Up Jumps The Devil

Perspective, Bloggers;  that’s what it’s all about.


So here we are at sixty-five years after the Great Break, known to you and me as the Second World War.  It’s not even a single human lifetime, just birth to retirement age…and yet we let it perplex us, so obsessed are we with the minutiae of daily life and daily orientation.  Trends and opinions, theories of history both recent and unrecent, and whatever the idiots I used to tutor are saying in the newspapers this week, it all serves to produce a sense of place and participation…but the problem is, in a world of mass-media exposure that vital sense of being and doing and belonging gets politicized, until we cannot see the forest, we cannot see the trees, we are just plainly and simply facing the wrong way ’round.  In the 19th century English-speaking world everybody who was anybody wrote a History at some point, because it was simply de rigeur to explore how we got Here from There…”Here” meaning everything since the Dark Ages, and “There” meaning everything that came before.  Yeah, the Roman Empire — they considered it to be relevant.

Meanwhile we consider everything before 1990 to be Stonehenge-Land.  It seems.  Sometimes.

And can this fail to be depressing?

Stop and back up:  if you’re like me, you’re probably wondering how in the world Jonathan Lethem got Phil Dick’s 8,000 pages of Exegesis down to a mere 800, and how justified those cuts were.  I don’t have an axe to grind against Lethem, I’m not suspicious, but it sure is a monumental whittling-down (heh), and it makes me nervous that I might not see enough in it of the “real” Phil Dick, whose detailed literary exploration of his own madness I think the world desperately needs.  It’s not often, after all (anymore!), that we send down a writer of his caliber and stripe into those depths, and actually permit ourselves to listen in on the hydrophone to what he has to say about the experience.  And yet madness is close to us all, chillingly close, just a half-word away — we are involved with madness, all of us, but we don’t know how to pop the question without popping the bubble.  We don’t know what’s in madness…

But we should know that there is something in it.  Our friend the horse-lover once described the modern world as a Biblical illusion, something created by the Devil to manufacture conceptual distance between the reality we live in, and the reality we perceive.  There we are in 30 A.D. or something, going about our lives, connected, integral…but then up he jumps! And puts a gulf of time between ourselves and ourselves, that doesn’t, that can’t, really exist.  Two millenia, man.  Now that’s a really long con…

But let me, perhaps, explain.

So here we are in a rather suspicious state, wherein either we are irreversibly on the verge of an ecological catastrophe…or we aren’t.  This is just our starting-point, mind you, this is just our example.  But consider the something-less-than-threescore-and-ten that lies between us and what Archie Bunker used to call “The Big One”:  and how either it was all done long before then, like LONG before…like, irreversibly all done in the early fifteenth century, or something…or it was all still salvageable until just a little while ago.


Now, let’s take a look:  Silent Spring came out in the early Sixties, I believe?  (And FYI, The Second Sex came out in the early Fifties — not so much as an eyeblink of time between ’em as far as the 19th century historians would’ve been concerned)  And now it’s fifty years later and you’ve got to say we’ve made some progress in raising consciousness about it.  You may say we haven’t made much progress at all, but I don’t think you’re considering the obstacles we’ve had to overcome!  Surely you don’t think Ronald Reagan wanted a recycling box in every household?  And yet we have ’em, don’t we.  So who made that happen.

Obviously, it was us.

Think about it.  In the last thirty years, my country’s seen nothing less than a sweeping nutritional revolution:  what people eat is completely different from what it was when I was a child.  And yet what it is now, is not so different from what it was when my grandmothers and grandfathers were children.  More olive oil, certainly.  More affordable apricots.  But in the basics it’s not so different.  Now go back another thirty years from them:  we’re at the American Civil War.  In terms of food choices, it’s not so long.  But to us it’s ancient history.

Except it isn’t ancient, that’s just the devil jumping up.  When Barack Obama was elected, I read an article about it written by a man who’d watched the acceptance speech with a woman who was born a slave.

Born a slave.

Born a slave.

And I thought:  “wow, isn’t that amazing!” And then I slapped myself.  Because it isn’t amazing, damn it.  It isn’t amazing AT ALL.  These are eyeblinks, these are specks, these are things that are practically happening now, for the love of God they’re not distant, they’re not ancient…!

But we think they are, don’t we?

One human lifetime since slaves were kept in the Americas by European settlers, and it was common practice, it was normal.  Birth to retirement age since a dumb white guy with syphilis who got millions of people onside with Just Killing Jews topped himself in a bunker.  Nuclear power, the oil economy, NATO and the Warsaw Pact, the end of the Piston Era, spaceflight, the Great Leap Forward, the great leap back.  A Coca-Cola on every corner, a Manchurian Candidate in every pot.  Health care.  Fiberglass.  Sci-Fi.  Punk rock.  How very quickly we do forget.

It might as well all be happening right now.

Until, that is…the devil jumps up.

So think about this:  that deniability always rests on nearness as much as it rests on distance.  If a huge ecological catastrophe was made inevitable five hundred, five thousand, or five hundred thousand years ago…or five million, for that matter!…then there’s nothing to deny.  It isn’t our fault.  We didn’t know, and couldn’t have known, and twenty generations lie between us and blame, as surely as twenty generations lie between us and the ability to act on the danger we’re in.  So in that event, from that perspective, it makes very little sense for us to even care — we might as well do just what we please.  This is Calvinism except you know the answer of salvation in advance:  this is smash-the-state territory.  Booze up and riot.  If the science is inarguable and the conclusion foreordained, then no one’s privileges can possibly be protected or maintained — the revolution’s here, because there is absolutely no reason under the sun for it not to be.  We don’t even have to be polite about it.  The fate of the world’s got nothing to do with us — the only thing there is to think about is the inequity we see around us every day, and what we feel like doing about it.

On the other hand, if this isn’t millenial anti-Calvinism…then something might be done now, and all those who are not doing it are shutting the door on the future.  Inevitably.  Thus we are all in the deadliest danger this minute, and so once again the revolution is here.  Because there’s no reason for it not to be.  Therefore it can’t not be.  And everyone must be involved.

But obviously we do not really believe either of those things.  What we believe (and by “we” I mean everyone who is the least bit interested in truth-values, whether I think their theories wrong or right) is that, broadly speaking, either the point’s just been passed, or it is just ahead.  Either it is just by this much that we have missed the chance to act, or we are acting in the exactly appropriate measure, at the exactly appropriate time, in the lead-up to a crisis that we will neatly avert because we are perfectly prepared for it…even if we don’t yet know how we are prepared.  In the former case, though we’re doomed we can still point fingers:  at people who knew, who were told, but who just didn’t listen or just didn’t care.  In other words:  not the full revolution, not yet, but rather the seeking of redress through the machinery of political culture and society that preserves us from the revolution and its costs.  A trial, a judgement, a sentence;  maybe even a Hail Mary pass afterwards, if someone can think of one.  But because the moment of a failure close to present, still contains all the advantages of a present moment…then this is all very personal, still.

Meanwhile in the latter case, where the moment of crisis has not yet arrived, the science may be right but we do not have to act on it even if it is.  Mere knowing doesn’t necessitate action in this view as it does in all the others — if thinking it has either just happened or that it may be happening at this instant makes inaction unethical at best and impossible at worst — can there be something as conveniently neutral as “inaction” during a crisis or its immediate aftermath? — the wu-wei view of climate change simply maintains that it isn’t rational to put all pressure on a moment that is not the moment.  Which is very very convenient, isn’t it?  To maintain that if there is any critical moment in question, the one moment it can’t be is this one right here?

Well, they’re both convenient views, actually.  And perhaps unsurprisingly:  since they each argue the same point, only from different ends.  It’s just happened, or is happening as we speak in such a way that the odds are going against us like those damn deflector shields in those damn Star Trek shows, only effective until challenged and then always weakened, weakened, weakened unto death…each moment leaving less urgency, less responsibility, in our hands…subtracting away how much blame we ourselves will eventually deserve, as the present slips into something more comfortable.  After all where does the past begin, as old Isaac once asked?  It begins in the present, it begins now….

OR.  It has not happened before and is not happening now…because the present begins the future, too, and it’s the future we have to think about:  and acting for the moment, well that’s just silly.  After all, what can we do in a moment?  Nothing at all;  therefore if there’s anything least necessary for us to do about anything, it’s that.

And if you think all that just sounds like it’s straight out of Xeno and his paradoxes, I think you’d be right, dear reader:  I mean, what a load of crap.  To argue the devaluation of the present in both cases;  and yet to insist that the critical moment for action cannot be far from the present.  Because if it’s too far in the past, then there’s no point questioning the science anymore:  we did it thirty-five decades ago, it’s done.  It’s outside the boundaries of the thing called wiggle-room, it’s already long past debating.  But if it’s far in the future still, then there is similarly no reason to call the science into question:  this will happen, and we all agree it will happen.  So then we get to ask:  hey people in charge, what are you planning to do about it in the short and long term?  And then if the answer is “not a damn thing until it’s on top of us”…well, there’s no wiggle-room there either, is there?  Because the excuse is the same.

From a certain perspective, it’s a terrible excuse for an excuse.  What are the odds, after all, that in “climatic time” if not geological time the fulcrum moment would be located so precisely and so flatteringly?  An eyeblink;  a speck.  It’s less than both of those.  Barely birth to retirement age, and not even that:  more like a chunk inside it where the leaves of the calendar mark time by changes in fashion, by what’s hot and what’s not, a span of time subject to such generational dilation that slavery seems like ancient history from within it…and yet even inside that span it still must be anywhere but here that the world is saved or damned, and anyone but us who determines it.  So the only perspective that allows environmentalists to say “I told you so” and industrialists to say “dope-smoking hippies are such woolly-headed alarmists”, is this one.  Any other perspective, and both positions not only stop being anything like firmly-entrenched, but they fall completely to pieces.  Two human lifetimes, and they both look just as silly as they are.

Which is to say:  one looks a fuck of a lot sillier than the other…but then that’s no excuse for apathy either, eh?  From the perspective of two human lifetimes, to try to use the other guy’s arguments against him, just to prove he’s a hypocrite and no more, and thus ignore the arguments that have to do with what is real, is a shameful abdication of responsibility.  It isn’t even attractive when comics nerds argue about “good stories”, for heaven’s sake.  And the more you scale up the importance of the conversation, the uglier it is to see anyone try to win it by gaming it.

And I hope you remember that I said this was all just preamble, eh?  Because that’s what it was.  That’s what you just read:  the opening remarks.  Yeah…yeah, I know, but…

…Gotta be me, eh?

But not too much:  and so probably I should now step briskly to the point.  Up jumps the devil from the bright blue sea, to rob us of initiative by robbing us of perspective…but sometimes initiative is not the only thing we have going for us.  Sometimes we have necessity, too.

And it all comes down to this:  one day soon, someone will need a bigger telescope.  I mean forget the coming mineral shortages:  forget zinc, forget palladium, forget even phosphorus

…Although we use phosphorus to make fertilizer, and so when it’s gone so is the global food-production machinery the twentieth century relied on and made its big money on…and forget that when people are starving that’s when revolutions really come along…I mean forget Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite!, the slogan of the 1917 Revolution was “Bread, Peace, Land!”  Hey, in the span of a human lifetime we have never seen mass galvanization of government resources more than once…it was called “The Big One:  WWII”…but just let people not get enough wheat or rice or taro root to fucking live another four weeks and you’ll see it again!  I guarantee you will see it!  I mean what did Lenin starve twenty million for, if not to show the superiority of his method of totalitarian fuckery?  He wanted to show that he could break the equation between famine and revolt, and he did…but man, they tried a lot of crazy shit back in the twentieth century, and most of it was kinda one-use-only, you know?  I again guarantee you, there will never be any more times in which famine can be domesticated by a moral monster, and made a proof of some theory.  I mean that was some pretty radical shit, but:  one use only.  And if hunger comes again, in our time, the world will change — it’ll change fast.  Because people will shed their politeness to power, and shred their illusions about power…and it will be, in fact, as though it was suddenly understood that the science is rock-solid and that the question was all answered in the early fifteenth century.  The governments will fairly leap into action, if they see any way to act at all!  At a certain point minerals are indistinguishable from foodstuffs in the flowchart.  Sulfur’s wheat, and palladium’s cinnamon, and coal is spelt is gasoline is wind and water power, whales, salmon, tuna, eggs, Samoans, semiconductors, surfboards…at a certain point we’d all riot for any of it, because it’s all connected.  And so someday really soon, something is going to happen, and then the governments will react…

And will react…

And they’ll amaze us all in an instant.  Believe me when I say:  they will.  Let’s take some perspective on this:  we are going to fucking RUN OUT of palladium!  You know what I mean…?

But, wait.  I did say:  “let’s leave all that aside”, didn’t I?  Because I was talking, instead, I believe, about the telescope.

It won’t come down to famine, Bloggers.

Because anyone who’s ever worked with their hands knows that machines are great, but there will always be something they can’t do.  Human beings are great at building machines because they’re smart;  but what’s “smart”?  Well, smart is about a million years of evolution on the Homo tree, another four million on the Pan tree…on and on, and back and back, ’til you hit a number like four billion years of R+D.  And I mean, don’t get me wrong, we’re smart…! But some of our smartest moves include enlisting natural processes (like evolution) to make our technology better.  And that…well

…Is also sort of an admission, isn’t it?

That chance designs better than intelligence does?

Mind you, I’m a big fan of intelligence.  I love intelligence to death.  Look at what intelligence has given us!  Why for one thing, it’s given us…

…The telescope.

So forget all the minerals.  Suppose one day an astronomer walks into, oh I don’t know, the U.S. Congress and says:

“I need a bigger telescope.  Build it for me.”

Can they say “no”?

Well, they can;  but that would be a lot like saying “in the United States Of America we are okay with science, but there is a maximum build-out of advancement of instruments!”

And even in just one country that won’t work.  I mean we don’t need revolutionaries.  We don’t need political martyrs.  This isn’t C-20 anymore, we’re not doing passion plays of The Crucible, these are just a bunch of brass tacks, and it all comes down to this:  the guy wants a bigger telescope.  Because he wants to look through it.  Sure, you can put him off for a year.  You can put him off for ten years.  But put him off for fifty years and your country will be Amish.  In fact “more” than Amish, which is to say far less than the Amish people!  You will be fairy sprites worshipping a tree.  You will be a scientific and technological society that has capped science and technology.  Like I said, it won’t need rebels:  just astronomers.  One day an astronomer will enter the Congress and it’ll be Road Warrior Time.  And that is why…

…You will give the guy his telescope.  And if it needs to be on the moon, you will put it on the moon.  And if it needs fast-reacting mammal-robot humans to run it instead of spider-robots made at MIT, you will use the humans.  Pay for the oxygen.  Figure it out about the cosmic-ray shielding.  You’ll do all that.

Because from the perspective of two human lifetimes, it’s simply necessary.  It’s stupid to dither, and it’s stupid to delay.  Anyone who works with their hands knows it:  there will always be tasks conceived by humans, that creations of humans can’t do.  And so you sigh, and put on the rubber gloves and the rubber boots.  You want to just go home and go to bed, but instead you have to go to the MOON…!  Recently the guy who was the last British Astronomer Royal said, in response to the question “what about going to the moon?”…he said…

“Been there, done that.”

What a fucking wanker.  I mean how truly embarrassing.  Every new look we take at anything, including the sainted moon, tells us more about it.  Our knowledge is always expanding.  It’s expanding by leaps and bounds made by seven-league boots.  Every time we look anew, we learn something.

Our learning comes thick and fast, these days.

From a certain perspective, that’s a problem.  I mean how can any outdated narrative survive, when necessity speaks against it?  We live in a time when all appears to be trends, opinions, theories of history both recent and non-recent…and it all weighs itself heavier than it is, doesn’t it?

It begs for belief, eh?

But…the silly thing about it is…

…That there will be a Moonbase Alpha.  Because necessity says there must be.  The guy who wants the telescope:  says there must be.

Of course it is up to us if we want to fill it with go-go girls.  And I pray we will be equal to that task.


Thanks so much for listening.  I think I lost my point.

Maybe I’ll try again?


4 responses to “Up Jumps The Devil

  1. Except that.

    There are still people in power defending the positions that a) there are no environmental problems going on that are actually worth worrying about (untrue, but difficult to shift people away from), and b) anyway, we have a lot of other stuff to worry about (indisputable, although opinions vary widely about priorities). Never mind all the people who are secretly okay with the world ending next week and are wondering why it hasn’t happened already. You can say that all of the stuff that you say is necessary is necessary, but that doesn’t mean that anybody’s actually going to do any of it.

    Ever read Collapse? Jared Diamond?

  2. I totally have read “Collapse”! And I must say, Montana looks a lot like B.C…

    …Matthew, I’m thinking the “AV” they’re having a referendum on there in the UK…well, that would totally fly like an eagle in B.C….I didn’t think STV would work, I thought giving people that tough a sell was just like “oh, sure, we’ll try it if you want it YAWN”, but I actually think AV could WORK…!

    Anyway it doesn’t matter what people SAY. It matters what the necessaries are. It’s quite cute that there are old motherfuckers in the U.S. Senate who literally do not know shit from shinola, but if you look at things carefully…you will see that it is precisely Jared Diamond:

    A society’s got to choose to fail.

    But what I’m saying is: sometimes it’s an obvious choice.

    And then they STILL don’t take it!

  3. I’m both shocked and not shocked by the level of apathy in the United States. Don’t you people get it? We the People, etc. A small group of committed people led by a true visionary can change the damn world! Look at [name of famous martyr/ inventor/ group of people who came together to stop a problem in the distant past of the 20th century]! We all grew up learning about the major events of history, including the Great American Myths, and seeing the country evolve into the World’s Only Superpower. None of us lived through that history, though, so even the ’70s seemed almost as distant as the Civil War. It all got stirred together into the pot of American History.

    Even seeing how The People had a hand in winning WWII and bringing about the end of Vietnam, my generation hadn’t done anything. Now we’re in our 30s, and we still haven’t changed the world in a big, sweeping, future-history-textbook-worthy way. We all know that everything, including politicians, news reports, and the type of food we eat, is controlled by corporations. Because we let it. Because it’s too hard to take the wheel. Most of all, because we are comfortable with our luxuries and lack of non-personal strife. We’re divided, willing to give into our prejudices (whether leftist or rightist), and being told that that’s okay, or even righteous.

    So, yeah, my country’s got issues from a distance and the rest of the world is even more screwed from an even greater distance. I’m doing fine, though, even if I’m not on a grander scale.

  4. Pingback: Linkblogging For 02/09/10 « Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!·

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