlers who expelled and slaughtered Native Americans, confident that both God and history were on their side.  Equal citizenship for some came with excluding others from citizenship altogether, either as enslaved laborers in the South or as inconvenient savages on the frontier.  Yet the lived reality of political equality among the oppressors that worked the ideal ever deeper into American myth, imagination, and practice.  This reality drenched the fine phrases of equal citizenship in the blood of lynchings and massacres, associating them indelibly with what we have learned to call white privilege.  But these same phrases are also the civic catechism of Reverend Barber’s peaceful, democratic, and entirely unfinished revolution.   
            How can slaveholders’ words anchor a language of prophecy and redemption?  (I am deliberately using redemption, the word that white supremacists used for their attack on Reconstruction, because it is also the right word for progressive constitutional prophecy.)  How does the record of hypocrisy and violence call Moral Mondays marchers – as Reverend Barber put it in his refrain at the mass rally of February, 2014 – to higher ground?  What are we doing when we treat a constitution as a sort of civic scripture?

            A constitution may do what its name suggests: constitute – form, make up – not just a system of government but a people.  A people, of course, is partly an imagined thing, a way of thinking and seeing.  When you imagine that you are part of such a people, constitutional language offers to tell you something about who you are.  The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s used such language to say, “As Americans, you are already committed to equality.  Now it is time to be true to yourselves.”  This is arguably creepy and too intimate, reaching inside you to make you someone else, while claiming not to change but to perfect you.  But the other side of that creepiness is transubstantiation.  This is the language of redemption, of being born again into the self you were meant to be, the self you always were, but secretly or imperfectly.

            This redemptive attitude treats the glittering generalities of constitutional language, and of the Declaration of Independence, as a Word yet to be made Flesh. 
But it is not just a matter of borrowing religion for politics.  Something is happening in common between the two.

How do I, a secular marcher behind Reverend Barber, hear the language of prophecy and redemption?  There is a tradition in philosophy that holds that all religion is a kind of Word yet to be made Flesh: that its promises of equality, dignity, and harmony among people express human possibility that has not yet become real.  If religion is a human creation, this tradition says, then it must be explained by human wishes and human capacities, not supernatural sources.  Seen in this way, constitutional prophecy and redemption are not displaced forms of religious passion.  Instead, both constitutional and religious prophecy express the human knowledge that we contain more world than we have yet made and inhabited.  They are ways of naming and imagining a world we know we should make, a world we want, which we have not yet found the way to create.  It is a world of equality and inalienable rights, where there is no slavery and the fruits of your labor are your own.

            A constitution, then, is a line of tension connecting the world that exists with other worlds that might be possible, which we name to try to imagine them, and imagine to try to bring them nearer, or at least to see more clearly the distance between their ideals and the unredeemed present.   We use words to form this line of tension, to name the distance between worlds, if not exactly to measure it.

            This is all true.  To my mind, it is powerful.  But there is a danger in redemptive imagination that is part of its power: it gathers all history into covenant, all injustice into reminders of a promise betrayed.  It can obscure the waste, suffering, and horror of past and present, so that its gloss becomes both the highest truth about moments of felt possibility, but also quite inadequate, even false, to the lives where we spend most of our time.  It also misses the irony and strangeness of a world that is too bizarre to be part of any redemptive vision of Millennium, civic or religious.  And it misses wrongs that will never be redeemed, whose nature is immune to redemption.
            I don’t intend any criticism of the Forward Together movement here.  I just mean to reflect on what happens to me when my inner dark echoes so fully to civic pieties that I forget the rest.

            John Locke’s Carolina constitution, adopted in March of 1669, may be the strangest fundamental law ever to govern a piece of North America.  It proposed to populate the new colony with “signories,” “landgraves,” and “caciques,” and more familiar feudal categories such as baronies and manors, under the government of a palatine and his council of seven Lords Proprietors.  It is a plan for hereditary aristocracy, with precise and unalterable proportions between political authority and land ownership.  Ratios of acreage, office, and power interlock and turning back on themselves like an Escher drawing.   Locke’s baroque scheme strikes the modern ear as more Dungeons & Dragons than Constitutional Convention. 

Indeed, there was no convention, just a board meeting.  Political governance was corporate governance in the new colonies.  The labor in Carolina was to be done by a hereditary class of serfs called leet-men, who lived under the direct governance of their landed lords (who would administer law to the lower orders in “leet-courts”).  Below them were “negro slaves,” who were not just legal subordinates, but property, at the whims of their owners.  None of these classes of laborers were part of the body politic formed by the Fundamental Constitutions, which opened, “We, the lords and proprietors … have agreed to this … form of government.”  That is quite a contrast to “We the people,” the phrase that famously opened the US Constitution in 1789.  Most of the people in Locke’s Carolina were not the People, but the help, or just the stuff.  This constitution was intended to shut down all future democracy “in the most binding ways that can be devised.”

How do I feel about it?  I feel a macabre fascination, which I suppose is why I’ve worked this essay back around to it.  And, honestly, I find John Locke’s constitution funny.  It is funny because it is so rococo, a form of racialized exploitation and political tyranny done up in ruffs and lace, a slave state from the Eastern Lands of Game of Thrones.  Daenerys Targaryen would have liberated John Locke’s Carolina.  Or maybe it’s not funny, but I wish it were.  I wish it were because I wish we could laugh away the absurdities of race, wish that all undemocratic and arbitrary power were all nakedly preposterous as what Locke proposed.  But of course what he wrote didn’t seem at all preposterous to him, or, more to the point, to “we the lords and proprietors.”  The world you have to change always seems obdurate and halfway natural, while the injustices of faraway times and places feel fundamentally insubstantial: they should disappear like the Wizard of Oz, with a tug of a curtain.     

In the event, Locke’s constitution didn’t last long.  It had mostly faded from relevance by 1700.  That said, Locke’s constitution was widely printed and circulated in the colony for three decades, and was fundamental law in those strange and turbulent years (which spanned a restoration and revolution in the home country). Later Carolina constitutions are comfortingly familiar.  The phrase “We the people” would not open a North Carolina constitution until Reconstruction, but already in 1776 the newly independent colonists declared that “all political power is vested in and derived from the people only.”  That constitution is studded with personal rights and protections against abuse of power.  The trick is that these apply only to “freemen.”  It is a freeman’s constitution, meaning, mostly, a white man’s covenant.  A form of democracy had come, but those who were left out of it now did not even merit a mention, unlike the leetmen and slaves that Locke’s constitution had called out by name.  Only silence marked their exclusion in 1776, the unspoken implication that “freemen” had an opposite. 

This sort of state constitution formed the template for the Supreme Court’s notorious1858 decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford, which declared shortly before the Civil War that the US Constitution should be read to mean “we the white people,” the Declaration of Independence to declare “all white men are created equal,” and white supremacy was the implicit, permanent commitment of American nationhood.  This, of course, is what Reverend Barber’s beloved 1868 constitution was written to destroy.  In a sense, it lasted only thirty years, until the violent reassertion of white supremacy, constitutionalized in amendments that set up literacy tests for voters – except those who had been eligible to vote in 1867, that is, white people who were “freemen” under the old, slavery constitution.  Those amendments brought a poll tax as well.  This was the constitution of Jim Crow and separate but equal, which the Second Reconstruction displaced.

Locke’s constitution – there, I can’t let go of it! – holds that any ambergris found on the Carolina coast belongs to the Lords Proprietors of the colony.  Ambergris, for those who don’t recall, is a potent gray mass produced in the digestive tracts of sperm whales.  Before the magic of chemistry, it was a major raw material for perfume.  A rare ingredient for a luxury good, it was prized and costly.

            It is a telling little irony.  When Locke described the origins of property in his most influential work, the Second Treatise of Government, he offered ambergris as proof that the world primordially belonged to everybody and nobody, but a person could make a part of it his own by taking hold of it.  Isn’t it true, he wrote, that a walker who finds ambergris on the beach becomes its owner, and demonstrates this ancient, basic human power to make nature into property?  Well, not so much in Carolina.

            That small betrayal of Locke’s own general principles in his Carolina constitution might stand for many larger betrayals.  Locke was a theorist of human equality, which, as noted, he described nature as having spread “promiscuously” throughout the species.  He argued that anyone who tried to get you in his absolute power had, in effect, declared war on you, and that you could kill him in self-defense.  Unless, apparently, you were a “negro slave” in Carolina and he your master.  In that case, his absolute power over you was part of the constitution, which has no more room for promiscuous equality than for a numerous democracy.

            These kinds of inconsistencies capture my imagination partly because, as a constitutional lawyer, I belong to a strange subculture whose members sometime imagine principles as Archimedean points: if we could just find their true meaning, we could shift the world.  We are trained to go after inconsistencies the way acupuncturists go after blocked meridians.

            But that is not all.  Here again, the redemptive idea is making itself felt.  If only we could overcome these betrayals and errors, it suggests, we could make things right, as they were always meant to be.  This is the implicit idea of the whole tradition of civic preaching that Reverend Barber echoes, and which goes back to Abraham Lincoln and the abolitionists, and runs through Martin Luther King, Lyndon Baines Johnson, and others who portrayed the first Emancipation and the second Reconstruction as redeeming the country’s original promise.  This is an American story with a Christian template: original sin destroys what should be perfect harmony; only a sacrifice of blood, faith, and patience can redeem it and restore the primal design.  Those who like to say this is a Christian country may not realize exactly how right they are.  They should be answered: yes, conceived in sin and redeemed in blood.

            But even the story of redemption makes it all too neat.  Powerful as it has been as a tool of emancipation, it misses something else, something the Declaration of Independence and the Reconstruction constitution conceal, but Locke’s constitution lays bare.  The settlements that became the United States did not begin as an imperfect democracy, struggling to work itself pure.  They began as a project of settler colonialism, building a new world of economic opportunity for free settlers and the investors at home – the Lords Proprietors of the Carolina Colony.  The American Revolution took the home investors out of the picture and consolidated self-government for free settlers – but still, and for a very long time, on the backs of enslaved people and the lands of expelled peoples.  The exclusion and oppressions of American history began not as original sin but as what conservative constitutional theorists call original meaning.  Steps toward equality and genuine democracy have not have been corrections to a founding mistake, but revolutionary reallocations of power and privilege.  They radicalized the idea of citizenship that white male settlers claimed for themselves with their revolution; but in radicalizing it, they transformed it, because exclusion and oppression were built into it from the start and by design – albeit over the objections of genuine democrats like the immigrant Thomas Paine and the free black radical David Walker.

            What does this mean?  Well, for one, that an adequate Reconstruction needs to be just that – a deep engagement with the roots of continuing inequality in inherited wealth, economic structure, and institutions such as schools and the criminal justice system.  That we are fooling ourselves if we believe the key is already hidden in our old principles, if we could just get them right – no matter how potent and attractive this idea is, no matter how much partial good we can manage with it.  That our problem is not just to perfect our democracy, but to decolonize our national life.  The constitution that would do that has not been written – yet.

Monday, December 8, 2014

11 Theses on the Anthropocene

1.     It is not mainly a scientific or empirical event, even though it has, ironically, landed in the stratigraphers’ bailiwick.  Instead, announcing to Anthropocene is a political and ethical call to take responsibility for the world we participate in making.

2.     It is neither optional nor reversible.  (E.O. Wilson is writing a book on getting out of, or reversing, the Anthropocene.)  Part of the reason is in the fact of our impact on the world (the Anthropocene condition), but just as important is awareness that we are making the world in ways that involve it inextricably in human practices and human meanings (the Anthropocene insight).  This bell cannot be unrung.

3.     The Anthropocene will intensify existing inequalities, from vulnerability to rising seas and expanding diseases (Bangladesh) to having your traditional lands leased out from under you to feed China (much of Africa).  Because these inequalities will be inscribed on the landscape itself, it will be perennially tempting to think of them as natural, inevitable, or what people deserve/had coming.  A constant political challenge in the Anthropocene will be to remember that what “nature does to us” is better regarded as something people do to one another.

4.     As an overarching political and ethical problem, it will be contested along familiar lines.  Not surprisingly, there is a neoliberal Anthropocene in the economize-everything-and-forget-wilderness movement (spurring division in the Nature Conservancy and driving attention-getters like the Breakthrough Institute) and there is a new socialist Anthropocene in Naomi Klein’s interpretation of climate change (This Changes Everything).

5.     Anthropocene politics will remain a distinctly human practice (contrary to some proposals for post-humanist and new-animist approaches to political life), but it need not be human-centered in the sense of restricting its concern to human beings.  One of its most important elements will be constantly revisiting our relation to and engagement of the non-human world

6.     Pre-Anthropocene treatments of the non-human world have been either empiricist (what is it) or idealist (what does it mean)?  An Anthropocene approach will have to overcome this opposition, because the ways we participate in making the world what it is will both reflect and shape what we take it to mean.  Fact and meaning are a single circuit in the human-nature continuum. 

7.     The Anthropocene will not be apocalyptic: it will be a time of perennial slow crisis.  At least for the next century (and how much further can we pretend to see?), most people will be less vulnerable to nature than most people have been for most of history; but systems will falter and fail, the ground will shift, and everything will be harder.  However strange it becomes, it will seem basically normal, and not adapting too readily to that normality will be part of the political and ethical work.

8.     Anthropocene economics will have to accept that there is no longer such a thing as an “externality” – the basic concept in today’s environmental economics – because there is no “outside” of either ecology or economics.  The two are increasingly a single system.  While the neoliberal lesson from this is that all the world must be economized, the alternative is that political and ethical judgments are necessary about the value of life itself.

9.     Previous political thought has been Holocene: it has been able to assume the stability of nature, the definiteness of its meaning, and the distinction between the human and the natural.  Anthropocene political thought can assume none of these, and must take them all on as questions and projects.

10. Literary, political, and philosophical history will not become irrelevant, but we will read it differently, finding the ways in which we have always been Anthropocene, without realizing it.  Our past will appear in a different light, with more resources than we had realized for the future.

11. Environmentalism does not end with the Anthropocene, but it changes form.  Instead of a set of topical areas, it becomes a way of asking questions about everything, from the energy economy to the transport system to the aesthetics of the global atmosphere.  It will ask of each of these: What kind of way is this of inhabiting the earth, and how does that habitation shape both the world and the consciousness of the inhabitants?