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; an embrace of myth and ritual as eco-technologies. 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

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

John Muir was a Clock-Punk

My partner who is into eco-criticism was telling me all these things that I didn't know about the naturalist and explorer John Muir. He is a figurehead for wilderness conservation/preservation, co-founder of the Sierra Club, and also helped get the National Parks system started. Though he only read Emerson later in life, his work and though resonated with that brand of transcendentalism and the connected estrangement from "Western materialism", though as I understand it it seems like his mysticism was very informed by Jewish and Christian scripture. I think this is really cool because many of us fail to appreciate the mystical traditions that "The Bible" contains documentation of. In short, something supremely alien to our culture is too often seen as familiar. But for all it's given us,  that familiarity obscures a lot too.

Some strands of environmentalism inspired by the likes of Muir leaves much to be desired, not least of which is the sad irony of the museum-ification of nature that Muir surely never intended and would be aghast at, since he was in fact all about a sort of anarchistic participation in wilderness.

We forget that one of the really pivotal texts in the Hebrew Bible…Exodus… deals in great part with living in the wilderness, not by choice but by necessity. It's about people surviving in a harsh desert bioregion. I say this as an agnostic, but put yourself in a survival situation for a few weeks and see how fast you create notions of the sacred. It happens swiftly…and you don't just create them you also "enshrine" them. You have to expand your definition of 'sacred' here in order to work with my example, but that's okay, because it's an expansive category indeed. There is an extent to which it's almost impossible to approach some of these ancient texts, not just because of language or culture, but also context and affect. But it makes sense that Muir ended up finding a use for biblical language after all, because he did something kind of radical. He alienated himself at a time when the pride of American industrialism was singing opera. He built a cabin that had an alpine stream flowing through it. He woke up to Earthquakes in Yosemite Valley.

Apparently as a boy he was forced to memorize the Bible by his father. He would come to strongly disagree with the "Biblical" tenet that the world was made for mankind (which in its capitalist form is a bullshite reading of the Hebrew Bible anyways). It really makes sense chronologically, since Muir was witnessing what he probably saw as the commodification of the biotic world during the Industrial Age, and more specifically the Gilded Age, i.e. the dawn of the corporation.

Though his nature-mysticism was undoubtedly informed by a something that went deeply unfulfilled in his rigorous religious tutoring at the hand of his father, biblical language clearly shaped his expressions, and in the most profound ways. As in:

 "No temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite... The grandest of all special temples of Nature."

This is a very theological statement, and really reaches into the heart of the earliest theology of Christian Jews, who critiqued the Temple in Jerusalem because they saw it as not necessarily representing the 'true' and everlasting (spiritual) temple. But lest I seem to be glamorizing Christianity, let me tell you: The concept of a dwelling place for God "Not made by human hands" is not Christian—but like pretty much everything else Christian, it's Jewish. It goes way back to the book of Exodus, where the first sanctuary was perhaps the ground of Mt. Sinai, where Moses encountered the burning bush and received the Law/Torah while communing with God alone on the summit. In one passage Moses is instructed to build an altar out of stones, but they cannot be "hewn", they must be as nature made them. Later in Rabbinic times after the collapse of the Temple in 70 CE, the idea of the celestial temple was a powerful aspect of Jewish devotion.

But if you're just talking about sacredness recognized by humans as immanent in the geomorphic environment you can take it way back, to the worship of natural stones which turned into standing stones which turned into altars. Humans seem to like stones because they are heavy, resilient, hard, ancient, and sometimes pretty (crystals = pretty), and most importantly were seen as likely dwelling-places for deities, spirits, power, vital forces, etc. This sort of idea can be seen in many different belief systems... ancient and contemporary.

In her research my partner has noted Muir's prolific use of "domestic metaphors" in his writing—comparing natural features to architecture, aspects of the human built environment, buildings, etc. in order to emphasize their majesty and beauty. At first this might seem like some sort of elite anthropomorphizing of nature, but it seems to me like it much more refers to the whole set of poetic tropes regarding the "architecture" of holy space that has its origin in the Hebrew Bible and is a central topic of exegesis in Christian theology, where the human person/holy man is the temple of God and the 'Law' is written on "the tablets of our hearts." But anyways, Muir goes one step further to say that it's not just humans that are the chosen dwelling places of God, but actually all of creation. Nature is made up of little dwellings, little houses, and big houses, and medium sized houses, for God. It's ALL God's holy city. Human civilization is just like the corrupt business district. God doesn't like to go there because there aren't any weird cafes, diners, or comic book stores.

But what I didn't know was that he was basically kind of a mad scientist (though I prefer the less-known nomenclature "scientist-artist" a la Bucky Fuller). He built a bed with a built in alarm clock, with gears all made out of wood, that would dump him out of it every morning at 5 am. Then he also made a bookshelf-desk-lazy-susan type contraption that had books on this timed-rotation in order to help him focus. Woah.

He also designed a water-powered tree mill while living in Yosemite.

The juxtaposition of interests in wilderness and engineering is fascinating to me, especially because there isn't really a well-put together narrative on why those things are compatible, but I think it's kind of an unsung hallmark of the industrial age, (Jenny says "he was like a refugee from the industrial age")… yet there's also something ancient and monastic about it, the interest in automata, in "cybernetics" in the true meaning of the word. Cybernetics comes from the Greek verb for "to steer" or "to pilot" (as in a ship), how information flows through systems, same Root as the English word "government." But being an inventor or a "hacker" is its own sort of ascetic practice (a form of kung fu). It shows—it demonstrates—a sort of esoteric understanding in the same way—if not in a more profound way—than a hefty bunch of WORDS on a page does.

It is a form of giving life—an imitation of the cosmos like ancient monks and priests thought of their ascetic lives as imitation of Christ or of the angels.

But it strikes me that this punk form of contemplation, practiced in the shadows of modernity, really sees that ancient ideal and literally raises it to universal (that is to also say atomic) proportions.

This is kind of like the moment when I found out how into alchemy Isaac Newton was. You don't often hear about that because he's hailed as being such a founding father of physics, and alchemy is seen as quackery by modern science, so we can all pretend that was his "hobby."

What you have here with Muir is the confluence of the anarcho-primitivist, the mystic, and the hacker. A sort of engineer-monk. This has curious results in different phases of the age of techno-science. Buckminster Fuller, Nicola Tesla, and Einstein are others who were born into a similar world where science could be the new monasticism/mysticism (which definintely has its own entire discourse of orthodoxy/heresy). Science/engineering can be a gnostic path because ascetic spiritual training was all about discipline, methodology, and was very empirical, since it was actually about controlling aspects of one's environment, thus the body, and thus, finally the consciousness.

As much as we like to blame the ancients for being dualists, this is one example of how they really saw the mind as very physical, or at least in an effective and utilitarian if not theological or ultimate sense. (It turns out, ironically, that it's US who are the dualists who doth protest so much. Tell me that cyberpunk fantasies of uploaded consciousness aren't dualist. Yeah. See what I mean? Let's leave the medieval and classical periods alone in that regard and take a good look at ourselves.)

Technology is essentially an instantiation of certain TECHNIQUES or technical knowledge, it is their crystallization and codification of knowledge into artifacts/material culture. Modern technology is merely much more complex than ancient, and the "coding" is harder to see, even invisible. There are more moving parts, and they are tinier.

Technology or inventions are just material hymns—physical panegyrics—to nature because they employ/exploit the laws of physics, chemistry, thermodynamics, etc; An iconography of nature, so to speak. Definitely not to many people who invent or manufacture things, for sure. But doesn't that serve to put in higher relief the ones that think otherwise? The truly "mad" dervish-scientist who, burning the midnight oil and burned by the numinous fire that mystics speak of, build working, 3-dimensional icons of something that is fundamentally ineffable.

I mean "icon" here in the Greek/Eastern/Mystical sense—a window into a 'divine reality' that vacillates between immanent and transcendent depending on what the receivers (us) are doing with ourselves. In the Western world we have a watered-down, secularized (and not in a good way) notion of what symbols are. Too often they are corporate logos (quite different, unfortunately, from the mystical concept of the Logos or semiotic hyperspace). Older theories of representation, which are still maintained, for example, in the mystical tradition of icon-painting in Eastern Orthodoxy or perhaps in the Hindu concept of darshan, acknowledge and USE representation to SHOW instead of to merely remind. Moreover representation is not a "copying," but rather a rupture, an opening in the flesh of routine space-and-time that shows us something glimmering and golden, something that is really there. Even though many of us forget that logos and symbols have an effect on us, advertisers didn't forget it, and they play us all the time with glimpses into the wrong kinds of transcendent realities.

But this type of iconography that connects the "above" with the "below," it can extend to anything—anything enacted, crafted, made, performed. With the right intention, artificial things can make us feel hope, stretch our imaginations beyond our wildest dreams, inspire us, tell us a story—whether literally or non-discursively, and even show us who we are. This is the magical—the truly theurgic—side of human artifacts. Haven't you ever held something made by hands, made by someone you know? I'm talking especially about those things that blur the line between art and something else; A tool, a forge, a contraption, a vessel, a weapon, food. Something jury-rigged, something that blends old with new. These things are "artificial" in that they were made by human hands, but yet they feel ancient, connected to some subterranean source of life. They embody life because they are tools—extensions of ourselves, crafted from our immediate environment—wood, stones, bones, bark... alive things.

Really, the first technology was made from flesh—the flesh of the world; an alchemy of fire, earth, water, and air. It still is but the connection is much harder to see.

For monks there is no distinction between working and praying, theory and practice. ORA ET LABORA—Pray and Work—was the motto of the Benedictine Order, basically the first organized monastic order in Western Europe. Don't let the "and" fool you—these things were seen as reciprocal. Combining contemplation with action was an imperative! And this is why we have numerous delicious kinds of beer and cheese from Europe—because of the temporal and physical constraints enumerated by the Benedictine rule that organized monastic life, prayer, and work.

John Muir was like this, an engineer-monk, reincarnating telluric materials into 'machines' that enabled, for him, a strange return to Nature.

1 comment:

Amelia Wayne said...

Ah! There's so much buzzing energy in my brain right now!

Connections between the mystic and the engineer, the theurge and the scientist. There's a reason magic is called a "craft." I think both sets of callings/professions/ways of being involve crafting out of both hidden and invisible realities: the material of the world at hand (wood, stone, human relationships, lived experiences, the elements) and "unseen" forces or principles known only to those aware of the secrets of the craft.

Whether these are esoteric (relationship between signs and signifiers, the names of unknown gods, etc.) or more practical (laws of physics, geometric principles, etc.), they are still unavailable to the layfolk whose lives are not lived according to these principles; for the good reason that most human social life operates by much more mundane and explicitly (or implicitly) communicated schema. But the engineer and the theurge step outside of these normal schema to embrace the hidden (or at least the not immediately obvious) reality in order to achieve extra-mundane crafts: from spells or nature magic or airplanes and suspension bridges.

QUOTE (YOU): "Science/engineering can be a gnostic path because ascetic spiritual training was all about discipline, methodology, and was very empirical, since it was actually about controlling aspects of one's environment, thus the body, and thus, finally the consciousness." -- Absolutely. I think this is the basic operational theory behind the imagery used in Freemasonry (also called "The Craft"). This language was also definitely employed in a number of ascetic circles. There's a correlation in mystical thinking between the outside and the inside that I think gets lost when we try to focus too much on the esoteric nature of the language. While it can seem like it's all about building castles in the sky, it's so much more radically practical than that.

I could go on and on, but it's so much more fun as a dialogue (and this Syriac also won't do itself!)