Why farmpunk?

A farmpunk could be described as a neo-agrarian who approaches [agri]culture, community development and/or design with an anarchistic hacker ethos. "Cyber-agrarian" could supplant neo-agrarian, indicating a back-to-the-land perspective that stands apart from past movements because it is heavily informed by conceptual integration in a post-industrial information society (thus "forward to the land" perhaps?) The art and science of modern ecological design—and ultimately, adapting to post-collapse contexts—will be best achieved through the combined arts of cybermancy and geomancy. In other words: the old ways of bushcraft and woodlore can be combined with modern technoscience (merely another form of lore) in open and decentralized ways that go beyond pure anarcho-primitivism. This blog is an example of just that. Throughout, natural ecologies must be seen as the original cybernetic systems.

**What we call for at the farmpunk headquarters**
°Freedom of information
°Ground-up action + top-down perspectives
°Local agricultural systems (adhering to permaculture/biodynamic principles) as the nuclei of economies
°Bioregional autonomy
°Computers are optional but can be used for good—see peer to peer tech, social media for direct popular management of natural or political disasters (e.g. Arab Spring), or the mission of the hacker collective Anonymous
°You

"Municipal liberty is the first and most important [principle] of democratic institutions, since nothing is more natural or worthy of respect then the right which citizens of any settlement have of arranging themselves the affairs of their common life and of resolving as best suits them in the interests and the needs of the locality." - Emilio Zapata

Thursday, February 23, 2012

 The Orthodoxy of Embodiment: Gender Heresy/Gender Magick in Human Culture

Or: The Shifting Roles of Gender-Benders, Crossers or (insert other verbal noun here) in the Ongoing Drama of Civilization, and the phenomenological "Which-craft" of the Destabilization of Fundamental Ontological Categories That Such People Perennially (and with a multitude of variable effects) Enact Within Their Mother-Cultures

…In which I discuss the strange, magical and often counter-intuitive phenomenon of how (in my limited experience and humble opinions) the people most "accepting" of gender-heretics are people who live like Americans lived 200 years ago. I also speculate on why this is so.


You can only "bend" gender in a system that's too rigid to begin with

-Paraphrase of a thought by Leslie Feinberg


Humans are social, visually oriented creatures and gender is one of the sets of signs by which we communicate. But gender is not merely an arbitrary assemblage of signs, it is in a way a special sign (or perhaps "signing") that occasions a vast repertoire of more mundane significations. Thus it is a platform or interface, existing as a hypostasis of meanings from which other meanings emanate. It is a "ground of many signs" if not of all signs. Because of its coupling with the flesh (and not just coupling with patterns of behavior, as with the construction of sexual orientation) I think "gender" deserves special critical attention, especially when discussing to what extent it is socially constructed.

*First, a necessary disclaimer. It won't do to simply claim that gender is either a social construction or that it is a product of biological determinism. There is no easy answer. First of all, to denigrate the idea of social construction and its value is to miss the critical point that for humans, things that "exist" largely in the realms of language, symbol and process are NO LESS REAL than material things (again, as far as humans are concerned. Other animals, that's another story). We are humans, social mammals of a high order, and so to say that something is "socially constructed" is not actually to say that it's "not real", "fake", "less real" or that it is "bad". Such appraisals and value judgements are actually the result of projecting one's own conservative, misguided assumptions onto the discussion. In actual fact, to say something is socially or culturally constructed is to acknowledge its incredible power and leverage in human life and experience. Therefore, the joke is on you if you reject social constructivism out of hand. Just a word of warning because I've been there. ;)

I must emphasize that I for one am not interested in implicating or shaming others through a discussion about how we should "all" abandon gender, whatever that means. What follows is not some pretentious, political call to action, (although it might consist of one I direct at myself, which is of course my own business). Rather it is philosophy, it is questioning as worship of the perennial trickster-deities of myth, magic and mysticism. It is not cynical exposition or muckraking, as critiques of capitalism or other hegemonic systems are often seen, but rather it is a curious homily, a reverent, open discovering, necessarily iconoclastic because nothing is sacred other than the pursuit of revealing what is hidden, at least where possible (through the subjective experiences of the ones who are "othered"), and compassion for all oppressed peoples. Just to get this out of the way, I don't believe that we can live without categories, unless we devolved into marsupials or fish or something that doesn't have complex language. Categories create necessarily tensions, including categories that deal with gender and sex. Without identity there can be no identity crisis. And neither one is better or more desirable than the other. Which is better, the crest of a wave or the trough? It's a ridiculous question—they are both inter-complementary components of the waveform. So it is with categories. Nature creates the corporeal 'category' of species, which even then is not fixed, and often that category acts as a platform for deviation or mutation. Then after a long time, perhaps the category has moved, perhaps it encompasses other flesh, other boundaries. It is the eternal swing dance of entropy. But the category, however fuzzy its borders are, is never eradicated, and no one is saying it should be. But people ARE saying that we should see categories for what they are, in the course of cultural, historical, and even (in the case of biological categories) geological time. I write about this, about the category of gender, because being a person with non typical gender presentation (and identity) in the world I live in today is a fascinating journey that constantly yields unpredictable discoveries for both myself and those around me, as I pilot this somatic vehicle through human space. It also yields many questions about about cultural history, particularly the history of "gender liminality", which has yet to be fully written. Many people seem to believe that transgender is a "new" thing. Like it's a new social trend that has developed out of gay liberation. I guess that's easy to think if you watch too much TV and have never thought about it before (many of us). In reality, like with many identities, new spaces have been created—or found—in society that allow transgender identities to exist and (re)invent themselves, but as with gay/lesbian identity, the *behaviors* have existed as far back as the historical records take us. But the behaviors are often occluded, hidden behind the comprehensive labels we stick on top of them. It is such naming systems that are modern, and culturally derived—and that indeed accounts for a lot, because words are important. We take for granted these days entire concepts about what the self is and can be, but modern Western personhood, and the things it consists of (like "identities", hobbies, career, gender, life goals etc.) has not always been what it is today. I find this idea endlessly thought-provoking.

I just read the essay My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage by Susan Stryker, a transsexual woman. Written in 1994, it is a foundational text in the trans-disciplinary (and also "post-normal" in the sense of breaking down barriers between the academy and activism) field of transgender studies. I’m just beginning to realize how many radical queer warrior-poets she’s influenced, including some of my favorite lyric essays like "Monster Trans" by Boots Potential and the poem "The Seam of Skin and Scales" by the blogger Little Light (the authors are either genderqueer or transgender). Stryker's essay is simply iconic (and iconoclastic!) and totally transcends the (often classist)boundaries of academic writing… as it very much should. For anyone not familiar with it, it is an intensely moving and bold manifesto reclaiming and subverting “monster” (and, also “creature” as this previously self-defined Earthling/Faun-kin was delighted to find) as identities from which authentic, unpredictable, non-deterministic and integral consciousness emerges—upending heteronormative and cis-sexist assumptions about what these "monstrous" or corporeally-heterodox beings are supposed to be like. And that consciousness has a few things to say about the orthodoxy of the flesh… :) At its time of writing it was a complete inversion of the at times hateful criticism that transsexuals were getting from the first-world feminist movement, which explicitly described the monstrousness of the "constructed" transsexual body as a sinister arm of the patriarchy, as well as a symptom of its derangement. To some feminists, the transsexual, particularly the male-to-female transsexual, represented an ultimately "patriarchal" attempt in an oblique and masked way to infiltrate and control women's space. This is of course, a ridiculous set of claims, and such hate and audacity from the most privileged group (of the oppressed)—white first-world cisgender woman feminists is enough to make any transgender person's blood boil. Styker made darn the sure boiling of her own blood would fuel one of the most amazing pieces of writing I've ever read. She wastes no time getting straight to the point in the first paragraph of the monologue:

"The transsexual body is an unnatural body. It is the product of medical science. It is a technological construction. It is flesh torn apart and sewn together again in a shape other than that in which it was born. In these circumstances, I find a deep affinity between myself as a transsexual woman and the monster in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Like the monster, I am too often perceived as less than fully human due to the means of my embodiment; like the monster's as well, my exclusion from human community fuels a deep and abiding rage in me that I, like the monster, direct against the conditions in which I must struggle to exist.

I am not the first to link Frankenstein's monster and the transsexual body. Mary Daly makes the connection explicit by discussing transsexuality in "Boundary Violation and the Frankenstein Phenomenon," in which she characterizes transsexuals as the agents of a "necrophilic invasion" of female space (69-72). Janice Raymond, who acknowledges Daly as a formative influence, is less direct when she says that "the problem of transsexuality would best be served by morally mandating it out of existence," but in this statement she nevertheless echoes Victor Frankenstein's feelings toward the monster: "Begone, vile insect, or rather, stay, that I may trample you to dust. You reproach me with your creation" (Raymond 178; Shelley 95). It is a commonplace of literary criticism to note that Frankenstein's monster is his own dark, romantic double, the alien Other he constructs and upon which he projects all he cannot accept in himself; indeed, Frankenstein calls the monster "my own vampire, my own spirit set loose from the grave" (Shelley 74). Might I suggest that Daly, Raymond and others of their ilk similarly construct the transsexual as their own particular golem? (1)"


Well, that's what I call "bringing it". She saw your "monster" and your "transsexual menace" and raised ya' a manifesto by an expert on the subject.

And now for some earthling pride:

“A creature, after all, in the dominant tradition of Western European culture, is nothing other than a created being, a made thing. The affront you humans take at being called a “creature” results from the threat the term poses to your status as “lords of creation,” beings elevated above mere material existence. As in the case of being called “it,” being called a “creature” suggests the lack or loss of a superior personhood. I find no shame, however, in acknowledging my egalitarian relationship with non-human material Being; everything emerges from the same matrix of possibilities.

…Hearken unto me, fellow creatures. I who have dwelt in a form unmatched with my desire, I whose flesh has become an assemblage of incongruous anatomical parts, I who achieve the similitude of a natural body only through an unnatural process, I offer you this warning: the Nature you bedevil me with is a lie. Do not trust it to protect you from what I represent, for it is a fabrication that cloaks the groundlessness of the privilege you seek to maintain for yourself at my expense. You are as constructed as me; the same anarchic Womb has birthed us both. I call upon you to investigate your nature as I have been compelled to confront mine. I challenge you to risk abjection and flourish as well as have I. Heed my words, and you may well discover the seams and sutures in yourself.
(emphasis mine)

Ah yes. (I write this in 21st century Los Angeles, having migrated here from a little shire town in the tundra so I can attend graduate school) And I don't know about where you are from, dear reader, but here in America, here in Generation Y, we are all cyborgs, monsters, mythical beasts that have been exploded and put back together again by the fragmentation inflicted on our bodies and minds by culture, by media, by texts and hyper-texts and biomedical technology and by the collapse of space and time. Even if we think of ourselves as heterosexual and completely gender-conforming, well, we've still "suffered" the fulfillment of Marxist prophecy. (I use "suffer" in its antiquarian meaning, analogous to the Latin "passio", "to experience"). I will come back to this point later in this essay. By the way, I strongly encourage you to read the whole thing when you get the chance. It's not long, but it is a deep, and alive text. Every paragraph is delightfully electrifying and fur-bristling.

Stryker's meditations unleashed and legitimated a whole mountain, whole ecologies of thoughts within me, both academic and personal, as I've been wrestling with the demons (or self-styled priests, perhaps) of what I'll call "orthodox embodiment" for much of my life, definitely all of what might be called my "adult life". Naming myself as transgender, though empowering and productive, has not seen the demise of this battle, because now there is a whole new set of problems, a whole new "orthodoxy" to contend with. But I want to be free of orthodoxy, completely! I want my position in the "religion of gender" to match my spiritual position, which is, I am a mystic, one who walks that razor edge between saint and heretic, ecstasy and agitation, sacred and profane. Others define such people in relation to the binary spectrum of Orthodoxy/Heresy after the fact, in acts of retroactive continuity. Mystic/heretics don't define themselves in relation to it—that's not how they articulate their own, lived personhood. I am not attached to neither "orthodoxy" nor "heresy", because in all spheres those are merely constructed categories, devised by and meant for people who control lots of other people, not for humble little me. I continue to re-emerge to myself as a creature who, yes, is transgender, but NO, does not want to be "cured", because if society sees me as male, I will be just as fucking queer as I was when I was a "female." I face the reality, both terrifying and liberating, of being in a space of gender ambiguity and fluidity and "transition" perhaps for my whole life, but not out of confusion. Not at all. But because there are some people who really are somewhere between male and female… and even if I ever look completely male on the "outside", I will, essentially, have an "intersex" body. There is no way some aspect of hybridity can ever be eradicated. And I, as well as a whole new generation of transgender youth, don't want to eradicate it.

There is an undeniable sense in which the appearance of ambiguous or "transgressive" gender presentations or bodies in our visual field actually has the power to change us, and to do so in fundamental ways. This is achieved though the manipulation of cues that normally act as signifying anchors, suspending each person, and indeed, whole societies, in a relational gel that has the feeling of being fixed. Whether we like it or not, the bodies of other humans, in the course of our perception, act as referents to aspects of both other selves and OUR selves. Thus, viewing bodies (any bodies, not just "non-normative" ones) can occasion breakdowns of barriers between subject and object that usually remain relatively solid and do not belie much plasticity or permeability. Indeed, this subject/object "wave-particle collapse" (to borrow a term from quantum physics) has been explored by neuroscientists in studies of the neurological correlates of empathy and imitation. There is an extent to which, when viewing others perform a certain physical action, neural pathways corresponding to the motor performance of that action are activated in primates (and ostensibly humans) without them actually performing that action. In other words, when we view another body performing a distinct action (especially a meaningful one, like reaching for food or mating) our brains simulate that action. Our brains similarly respond when viewing physical pain be inflicted on others, though the intensity of the felt empathy is modulated by circumstances like if we know the person or how much we like or dislike them. Additionally, there is evidence that similar mirroring occurs when viewing basic emotions (in facial expressions), even able to be traced to micro contractions in our own facial muscles. Much of this mirroring is automatic and we don't have control over it. Mimicry and mirroring is literally built into us, from the level of the neuron to our physical movements.
There is a sense in which we—the human family—are all one flesh. And our brains know it.

Inter-sexed, cross-dressing, and androgynous beings (or chimeric beings that transgress species boundaries) have long represented shamanic or super-natural power in both mythologic and ritualistic dimensions. Such bodies are indisputably sites of rupture. The potential benefit, danger, or other utility of such rupture has been evaluated in a whole range of ways by different human cultures and civilizations. I want press the point that there really is a sense in which people have seen, interpreted, imagined or even felt such bodies—shapeshifting, gender-crossing, hermaphroditic or monstrous bodies— as having causal effects on the world and on other beings. Being able to be more than one thing or contain more than one essence, in the course of much of our history (where we believed in souls, spirits and other essentializing substances) has indicated a concomitant ability to possess unique perceptual abilities or to be able to receive a wider spectrum of sensory or ethereal information (i.e. see into other dimensions or have mystical visions). Or, on the negative side, it could be interpreted as demon possession.

But maybe these fantasies of magical power and material causation are grounded in the phenomenology of the crisis of encountering a "monstrous" or mixed body, and naturally relating oneself to it in all the ways that we are wont to do. No wonder gender non conforming or gender-crossing folk have been variably called "witch" or "saint", "miracle" or "monstrosity", depending on who is doing the name calling! An imperative question is, of course, who gets to profit off of these "sites of rupture", to name them as either sacred or profane? Is it a transgender person themselves? Is it their family, kin group or tribe, or their persecutors? Is it the ones who "cure" them—whether it is exorcising a demon or administering medical care?

Kate Bornstein discusses this anxiety or "identity crisis" (that is simultaneously a double crisis of naming both the self and the other) in her description of the scene in the film The Crying Game where, on seeing the body of his lover revealed for the first time as transsexual, one of the protagonists vomits due to shock, as he previously did not know of his love object's transsexuality. Bornstein shrewdly notes that despite the hype surrounding the film, no one gave a critical glance at this intensely visceral scene, perhaps "because it would draw focus to the other side of revulsion: desire" (237, The Transgender Studies Reader). She continues:

"His vomiting can be seen not so much as a sign of revulsion as an admission of attraction, and the consequential upheaval of his gender identity and sexual orientation." (ibid.)

In the proverbial encounter with the transsexual or androgynous body, I suspect that the more fixed our notions of identity are, perhaps the more disruptive (for better or worse) such an encounter can be. As Foucault and others have shown, fixed identity categories like gay, lesbian or heterosexual are only there in the first place due to civilizing structures that are largely historically contingent. So long as such identities are understood to be fixed, essential, cosmically orienting (and thus containing soteriological possibilities), and self-contained behind the skin of each individual (that is, non-collective), encounters with such bodies will run the risk of being experienced and framed as potentially threatening, more so because what exactly is being threatened is often not understood due to psychological and linguistic barriers that are culturally upheld. I wonder, especially after mulling over Susan Stryker's monster manifesto, if a visual encounter with the transsexual body (and/or transsexual subjectivity) not so much symbolizes to the viewer the crisis of fragmentation of the self, but in fact represents a resolution of that fragmentation. In an ironic turn of events, within a society undergoing social change faster than can be psychologically accommodated, where fragmentation of identity—ALL our identities, whether normative or not—is both seeded and profited off of by capitalist society, the stitched-together, DIY transsexual body both represents a sought-after or nostalgic integrity AND simultaneously parodies it. Either way it is easy to see how it becomes an ideal target for derision.

In Transgender Liberation, Feinberg focuses on the societal/collective manifestation of this identity anxiety in her survey of historical campaigns of oppression and violent persecution waged on gender non-conforming people by imperial authorities and institutions. In this essay—foundational to transgender studies as well as transgender consciousness in the U.S.— Feinberg engages in a Marxist analysis of the treatment of gender-different individuals, and alludes to just some of the ways in which they have long been the casualties of the game of empire building. Records of such attitudes date back over two thousand years, and some of the first extant evidence of such persecution exists in the book of Deuteronomy (c. 7th century B.C.E.) Gender nonconforming people, while even celebrated and valued in communal, pastoral, often polytheistic contexts, become targets of the regulatory and organizational agendas of centralized governments that are the colonizers of less socially complex and less hierarchical societies. Since such bodies represent rupture on multiple ontological dimensions, what they signify is contested and can be inverted on a dime by those who are in charge of the means of production (of meaning).

"A glance at human history proves that when societies were not ruled by exploiting classes that rely on divide-and-conquer tactics, "cross-gendered" youth, women and men on all continents were respected members of their communities." (p. 207, from the Transgender Studies Reader)

A gender nonconforming person in a more closed, small scale (and by that fact more egalitarian, even if only in a strictly statistical sense) society could be valued for their difference (where deviance from the norm is seen as potentially conferring strategic benefits to the whole group). However, such a person can be seen as a liability by a more hierarchical, large-scale and centralized society. This seems especially true of societies whose size, complexity, goals (or a combination thereof) lead them to deploy religious or moral ideologies as homogenizing mediums. Ironically, in imperial or colonial situations, gender variance, and the possibility of more fluid roles, could epitomize to the hegemony the fear of insurrection. Feinberg emphasizes that for much of European history, the moving target of "witch" has often rested on women who engaged in gender-transgressive behavior (for their time, not necessarily behavior which we would today see as gender transgressive). Such behavior could include but was not limited to a woman who was not a consecrated virgin, anchoress (or otherwise connected to the Church) living alone, not marrying, practicing herbalism, cross-dressing or having same-sex relationships.

I've experienced surprising acceptance among rural folks in New England. I've met and have known lots of folks that, while I'm not sure would be considered "rednecks" according to the popular representations, are definitely considered the ecologically-minded equivalent, (we call them green-necks in Vermont). They are people who don't have much or any experience living in urban environments and have little or no connection to television and/or representations that come out of Hollywood. Usually living in geographically remote places, saltwater farms or cabins in the Green Mountains, they live somewhere on the continuum of "off the grid" that encompasses symbolic and social disconnect from greater pop culture and corporate entities to, say, a literal disconnect from the electric grid. They are pragmatic and utilitarian people, survivors, people you wouldn't normally think would look kindly on mohawks, tattoos, piercings and gender ambiguity, much less all rolled into one person! Then again, I grew up in rural Vermont and have spent my whole life there up until recently, so that has supplied me with some cultural access that I perhaps couldn't otherwise have if I'd grown up in an urban environment. I'll never forget the time when I was volunteering at Northeast Animal Power Field Days in Tunbridge, Vermont. This is a multi-day gathering, on historic old fairgrounds, of teamsters who work with oxen, horses and mules. There is an emphasis on people who do it not just for hobby, but who actually run their farms or woodlots on draft power. It's chock full of educational workshops as well as field demonstrations and vendor exhibits, pretty much everything you'd expect from a proper old-school ag fair. At this gathering, octogenarian libertarians, conservative families with kids in 4H programs, Vermont secessionists, and young progressive college or graduate age activists on the front lines of the new "back to the land" movement all mingle with each other out of common joys and passions. The political undertones are there, expressed on countless bumper stickers with slogans like "Oil is Over", or "Oil: The Original 'Alternative' Energy", but such views are neither overt or pretentious nor ignored or disputed. No one is threatened by anyone else. If you can't tell, this amazing intersectional social, political, and productive space is one of my happy places. I think that was either the first or second gathering ever, and I saw license plates from all over the northeast and eastern seaboard. But anyways, one of the most amazing demonstrations I saw was by a fellow from Connecticut, definitely well into his 80's, who brought his team of oxen up to Vermont with him for the Field Days. When I encountered him he had them yoked to a cart and on display for all to see. As they stood there, epitomizing the sublime blend of tranquility and raw power that bovines do, he lectured about his experiences raising and training them. I specifically remember him detailing the painstaking and artful process by which their horns are weighted and capped so as to not inflict injuries on themselves or their driver. Afterwards, when he was receiving questions from the crowd, I went up to tell him how his oxen were the most beautiful I'd ever seen and to express my interest in oxen driving. At that point, I'd had several years of farm jobs behind me, mostly at small-scale operations where the only machine around was, other than the vacuum pump that ran the milking machines, the occasional and often antique tractor. And more specifically I had some amateur experience driving horses and mules on a mostly draft-powered dairy farm I'd apprenticed at in Upstate NY, a summer for which I am forever grateful. As I related my experiences to this fellow (I forget what question or questions I actually did ask) I'll never forget the grace and friendliness in his demeanor. It was more than just being polite. I mean he didn't blink, and I perhaps only then started to realize how much I wasn't used to people in that generation and from a rural background completely looking past my appearance, effortlessly, no less. Our interaction was one between two farmers, two people whose identities, albeit in very different cultural settings, had been so much shaped by a relationship to the land. Not just ay relationship either, but an embodied one, one that was expressed through direct physical interaction with ecologies and with big, powerful, beautiful animals that were our partners in stewardship. In my case of course that relationship was not something that I was born into or inherited from my family, but something I sought out, and yes, often with a hint of romance. But this guy didn't have any hint of a smirk in his smile (it's funny when you define your interactions with folk by what they DON'T do, but such is the life of some of us), and for one of the first and most memorable (but not only) times in such an interaction, I felt seen.

Since then, I've had many more such interactions, not just with people entrenched in an agrarian world, but also in the spaces I've wandered into through my still nascent journey into the "primitive" skills community, where often quite solitary and stoic folks—hunters and trappers and First Nation people—of the Baby Boomer generation or older rub shoulders with young, politically charged (and needless to say privileged!) people like myself. These experiences have given me a great deal of humility… something that I think is explicitly NOT achieved by exclusionary or elitist attitudes that paradoxically probably come from the same desire (to instill a measure of respect in an 'ignorant' or ostensibly misguided younger generation).

It took me a while to figure these dynamics out, because sometimes I'd feel, and do feel, that in cities, urban and suburban environments I get more stares and weird looks than in rural areas. People are more defensive, wary perhaps. This seems so counter intuitive because cities are supposed to be hotbeds of "diversity", right? Vermont and Maine are some of the whitest states in the union… people don't "understand" diversity there. Right? …Wrong. I think much of it has to do with a particular brand of [Yankee] libertarian ethics that predominate among rural people of particularly northern Appalachia. The key is that many such people are, in libertarian fashion, fiscally conservative but socially liberal. They are against government regulation, not just in the realm of markets, but in all realms. I think this really has an effect, whether conscious or not (I suspect not) on the ethics and aesthetics of identity and personhood, in some positive ways I think. The essential anti-government and anti-state intervention stance and the constellation of resulting outlooks that it precipitates effect a kind of self-reliance and rejection of all language of empire, including that which serves to constrain non-heteronomative expression. Why is this so? I suspect that it has much to do with the resulting subjective position in which such people are not principally self-identified or objectified as consuming units, because of their distal (in terms of both space and ideology) relationship with large-scale hierarchical social, political or economic structures. For many of these people, their senses of self are intimately connected to production, not consumption. And I don't mean production in a consumerist context, I mean production of things for their own use or for the use of close kin or local community. Production in this sense is not just production of children or of labor-time vaulted by some abstract overarching economic system, but production of food, skills, soil (fuck yeah compost), and whatever things necessary to maintain traditions of cultural and ecological stewardship. Ironically, when our prime job is to consume, it is easier to cling to and unconsciously "protect" the only primal production left to us—childbirth and parenting, which are in the dominant society represented optimally in conjunction with heterosexuality, marriage and monogamy. This is definitely changing, but still to a large extent true. You might be thinking that I'm mistaken, and I'm just talking about wealthy back-the-the-landers and hobby farmers. But I'm not. I'm talking about working class people, who I often would only call "privileged" in the sense that they are blessed with the knowledge of how to live a self-sufficient rural life, which didn't used to be a privilege, it used to be a fucking birthright.

I've found difference and diversity is valued more at the level of smaller communities. I'm not saying urban, more consumerist environments are less tolerant per se, but I've found that in small, close-knit communities difference is valued more readily, and it is less prone to being categorized or labeled as something before being valued. This isn't just true of times long gone, as in autonomous pre-modern tribes of pastoral herding communities in the mountains of Europe (as Feinberg alludes to) but also just in certain contemporary rural settings, too. I think there is an evolutionary explanation for this. I think that at a small group level, especially when that group is relatively regionally isolated, the skill set of the group is very important. Differences, as long as they do not cause physical illness or severe disability, are tacitly understood to present possible unpredictable expansions of that skill set. Examples of this are non-neurotypical individuals like people who are hypersensitive to sensory input—such people could become empaths, psychics or soothsayers. People with visionary propensities or ambiguous genders could be shamans or priests, people with attention "disorders" or "compulsions" could be the best plant identifiers or animal trackers you've ever met because of their indexical and categorizing brains and attention to detail. When you are a small community trying to survive, or just trying to thrive, difference and diversity equal novelty, and you want the maximum chance to benefit from novelty, so to make the most of your environment and situatedness. After all, nature herself is a freak for diversity, and without it not only would we not have the complex ecologies that we do, but intelligence would have never evolved past a certain point.

But, as soon as a ruling elite gains sovereignty over a wide range of such smaller groups, such difference is no longer an asset, but a liability. The key is that the one doing the appraising of what proper (=useful) expression or behavior is shifts from the subjectivity of the group to that of the empire. From a distant position of theoretical top-down control, heirarchs can deploy homogenizing and regulatory ideologies and technologies, and ideas (manifested in universal ethical and moral codes) take the place of face to face speech, which flows two ways and is naturally more democratic—indeed, the true ground for human negotiation. When centralized civilization occurs, and this civilization is concerned with its nationality, with its national identity, naturally inclining to the aspiration of "alpha nation", differences that might otherwise be valued or valuable become monstrous. This reflects the perceived power of "monsters", "freaks" and "heretics" as insurrectionary agents who could potentially weaken the structuring of empire.
For an army to be successful, maximum uniformity and conformity at the level of individual soldiers is critical for the success of the chosen endeavors of the commander-in-chief. It is, in fact, a top-down will and intent that must be expressed through the coordination of many individual agents. This takes a really high level of organization, and its truly hard to not admire it, however awful it could potentially be (and I don't think it always has to be awful). In many ways though, the success and prospering of civilization has necessarily involved a deliberate reversal of organic ecological principles of bottom-up evolution of systems. Even cultural systems that have evolved in that bottom-up fashion (economies) still get appropriated in terms of top-down, hegemonic goals.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Paradoxes of Post-Industrial Individualism

What follows is a hopefully minimally disjointed series of thoughts about capitalism, American society, and the irony of the (high fructose corn syrup) fruits it has yielded. Indeed, such fruits are a mixed blessings… and to what exact extent, the jury is still out…

One of the most remarkable observations about post-industrial America is alluded to in the amazing essay "Capitalism and Gay Identity" by John D'Emilio. It is essentially this: Industrial and post-industrial capitalism have weakened the utility of the nuclear family while at the same time idealizing it, targeting it as primary unit of consumption. As a result, heterosexuality and its relationship to the "family" has become ideological, another commodity to be bought and sold. Ancillary to this is the scapegoating of gay, lesbian, transgender and gender-nonconforming people by popular discourse—framing them as emblematizing the dark side of modern society, i.e. what happens when family values fail or when people have too much freedom (?!) This is nothing less than the pot calling the kettle black, because we are indeed all victims of capitalism—in its historic, psychological, and physical/architectural forms—whether we are gay or straight, and whether we are monogamous or not. What this is is the policing of freedom; only one kind of freedom is "okay" and acceptable in America: political and economic freedom, the kind of freedom that allows the little guy to get a nice healthy piece of the pie through a ruthless and often bordering on sociopathic discourse of individualism. But what about the kind of freedom that might allow him, because of historical changes in ways of living and working and socializing that our culture has undergone in the last 200 years, to love another man? No, that kind of freedom is not allowed. This is of course, the epitome of hypocrisy, made more sinister by the fact that those who fight for "traditional family values" are sucking on the teat of corrupt capitalism just as much if not more than anyone else, without any awareness that they are doing so.

As Jonathan Katz (essay: The Invention of Heterosexuality, I don't agree with all of it) and John D'Emilio show in his aforementioned essay, the historical transition of the nuclear family from self-sufficient producing unit (in a colonial economy) to consuming unit (in a capitalist free labor market) caused many changes in daily life that in turn reshaped sexual behavior and consciousness, and more precisely created new spaces and possibilities for those things that were not there before. As Katz notes, this economic shift to increased consumerism changed ideological notions of what one's body was for (is it for producing or consuming?), and in a more concrete sense created new possibilities for social and sexual activity, through the dislocation of workers from their homes as well as the sex segregation potentiated by the wartime economy for both men and women (during World War 2). In D'Emilio's essay we see that urbanization (and its relationship to the growth of industry) also played an important part in the creation of sexual identities and urban subcultures in America. This touches on the trans-historical phenomenon of city-building and its associated social ramifications, to which we should be careful not to ascribe a certain historicism. In other words: city-states have risen and fallen cyclically for thousands of years and there have been indeed "mini globalizations" that have similarly created ecologies of identity and social revolution. For example, the urban centers of the Late Roman Republic fomented liberationist ideologies (Christianity and other mystery cults) that ultimately reframed then-contemporary notions about identity and family. It is not just capitalism, but the urban environment that contributes to a different attitude toward the self and creates new possibilities for identity (of all sorts, not just sexual). Capital is then a new and efficient imperial medium. The relationship between sexual identity and capitalist urbanism indeed seems culturally and historically specific in America, but interestingly the phenomenon of urban culture serving to ideologically undermine or change notions of kinship and/or ideas about the self is not… it is as old as civilization.

In the epilogue of her book "The Way We Never Were", family historian Stephanie Coontz notes that sociobiologists and psychologists have offered theories to justify the social isolation felt by many in the wake of the "Second Gilded Age" (her term for the conservative and market-oriented 1980's) with its effects on socio-economic macro and micro structures, world view and individual morale. In her survey of the shifting political climates of the 60's, 70's and 80's, she describes the rising of a conservative religious right in the late 70's and early 80's, reacting to the achievements and zeitgeist of the civil rights and gay liberation movements. The new conservative movement championed the rhetoric of a return to traditional family values and, especially in the wake of the perceived "materialism" of the later 80's, the merits of a return to a simple, private family life. The notion arose in popular culture that private was better, and activism and public involvement futile, mis-guided, but also dangerously undermined the sanctity and integrity (and obviously, identity) of the heterosexual nuclear family. In the early 90's (preceding the publication of Coontz' book) certain sociobiologists offered the argument that humans only have limited energy for altruistic behavior, so the scope of collectivity and cooperation is (and must be) necessarily constrained to our family. Similarly, one Freudian psychologist claimed that humans are "instinctually" antisocial, and the family is the means by which the antisocial condition is kept in check. However, Coontz has demonstrated that the concept "family" (along with the connected concepts of "ideal" and non-ideal family), seemingly one of our most concrete ontological categories, is not irreducible, but a social construct that has fluctuated greatly in the last two hundred years. The views expressed by these particular "scientific" camps are capitalist apologies as well as "crap psychology", and poorly represent the illuminative potential of those fields. The cultural contributions of such sciences as evolutionary psych & sociobiology occupy contested space. This is because science (theoretically anyways) is a tool, and therefore neutral, but this is never usually the case because a tool is always held in someone's hand. In other words, the research questions, and moreover the ways that experiments are designed and the results framed, are always in danger of—and never completely immune to—the effects of the cultural narratives and social fabric which constrain the epistemologies of actual scientists. The theories that Coontz cites in the beginning of her epilogue are perfect examples of "science" justifying "how things are", as if they are "supposed" to be that way, which is part of the very pattern of tautological justification that Coontz has been demonstrating in her book! Politically questionable science often talks about the brain in terms of it being "hardwired", when really it is more like "soft-wired".

Coontz rightly insists though, that "we are social animals" (p. 284). Yet our propensity for solidarity and coalition building, because of the individualistic economic and civic environments we find ourselves in (where functional moral connections to the encompassing community and public are lacking) are recruited towards a detrimental sort of tribalism. To paraphrase one of my favorite scientists, the primatologist Frans de Waal, the definitive dilemma of our time is the globalization of a tribal species (us). "Tribalism" is not automatically negative, although the word is often used in a derogatory sense. "The tribe" is a method, and the important question that will truly allow us to appraise the success or failure of this method is: what is our sociality in service of? We are unequivocally social animals; we must next accept that such a nature is deeply plastic and our environments are its ultimate sculptors. A political problem that Coontz' work seems to suggest to me is that if coalitional behavior and needs for solidarity are met predominantly in an environment of mutual disenchantment and pessimism, then xenophobia and suspicion will come to be the dominant hermeneutics. As Coontz' work implies to me, (and as current sociobiological and evolutionary theory would corroborate), the desire to get politically and socially involved is connected to the intrinsic desire for working and problem-solving toward a common goal with a non-kin group of manageable cognitive size, and attaining the pleasure and meaning and motivation that one derives from that experience. The ability to effect change in one's proximal environment through the activity of coalitions and groups seems to be a critical way we form positive meanings about ourselves (for one thing). A powerful critique of the relationship between post-industrial capitalism and personal ethics comes from a statement by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation:
"In capitalism, it is difficult to construct a relationship of respect, even between two individuals, and that much more difficult in collectivity."
Indeed. They continue, asserting
"the only real guarantee of individuality, of subjectivity, is the collective."
In other words, maximally coherent identity is formed through the interaction within a collective and between an individual and that collective… when the subject is isolated from frames of references, paradoxically individual identity can fragment and disintegrate.

Lately I've been feeding my obsession with Constantinople/Istanbul by reading 1453, an amazingly woven together account of the fateful Ottoman capture of a Christian city that was seen as unconquerable, its walls unbreached by foreign armies for over a thousand years. From a geological and human ecological analysis, one finds that one primary reason for the longevity of Byzantium, if one could be located, is its location and proximity to various key natural resources. Eight out of twelve miles of perimeter were comprised by shoreline, an ideal combination of swift-moving deep waters plus the respite of a natural harbor afforded by the Great Horn. Then there was the formidable four mile land wall, built in the early 5th century under Theodosios, which was 100 feet high from moat to inner wall and 200 feet thick (including empty space), and represented the apotheosis of military defense in the age of medieval siege technology. Among other things this wonderfully written book, both meditative homily, historical analysis and adventure story, has just made me marvel at the specific architectural, political and economic strategies necessary to maintain the integrity of a fortified city, much less one that embodies the ultimate strategic position at the nexus of three continents, two seas, and crossroads of countless cultures. And it is not just the structural and political integrity that must be ensured, but at the same there must be enabled swift and safe flow of goods into and out this vast creature of stone, marble and smoke. The flesh of the Late Antique and Medieval city must be both permeable and impermeable, able to hermetically seal itself at a moment's notice. The management of such an organism is quite something to ponder, and if this seems formidable, how in the world can we hope to understand the ways in which nations are managed today? We can't, which is why so much of it takes place in the ethereal world of the semio-sphere, in transactions of data, distributed across hot server farms, running on oil and rare earth metals. We cannot see how anything works, and yes, I'm not afraid to admit, it's scary.

I live in Los Angeles right now, which itself represents a pinnacle, or at least a particular apogee of a civilization. But one big different between LA and Constantinople is that there are no city walls here. Everything is just open… or at least it looks that way to the eye. But where are the walls? Where did they go? They must have gone somewhere. I suppose the easy answer is that they are the U.S. borders, the one to the north and the one to the south, and the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. But that can't be all. Today each person, in a way, has become a fortified city. In our urban studio apartments, little cross stitches on a sprawling carpet of concrete that drapes the landscape, we recapitulate the architecture of the city-state in our domestic lives. Not that it's our fault—it's not. No one is at fault. It's more complicated than that, and I won't take the easy way out and "blame the victim". (That would be a misunderstanding of Marxism.) But again, just like in ancient Rome, the household is a microcosm of empire, and could it ever be any other way? Has it ever, truly, since the dawn of civilization, or does the appearance merely change? As above so below… is that the rule, true no matter what is "above" or "below"? Should we actually live in a fortified city, or embody one? Which is safer? Which will prolong death longer? And if it does, will it do so at the expense of purpose?

Because of the expectations pressing on us in today's world as both worker and consumer, sociality has come to be associated with leisure, which is deeply problematic, one effect of the commodification and division of time. But if the social is integral to human attitudes, and more specifically to human optimism, then sociality must have multiple functions, including ones fundamental to municipal citizenship and local community. Sociality must have pragmatic and utilitarian benefits that firmly anchor it into a coupled relationship with local economic and political activity. This is indeed just the sort of politics that Murray Bookchin (author of "The Ecology of Freedom") proposes. As the feminist battle cry goes, "the personal is political"… that may be true, but until we live in environments whose invisible and physical structures are actually built with that in mind, we will be fighting a frustrating uphill battle.

I think there's an important distinction to make when critiquing this particular socio-economic/political system. I do not see the problem as being within the jurisdiction nor responsibility of the "end-user" (consumer) to solve. I.e. the premise that "we" (you and I) continually create the problem of capitalism by consuming is false, and I'm not one of those people who's like "the problem is us! Look how much we consume, it's disgusting!". Maybe that claim has its place somewhere, but I'm certain that we cannot "consume" our way out of the problem (i.e. through a mere shift to a 'greener' or green-washed economy). Therefore agency as consumer is actually, against all appearances, severely limited, and resembles nothing I would describe using the words "freedom" or "liberty", which I try not to use anyways. The consumer is neither sinner not savior. The problem is systemic and it outsources its symptoms onto the consumer. The consumer is one half of a coupled phenomenon, that of the producer-consumer relation. Therefore the consumer can not be at sole fault, nor can it be implicated as an isolated or autonomous node or step on a causal chain without considering that which forms its ecological (dare I use that word?) habitat. Truly, the ecological is everywhere, even where you don't see "nature". Ecology is the true matrix of reality. That said, I'm not afraid to admit that I don't know exactly how to "solve" these systemic problems. But I think that open-ended discourse about it, keeping an ethic of humility and cooperation and more emphasis on questions than answers, is the way forward.

*One observation that adds a twist to a discussion about the radical overhaul of society and public and private space that is the legacy of industrial capitalism is the possibility that social media and telecommunication technology are shifting the domain of public space. What IS public space today, and how does this crisis of definition effect the 'dichotomy' of public vs private agency?