Moving on from “After the Lecture at Yale”

After the Lecture at Yale

Whether or not there are bobcats
in Southbury is up for debate.
But I will concede as we turn onto Old Farm Road
that here there are MAGA partisans
and that demagogues can woo quiet neighbors
even in the State of Steady Habits.

Because lawn signs don’t lie.
Neither do lengths of charming stone walls
laid in the time of charters and King George.
According to the Nobel laureate, first there was rock,
then protoplasm, then an ingenious race of hominids
milling wheat and clicking away on abaci
in a time-lapse compendium
paused just past ENIAC and ballpoint pens.
He said that slime-slicked granite deep in the Precambrian
was the first cooperative community.

But that was last night in Sterling Library,
and now I’m sketching plans at the table
between rulers and a stack of The New Yorker
as you brew chai tea, prime the nail gun,
unfurl stenciled blueprints of our barn-cum-studio
in the making. With renovations, we can sell our land
for a premium our Brooklyn friends tell us.

But it’s charming here, and the afternoon
is a pleasant exasperation of tape measures
and twine as October wind works its way
through chinks and cools our sweat.
We can paint our canvasses here 
and impress our Chicago friends
with our view of the Taconic Mountains.
Yet still my eyes linger on the “Make America Great Again” signs
down the road.

“It’s class solipsism,” our sociologist friend
tells me, and reminds me
that not everyone reads The New Yorker
or has a chance to go to graduate school.
And true, I haven’t gotten around to reading
J.D. Vance, so I still wonder.

We call it a day as the sun lowers over the valley,
and we’re strolling along the stone wall.
I’m thinking about the slime-covered rocks,
of the wriggling amoebas, the blooming lichen,
the goatherds speaking Sumerian on the banks
of the Tigris. And soon enough there are charters 
directing our ancestors to form towns and harvest
sassafras for shipment back to England.
There’s the brief blip of ENIAC, but not before Nagasaki,
and followed by Darfur and Srebrenica
along with Timothy McVeigh and the 16th Street Baptist Church.   	
And it all started with the protoplasm.

We don’t think of crossing those granite rocks,
approaching our neighbors, and getting a sense
of why exactly they’re casting their lot with
“the greatest existential threat to liberal democracy”
(according to our professor friend in Seattle).
You’re making quinoa paella for dinner,
and besides, I want to finish sketching.

I wrote this poem on the eve of the 2016 US presidential election. I think it’s still relevant to today’s news landscape. It also still captures how I feel about collective responsibility and the consequences of community atomization.

The catalog of explosive historical events in the sixth stanza might be clichéd and a bit overwrought, but that’s why I’m publishing this poem; I’m trying to exorcise my former interest in collapse. In my late teens and early twenties I was a bit of a “kollapsnik” and was fascinated by societal calamity, as epitomized in Thomas Cole’s painting Destruction in his Course of Empire series.

Thomas Cole, Destruction (1836)

What we focus on grows, so it’s no surprise that my fixation on cataclysm led to a period of suicidal depression. I’ve matured a lot since then. But the presence of poems like “After the Lecture at Yale” in my electronic archive kept that fascination smoldering; when drafts of poems like this came to mind, I’d start thinking of whether I should make revisions and spend money to submit them to literary magazines. By posting this poem and others like it, though, the tantalization of publication is eliminated since most literary magazines won’t print works that were previously published on a personal website. Then I can more fully move on to my new commitment to renewal and the Great Turning.

This is the first of several old self-authored poems I will unload here in order to create more mental space for myself (this website is as much for me as it is for you). And since pieces of writing are transmuted when they are read by an audience, perhaps these pieces will stop being mere artifacts of a gloomy stage in my life and become progressive stepping stones towards my later realization that humanity is poised on the precipice of a new era of abundance and unity.

The Crisis of Now: What is it?

The human mind needs clear concepts to make sense of the world. When a chronic problem has not been properly named, we are unable to think clearly about it and figure out how to solve it.

-Joe Brewer, “Solving a Problem that Has Not Been Named”

I feel that I need to clarify what exactly I mean when I bring up The Crisis of Now in these essays; this clarification is for myself as much as it is for anyone who has been following my posts. The name “Crisis of Now” is an imprecise label, a phrase I concocted on my own so that I could easily refer to the interlocking emergencies of global warming, late stage capitalism, ecological collapse, hydrocarbon depletion, and the erosion of democratic norms and values (especially in the West). Yet even that slightly more nuanced explanation only feels at the hem of the converging trends whose consequences will remake life as we know it in the more affluent parts of the world.

Fans of Irish poetry will recognize that I am essentially trying to sketch the outlines of that rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem after twenty centuries of sleep. The language of the Crisis of Now, however, need not be biblical, esoteric, or apocalyptic. Joe Brewer, a Seattle-based complexity researcher, has grappled with this same question of how to properly identify the bottleneck we as a global civilization are approaching. His preferred term, The Great Transition Beyond Empires, is more adequate than the Crisis of Now on a number of fronts. First, a name like “The Great Transition Beyond Empires” recognizes that we are indeed living through the disintegration of a truly global empire – the enterprise of corporate globalization – and that its zenith and demise rounds out a six millenia-long era of ever more ambitious empire building.

In Beyond the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, James C. Scott enumerates the evidence arrayed against the “social contract” theory of early state-building. The earliest states of the Near East and China were not the products of reasoned, ingenious communal cooperation; they were brought into being only by the typically violent coercion enacted by centralized palace elites. They employed mass slavery, agricultural levies, harsh penal codes, and militarized physical barriers in order to maintain their spheres of influence (the reach of taxation). Now in 2018, in the wake of the Great Recession and the one-two punch of Brexit and the ascension of Donald Trump, the coercive underpinnings of corporate globalization and their shortcomings are in plain view. Fifteen years ago, the most ardent opponents of the WTO-IMF-World Bank triumvirate were small farmers and public sector employees in developing countries hit hardest by structural adjustment schemes. But when voters in the nerve centers of the neoliberal consensus can be convinced to reject the status quo (however artificial such campaign promises may be), you know the days of our paradigm are numbered.

So is corporate globalization the empire to end all empires? After all of the planet’s climatological positive feedback loops have scrambled Earth’s biosphere, after we’ve chewed through the low- to mid- hanging fruit of the hydrocarbon tree, it’s hard to imagine any financial or political entity (or an alliance of entities) wielding power the way corporatocracy does now. But whatever follows corporate globalization depends on what decisions we make in the decades to come, how we choose to fill the vacuum where consumption, wealth hoarding, and unbridled monetization once held sway.

That brings me to the second reason why I like the name, “The Great Transition Beyond Empire.” The shocks and tremors that are currently destabilizing our ideas of how we see ourselves in the world are also opportunities. Disorientation can allow us to rethink our priorities, how we organize ourselves in the landscape and relate to our co-denizens, both human and non-human. In the interim, there will be profound pain and suffering as political turmoil and dueling elements of the social body rush to fill the vacuum. Just ask the people of Syria and Venezuela, or the thousands of families separated these past months at the US border; they are already in the crucible. The dangers being unleashed by global warming, ecosystem collapse, and the sputtering of capitalism are real, but recognizing the potential of disruption and chaos gets to the heart of what crisis can mean. “Emergency” comes from the Latin emergens; to rise up or outward. We as a people – the human tribe, if you like – have the potential to emerge from the rubble of our dying way of life.

Okay, enough of the abstract theorizing. It’s time to talk specifics. Where will this transformation take place? Who will power it? Change will come from people like you and me, anyone weary of centralized bureaucracies and decision making, who  circumvent rigid federal and supranational power structure and try to effect change on the local level. I recently cut out a New York Times op-ed piece by David Brooks titled “The Localist Revolution,” which posits that the real change makers going forward will be locally oriented: neighborhood associations, state and municipal officials, farmers’ cooperatives. All 7.6 billion of us alive today face the same global emergencies, but only individuals with an intimate sensitivity to their immediate surroundings will be able to respond to how those crises manifest on the ground. After all, do you really think Congressional committees will know how to best allocate the water supplies of Oregon’s Klamath River, or that Brussels technocrats possess the regionally particular knowledge that is vital to stalling the die-back of ancient olive groves in Calabria?

The New York Times is hardly a den of fringe intellectualism, and David Brooks is only picking up on what legions of thinkers and activists have been saying for decades. In her essay collection, The Algebra of Infinite Justice, Arundhati Roy shares her hope that the 21st century will be the century of the dismantling of the big, and that the god of small things will finally be shown the deference she deserves. Already, small farms in Puerto Rico are demonstrating a newfound robustness in the wake of Hurricane Maria, and town civic associations throughout Spain are working to provide support and integration services to an influx of asylum seekers arriving from North Africa. In the digital realm, groups like Tamera and Bayo Akomolafe’s Emergence Network are working to connect and build a dialogue between local change makers across the globe. Taken together, I like to think that all of these initiatives and trends hint at a germinating reverence for the beauty and diversity of the particular.

The photograph featured at the beginning of this post was taken in the final days of the Standing Rock protests in North Dakota, when the Water Protectors vacated the main camp, Oceti Sakowin, in anticipation of Governor Doug Burgum’s eviction order.  A lot is captured in that photo. The colorless sky, stagnant water, burning structure, and backhoe waiting to clear the detritus of a once-jubilant resistance movement make for a dystopian tableau. But those who closely followed the Lakota Sioux’s standoff with Energy Transfer Partners, LP, especially after the Dakota Access Pipeline was lain under the Missouri River, have taken heart in the invocation that we the living are the Eighth Generation, and that our decisions, not just the single action of a government agency or corporation, will shape the world of the seven generations that follow. As our global crises converge, will we muster the fortitude needed to assemble our own resistance camps and triage centers, to halt and reverse the depredations of corporate globalization? The answer lies in whether each of us is willing to engage with and assume a deeply embedded citizenship of the places we call home.