I intended to write a tour diary of the Camper Van Beethoven shows with Cracker that we did on the West Coast and the East Coast between Christmas and the Martin Luther King Jr holiday weekend. But I didn’t.
The tour went well, most of the shows were sold out and we enjoyed ourselves immensely and saw many of our friends and fans.
But when i sat to write about it, I didn’t because I was constantly being pulled in two directions: in one I am amazed, in the other, horrified. We humans are incredible creatures, but in the end, nothing we can do now matters, because we are also terrible creatures who have destroyed our own ability to survive, and have done so by our own nature. We are probably at the end of our run. What should we do about it? Is there anything to do? We all have big conscious brains that are able to understand their own place in history, but we continue to act as if there is only next week. And maybe last week. And on top of this, we ignore the present moment in favor of the next one.
It’s a crisis of meaning, of what is important, of what meaning we can find in what we do now.
I went to see a show recently while in the Bay Area, when I had some time off between shows, people playing music. The first set was a band called “The Time Beings,” a clever pun. They had saxophone, bass and drums. They played what has to be called jazz, if only by the presence of sax and upright bass. The music was definitely coming from the jazz idiom, and the musicians were extremely good, Jon Raskin from ROVA, with Lisa Mezzacappa and Vijay Anderson on bass and drums. They went through some melodic pieces segueing into one another, some freer sections, solos, etc. At one point there was a drum solo and it was enhanced by added percussion from a homeless guy pushing shopping carts down the sidewalk outside, the venue door was open at the back of the room. I was carried along by the playing the whole time, amazed that human beings were making these sounds, coming into some sort of cohesive musical experience, making changes in air pressure at these frequencies in this room to tickle the cilia in our ears, the ears of no less than a hundred people. Human being were moving their hands and mouths, breathing and manipulating things that made sounds. It’s literally incredible. These beings were consciously doing this, changing the waves of air pressure with differing timbres at different frequencies.
I had nearly stopped hearing music and was just listening to the quality of the sounds. The last bit was a 9/8 slip-jig-like endless melody, with Jon’s sax sounding like a bagpipe, so that brought me back into hearing music as a set of melody and rhythm. I was there with Das and Univac, who are generally considered to be “noise” musicians, they heard this set as jazz, or more like the death of jazz, the last bastions of jazz as a cultural movement expressing itself, as somehow opposed to the second set which represented some other form of musical culture expressing itself, wherein Fred Frith played guitar, Jason Hoopes played bass and Jordan Glenn on drums. This band was much less tied to a specific idiom in which they improvised, but they were obviously informed by several. To begin with, they had an electric guitar and an electric bass, which stuck them fully into the latter 20th Century references, although some of the sounds they produced extrapolated from the instrument’s obvious tone into other areas. The bass, for example, sometimes sounded like an organ, and Fred uses his guitar as a percussion instrument as much as a melodic instrument. I again started veering into a perceptual world where I was hearing the ensemble as simply a collection of sounds as much as hearing it as music. I forgot what music was, I think: I was in a room with a hundred other human beings watching and listening to three people moving their hands and feet and consciously manipulating objects to produce sound waves. It was miraculous, these people could do this with their hands and feet. Perhaps even more miraculous was that not only were they doing this consciously, but that they may have been doing some of this unconsciously! Improvisors know this, I know this, it’s what happens when you are making music: you let the music play you, your hands just do what they know how to do and you can listen to it happen.
So here, in this room, the musicians were playing instruments and electronic pedals to produce sounds that somehow went together and people in the seats nodded and followed along, being subjected to the changes in air pressure that the speakers and the drums were producing in the room. It’s music. It communicates something, or rather, it allows a listener to feel that something is being communicated; there is no direct semantic transfer, but the producer of these waves and the receiver of these waves both feel something in the brain’s response to the sequence of auditory events. For the people here, this was pleasurable, as it is with most people who voluntarily listen to what they consider to be music. Das and Univac both enjoyed this set more than the first, I’m certain that there are many people who would say that the first set was music where the second set was not, or contained less “music” within it. I was still stuck on some edge of the ability to perceive any set of sounds as music, I was hearing everything as only sound-as-sound, though I did get pulled back when Fred played some more “normal” sounds on his guitar, the distorted lead guitar sound of melodic notes with bends and scales.
I like the sound of the electric guitar, we all know that. I can get pulled back into musicality by hearing it, the sound of an electric guitar playing melodic notes. That’s a conditioned response, I would guess, for me as a musician born in the 1960s, someone who started playing the electric guitar when they were a kid. It was interesting for me to note that the sound of it pulled me back into the normal world of the music listener in this context. I think that some listeners of avant-garde music who are strictly into “the new” or into how a musician could be “original” do tend to distrust idiom while trying to break out of idiomatic playing. The very sound of an electric guitar playing with distortion, single note lines, harkens back to idiomatic playing. Does that mean that this is a reference or a quotation? Or is it simply the unconscious conditioning of the player expressing itself while the player plays the instrument? When AMM started back in the 1960s, they had realized that they themselves, as white British players, couldn’t realistically be part of the jazz idiom, so they consciously chose to attempt to play non-idiomatic music. That’s a tough charter, as any instrument that you play comes with idiomatic baggage, and then any sound that you play has to be heard by the audience as music (as every sound can well be heard as, as Mr Cage made evident in the 1950s). And I know that many improvisors try their hardest not to be labeled as any sort of idiom, so they end up making a style of sound-based improvisation that ends up as its own idiom or genre. In the same way, there has been a wave of electronic music that tried to avoid anything that suggested “music,” such as beat or tone, so it ended up as drones of noise. A huge segment of Northern Europe fell into this world of sound, for a while I referred to it (privately) as GNEEM, or generic Northern European electronic music.
I’m personally not afraid of idiom, necessarily, and as an improvisor I’ve gone through numerous experiments within different genres or idioms, and lately have come back to playing electric guitar in the same way that so many people have since the 1960s: space rock, essentially. I still like the sound of somebody wailing on the electric guitar. Is that music?
In the 1960s, after Dada and Surrealism had brought the absurd to the screen of consciousness to play with the subconscious in the field of “art,” the abstract had become normalized, the absurd had become performance… After Fluxus, within the expanding world of freedom of expression and the freedom of the individual, people began to realize that anybody could simply label themselves an artist, and what they did as art. Process and performance art meant that, as Bruce Nauman pointed out, whatever the “artist” did in their “studio” was automatically art. It was because they said so. One might think that this was the fault of artists like Duchamp who positioned “readymades” as art in galleries or composers like John Cage who, by forcing the audience to hear their surroundings, pointed us in the direction of hearing all sound as music—is therefore everything art? Must there be an artist, even, whose intention or action make the “thing?” However, Duchamp, in his wisdom, pointed out that in fact art is the relationship of the piece to the audience: who is an artist, what is art, is something that in actuality is determined by posterity and not by the artist themselves.
It’s somewhat unfortunate that many of the ideas of self-proclaimed art these permeated western culture without Duchamp’s wisdom: by the time the 60s and 70s era of individualism hit the economic deconstruction of the 1980s, it paved the way for libertarianism, and worse: self-proclaimed expertise. The great thinkers and doers of the era started so many revolutions in technology that all panned out into what is now a society of self-appointed experts and an audience that can’t tell the difference between art and commerce. I am astounded every day by this, it’s reflected in every media. Sales prove validity, such that even “artists” such as Koons or McCarthy are considered to have been creative geniuses. Posterity should be interesting, in this respect. When my wife entered art school in Stockholm in the early 2000s as a sculptor, the entire academic course for art considered plastic arts to be old fashioned, that the ultra-modern was where the next generation of artists lay, doing video installation and performance art. It’s going to be funny when posterity tries to figure out the trends in art from this era because there won’t be anything extant for them to consider. (In fact, this entire era may be a second dark ages, when nothing saved on magnetic media survives nor anything digitally written exists in any format capable of being retrieved. This is assuming that somebody exists in the future to attempt a retrieval.)
When my wife came to live in California in the mid 2000s, she was greatly impressed by the people she met who introduced themselves as artists or musicians. Really!? You are an artist? That’s amazing, how impressive! Some time later, she realized that in fact, anybody could simply state such a thing regardless of their actual standing in society or the value or quality of their output. By the time I started being a professional musician (mid-1980s), we were already knee-deep in the late 1970s punk ethic of self-determination, and doing-it-ourselves. We could form bands, play shows, even record ourselves to a certain extent. This entire process got easier and easier and time and technology rolled along, until, as Steve Jobs put it, vis-a-vis the Apple Garageband application: “no talent is even necessary” to make music! We really won that revolution didn’t we?
Does that make it music, actually? Is it music because of the intentionality of the “composer,” or is it music because a potential audient hears it as such? Can any person even tell nowadays? Most people who have music in their lives in the modern era don’t even actively listen to it so much as hear it accompanying their activities of the day like their own little soundtrack. Naturally in such a case the development of the language of music and the quality of music itself will suffer, which for the most part has led to endless repeating of previously stated ideas, neo-retro-rock, electro, whatever. It’s sort of funny to me to hear current bands playing the exact same music that bands came up with in the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, etc. Especially such things as “Americana,” a genre that even some of the biggest artists in Sweden are now excelling at (e.g., First Aid Kit) when, at its essence what is it, even? Myself, I go for some recreation of psychedelia, I guess, mostly because I’m more interested in the mind-expansion than historical re-enactment or Live Action Role Playing, which is what dressing like a cowboy and playing country music or dressing like a “punk” and playing punk rock looks like to me. Admittedly the cowboy and the punk and I may all feel that we’re part of some ongoing tradition, that we are modern adherents continuing to expand the lineage of some specific genre, but which of us is living in the present? Any of us? Rockabilly yearns for that 50s era of cool, the period when the whole idea of teenage rebellion was first sold to consumers alongside cool cars and clothes. Punk gained its foothold as a political statement that very few bands even seem to grasp these days. Psychedelia, I imagine, tries to express that era when the feeling that anything was possible and what we did could further mankind. I still like that idea, though I fully admit to a soft spot for cool old cars and guitars as well.
Like Jaron Lanier’s assessment of the rise and fall of the beneficial aspects of the internet, we all had such high hopes for humanity only to be proven to that greed and individualism will reduce society to the lowest common denominator. It’s our way, isn’t it? The monkey can’t see beyond what’s right in front of its face. The self-destruction of all socialist and communist societies was always due to somebody wanting more for themselves. The self-destruction of the promise of digital utopianism is the greed of individualism and the libertarianism of the tech industry*. How can anybody believe anything that they read on the internet now, is the news real, is anything written as if it were true actually true? Are all the opinions presented as fact made real by simply saying so? Is the intentionality of saying so enough to grant authenticity? Is that all it takes to be the authority, to be the artist? So then, is music made by software indeed still music? Where is the intentionality, the composer’s hand, the artist’s brush moving along a canvas physically manipulating paint? Is it all just noises?
Have I stopped being able to hear sound as music, or have I suddenly switched over to hearing even music as just sounds? Because what happened to me in the concert situation, though I very much enjoyed listening to Fred and company, and The Time Beings, and enjoyed being in the room with the other hundred people also doing so, was that I predominantly heard sound. I couldn’t tell any more if anything was music, I was in a constant state of amazement that human beings were capable of moving their extremities, consciously for the most part, to intentionally make sounds together for other human being to hear. In real time, as the “time beings” were aptly pointing out by their band name: music happens over time, it proves itself in the 4th dimension. Music is time-based art. A piece of music defines a period of time. If it’s successful, it can even alter the listener’s perception of the passage of time.
So here is where this crisis came in. I wasn’t unhappy at being unable to understand music versus sound, I was particularly thrilled by the idea that people were utilizing their wills to intentionally make sound, but the big question was: what for? Why were they doing this? Why were all the other people experiencing this, perceiving this, and indeed voluntarily paying money and getting their physical bodies over to this room on Grand Avenue in Oakland to be in the same place? OK, I know that the basic answer is: for pleasure. And for some, curiosity (“Why do other people go to listen to these musicians? I have heard of these musicians before, what do they sound like? Is it a cool thing to be at a concert with these musicians?” etc., etc.) In the East Bay, these musicians are well known, essentially celebrities, though in this context that doesn’t really bring much money or status, just that they are known as able practitioners of what they do. Which is “music,” or experimental or avant-garde music, or new music, or outside music, or whatever you want to call it. It’s certainly not mainstream music, you don’t generally hear Jon Raskin or Fred Frith on the radio, unless you are tuned to a specific type of free-form station that treats its listeners to side-stream genres. But that in and of itself is not enough, is it? Or is it? Is this why, why these musicians made these sounds for these people? To assert themselves as willful individuals who consciously moved some air with different pressure levels, made these sounds that were very specifically not part of the mainstream nor part of what was globally considered popular in the world of music? That’s perhaps a goal, to identify your self by what you aren’t. Music is a point of identity, or at least it used to be—perhaps more than it is now. People really used to change the way that they dressed or that they appeared in order to match their chosen genre. They individually worked on their clothes and hair to make them into things that communicated punk, goth, hippie, whatever. I’m not certain I could state empirically what styles signify pop music nowadays when everything is purchased from the same companies and everybody has clothes and music that come from a limited set of outlets that are essentially ubiquitous.
So why do people make music anyway? Is there a point? Did we, as an audience, derive so much joy from being entertained by these human beings manipulating their devices that it was worth the time spent during our limited lives? Was it the sense of aesthetic enjoyment that imbued this situation with meaning, with a reason for being? And if I stopped hearing what was music in favor of just being able to hear sound, was I losing out on that aesthetic experience? Because I felt, even listening to just the sounds in the space, that it was incredible, and that feeling was as much motivated by the simple fact that people were intentionally making these sounds. I was in awe that people could do this. Awe is perhaps a viable aesthetic experience (it’s certainly worth the ten bucks entrance fee!) But perhaps I was also there as part of the scene, part of my sense of identity as a human being: I am at home with people who consider this offshoot of the definition of music as an enjoyable experience. I did see and hug and talk with several people whom I hadn’t seen or hugged for quite a while, I don’t live in this area anymore and I did for a decade. I do identify with this “scene” and its people.
But in a greater sense, why? There’s no meaning to it, is there, in any existential sense. We continue, we try not to die, and in the meantime we either go on with the second rule of life, “Make More,” and we replicate our genes, or we simply continue to try to fill up our waking hours with experiences that are on the whole more pleasing than not. So this is an experience that is more pleasing than not, for reasons of being aesthetically enjoyable, being comfortable or reaffirming our identities as members of a human culture, or, like I was at the time, being hyper-aware of the physical situation and marveling at its very occurrence.
I steer most of my intent toward making music, regardless of what it does for me or the world. That is to say, most of what I do or think about is the making of music, in some way or form. I play shows whenever I can, performing live with other people or alone. Lately this has been almost entirely the shows that I play with Camper Van Beethoven, which have been regularly occurring a few times a year in the United States, and only occasionally in other places. I live in Sweden, so I have performed here in Stockholm a couple times, but mostly that’s been with other people’s bands. I can’t seem to motivate myself to sell the idea of my own music to a foreign populace who could really care less if there’s somebody new playing some music in town. That’s generally the way of the world these days, there’s no cohesive thread among music listeners that would mean that they would be interested in attending or experiencing a new addition to the possibilities of live music unless they’ve been told about the new act enough by some media enough to make it seem worthwhile to put out the effort to attend a concert. In the previous decades when people did have very strong identity attachments to musical and personal styles, attending a concert of the appropriate style would be de rigeur: you were part of the culture that brought this band into existence. You would go to see a band just because they were on the same record label as a band you liked. You would listen to what the band was singing about and go and research it in your spare time, learning about the politics or references that they sung about, and these ideas entered your identity as well.
This is one of the reasons that the music that was listened to when you were in high school sticks with you, that was the prime era of your life for establishing your identity. A great majority of people do not in fact grow out of listening to the music that they listened to in high school or college, they just stop exploring at that point and do not seek to expand their repertoire, so to speak. Their identities are set.
There are people, of course, who continue to add new music to their experience and to grow their own aesthetic ideals and hence expand their identities. The purpose of art or culture is not utilitarian, the value of it isn’t easily quantified, but continuing to grow one’s identity in relation to new aesthetic experiences allows even more reference material to evaluate the good and bad in the world around you.
The music scene is not so much part of the transfer or accumulation of identity at the present time, though social media can have an impact on the valuation of an experience such as attending a concert, or the social value of doing so. Myself, I’m not part of a scene per se, (unfortunately), and I make music in a bunch of different idioms, so it’d be hard to pin me down as a signifier of some specific scene to identify with anyway. On the other hand, when Camper Van Beethoven gets together and plays, several hundred people come to the show and enjoy the music and the scene. I guess it’s “indie rock” or something, though many people see the band as the producer of one semi-hit song from college radio in the mid 1980s. That would be horrible if that were the only value we had ever given to the world, because one song is such a tiny portion of what we have done, and also because it happened now almost thirty years ago and we’re still at it. (We do actually play that song at almost every concert, though. Still trying to get it right!) Imagine living your life knowing that your one contribution to society happened when you were 20, and yet you continue to stick around trying to hit that mark again or better it. They say most of the math geniuses achieve their major breakthroughs before 30 and then never again after that, though physicists peak a little later. Rock music really tries to follow the youth-culture rules and rarely allows musicians to get older and maintain a career—at least in the independent music world. Though, realistically, I wonder what the high-money 1% performers will continue to do when they are over 30, as well.
So why continue? Who is it important to? It appears that it is at least important to A) the band members, enough to stumble through all of the travel and discomfort at our advanced ages to continue to tour and play, and B) the audiences that continue to stumble through the discomfort of getting out of their routine to go and attend a concert. These are ways of spending time, a concert takes a few hours of your life that you will never get back and gives you only memories. The memories, of course, are of a multi-sensory experience, ostensibly focused around music, that is to say, there are human beings on a platform who are moving their hands and feet and mouths in some way, together, potentially in temporal sync (if all goes well), to produce a loud set of complicated sound waves that emit from speakers that move the air in an analog of these waveforms such that the audience both hears and feels the waves of air pressure and see the people making these waveforms. It sounds like something, it feels like something, it looks like something. It probably also smells like something and maybe it tastes like something, but usually people don’t go that far; that might tip the balance of the pleasing aesthetic experience toward some other direction.
Big deal. So it’s extremely important! It’s also completely meaningless.
It’s extremely important to me, it’s all I do. When I’m not on tour, I spend a lot of time working on recording or mixing sounds and music, in hopes that people will listen to it at some point and enjoy that experience as much as I enjoy the process of recording and mixing and perfecting the sounds, sculpting the sounds into a specific set piece. It seems important to me to do this, to solve these little puzzles of potential arrangements of waveforms, each little bit changing the overall set to move air pressure in a room or in your ear canal in a certain specific way. That’s what I do, that’s what I have done all my life, that’s what I trained to do, learned about, practiced, and taught.
When I was growing up, music was so important to me, but not only to me: it was seemingly as important to everybody. People listened to music, they examined it, lived it. Of course things are very different nowadays, there are a lot of people who have written about the changes in technology and culture that precipitated and developed the current societal status of art and music, wherein music is an accompaniment to every other action, understood as simply existing. Of course, to some extent people still pick and choose which music will be accompanying their activities, but the dedicated listening and development of meaning and identity attached is waning. The comeback of the LP is good for that area, though, as it takes more effort to interact with vinyl records, and you listen to 20 minutes per side, in a somewhat more conscious way than simply hearing the music that is your background for everything else you do, that’s just there in your earbud. Additionally, the interest in the very idea of the LP shows a concerted effort to acquire said LPs, which means willful intent, which means it is part of the listener’s identity that they are such a person who dedicates time and effort to doing so. The identity feature may be that the listener is interested in a higher quality aesthetic or interactive experience, although it may also mean that they want to establish that their identity is similar to the type of person who listens to LPs, i.e., their identity contains signifiers that value the aesthetic nature of listening to vinyl records of music.
What does that identity entail, then? What is its place on the planet Earth? When my scientist mom asked me about why music existed evolutionarily, it was pretty obvious for me to answer that it was just colorful feathers. If you followed rule #1, “Don’t Die,” then the next rule is still “Make More.” So if you’re not dead, you have to spend your time living, and the impetus, whether followed through upon or not, is reproduction. So, yeah, a lot of folks are into music in order to fuck, or rather, in order to find the right person to fuck. You could consider any art to be an attractor, you could consider any scene created around that attractor to be a specific gene pool. All frogs that chirp like this, go to your specific mating pond, please. The pursuers of high art may be thinking of adding to the overall progress of human culture (or not) but they are also singing a song that attracts the proper mate. Thinking of this with the dimension of time, where all art adds to a continuum of culture means seeing down that spiral to both find one’s antecedents and project the hopeful development of human thinking, human consideration and ability to perceive, discern, judge the relative aesthetic and human values of everything that they are presented with. In other words, continuing a genetic line that includes placing importance upon certain types of aesthetics indicates an intent at shaping the human species to be informed by the experience of aesthetics in their actions while extant on the planet.
For example, the hippies, or at least the adherents of psychedelia, that adopted rock music in the 1960s and helped along both the identity of music and culture into the 1970s felt like they were coming out of a repressive society, so they wanted to express their identities with freedoms, free speech, free love, etc. Free jazz, for example, could really be considered to be a part of the civil rights movement as the struggle for freedom of expression was a very serious issue in black communities within the United States of the 1950s (and continues to be.) And in the 1960s people took these some of these ideas even further (albeit perhaps with pharmacological aids) and expressed some pretty far out humanitarian ideas with the far out musical accompaniment. The bands, of course, like the hippies, varied in their depth. Some wrote directly about things, some just expressed loud music as its own intrinsic freedom. Some were overtly political or sung of things that expressed changes that could happen in society, some just played loudly to express power or made music that expanded the ideas of form and perception in order to “open minds,” because the entire idea of opening one’s mind to consider new ideas was considered important. I consider it important still.
But here’s the thing: many of these people thought about themselves in relation to the Earth, and to the universe, in ways that people had either been too busy or repressed to think much about before, and they started to embrace some of these aspects of their new identities into the way they lived. It seemed silly to the public at large, at first, to, for example, recycle things in one’s garbage. Or to be a vegetarian. Or an environmentalist—Dr Seuss’ “The Lorax” came out in 1971, you know. Or, more to the point, a computer programmer. Most of the technological ideas that developed in the 1960s and 70s are the things we take for granted as normal technology today, and these guys had some pretty far out ideas. It’s no coincidence that what is considered to be Silicon Valley now was the same place that the Grateful Dead came from. Talking books, or a computer book? A hand held device to point and click on things on a screen? Digitizing media, moving it away from a physical substrate? A computer that you could talk to…? These ideas were pretty far out in the 1970s of course. It just took a while for them to come to fruition…and from there to change the world.
In the process, though, society and culture changed. Living in California, it was really obvious immediately after the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, a taxpayer revolt started by a rich consortium playing on people’s natural tendencies to dislike being taxed in general. The initiative dropped property taxes, especially for business property. It gutted the public schools in the state, dropping the quality of schooling in California from one of the best in the US during the 1960s and 70s to now one of the worst (48th out of 50…) It also gutted libraries and city services. Then Reagan was elected in 1980 and did roughly the same thing to the country in general, and since then the US has undergone a series of governments that have provided a healthy business environment for the rich, less taxation for the rich and generally destroyed a functional existing civil infrastructure as well as gutting education and the arts in such a way that the general populace doesn’t even know how to think anymore. And why would they? They’re badly educated and desperate, trying to stay alive and acquire the things that are dangled in front of them that they must own to be part of modern society. Why should your average American citizen be bothered about thinking about expanding the nature of aesthetics, making an attempt to understand or enjoy music or art outside of their comfort zone, let alone considering their impact upon the planet at large? How could they even know about their impact when they aren’t provided with knowledge about it nor the cognitive abilities to extrapolate their little lives upon the whole of the human race? Nobody thinks about that when they’re simply trying to survive. A stressful life means a narrower focus, and it makes it much easier to manage the populace, to steer them to considering only specifically presented data or goals. It stymies critical thinking.
And it worked, of course. Recent research indicate that the populace in general is at odds with scientific thinking in numerous subjects, including climate change, genetic modification of crops, vaccination, and of course religion. Scientists are experts in their fields, that is literally what a scientist becomes. But now when anybody on the internet can also claim to be an expert, the role is devalued to such an extent that it has become meaningless. Why listen to experts that you don’t want to hear? Plus, it’s not cool: it’s so easy to discount those “eggheads” when they’re just nerds, isn’t it? The cult of cool has been resurrected and sold to us again, just like it was in the 1950s, when scientists had essentially won the war with their inventions of nuclear arms and cryptography, playing with and devaluing the lives of the common soldiers. Can’t trust those eggheads, they’re not like “normal” folks. To be a real American was to be a soldier, not a scientist.
Teachers ever since have been trying desperately to make learning “cool.” The glorification of the nerd in the recent TV storylines almost works, though invariably they are computer workers, which is basically like being a modern mineworker: the company bosses still reaps the benefits of the programmer’s overtime. The cool hackers of early 90s VR-style plot lines are as fake as James Bond, I’m sorry to say. Maybe some kids have actually received an education along the way toward the commodification of their outsider status, but rarely has that been anything other than a narrow training, no wider array of subjects that might allow them to gain the skills required to be a citizen of their country or of the world, to discern right and wrong and open their minds to the multitudes of aesthetic and natural experience. Just keep writing that app, kid.
The problem is that it’s all probably too late to do anything about it, it may be too late to stave off imminent collapse of not only our current society but potentially the collapse of a viable biosphere for us to live in.
Humans are amazing. It’s such an intensely miraculous happenstance that we exist at all, that we exist on terms that allow us to consider that we exist, for me to write these words down that other humans can read and understand as being reflective. The current state of astronomy points out to us how rare planets like ours might be, how startlingly complex the balance of the thousands of variables might be to establish a temperate climate that could sustain life such as ours, the narrow temperature range that we live in, the chemical makeup of our atmosphere, even the presence of water. It’s mind boggling. Why people aren’t amazed by the presence of a living thing at every moment is beyond me. This awe probably allows some people to believe in god.
If you are familiar with the Anthropic Principle, it’s even more mind boggling: the idea that the entire physical universe is such that, it is not only the only way that it is possible to have life, but also that our ability to see and measure the way that the physical universe is is consistent with our own consciousness. In other words, the more we measure the physical universe, the more we see that there is no other possible way that it could have been that would still allow us to exist to observe it. The very laws of nature are consistent with the ability to form or hold life. If the big bang had had a sequence that were slightly slower (by even one part in a hundred thousand trillion, says Stephen Hawking), it would have contracted upon itself before anything could have formed instead of continuing along expanding at the critical rate that it is doing so to allow the formation of primary stars that subsequently collapse and explode creating heavier elements strewn about the universe, that then condense into later star systems that now have the critical ingredients that could manufacture carbon based life like ours. In fact, even on a subatomic level, the mass of quarks is such that it appears to be fine tuned toward allowing the creation of atoms that combine to form carbon and oxygen from nucleosynthesis within stars. The Anthropic Principle is tautological, of course, in that we exist and observe that we exist, so all of our measurements of our existence are true, i.e., if life exists then life must be able to exist. Some versions of the principle say that the universe must be such that it allows the creation of observers within it, or that it must have been designed to allow life.
Again, this would seem to allow people to believe in a god or creator. That’s idiotic, and I mean that in the etymological sense of the idiot: living in their own little world (or idiom). Consider the psychological diagnosis of borderline personality disorder: a patient has a rich idea of the structure of the world that they have manufactured subjectively, and then they choose to project their interior world’s structure upon the exterior objective world such that they see the exterior world in terms of their own constructed interior explanation. We consider these people to be at odds with objective reality. Believing that there is some god is the same, that your internal idea is somehow present in the objective world. It’s literally insane. And going a step further to believe that some ubiquitous creator or designer is somehow aware of an individual person or their thoughts or deeds is the height of arrogance in the believer. And then to behave in such a way to other living beings as if you had some knowledge or authority based on some relationship to a fictional consciousness is sociopathic. And some people even think that they can converse with this being.
If some conscious creator had manufactured our physical universe on such a level that it allowed the creation of life after 10 billion years, the very idea of that tiny life being capable of interacting with that creator is ridiculous beyond scale. We can’t even comprehend a billion years, much less make any sort of cohesive statement that transcends that much time. As individuals we would be less than an electron in an atom in a molecule in a corpuscle of blood in your body trying to petition your mind with prayer. Saying what? “Stop smoking! It’s making things bad down here!”
And yet, our modern world is still pathologically diseased by religion and religious thought. It causes more harm and bloodshed than nearly any other intentionality among human beings. “God help us in our war against these heathens!” If the religious were as awed by life as their religion’s originators were, we might actually progress. The very fact that there are many religions proves that none of them are correct: they each say theirs is the one true religion. No actual conscious deity would allow that. The fact that people have justified war, killing or even any harm to any living thing is proof that humans have manufactured gods and religions simply to justify their own actions. Trying to understand the actual physical makeup of the universe doesn’t seem to have the same result, hardly anybody tries to kill anybody for attempting to confirm or deny the standard model of particle physics (As far as I know.)
I could see being enthralled with the inherent wonder of life or overwhelmed at the sheer enormity of the physical universe. Even perhaps in some sacred or spiritual sense, though adding the element of a god-like or cosmic consciousness crosses the line into “eye of the beholder”. But when you start adding in any human beings, prophets or whatever, it’s definitely crossed the line into bullshit, especially when the believers deify these guys and kill people when they think somebody isn’t being respected.
Why are humans so violent and superstitious? I guess we’re just new to being conscious, it hasn’t been that long in the scheme of things. Imagine if people had a conscious grasp of the passage of time, imagine if, instead of developing as wary animals who were continuously trying to determine what was happening now, using our big brains that learned to evaluate events to predict some nominal immediate future from what we perceived, that we used our big brains to evaluate longer periods of time. Imagine how human societies would behave if everybody had a constant grasp of not only the immediate (though perhaps specious**) present, but saw this moment as a continuum of the past and how it affected the future. What if you considered your actions on a time scale of several weeks in either direction, or several months. Would that change what you ate or how you behaved? What if you considered several years backward and forward, or several decades.
What if people thought about everything that they did in terms of centuries, of many generations of people. You yourself, as an individual, are less important than the entire lineage of your family, or your species. How would you use what natural resources are available to you? Would that change your relationship to your food, to your use of land, to the impact that you have on the environment? Would it change how businesses used natural resources on your behalf, as a consumer? Do we still have time to even consider these things?
A friend of mine, Edie Winograde, is an artist who now lives in Denver. She’s a photographer. She’s been making large format photographs for gallery showings for years that capture events in the American West, some of them are of historical reenactments of things that happened in the western states during the past 200 years. For example, a reenactment of some massacre of white pioneers or Native Americans in the middle of the 1800s in Wyoming, or something like that. Human actions, and then humans recreating the actions in a theatrical way (not actually killing each other, that is). The event happened many years ago, it happens again in the same place. It’s like seeing through time. It’s also like viewing Baudrillard’s precession of simulacra!
I was at her studio again recently to look at a new series that she’s working on, she’s not sure exactly where it’s heading, but it’s a similar idea. This set, however, is mostly landscapes, things in the Southwest that have been there for millions of years, the gorgeous geological formations of the canyons and rocks. But, in each photograph there is evidence of modern humans, either a tourist waving somewhere, or a jet’s contrail in the sky, or some such evidence. Again, it’s like seeing through time. There is one that is a beautiful portrait photograph of the White House Ruins, a pueblo at Canyon De Chelly, a thousand-year-old man-made habitation carved into the cliffs. Taking a photograph of this structure at this point in time not only juxtaposes the time frames of man and rock—the man-made structures are ancient to us, yet so incredibly recent to the rocks they were carved out of—but it also contains the knowledge of more recent technological history in which famous early photographers captured this very structure. And here, in this most recent of photographs wherein the artist is preserving the images of things from vastly disparate historical eras, is a modern woman in the frame wearing her hiking clothes, snapping a picture as well. A tourist is there, a living human being, in the presence of the ruins of ancient human beings, the ruins of human dwellings, evidence of human activity where they performed their will by means of carving a rock that had been there for about fifty-million years. The people that came there and carved the hillside probably came about 10,000 years ago, migrating after the last ice age, maybe 500 generations ago. Here’s one of them now!
Human beings, or rather our species, homo sapiens, have been around for maybe a couple hundred thousand years at most, leaving Africa at various points in time in the past 50,000 years. These various migrations to different continents and parts of the world are the origins of what we consider racially different characteristics, yet all part of the same species. Dogs are the same species as each other, and that species contains even more wildly different characteristics than humans in its different breeds, but people still consider them all to be dogs…yet, still many people somehow hold onto some idea that different breeds of human are different. It’s odd, and it’s essentially superstitious thinking. Yes, there are numerous ways to become a conscious human being, and a different language will wire your brain to think in a different way with respect to the signified and the signifier, but we’ve all got the same hardware to begin with.
I live in Sweden, where recent elections have given a small percentage of the government representation to a group of people who are basically racists who somehow believe that they are more important as Swedish citizens than people immigrating to Sweden from war-torn areas in North Africa or the Middle East. Are they more important, are the resources that they control more important? Are they futilely trying to fight larger human migration patterns?
The reason people emigrate to Sweden is because the Swedes have had an open asylum policy for years, based on the humanitarian reasoning that if they themselves had a decent living situation and elsewhere there were people who were threatened by war or oppression, they could not simply stand by and allow those threatened people to be harmed. It’s an admirable stance, and commendable. However, as the rest of the world continues to create unrest and war, more and more people who simply want to stay alive are forced into migration. Sweden itself is no innocent, some of the largest money making corporations manufactured munitions for wars, including all of those going on in the Middle East***, which of course precipitates the immigration problems faced by the country now that the resources can’t handle the number of immigrants. (I should point out that Sweden’s domestic problems weren’t helped at all by having a “moderate” right wing government for 8 years who privatized many of the things that the state used to pay for by taxation, including many social programs for immigrants. So they let the people arrive, but then didn’t help them out. This led to disenfranchised and isolated immigrant communities that remained outside of Swedish culture, which led to unrest, which led to racist backlash. Nobody seemed to be able to use their big people-brains to predict that.)
The monkey doesn’t do well with long-term. The monkey that we still are in so many respects just lived from moment to moment, even though our big people-brains have to ability to cogitate and consider the future and the past and the ability to think in a continuum of time, it escapes our day to day understanding of the world around us; we would have to actually stop and think instead of doing whatever we’re doing. And the modern world keeps your attention occupied, all day and all night. No time to reflect. It’s very literally driving us insane.
Norman O. Brown posited that if Freud had anything useful to contribute to understanding human nature, it was that we repress our animalistic urges in order to maintain civilized conduct, and that fucked us up. In other words, since the very beginnings of civilization, say, agricultural communities, we have been suppressing certain behaviors, and as time went on and civilization became more and more ornate with more and more rules of conduct and decorum, we were forced to suppress more and more. Societies developed their own sets of order, how to control the populations’ behaviors by means of rules and force, and then by religious doctrine and sets of taboos. And living in a state of constant repression has made us insane.
Even now, in the beginning of the 21st Century, we are continuously fighting each other over, for example, sexual taboos. Why is this at all important? And people kill each other over ideas of religion, something that I have already said is nearly identical with psychological disorder. It’s because we, as a species, are insane due to having to repress so much of our naturalistic behaviors while trying to behave such that we interact in a way that seems to be cohesive. Stupid monkeys.
And yet, we are able to think, aren’t we? I’m writing down all these ideas, they are reflective and can be understood. Let’s consider the history of our ideas of government, for instance, something that we as a species realized was necessary to keep order within the groups of monkeys who were otherwise occupied all day long with trying to stay alive and then trying to make more. The “more” got subverted, of course, by money—that brought a whole new slew of problems, many of which negate the entire idea of government in the end anyway! But the idea of government was obviously to create some relatively controlled system that allowed for lots of people to live together. People considered all sorts of things, we’ve gone through numerous versions from dictatorships to consensus-based democracies. And all sorts of things in between.
The problem once again, of course, is that people just disregard the efficacy of governmental systems in favor of greed. Greed rules, and controls governments. The whole neo-liberal/libertarian notion skews the rhetoric into glorifying some sort of “every man for themselves” vision, which basically subverts the entire idea of having a government to begin with. Waves of privatization of formerly government facilities have changed over the functionality of them from operating for the benefit of the governed populace into operating based on a profit-or-loss bottom line. It’s a ridiculous way to operate something that is supposed to be for the benefit of the populace.
I had a discussion about this recently, I was talking about the fact that the US right wing seems to want to shut down the post office. In favor of what? Private delivery companies? So, we’d pay FedEx prices to deliver a letter? That sounds pretty bad. In Sweden, the moderates, who are economically a right wing group, did in fact privatize the post office during their 8 years of governmental control from 2006-2014. It’s a fucking mess. Whatever private firms picked up the contracts couldn’t afford to run it at a profit, so they shut down several substations and moved the infrastructures for larger areas into one crowded substation, fired numerous people, etc. The delivery system is flawed now, and especially for those of us who need to send things to ourselves from outside of the country, it’s extremely difficult. Why? Because the purpose of the post office is no longer to deliver the mail. The purpose of the post office now is, like any business, to make money, or at the very least to stay afloat. The bottom line is what keeps them going, and after that they get to think about how to get the mail delivered. Is this what we, as a group, want from group services? That some private company should be in charge of things that are ostensibly in place for the good of all citizens. And the wait times at the doctor’s office now…?
There is a reason why people developed government to begin with, right? To ensure the well-being of the populace. So when people call for less government, they are basically saying, “At the expense of the citizenry, I wish to make more money.” Or, more realistically, “I wish for some immensely rich private citizen to be able to control the government’s regulation of trade such that this private person can be even richer,” because that money really is not going to flow to very many people. The term “liberal” in terms of governing initially (classically) meant relaxation of government regulation and control of trade, allowing any sort of trade to make them money, regardless of the morality or legality. Like the importation of slaves, for example. Or the sale and transport of oil or weapons. I, personally, would prefer that the government regulated these sorts of things to the point of shutting them down entirely. In modern terms in the US, that actually would make me “liberal,” which sort of shows you how malleable and useless such a word is. The old meaning of liberal is now known as libertarian, perhaps, or neo-liberal in Europe. The people who subscribe to these sorts of ideologies are basically not giving a shit about the public-at-large, so long as they get what they want. That’s a basic human instinct, even maybe a basic animal instinct. They certainly aren’t trying to envision the continuation of society, of humanity. They certainly aren’t reflecting on the state of culture and economics and how it might continue, the goal is their own bottom line. And, presumably, the welfare of their offspring, one would think, right?
However, without a healthy society, they will have no healthy situation for their own lineage. Certainly as they maintain a selfish sense of personal profit, it is not only done so at the expense of the rest of the citizens, but at the expense of the environment that we live in. People who work for large companies that make their money from things that destroy the Earth aren’t even really able to look beyond their own paycheck, they’re so stressed about simply surviving. So it goes on and on and the environment suffers more and more, while some cadre of top executives make a ton of money and everybody else involved gets to continue to survive. My question is: how do the people in control of these juggernauts of capitalism think it’s going to work out, for them or their families? Do they actually believe that something good is going to be there for them at the end of the day, when the entire world is irretrievably set on a path to collapse? Are they willfully sentencing their offspring to live in a more difficult world, or do they somehow believe that their wealth will stave off the horrors of a societal or environmental collapse? I suppose the richest could be setting up gated communities in the arctic or antarctic—these may be the only places that humans could survive in the coming centuries. How fun that will be! If the human race survives, they could have two separate groups who are only vaguely aware of the other, living at antipodes of the planet. It would make for a decent science fiction series if it weren’t so imminently probable and horrific.
Do you yourself consider the news you receive on the state of the environment of our planet? Admittedly it’s tough to wrap one’s head around, and there are no definitive summaries. It’s a very complex system isn’t it? Consider the search for exoplanets in our immediate galaxy. There are lists of a huge number of them, we’ve determined that many, many solar systems have planets, we’ve mapped about a thousand so far. And as I alluded to earlier, maybe three out of these thousand are considered “earth-like,” which is to say that they lie in a particular habitable zone (the “Goldilocks Zone,” not to hot and not too cold), or they may have liquid water. These things that determine habitability are very much temperature dependent: we live in a very narrow temperature band! We humans can survive in temperatures that go from a little below the freezing of water to maybe halfway to its boiling point. We’re made of water, of course, as are most of the other living things on the planet. Some things, some bacteria, have adapted to other, harsher environments found on the planet, highly sulfurous or high temperature areas, for example. It’s unlikely that the majority of our planet’s life could adapt to these environments!
On top of this, even if you extrapolate the number of mapped planets onto the rest of the area of the galaxy or even further, where you might find a billion planets in this similar habitable zone, there is the additional problem of the fact that large stars collapse and release long gamma ray bursts, which can easily wipe out any nearby planet’s life in a matter of seconds, and planets further from the source could have their ozone layers destroyed, causing mass extinctions if fauna or flora had developed in some equilibrium of temperature and weather over the previous numerous millions of years. These things happen every day out in our galaxy, we just happen to be in a less dense area of stars. Its possible that our planet was hit at some point in the previous four billion years, but certainly not that recently. It’s possible that it was a cause for one of our five known mass extinctions, the Cambrian-Ordovician one about 488 million years ago. In other words, we’re lucky to be where we are and when we are in our galaxy.
Our planet is incredibly unique, and I mean that in the literal sense: it is hard to believe that such a balance of temperature and elements could exist in such a balance for such a long time as to allow the evolution of life, much less life that is conscious, much less life that is self-conscious. The odds are astronomical, again: literally. This planet has done a lot of growth and changing in the past billion years, but it settled into a relatively balanced set of motions that it goes through in the past number of millions. We homo sapiens separated our lineage from other apes a few million years back but really didn’t come into our own until after that point around 50,000 or so years ago when we started migrating out of Africa. By the last ice age, maybe 17,000 years ago, we’d moved all over the world and began to directionally select for our specific genetic variations in specific areas.
And we would continue doing so, if we could, wouldn’t we? Now we have numerous genetic traits that have been selected for over the previous tiny little lengths of time, only measured in tiny thousands of years, even. We have physical and mental traits selected for in every base racial type, and in the past couple hundred years, immigration, forced and otherwise, has been aided by technology, and now people containing genetic racial characteristics from anywhere on the planet have the ability to live anywhere else on the planet, and mix. People are still racist, though, which, like being religious, is simply prejudice and ignorance all hyped up by fear. People are people, for the most part, and while they’re pretty much all the same, they get stressed by people that are unfamiliar to them. People even get stressed by strangers within their own cultural or societal milieu. People have been stressed by civilization and overpopulation so much that they are xenophobic by norm.
That’s a little sad for those of us that really were hoping for the Star Trek utopia, or some sort of human race, wherein all people were just some blend of any possible human racial characteristics. To go even further, maybe we could have made it to some sort of post-scarcity society where people didn’t have to be stressed by having or not having anything, to explore the world or universe with the full attention they could give to doing so. I saw the Apollo moon landing on TV when I was 6, so I naturally assumed that science and exploration were going to continue apace and we were on track to a brighter science fiction future. What a let down! How are we ever going to explain ourselves to the aliens that arrive?
We were coming up the hillside after hiking down into the valley a ways, though we didn’t go all the way down to the bottom of the ravine between the Skyline crest and the coastal crest. There was a middle crest coming up from the south, we got to a point where we had a pretty good view over the valley. As far as I could tell, there was no evidence of people on these hills, beyond the existing paths or dirt roads. We ran into deer a few times, single (and limping), or several together. We had hiked on several trails that were ostensibly open to mountain bikers, though we saw none, and then got to some where they were apparently prohibited. I thought about the impact of bicycles—somehow even just that little bit more than the impact of people just walking through the environment. There were no sounds beyond the crunching of our feet on the trail and our breathing, and when we were talking. I heard no birds.
When we looked out over the valley between the ridges, it was all trees. We knew that over the western ridge it went down all the way to Highway 1 and the Pacific Ocean. Here in the middle areas between Skyline Boulevard and that last ridge line, there was nothing. Jed told me about a guy he had met who had claimed to have camps set up out in these woods, where no other people ever went, where he couldn’t be found…just in case, you know. I’m sure there are millions of acres of deserted landscape all over the planet, but it is odd to think that a 45-minute drive from San Francisco, or maybe 20 minutes from Silicon Valley could find you in such wilderness. There were signs at the trailhead telling us what to do if we encountered a mountain lion.
The flora in this area was very Californian, the kind I have been familiar with all my life: grassy hills, large groves of oaks moving into pine forest. Many shades of green, lighter on the ground, then getting darker in the taller trees until the pines appeared almost blue on the other side of the valley. Above us, the sky was gray with a low-hanging overcast sea of clouds that prevented the sun from cutting through, though maintained the early January temperature at above 60ºF, though again, there was no wind. The layer of clouds over us was still and flat and low and covered the sky. On the other side of the coastal ridge, it looked like there may be some sunlight breaking through, but then more clouds above the sea. It was impossible to discern any line between the sky and the sea, it was all a blend of gray lines. We came out from under the lichen-covered oaks and rounded a looping single track trail up across a long hillside. There was a bench next to the trail to overlook the valleys.
We sat down. It was completely still. Eerily still, actually, no wind, no birds, no fog rolling in over the coastal ridge, something that anybody on the peninsula has seen happen nearly every day: as the temperature inland cools, the hot air rises in the central valley and pulls the fog in from over the sea, it rolls over the peninsula ridges like a heavy white cloud creeping over the peaks and then rolling down into the towns. We looked at each other and remarked on this, that we could hear our ears ring, it was so quiet****.
Is this a new weather pattern? I’m over 50, I had lived in California for 45 or so of those years, almost entirely in Northern California, Davis, Santa Cruz or San Francisco, and I’d hiked in these and many similar trails, and I had never experienced this sort of stillness. Was something going to happen? Earthquake weather, perhaps? Or just a strange lull in pressure zones?
Jed had been talking about reading essays by climate scientists, and of the ways in which they were breaking the information to the public at large, in bits and pieces. He said he was waiting for the news to finally announce that we had a zero percent chance of surviving, just when they’d finally break that on the TV stations. How would that finally impact our society? Would anybody listen when the news told us that we’re fucked, we’re well and truly fucked. There may be no way back, to be able to re-right any of the balances that we’ve skewed, some unknown assembly of variables among the zillion or so that allowed our equilibrium of weather and temperature to settle to this specific narrow range within which we live. It took how many billions of years for the planet to get settled into the equilibrium that it had in the past few hundred million that did allow life to emerge, to say nothing of the recent tens of thousands such that we became people. We had a decent run, I guess.
My brother joked with me about the much-heralded emergence of Artificial Intelligence that, well, maybe it was time for humans to go extinct. This was based on the idea that if we managed to create an artificial mind, it would quickly manage to create itself better, and so on, such that we humans would be both superfluous and undesirable. I think the whole idea is suspect, of course, as is the quest for the singularity in which machines can equal humans in mind, which would necessarily imply that we could free our minds from our physical bodies and upload ourselves into similar machines, and then essentially choose to live in artificial environments as well, if we wanted. That follows due to the idea that if all input is somehow transduced to be understood by a non-organic mind, then all input can also be non-organic—in other words, what is real is what is perceived as real. So if your mind lives in a mechanical substrate, you could live in any idea of environment you wanted to and feel and perceive it as being real. What luxury! We probably can’t get there fast enough, however, before the “real” real environment ceases to be able to host our physical bodies.
Many scientists are trying to come to terms with the lack of action in dealing with the climate changing on our planet. Why isn’t everybody up in arms about this? How can governments even continue to think about things other than the ultimate survival of the planet, to say nothing about our little species? We’ve already knocked out 200 other species in recent history, but people continue to march on as if it was our right and manifest to do as we wished without regard to consequence. Because we’re the people! Anything we do is our right as people, because that’s what we are. Self-appointed masters of the planet, top of the food chain, the apex of the hierarchy. Right? Because we are the artist, anything we do is art. Because we manifest our intention, because we have the will to manifest, we are prime. Because Mark Mothersbaugh can sculpt a soft-serve ice cream out of the world’s largest ruby, he must do so.
Of course there are alternate published articles that correlate the various solar cycles with normal rises and falls of temperature on the planet, and with the ~100,000 year cycle of greenhouse gas levels. These claim that our current projection of the warming trend is a continuation of a recent upswing of the sums of several normal smaller sinusoidal motions of temperature variation. That is to say, the cumulative power of the somewhat sinusoidal patterns of ups and downs of the de Vries and Seuss solar cycles (which are similar to the 11 year solar maximum cycle of radiation levels, but in 1000- and 250-year cycles) combined with some normal sea temperature 60-year cycles have created an upswing in temperature from 1970 to now, and the belief here is that our current understanding that we are experiencing a continuing warming trendis only a projection of this recent upswing into the near future. The result, to these studies, is that what we call Global Warming is not at all anthropogenic in nature and is the result of normal cycles, and the temperature of our planet will follow the pattern back down in the coming decades. However, they are equating radiative energy levels from the sun with temperature, when the radiation emitted isn’t necessarily in heat, but in particles. And more critical, the primary studies that these call on are Petit’s 1999 studies of Antarctic ice core samples from Vostok that tell us the CO2 and CH4 levels over the last ~420,000 years which show the rises in greenhouse gas and temperature in ~100,000 year cycles, and this study clearly states that the current high levels of these greenhouse gasses are “unprecedented during the past 420kyr” and have risen beyond the scales of the previous half million years in the years since human industry came about.
Like the early rational arguments presented to combat Global Warming, it seems only intelligent to try to do something about it, because there are four scenarios: it is either a real trend or not, and we either do something about it or not. If it isn’t a real problem and we don’t do anything, we remain as we are, if is a real problem and we don’t do anything, we all die. If it is or isn’t real and we do something about it, we win regardless. If, that is, we can still do anything about it.
There is a site online that contains many letters from people who write how they feel about climate change, including, of course, many scientists. The feelings run the gamut of grieving, frustration, anger, sadness, etc. The scientists cannot believe that the idea is so glossed over in the news cycle that immediately goes on to the latest celebrity nothingness. I can believe it, of course; if it’s just glossed over, you can keep the populace from freaking out. It’s believable, it’s just pretty awful. And it’s not just the changing climate, it’s the changing environment. We’ve exploited our resources at such an incredible rate that the natural bounce back from such destruction can’t at all keep up.
Many of the scientists who write are distraught because they have children. They worry, as I do, that the children won’t have a world to live in when they grow up. I have a young child. She is all I can think of when I think of the awe of existence, the incredible unlikelihood of life and consciousness, the sheer happiness that happens when a conscious being witnesses the flowering of another conscious being. I’m fulfilling my genetic instructions, being all I can be by not dying and making more!
I want to make the world the best place it can possibly be for her. She’s not even four years old yet. What can I do? Is it possible for one individual to do anything to ensure the continuing existence of human society, of a viable biosphere for the continued existence of our lineage? I can’t face the idea that we are potentially going extinct, especially not when I look at my child. I suppose that I myself may be lucky to be half done, that I probably won’t live beyond the middle of this century, so that I don’t have to witness the horrors of a collapsing infrastructure. With another couple degree rise in ocean temperatures, a lot of the habitable land is going to be in harm’s way. Then what sort of human migration patterns might we experience? Trying to keep “foreigners” out of your country is going to be the least of your worries: finding food will probably dominate your thoughts, and then staying alive to eat it.
Scandinavia looks good for remaining viable as a place to live, in this respect, as does the American Pacific Northwest. I hope this helps us out somehow, but it may only stave off the inevitable for a few more decades.
So what can I do? I live in an apartment building, I go to a supermarket for food (in the winter, there’s no way to grow food here in the winter). I don’t currently have a car, but I certainly have flown in jets an awful lot in the recent years. Is there any real way to offset these behaviors? The relative value of my presence in a musical concert situation is debatable, of course, though several hundred people come together and have a joyful experience of music and social interaction that is the sort of thing that apparently makes life meaningful. As I’ve said, making music is what I steer my conscious will toward. Is it valuable? Is it meaningful?
I cannot rightfully say that anything I do will help human society to continue to exist. The best I can do is to say that I help human society, or a small piece of it, exist at the moment. The moment of listening to music, or witnessing it being performed, feeling the motion of air pressures at different frequencies, is valuable to one’s existence at the moment and only then. We can carry a memory of the experience, of course, and hold onto that memory as a source of identity and meaning, but indeed it is done when the music is over. “You can never capture it again,” as Eric Dolphy said.
I suppose one could say that mindfulness, the concentration on the self in the present moment, is important for well being. Some psychological systems and Buddhist practices of meditation certainly focus on the idea of centering one’s awareness into the current state of being in order to relieve the stress of trying to live in the future or the past and overcoming the trauma of existence associated with doing so. Trying to understand the specious present. It’s a form of focus, and indeed living in a way that one actually maintains awareness of the present moment can be exhilarating. Music can be good for this, as can many physical activities that require whole body and mind synch, the sort of thing where you are letting go of your thoughts in order to physically allow your body to function as it does or has been trained to do: playing a musical instrument can bring this about, as can driving or having sex, or playing tennis or really just about anything.
Being mindful, then, could allow us to continue living in the present contentedly, existing with meaning based on what we are doing now. But how does this help to shape the future? The term “mindfulness” did come into our modern languages from Buddhism, where it indicates a form of meditation, and the words that “mindfulness” is translated from, “sati” and “smrti,” seem to indicate some form of remembering—not as in just remembering things from the past, but more as in “not forgetting” that you are here now, not letting what you know now leave your mind: remembering all that you are while maintaining a sense of being centered in the present. Additionally, there is an aspect of remembering to do some action in the future. That could help, I guess. If we knew what we could do in the future to enable us to survive.
I think that remembering all that you are is important. All that you are as a person, all that you are as a species, everything that we have done, it should embody us. We need to know about all the things we have done as human beings, both great and awful, to continue walking our path in the present and heading into the future. We need to remember every glorious artwork, every horrific war, every technological advancement. I have always considered my job as a composer of music to be adding to an ever-expanding spiral of human endeavor, humanity’s growing legacy of culture. Everything I do or make rides on the shoulders of those that came before me, and this includes not only the artists but the scientists and engineers, the bridge-builders and soldiers and farmers. Those who don’t know history, well, you know…we unfortunately repeat our mistakes all too often, especially when it comes to violence and prejudice.
And yet, with all of our forgetting of history, we maintain so many outdated forms of thinking as if they were our culture. We keep our religions and prejudices as part of our behavior, taught to hate the enemies, reinforce group pride, team spirit, etc, follow some sort of ritualistic behavior based on thousand-year-old writings. Yes, it’s true that a lot of the ideas that the religions say are their base tenets would be great for continuing to have a peaceful society (love, kindness, all that) but it does seem rare that these are the actual standards that are upheld. More often, all that is actually passed on is some sense of self-righteousness, or the idea of being part of the one special group of people amongst all people, which further seems to allow the idea of self-appointed expertise.
And these things are reinforced every day at the expense of education and growth of our actual culture and knowledge. On televised news, time is even given to high school sports in favor of, say high school music, arts or science. What does that say about their relative valuation in society? Yet an incredible amount of news airtime is spent on the cult of celebrity, so there’s obviously value in some form of the arts if you’re the top tiny percentage. Or just famous for being famous, as many of today’s celebrities seem to be (or at least I can’t actually figure out what it is that they do…?)
There is no longer a middle class of the arts, we had spent a lot of the 20th Century forming that, as if culture were an important part of modern life. There is no middle class for education, really, either—even the universities have become privatized and funding for research is coming from the private sector based on future usefulness as profitable items, weaponry, pharmaceuticals, agri-business, etc. Teachers in public schools are so disrespected that they make poverty wages. As far as I’m concerned, this is all backwards.
I don’t really make a living as a musician. I have, in the past, but only for short periods of time. Nonetheless, I continue to do it because, at least until now, I have considered it important. How can I realistically say that music is important now? How is it important? Is it that it creates momentary happiness for someone? How can I even know if I am fulfilling that functionality, especially with recorded music? What is my effort worth in spending the time and money to produce recorded music? How can it possibly mean anything to the world at large, and especially to the continuation of the world, to the continuation of human culture—especially considering that there may in fact be no possibility of a future at all for the human race?
Past societies have left us ruins and artworks that we can view and attempt to reconstruct elements of their culture, aesthetics of architecture and sculpture, and later bits and pieces of writing and drawing and painting. Most of what is extant is stone, and as we get closer to the present, we get other less durable products. We reconstruct music from notation, which we have (and believe we understand) from the past thousand or so years. We know that people played music before that, as we have music and instruments mentioned in writing that comes from much earlier, but we really don’t know how it sounded beyond extrapolating from description and bits and pieces of existing modern culture.
Every piece of music that I have made in my life will likely be gone and forgotten within 50 years, and even if the media survive longer than that and we still have a society that holds together enough to maintain archives of such things, it will probably only exist as some divots on a plastic disc or magnetic particles on some sort of storage device, possibly notation on paper. Maybe everything will be in a new form of memory storage, crystals or graphene or something. Still, it won’t move any air, it won’t be heard or felt by anyone. Even all of the notated music I have written (that which has been printed out and isn’t just more magnetic particles) won’t actually be music unless some odd historian attempts to read it while playing an instrument. So I, like all musicians before me, fade bit by bit into nothingness as time passes. No continuation, imminent human extinction notwithstanding.
So if we just continue to fiddle while Rome burns, so to speak, where do we draw the line? If there is nothing we can do, should we all just continue as if nothing is any different? Or just go full-on anarchist? Societies usually function by continuing to go about their “normal behavior,” until suddenly they don’t. Most people just try to live day to day having the best possible time that they can, anyway, given their circumstances. And the way that the world’s current economics have been moving, we are trending toward fewer and fewer people holding all the wealth while more and more struggle just to survive. I think that initially, after the second world war, they had thought that a populace that had a large middle class would remain satisfied and therefore mollified, but endowing the class of “teenager” as an economic functionary gave rise to a whole new set of cultural problems, and to a rise of individualism and deviation.
Frank Zappa, when asked about whether popular music in the 1960s had had any political impact on the world, said that of course it had, as could be seen by the changes in clothing and sexual mores. He said, further, that, “Actual progress was only possible with deviation from the norm.” He himself wasn’t interested in being involved in politics, (though later he did involve himself as an expert in censorship laws) but he thought that, although small, his audience might become deviant, and affect other people who might become deviant, and thereby some actual progress might come about.
I would say that, yes, some progress came about, but most of it was subsequently muted by creating an environment wherein people either had to hunker down and only consider their own survival or, if they were economically able, were kept mollified by a constant stream of shallow happinesses. And television, of course. And beer.
So we are inevitably on our way out, having been prevented from saving ourselves, to say nothing of saving our cultural or scientific treasures or discoveries, and we are continuing to throw everything into this growing bonfire. Shall we just dance around it? Is the goal now just to stay happy until we pass away?
Then what point is there to writing, to making music…? I imagine I will continue to do so simply because I don’t know what else to do, and it’s what I’ve set myself up to do with my entire adult life. It makes me happy to work on recording music. I can only wish somebody were listening to it to make it seem more worthwhile to continue doing so. You never really get any meaningful feedback when the entire structure of valuation in the arts is based on sales. I hope it makes somebody happy for the moment besides myself.
And for my daughter? They say that studying music helps people’s big brains to think in ways that are important, that it helps in understanding things in the world around you. Learning and maintaining brain plasticity are things that I have always valued. The end result, of course, is that I am able to write nonsense like this screed. Maybe that’s just part of dealing with the stress of thinking, of considering the present, the past and the future, and not precisely living in the moment. It keeps me occupied, and keeps me from the stress of thinking about economics, which apparently accounts for the majority of stress in the modern human’s life. (Not that that isn’t stressful as well; I’m not employed either—which also means I can spend time writing this drivel.)
So for now, I continue. I should have learned to farm, I guess. Then meaning could be found in continuing to grow food in order to continue eating. Meaning in the face of mortality is much easier than meaning in the face of extinction; if it’s only mortality that is the rub, you can try to enjoy every second of life and do what you can to make the world better for those that come after you. (Not that many people actually consider doing either of these things, it seems.) If there is no “after you,” I guess we might as well enjoy what lives we have. But please, not in the sense of excess consumerism and sensationalism, which is all designed to keep us lulled into commodifying our natural resources—and ourselves—so that we give up our freedom to actually participate in our own governance. Which is indeed what we are actively experiencing, what Sheldon Wolin calls “Inverted Totalitarianism.” The pressure to buy into the importance of technology is a form of giving up the battle to preserve what we have left of natural resources. The pressure to drive content creators toward devaluing their product in favor of the freedom of information is exactly that, the commodification and subsequent devaluation of ourselves as natural resources. Neither of these things is making anybody’s life actually better, especially as years go by.
Can we be better, or is society just destined to end up collapsing into some anarchic Mad Max scenario when the natural resources fail? Is that what is being perpetrated upon the Middle East at this moment, essentially? I always wonder how the US will look when oil goes away, which, regardless of peak-oil predictions, will inevitably come about sooner or later. So many people in the US are very far away from the production of any food that they might survive on. So many areas are based entirely on the population’s ability to drive long distances between food, clothing and shelter. Maybe we should all just retreat to our survivalist compounds. Or maybe we can actually pay attention to what science is saying and see if it’s possible to get our governments to help our long-term, or at least near-term, survival. Then maybe, the things that enrich our lives can continue to be made and enjoyed in non-cynical non-defeatist ways. I, for one, look forward to continuing to make music, and learning about the universe around me.
I hope it has meaning.
*Libertarianism here is basically neo-liberalism in the classical sense, the idea that regulation prevents commerce. Regulation is imposed by governments for the benefit of a populace, commerce abhors regulation in favor if a bottom line, at the expense of that same populace. So much of political diatribe these days is about “building the economy” though that invariably is only beneficial to those that own the companies, not the people who work for them.
**A concept developed by William James to describe what our sense of “now” actually is, how long is “now”?
***One company had a large scale operation running within Saudi Arabia, which of course meant less transit time for shipping munitions, but also vastly changed the taxes paid back to the parent company in Sweden, which led to less tax money to able to be used to accommodate the refugee population.
****Actually, I have tinnitus, so I can hear my ears ring all the time anyway.