[AN ABSURDLY CIRCUITOUS AUTHOR’S NOTE: I once thought this story was particularly good. It formed the core for a performance and was going to be made into some kind of recording with an accompanying booklet. At this point these things could very reasonably be expected to never happen. Now I am presenting it for two related but ultimately distinct reasons. The first requires you to suspend all notions about the reasonable scope of an author’s note and allow me to say that I divide my adult life very generally into five distinct phases. Whatever else is true of them, they all represent fundamental changes in my relationship to suffering I experienced in childhood. This most recent phase I consider to have begun rather abruptly on the night of September 21st, 2015, when I experienced a surge of memories I hadn’t consciously engaged with since I was young.

This process has continued over the subsequent months. I will indulge in gratuitous understatement and say that it has been tumultuous. Projects are exceptionally difficult to complete. There are the actual mind-bending crises, but many calmer times when I am less mentally organized than necessary to engage a logical sequence. Things are initiated and forgotten. Posting this is a step I am taking toward changing my relationship with the work I do, towards something more stable and task-oriented.

Secondly, time has revealed an inadvertent dual level of meaning embedded in this story. The focus on a single identity being adopted by a lineage of different people was the initial theme from which “In Many Bodies” rather obsessively grew. Looking back I would say that this idea probably came to the fore of my consciousness as a precursor to the process of recollection and cognitive reorganization I was about to undergo. In the story, one’s own elaborate and horrible past is revealed in a number of unknown past identities: A month later my own horrible past was revealed through an unknown past identity. I even had to revert to my birth name of Arnold, acknowledging that Scott (snatched out of thin air at the age of 10) was an invention which largely functioned in the service of forgetting. I like very much that this text occupies these twin stories,  particularly because one of them takes place in flesh-and-blood reality. Writing is a strange task to which I am bound by my nature rather than out of any clear conviction it’s useful. One likes to think occasionally the words wander off the page and do something interesting.]

sst-memento-mori-french-woodcut-dornai

In the fifteenth year of his reign and thus seven years into the great drying of the land, when the rain ceased to fall and the sun swelled red in the sky and burned crop land and wild land alike, sparing neither the haunts of men nor the haunts of beasts, in the month of the apple harvests, the month of fat bears crawling into the earth in search of slumber and of dull yellow, faceless moons, emperor Melanus’s army, strengthened by reinforcements from recent victories in the south, crushed the rebellion which had begun in the northern mountain districts and spread inexorably over the course of half a decade into the surrounding lowlands.

A certain fatalism, it must be acknowledged, often surrounds the making of revolutions—it is difficult to determine with any real certainty a date at which the rebellion’s defeat seemed inevitable because many of its participants knew it to be inevitable at the very outset. Anyone who has not chosen to give up their life for a cause they know to be hopeless likely has no ability to comprehend the experience of those who do, just as the tongues of the seeing falter attempting to describe color to the blind, and therefore speculation about the rebels’ last moments can be dismissed as futile. This is particularly true because none of them survived to provide us with any testimony, choosing ritual suicide over capture almost to a person, with one exception.

A relatively unknown soldier-poet, whose work otherwise consists of lyrical erotica addressed to a lover he left in a rural farming district juxtaposed with graphic descriptions of the horrors of war, a poet of little account even to scholars of the most painful obscurities, has left us the most thorough description of that day. His work can be corroborated from far briefer accounts provided by military records and imperial historians who had access to primary sources which have subsequently been lost to time, and these other sources correspond generally to the poet’s description of events.

The rebellion was nothing if not pluralistic, and thus the collective suicide was really a number of simultaneous collective suicides occurring in the same place, each one carried out in the manner required by the various deities of the various peoples. The mountain folk, the wildest of those people who had fought alongside each other, who consider the forest sacred, being disinclined to grow crops or live in cities, who worship the bear and whose priestesses are said to lie with bears, were each marked by a priestess with bear’s blood and told they would roam the sky that night with the Great Mother Bear before she cut their throats. Some of the valley people were wildly drunk from wine mixed with a slow-acting poison, believing drunkeness to be a form of divine madness and thus a means of knowing the mind of the Grain Giver who they were returning beneath the earth to reside with until the reunification of earth and sky, the event they believe will mark the end of time.

sst--wound man

When the soldiers made their way through the enemy encampment they encountered only corpses and earth stained redder, if we are to believe the poet’s floridly tragic account, than the red of battlefields—only corpses and a single man, who made no attempt to flee but who simply sat amidst his countless dead comrades staring down at a perfectly white daisy which he had plucked from the ground and which he now spun back and forth between his fingers, apparently absorbed by thoughts distant from the tragedy and peril that surrounded him. His birth name is a matter of considerable uncertainty, and perhaps of little consequence—he had come to be known by his compatriots in the course of their years fighting together as the Cynic, owing to his caustic humor concerning the hardships of war, and Cynic was the only name to which he would answer.

Upon initially encountering him, the soldiers took him for a magician of the mountain folk, as both his cheeks were scarred by bear’s claws as is the custom among magicians of those people. In reality, it would be revealed he was a religious exile. He had been chosen to be a magician when he was still in infancy, and the initiate who had claimed to see great power in him had taken him from his mother and left him alone in the forest for a night, claiming that the mountain’s bears and wolves would have to give him permission to live and practice his magic, so powerful would it be, or deny him permission by eating him, and absorbing his great powers for themselves.

He survived the ordeal, but never saw a member of his family again. He grew up being instructed in magic and preparing for initiation, and it can be presumed that in some manner or another his instructor inflicted great cruelties on the boy—if there is one fact that can be ascertained about Cynic’s nature with absolute confidence, it is that at an early age he developed a scathing contempt for authority, even the fairly minimal and disorganized authority that exists among the mountain folk, which would last his entire life and in many respects define it.

At the time of his initiation, when he was sixteen years old, he took his revenge on his instructor. With a ceremonial dagger he was to spill his blood on a bear skull, which would be secreted away in the canopy of a forest tree, a cedar or a fir, allowing him to ride the animal’s spirit into the sky when he went into trances and worked magic. Instead, he spat on the bear skull and cut his instructor’s throat with the ceremonial dagger, before killing the three priests who had come to bear witness to his passage into manhood.

In the society of the mountain folk, the killing of a magician, especially a magician with which one has a legitimate grievance, is a complex and morally ambiguous affair, but the killing of a priest is not—the sentence is death no matter what the circumstances, and every man and woman over the age of fifteen is required to avenge the murder if the opportunity presents itself. The boy fled, and his name, whatever it was before it was Cynic, became synonymous among the mountain folk with the betrayal of their most sacred codes.

He evaded numerous attempts on his life as he made his way out of the mountains. It is not clear how it was he was able, years later, to fight alongside the people from whom he had exiled himself—he would make vague statements after his capture to the effect that they no longer considered him of the mountains and thus were no longer duty-bound to kill him—nor is it any more clear where he went or what he did between that time and the rebellion many years later. He left the mountains a boy with the scars of a magician on his face but no bear’s skull erected skyward with which to perform magic, a boy without home or family, and whatever subsequently transpired, when he was taken captive he had acquired an extraordinary education encompassing a great breadth of topics, both common and obscure.

sst-ptg01281286

Three soldiers encountered him initially, and as one raised his spear to thrust it into Cynic’s breast, he held up his hand and said simply, “Wait.”

When asked for what the soldier was to wait, he replied, “I have something about which I must speak with the emperor. It is not for me to explain to you as it is beyond your comprehension. I can thus only offer you the assurance that the emperor would find the subject which I must discuss with him of great significance, and he would be enraged to learn this opportunity had been denied him by a bloodthirsty soldier who had just won an effortless victory.”

The soldier again raised his spear to strike him, and Cynic turned and looked at the other two men for the first time.

You have two comrades with you. Do you trust these men so infinitely that you can strike me down without any risk that one or the other of them will inform your superior that you killed the sole survivor of the rebellion, who claimed to have an important matter to discuss with the emperor? Even if you all agree among yourselves here and now to be done with me and never say a word of it to anyone, are you all such sober and fastidious men that you trust one another to never betray your secret to anyone else, not to ever whisper in a lover’s ear or drunkenly brag to friends that you were there for the killing of the last rebel, in the month of fattening bears of the seventh year of the great drying? And finally, considering those risks I’ve just described, it must be asked: what do you risk in taking me to your superior?”

The soldiers acquiesced, and Cynic had a few exchanges with increasingly high-ranking soldiers, all variations on the same basic theme he’d presented to the three who had initially found him, before it began to seem natural to the military leadership that they should bring to their emperor the sole survivor of the rebellion, for him to do with what he pleased.

As the military made its way back to the capitol, they stopped in the coastal city of Nefar, and the imperial authorities of that city, which had lost many ships to the rebellion, condemned him to death.

Remarkably, he contrived to be sentenced at a formal tribunal, reminding the authorities of appropriate legal procedure, since it could not be claimed that they were any longer at war, and that tribunal acquiesced to forego his execution because of a lengthy and elaborate argument in which he managed to convince these coast-dwellers that the ocean, which he had perhaps never seen, could plausibly have many gods residing beneath its tumultuous gray waters in addition to the one they knew and worshipped, and that these gods may in fact war with one another, and this warring may account for the ocean’s notorious fury. The argument, insofar as it can be discerned, was apparently intended to illustrate some principle about multiple authorities presiding over the same domain, some principle which convinced the tribunal they did not want to risk incurring the emperor’s wrath. In any case, he came, in time, to the capitol, in chains but otherwise unharmed.

When he finally received his audience with the emperor, he had already become something of a legendthe one man who did not, among all his thousands of comrades, take his life on that fateful day the rebellion lost, who had managed to survive months in captivity by insisting he had something of great consequence to speak with the emperor about. Though it was winter, it was warm and rainless—the sea by the capitol had taken on a listless dull gray color, a color resembling stone more than water, and was moved by no breeze—and thus the emperor gave Cynic an audience outside, in the great pavilion in the imperial gardens, with a great retinue, curious to see what this last living rebel would say, in attendance.

When Cynic was brought before him in chains, the emperor said, “Certainly you have not come all this way, and troubled so many of my soldiers and magistrates, because you fear death? Certainly you have not come to implore me for mercy?”

It is as you say,” Cynic replied. “Certainly not. On the contrary, I have come to implore you not for mercy, but for exceptional cruelty.”

Explain,” Melanus demanded.

Very well, but if I am truly to furnish you with an explanation, it can only begin with the frank and unequivocal admission that I despise you and your empire—indeed, with my comrades all dead and thus with no one to argue with me for the honor, it could reasonably be conjectured that no one on this earth hates you with such fervor as I do.”

The people who had assembled in the garden collectively gasped, never having heard the emperor insulted before. The soldiers who stood on either side of Cynic moved their spears as if to strike, but the emperor gave them no order.

But it is for this very reason, owing to our profound mutual antagonism, that we have a tremendous task to undertake together, one which will not reconcile us but rather make our enmity all the more bitter, a task of the greatest possible significance.”

You speak cryptically and overly long,” the emperor said.

The essence of the matter is this,” Cynic replied. “I could not drink poison on that fateful day when my comrades chose to. I certainly could not have my throat cut by the bear priestess. I could not be beheaded with an implement of harvest. I could not do these things because I have no people, no god with whom any other man has had converse, no code other than my own. So I resolved that I would simply die by my own knife, alone among comrades, as I watched them end their lives in the ways they found most suiting. While the others performed their rituals, I thought perhaps to read a few pages from the one book I had in my possession at the time, which I had stolen from one of your imperial libraries some months before while we were looting the city of Crebus and redistributing its grain stores among the starving.”

sst-war woodcut

The fires of Crebus still anguish me greatly,” Melanus said.

Yes,” Cynic replied, “but that is of little consequence to the matter we are presently discussing.”

Again, the soldiers raised their spears, although this time somewhat more noncommittally, and again, the emperor gave no order to strike.

I could not take my life. I sat amidst this scene of what should have been, if the universe possesses sense or purpose whatsoever, great tragedy, a scene that would clarify what is truly essential within the human spirit and what is superfluous, a moment lacking contingencies, not haunted by uncertainties.

But everywhere I looked, little imperfections crept in. I did not see clarity in the eyes of my dying comrades. I did not see truth. I saw ugly little fragments of fear and indecision pollute their beings even as they put poison to their lips or bowed their heads before scythes.

The deaths of my friends began to repulse me. Not sadden me, mind you, repulse me. I began to hate these men for dying so imperfectly, for still having not quite, despite that their entire lives clearly and unequivocally had culminated in this one moment of revelation, comprehended the reality of the moment. They could not bear the tragedy of their deaths in their bodies. Their minds and their souls were not vast enough to encompass what they were in fact enduring. I saw their eyes glaze over and take on looks of stupidity. I saw the trivialities with which they’d obsessed their entire lives, their little lusts and petty fears and unthinking greeds, still consuming them despite that life had presented them with a tragedy so great as to purify them of these inconsequential concerns. In the end, they did not die greatly, or heroically, but feebly. I can not help but hate them for how they died, although I do love them as well.

And thus, my knife faltered. I came to believe my death would be ugly and ignominious as well, and began to realize it was my duty to seek you out.”

So you have come to implore me for a particularly cruel death?” the emperor demanded. “So that you will be forced to come to terms with the limits of your being, or overcome them?”

Indeed,” Cynic replied. “Not just a particularly cruel death, but the most unbearably tragic death that has ever transpired. I want to know that I am unmatched in this world for suffering. I want to perfect suffering. But I do not expect that you would grant me this solely for the sake of my own personal vindication, as my own personal vindication is naturally not a matter with which I expect you concern yourself terribly.”

Naturally,” the emperor said dryly.

sst-CHURCH01

It was inevitable that at this moment I should have begun to wonder if ever men had met their deaths truly comprehending the moment, truly gazing on the wonder and the horror of it without flinching, without succumbing to mind-numbing terror or allowing the clutter of trivial thoughts with which life had preoccupied them to creep in and rob them of the naked totality of the experience.

And from this speculation, it was inevitable that I should further begin to wonder if anyone had ever done anything purely, in a manner that acknowledged the vastness and greatness and beauty and cruelty of the universe, or if every action, every gesture, every word, had always been undertaken imperfectly.

Retrospecting on my life, I confess I have never seen it. I have seen a mother shielding the body of her dead infant from a starving mob who wanted to eat it. I have been the guest of a sect of mystics who commit dangerous crimes as a means of knowing their god, a god whose only impulse so far as I can discern is the transgression of taboos, mystics who habitually eat copious doses of plants that bring visions for days on end. I have known kings in the eastern jungles who sit on living thrones of serpents.

And in all the faces of all these people I have seen imperfections, the blemishes of stupidity, vile tinges of small-mindedness.

Who is not disturbed by the subtle but all-pervasive sense that the world has grown weary somehow, that our faces and gestures and words have not grown somehow corrupted? Who does not long for a lost mythical age, whether of the distant past or in some imagined future? Is this not why so many religious doctrines teach of worlds other than this one, because we innately suspect that this world of blemishes and weaknesses is not as the world should be?

I ask you to deny these religious doctrines their stranglehold on pure, illuminated order, on action commensurate with the nobility and virtue of the principles that drive it. Because I am, inevitably—on this point I can’t imagine there is any possibility of debate—condemned to death, I can only ask for it in death. But I implore you, let us make a moment together that warrants the line it will take up in the page of a history book. Let us make a moment without trivialities or weakness. Let us make a pure moment together.

No one can claim that being executed by you would cause them greater anguish than me, because no one despises you more, no one wishes more desperately and fervently that they could instead be killing you. No one who will go on living is capable of creating this moment of unbridled anguish I ask of you, because none of them can truly invest everything in a moment—they will reserve some part of themselves for the future. No one is strong enough to endure the suffering I ask of you but me.

So you see, emperor, that although we despise one another, although it sickens me to stand here in front of you and waste my breath in speaking to you, although each word has the taste of poison in my mouth, these feelings of enmity are inconsequential when compared to the scope of the work you and I must accomplish, in our hatred, together.”

There was silence of a considerable duration. The emperor was an educated man, not only insofar as all nobility receive an education in childhood but to the extent that it would be plausible to imagine that were he not emperor he would have chosen instead to be a scholar. He had certainly read any number of doctrines which suggested the world had progressed into a state of deterioration, that the sun no longer burned the same lion-gold color as it had in days when the world was young and beasts spoke and deeds of great heroism were performed. Other explanations have been advanced for Melanus’s acquiescence to his captive’s proposal—that he was trying to demonstrate his sophistication to the imperial nobility, from whom he’d always been slightly alienated, having not been born in the capitol, being chief among them—but there is little evidence to suggest that he ever did anything to endear himself to the nobles, and any other explanation fails to account for the emperor’s legitimate philosophical inclinations. It is possible, in fact, that Cynic chose the narrative he did precisely because he knew of some system of thought which the emperor favored to which his story would appeal.

In any case, Melanus consented to find a particularly cruel way to kill Cynic. Before dismissing him, he asked him only two questions.

The first was, “You are marked by a bear claw on your face. Do you ride a bear into the sky?”

Bears are bears,” Cynic replied. “Men cannot ride them into the sky. But I will ascend into the sky on the pain you inflict in me.”

sst-Frankfurt Bear

And what is your name? I have heard it told you earned the soldier’s nickname of Cynic, a most curious appellation, but I have not yet heard what you were called before this.”

I do not have another name. Those who gave me a name at birth have unnamed me. I could tell you one of the other names I have used over the years, and while some are less overt, it is equally true of them all that they are criminal aliases and nothing besides.”

The month of the knife-moon, the month of bare frozen soil and bonelike branches bereft of leaves reaching up into the long night skies, transpired with Cynic in a cell and the emperor occupied with other matters. Finally, he paid the rebel a visit and told him that the next day he would begin dying.

I have decided on the manner of your killing,” he said. “From each of the districts where the rebellion raided and redistributed imperial grain stores, I will bring young women, poor women, girls from farms and cities alike, and I will bring them to the amphitheater, where you will be kept in chains, starving and thirsting. They will be brought before you, beaten, raped, humiliated. And then they will be given a choice. That either some piece of you will be cut off or some part of them. And do you know what they will choose, down to a girl?”

Yes,” said Cynic. “That I should be the one dismembered.”

Precisely,” said the emperor. “All those precious poor people you fought on behalf of, who you bled and killed to protect, will day after day choose your pain over their own, though with each passing day it will become clearer and clearer, as you become increasingly disfigured, that you have suffered far more than they. I will break your revolutionary spirit. Before you die, I will see in your eyes the realization that your cause was not just hopeless but also useless and ill-conceived, even had you any hope of victory. I will see in your eyes the realization that these poor filthy dung-covered masses you love so dearly are indeed loathsome and vile.”

Cynic listened to the emperor soberly and chose his words with great consideration. “I have been well aware that the masses, poor or otherwise, are loathsome my entire life. While the spirit of what you suggest is compelling, the dismantling of a soldier’s dearest-held convictions about the virtue of his cause, in my case I never had any convictions about my cause to begin with. You must understand I joined the rebellion out of a blind compulsion to attack the existing order, unencumbered by any preconceptions that it could ever be replaced with a better one.”

We will see if you feel such indifference with a few less fingers and ears,” the emperor hissed, and began to withdraw from his captive’s cell.

I will feel such indifference mutilated beyond all recognition,” Cynic replied, and the force of his voice stopped Melanus in his footsteps. “And you will lose all credibility.”

How is it you imagine I will lose credibility?”

People will cease to fear you if I do not die in legitimate anguish. Imagine it. I have just come before you, the only living representative of a rebellion which plagued your reign for years, and implored you for a death of such cruelty that I become absolutely and completely consumed by pain, so absolutely that no part of me remains that does not suffer. Your empire is based on fear. Your subjects obey you because you have the capacity to inflict harm on them. Imagine if it becomes known that this rebel, who openly insulted you in your own capitol city, to your very face, died indifferent to the suffering you tried in vain to inflict on him. From your most trusted generals to the starving masses, people will begin to wonder if what it is they fear you will do to them is really as terrible as they’ve imagined. You will quickly lose hold on this empire you’ve cobbled together out of a collective aversion to experiencing your cruelty.”

I will find a death so horrible that you will wish a thousand times over you had sunk your knife into your stomach when you had a chance. I will make you beg to forget the words you said to me in the imperial garden.”

That would be a beginning, emperor, but a mere beginning.”

Pages will be written about my cruelty in history books.”

No, emperor, pages will be written about my suffering. You will be a mere footnote.”

It is said that the esteemed natural philosopher Zahadek once attempted to trace the course of the great Milk River from its wide mouth where it empties into the sea, its water having wended its way through many distant lands, to its point of origin, and that he returned having concluded that the river had no origin to speak of, that the boundary between the river and the braided streams that converge to become the river is not clear—a hundred men, he said, would claim a hundred different places where the river begins.

Something similar could be said of the relationship between Melanus and his captive; at some point which can perhaps not be known, their discourse shifted. Locked in a lightless cell day after day, Cynic developed a perpetually weary affect, seeming less and less intimidated by the lurid cruelties the emperor described to him, and becoming increasingly preoccupied not with physical torture but with doctrines about the nature of the universe which would, if subscribed to, maximally incline one to suffering. Gradually, it became clear to the emperor that the work before them was not to devise the most painful death imaginable per se but rather the most painful perspective one could have on death, which Cynic would then adopt. This is not to say that the emperor might not have considerable work to do in carrying out a particularly cruel execution, but a crucial element would always remain of his victim having decided on a means of conceptualizing his torture which caused him more pain than anyone had ever yet experienced.

Once, Melanus was overheard to ask what would prevent the rebel from simply discarding the chosen belief system if it became unbearable in the course of death.

It is my purpose to endure this,” he was heard to reply. “I am a fanatic, and this is my cause.”

The first time he was released from his cell it was to consult with religious initiates who resided on top of a mountain outside of the capitol, whose doctrine maintained that it would permanently sever their relationship with the sky god if they chose to leave the heights and return to the lowlands for even a day. He was escorted by guards to their small sanctuary, where they live off of alms provided by the pious who farm the surrounding valleys, gazing from sunrise to sunset upwards in contemplation of the sky. He wanted to know if the sky god himself would be dismayed by their departure, apparently thinking to incorporate the pain of deities into his own death.

sst-jrgbreu-1

Eventually, the emperor, preferring not to travel to the stinking prison, began having him brought from his cell when they met, and they would walk the imperial gardens together, the guards nervously watching the captive for any indication of flight or attack, discussing doctrinal obscurities. The animosity between them, if not diminishing, took on fewer overt expressions, and eventually their relationship developed the quality of a collaboration, of a great work for which they both increasingly felt they were born.

The rebel’s trips to centers of religious devotion and to imperial libraries grew so frequent as to warrant him being permanently released from his cell, and he was given quarters, funds were put at his disposal, and a guard detail was assigned to him. Thus, he became a distinct personage in the capitol, perhaps vaguely akin in social position to a diplomat visiting from a hostile territory, and he passed the years in contemplation of the horrors which men conceive of to enhance life’s already considerable measure of suffering.

His inquiries were eclectic in the extreme. He grew intimately familiar with various doctrines concerning the relationship between this world and the afterlife, such as mutilations of the body persisting in the world beyond, or the provisioning of graves with horses, gold, and even human slaves in order for the deceased to exploit these riches in death, thinking these conceptions might reveal some suffering he could anticipate even after death. He practiced techniques of illumination that involved rigorous, painful self-discipline, imagining he could very slowly and painfully kill himself over the course of many years.

Nothing availed. He became despondent, and began making statements to Melanus to the effect that he was unable to conceive of the most terrible death that had ever been endured, and that he moreover no longer felt with any certainty that he could indeed endure it should he conceive of it. It was more than two years since the emperor had first granted Cynic an audience in the imperial gardens, and he had become deeply invested in their project—indeed, although he would never have confessed it to anyone, he had come to see this killing as his most important legacy, the thing which he would be remembered for when all the logistical trivialities of imperial administration were long since forgotten. He implored Cynic to find his resolve.

Look out over this empire I rule,” he said to his prisoner, gesturing vaguely over the walls of the city.

What does it consist of? It consists of farting cows thoughtlessly chewing on grass, of old men making crude jokes from their toothless mouths as they drunkenly idle their days away, of imperial administrators lazily dispensing cruelties to the populace in order to grow fatter. Look at the guards who are standing right here behind us. They stand straight and tall, their shields emblazoned with eagles, their cloaks bright red, their swords at their sides, but look in their eyes and what do you see?

Not the great principle from which their duties derive—no, rather one sees equivocation, a poorly disguised boredom, stupid fear from hearing me say these words that some harm will come to them, and lurking beneath all their other thoughts and gestures, a vague but ever-present desire to be done with their duties so they can forget themselves in drink and find something warm to put their cocks into.

Nothing in my empire is worthy of the grandeur and nobility that is attributed to the notion of the empire. Nothing but this great work we have undertaken together, this death of such extreme cruelty and tragedy that nothing exists save the suffering of this death. We will transfigure the very world with this suffering. We will make the world pure and golden with anguish. We will free existence from its chains, set the planets on their true orbits from which they have strayed, make the hearts of warriors beat with the red blood of lions, make the swords of warriors so fearsome as to slay the very sun.

We must carry on. We must endure whatever the costs, whatever the hardships. No more important work has ever been undertaken. You must find your fortitude.”

sst-Breaking_Wheel

And Cynic only nodded, silently and pensively, looking west out at the formless sea which no sailor had ever found the limit of as it burned a deep crimson beneath the sinking sun.

It was the month of apple harvests, the month of fattening bears and faceless moons, of the tenth year of the great dryness. As starvation spread, small uprisings had occurred in several remote districts. Trees in the great forests of the mountains to the east of the capitol had begun to die of thirst. The emperor was preoccupied and thus had not come to discuss the execution with his captive for weeks, and finally Cynic requested an audience with him. Two nights later, they walked their familiar route together through the garden, the late hour scented with the night-blooming jasmine which clung to the garden’s stone walls and columns, no sound penetrating their vigil save those of their footsteps and voices.

The work is done,” Cynic said. “It is accomplished. I have conceived of it. I have finally conceived of it. Our hopes for the nobility and the grandeur of this effort will all be vindicated. Though the time it required was great, our endeavor will prove to be well worth it.”

What is the manner of the death you have conceived of?”

It is a simple death. I must be the one to bear the knife. It is made more painful than any other death only by the manner in which it is conceptualized.”

And how is that?”

Beyond the borders of your empire, far to the east and north of here, in the great cold desert, there are men who live on horseback and hunt with eagles, men who consider cruelty and valor in battle to be the only virtues, whose religious observances are severe in the extreme. Their blood feuds are constant—virtually no boy is ever born among them who is not already duty-bound at the moment of his birth to kill someone when he comes of age in retaliation for the death of a relative—and thus a great cycle of perpetual revenge killings defines the lives of these men. On occasion, when a truly great transgression has occurred, a transgression as great as the one I committed against the people I was born to when I came of age, killing is deemed insufficient.

In such cases they possess an elaborate and exceptionally cruel practice which is overseen by a priest, or rather, by generations of priests, for you see, the condemned is made to understand that his sons will all be killed, and their sons, for the next century. They believe that the souls of men migrate from body to body down the generations of a given lineage and thus they are in effect killing the man repeatedly, in the many permutations of his being, encompassing different bodies, through the years. So his progeny is made to watch the man’s ritual execution by the priest, and to understand that they will suffer this same death in time. They live as captives, but a unique class of captive, allowed to marry and to beget children—indeed, required to do so—in order to carry on the condemned man’s lineage, so that these children may in turn watch their fathers die, and so on, for one hundred years. By the third generation, the victims have never even met the man who committed the crime for which they are suffering. Then, at the termination of the sentence, all his living descendants are executed, and his lineage dies.

I know my soul will not migrate into another body when I die. My soul will wander this earth aimlessly, deformed by pain and contempt. I have no progeny to witness my execution. Nonetheless, these horse warriors have revealed to me the path to the ultimate death. It is in the lifetime of suffering inflicted on the innocent. It is true I spit on all icons, true I bow to no man, true I hold noble and common folk alike in distinct but equal contempt, but for as much as I may despise humanity I have no greater aversion than to inflict harm on it.

Thus we must achieve a death that reverberates down through the generations. A death which continues in other bodies, innocent bodies chosen for the express purpose of suffering for my crimes. But it is notand this distinction is crucial—enough to simply know that you will elect some other poor fool to suffer in my place when I am dead. I have every confidence that you will continue to brutalize your subjects according to whatever whim strikes you. That knowledge is not a unique anguish, not a world-forming suffering, it is the baseline misery with which all who you rule must all live out our days.

No, the critical distinction is this: I must choose. This is where the anguish unmatched in scale by any preceding anguish is produced. At the very foundations of my being, in my very core, there is horror at the cruelty with which people treat one another, a profound love of justice and a profound desire to attack injustice wherever it is encountered. Therefore I wish to stand in your imperial gardens and choose to die, to cut my own throat as I could have done years previous, but before I do to apologize for fighting your empire and implore you to find someone else who hates injustice as I do, find them young, as I was young when I first tasted cruelty, and to raise them in the knowledge that they will be broken, made to apologize for my crimes and to take their own lives while imploring first you, and then future emperors, to find subsequent victims in whose bodies I may continue to die.

But do not coerce them. The suffering resides in the choosing to abandon one’s dearest principles, in the choosing the path of the oppressor rather than the liberator. The suffering resides in self-negation: the most precious things a man possesses can be taken by no other man. Make those who love justice choose to negate themselves by denying this love. Select my victims carefully. Find that one rare soul treading this earth at any given moment who will see the appalling senselessness of this absurd sequence of suicides, which grow more cruel and unreasonable each time they occur, but who understands that this cruelty is greater than any that has preceded it and who will come to see in time that it is a precious flame which they can allow no wind to extinguish, a flame that must dwell within them, an act of the greatest self-overcoming imaginable progressing down the generations, growing ever more heroic and severe as the suicides continue and their original context grows ever more irrelevant and obscure, until this sequence of self-negations becomes an entity unto itself, freed from its original impetus altogether. Make of me the founder of a great lineage of exalted desperation.

But always let them choose. They must always choose. Only then can it be a perfect death, a perfect and unending death.”

The emperor was motionless for a long while, his hands gripping a vine-covered railing in the garden, looking out at the moon’s dead face shimmering dully in the black ocean. Tears silently streamed down his unmoving face.

Finally, he said, “It is as you say. It is the perfect death. It is the greatest thing any man has ever accomplished.”

Then I suppose this is the last night I will know the fragrance of your imperial garden’s jasmine.”

It is,” the emperor replied.

sst-Gallonio_Tortures_1591_p44

The next day Cynic was brought to the amphitheater, where a massive crowd—the largest the capitol could recall—had gathered. Religious specialists of every variety had arrived to observe his death, curious as to whether the manner in which Cynic conceptualized his killing would confirm or contradict their own doctrines. The nobility was all present, having been scandalized for years by the rebel’s presence in the city and eager to see a harsh sentence carried out to suppress the nascent uprisings occurring throughout the empire.

To the assembled crown Melanus said only this. “The rebellion has been crushed. Here is its last living representative. You are about to witness a death more painful than any preceding death has ever been. You are about to witness a man discard, in the most extreme and irrevocable manner, everything which is at the essence of that man’s being—not to have it taken from him, but to discard it, and that is what will cause him the greatest pain, the voluntary nature of this divestiture. Guards, furnish the captive with a knife.”

Cynic took the knife from the guard. “It is as you say, emperor, exactly as you say. On this day, with this knife, these people will witness a death which is chosen, and in that choosing, more terrible than any death which has ever preceded it, a death which negates the core values on which the life it ends was premised, and that death will be yours.”

There were indignant murmurs in the crowd, and hands tightening around spears among the guards, but the emperor sat silent, as if stricken by a blow.

For certainly, the death I described to you last night cannot be carried out by me. I said there must be a choice, that the element of choice, of electing to abandon one’s identity, is crucial. And did you not agree? Did you not agree that there was indeed no more important work any man could undertake than this death of unprecedented tragedy? Did you not say to me that your empire consisted of nothing worthy of the grandeur and nobility attributed to the notion of empire, that it consisted only of drunken idiots and stinking cows? Certainly, then, no business of ruling this empire could be so worthy an undertaking as the dying you must do today.

Who here among us today has any more freedom to do whatever he wishes, despite what anyone else wishes of him, than you? Certainly not me. I am a prisoner of war, condemned to death. What matter if I choose to cut my own throat or you do it for me? What matter if I ask you to choose a victim to carry on my legacy or you simply elect to do this of your own accord?

But you there, safe on your throne, you have every choice in the world. If you commanded it, everyone assembled here today would jump up and down on one leg until you told them to stop—or in any case, everyone but me; I bow to no one. Who on this earth possesses more power? Who on this earth has less reason to listen to the command of a nameless soldier who was years ago captured in a hopeless war? Who on this earth sacrifices more, discards more, negates more of his identity, which is based solely on power over others, on the capacity to force others to do as you wish, than you when you obey my command—for it is a command; I am commanding you—and stand up from your chair, at this very moment, walk down those ugly stone stairs, down to the level of the ground where the rest of humanity dwells, take this knife from this rebel’s hand, this rebel who has openly held you in contempt all these years you foolishly fed and housed him, this rebel who freely confesses to the killing of your soldiers and the raiding of your stores, and cut your own throat?

You must act now, emperor. Even a moment’s hesitation will destroy the absolute perfection of suffering you are about to experience. Walk down those stairs to me. The perfect death lives in you. In your blood the world will be reborn.”

Wordlessly, the emperor stood up and began making his way down the stairs to where Cynic stood. The crowd watched in silent horror. The guards looked at one another but did nothing—it is sacrilege to lay a hand on the emperor, who is thought to be descended from the gods. A great silent resolve had come over Melanus as he approached his captive. In his eyes one could witness a thousand thoughts of recoiling, a thousand desperate questions, expressions of betrayal, but he suppressed them all, believing they would pollute the pure moment fate had afforded him.

When he took the knife from the prisoner’s hands, Cynic said, “Pardon me for my crimes.”

With the gravest face, heavy as if the terror rippling underneath it could not find expression in the features because they had been carved from stone, in a voice laden with grief of a depth he imagined no other man had previously experienced, he said, “The prisoner is pardoned and not to be harmed.”

Then, he cut his own throat.

The emperor’s heir was far to the north, gaining experience in leading troops which would be essential when imperial duties fell on him, and thus no one present in the capitol had the authority to contravene the emperor’s final command, and no one dared to violate it. Cynic departed the amphitheater, and when darkness fell went to the imperial gardens to smell the night-blooming jasmine a final time, where it was noted that he had never, in all his years in the capitol before that moment, been seen to smile.

The ensuing shock and controversy surrounding the emperor’s suicide was adequate to undermine the ever-tenuous network of political alliances and subjugations that comprised the empire, and thus in subsequent conflicts it began to splinter into progressively smaller territories. While their overlords quarreled, the masses, long accustomed to a feeling of impotence and hopelessness so deep and absolute it seemed an innate feature of the universe, suddenly developed an invincible courage, and fierce uprisings began throughout the lands Melanus had ruled over.

Some of those who revolted sought after Cynic, thinking to enlist him in their fight, but he was not to be found. He traveled north and east alone, in the direction of vast mountains which comprised the northeastern boundary of the world he had seen thus far, thinking that despite that he had invented the story of the men who live on horseback and hunt with eagles for the sake of deceiving the emperor, he would now journey beyond the mountains to see if such people might, in fact, exist.

 

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: I am occasionally asked what I am doing in school, to which I sometimes reply that I am studying biology with an interest in behavior generally and social conflict in humans particularly. This comes out of a twin lifelong obsession with behavior (my initial adult interest in wild nature came from my observations of raven behavior) and a sense of terminal futility with social struggles. Most of the core theoretical frameworks on which resistance movements are based I think are terribly flawed, and one of the essential ways in which I think they are flawed is that they avoid any discussion of the innate variation that exists among people and the role it has in shaping patterns of social division and conflict. I wrote this purely as a means of organizing and setting a framework for some of my own research–the vague idea being that I might as well start doing literature reviews and thinking about experimental procedures now, thus assuring a decent project to work on by the time of graduate school. I decided about halfway through writing it to publish it here, and subsequently made some minor edits and tacked on a few hasty notes. As a result, it has at times an extremely informal tone, and is a far cry from literature throughout, but I think it might prove of some interest to some people.]

I guess it could be called a developmental genes and cognitive plasticity theory of human hierarchies. It is not nearly as biologically explicit as it ought to be yet, but it’s a framework to start working in. An essential tenet of this theory is that some political differences within complex societies (like the United States) are owing to variation in individuals’ fundamental orientations towards basic social attributes like hierarchy, and the extent to which people tend to prioritize moral claims about harm/threats to their own group (e.g. nation, race, demographic) perpetuated by other groups (nations, races, demographics) vs. prioritizing moral claims about harm/threats to others perpetuated by one’s own group.

Perhaps the most thorough framework I am aware of that examines the relationship between truly basic dispositions and political values is cultural cognition. Cultural cognition is a variant of cultural theory which explores the politically polarized perceptions of risk around issues like climate change and nuclear power. In essence, it places individuals somewhere on a Cartesian plane with four quadrants, created by intersecting axes like the x and y axes of the graph of a function. The axes have at their poles opposing orientations (hierarchy vs. egalitarianism is one axis, individualism vs. group the other), and placement on each axis is determined by an individual’s answer to a series of questions. Notably, while these questions have no overt, logical relationship with the political orientations they predict, one’s unique position on this Cartesian plane, as a result of one’s unique combination of scores on the two axes, does very reliably predict perceptions of a number of politically polarized risks. (1)

sst-four_rationalities

Cultural cognition purports to explain political attitudes with something that looks a lot like this Cartesian plane. I’m skeptical, but not nearly as skeptical as you might think.

I don’t think I unequivocally embrace every aspect of cultural cognition. When I try to fill out the questionnaire they use to predict political attitudes, I have no trouble answering any of the questions about egalitarianism vs. hierarchy, but am thoroughly baffled by almost every question relating to group vs. individual, and feel I have no suitable answer—perhaps a predictable dilemma for someone whose politics very roughly fall into the category of anarchist, an ideology notoriously conflicted on the respective roles and obligations of the individual and the group. But I do think cultural cognition is extremely interesting. There’s no particular reason that one’s thoughts on income inequality and racism should so reliably predict one’s thoughts on climate change, unless people tend to form perceptions of risk not solely on evaluations of the risk itself, but also on the basis of how a given risk perception does or does not reinforce their fundamental cultural outlook (climate change, for instance, is a difficult risk for a “hierarchical individualist” to accept, because of an aversion to regulation of profit-seeking behavior).

Cultural cognition doesn’t seem to be overtly biological, but acknowledging I’m not explicitly using it so much as citing it as a validation of the more general tenet that variation in political outlook corresponds to variation in fundamental outlooks (and accepting that in particular hierarchy vs. egalitarianism seems a fundamental orientation I am comfortable saying predicts political attitudes), we must acknowledge some political outlook variation is inherited, just like some of the variation in intelligence and criminal behavior. If we ask in what genes variation in politically-predictive orientations is found, and what other behaviors or cognitive tasks said genes might be involved in, a variety of interesting relationships present themselves for further investigation.

First it is useful to briefly state a few of the observations which provided an initial foundation for these inquiries. One such observation, summarized, perhaps horribly, in The Marginal and the Magical, (2) is that from shamans in societies living with Paleolithic technology to modern civilization, one can find figures who tend to violate similar social taboos in similar ways (e.g. cross-dressing, violations of sexual customs, general tendency to come into conflict with the social order) and who tend to have similar preoccupations (e.g. intimate relationship with death, sexuality, transformation, self-transgression and transgression of form). In this case the correspondences between a cross-cultural phenomenon found in very traditional societies and the behavior of modern artists was documented, but engendered the broader question of what semi-stable or universal forms of social division or conflict might be discerned throughout human history and across the technological spectrum.

sst-iron-maiden-3YZT_o_tn

Iron Maiden, for instance, could reasonably be described as a band whose combined thematic obsessions with supernatural forces, sex, and death are mirrored in diverse cross-cultural expressions which might ultimately have a common origin in the Paleolithic. Seriously.

Another key foundation is that there does seem to be some inherent variation in socially complex animals with respect to their interest in the dominance hierarchy and their tendencies toward intergroup aggression. This is certainly true of closely-related primates like chimpanzees, and somewhat less closely-related primates like baboons. There’s a famous study in which a bunch of male baboons within a troop were into going to a garbage dump and fighting the resident males for access to the garbage, while a different bunch of male baboons exhibited no interest in this behavior. All the garbage-raiding baboons got sick from a bad batch of garbage and died (along with everyone in the troop that resided at the garbage dump), leaving only the less aggressive male baboons. As new juvenile males entered this peaceful troop, they acclimated to the less hierarchical behavior. The behavioral flexibility is interesting, and this baboon troop retained its novel culture intergenerationally, although it’s also worth noting it’s still a demographically unique troop (1:2 male-to-female ratio). Still, there must be something underlying the initial pattern of variation, the baboons less interested in fighting, who also tend to spend more time in social and sexual activities, and the baboons who are more violent and less inclined to interpersonal affiliation.

Finally, there was the noteworthy similarities between certain resistance movements throughout a very broad swath of history, from the mystical Christian sects like the Cathars to the peasant revolts to modern revolutionaries. These groups tended to object to very similar institutions (property, or at least the accumulation of it; hierarchy, or at least intense forms of it) and to emphasize certain other attributes (sexual permissiveness, for instance). (3)

sst-cathars

Dying brutally at the hands of ruthless despots: a cross-culturally common preoccupation of people involved in egalitarian resistance movements. Pictured here are Cathars.

All this inevitably leads to the very general question of whether variation in certain genes associated with behavior and cognition in the human population correlate roughly to cross-culturally common and temporally fairly stable (or recurrent) modes of social division/conflict. This of course doesn’t negate any of the myriad other, experiential factors which might dispose an individual to any given orientation. In the United States, for instance, there are a number of demographics who experience far more negative repercussions of the dominance hierarchies of the state and the capitalist economy than others, people for whom violence at the hands of the state’s agents and dire poverty are far more common, and they are of course likely based on this experience to have a different outlook on hierarchy in general than someone else. Nonetheless, some—perhaps a good deal—of the observed variation must be biological. If we examine two kids who grew up at the same time in a middle class neighborhood in New Jersey, both of whom had roughly similar experiences of alienation and injustice, and one becomes an underground Animal Liberation Front operative and the other goes to work for the Peabody Mining Corporation, we must assume that these two people do in fact simply have their innate differences.

An interesting procedure for searching for genes responsible for the variation in crucial cognitive and behavioral domains which shape political and economic outlooks (egalitarian vs. hierarchical frameworks) would be to search for areas in which people with a politically-predictive tendency excel or underperform cognitively. If genes associated with these behaviors were known, it might be reasonable to investigate further the possibility that they are also responsible for variation in outlooks on hierarchy. If such genes were then determined likely to be responsible for both these traits—performance within a cognitive domain and perception of hierarchy—this would then of course further compel question of why. This question could essentially be expanded to: what, fundamentally—biologically—is variation in human perception of hierarchy? Does it correspond to variation in any broader and more fundamental set of traits or behavioral dispositions?

Here is one theory which could potentially be used to explore this question, of what the essence of variation in hierarchy perception is: The theory states that changes in developmental genes which are involved in transitioning the brain from a juvenile learning phase (i.e. a more plastic state, where behaviors are still being learned) to an adult phase (a less plastic state, brain less adaptive) have been a significant part of the evolution of the human brain from the smaller and lower cerebral cortex proportioned brains of our distant hominid ancestors. The retention of juvenile brain plasticity further into life has facilitated the development of characteristically flexible human brain function.This has been part of a broader overall tendency toward neoteny (the retention of juvenile features into adulthood) throughout H. sapiens evolution, which is also reflected in our anatomy with respect to the anatomy of closely-related primates at different ages (human hairlessness, facial features, etc. corresponding to infant or even fetal developmental stages in chimpanzees and other close relatives). (4)

sst-riot cops

It is either the case that these men failed to understand, in choosing their aesthetics, who the villains were in Star Wars, or there is some truly essential difference between them and me.

While changes in these brain plasticity-related developmental genes have played a significant role in human evolution overall, there also exists significant variation in these genes within the human species. Said genetic variation produces variation in any number of behavioral and cognitive domains, perceptions of hierarchy being one of them. As yet, I suppose I really don’t have a truly explicit idea of why variation in developmental genes concerning the timing of brain plasticity phases is also involved in the perception of hierarchy—but there are some tentative directions. I mostly like the theory because I think it helps explain an interesting set of covarying human attributes.

To present a few items from the truly enormous list of interesting things which might also be reasonably expected to vary with varying genes governing brain plasticity: 1) tendency towards behavioral neoteny in general (i.e. general “youthfulness” of behavior with respect to age, however this would be best measured within a given human society); 2) capacity for abstract, symbolic thought (greater brain flexibility presumably being associated with a greater ability to reconfigure existing patterns of conceptualization, language, or behavior to achieve novel effects, and thus respond to novel circumstances); and perhaps, if we extend the theory a little bit, 3) relationship with novel stimuli; 4) tendencies toward aggression; 5) relationship to property and residence pattern; 6) tendencies towards sexual promiscuity and experimentation.

It’s noteworthy that these six potentially covarying cognitive/behavioral aspects would be reasonably suspected to be related to developmental genes involved in brain plasticity for a few different reasons.

1) Assumes some genes governing brain plasticity are essentially determining the timing of juvenile vs. adult brain phase, and so could be expected to be involved in the development of any number of characteristically adult behaviors. (5)

2) Assumes that increased capacity for abstract, symbolic thought is also partially under the control of genes involved in brain phase timing.

3-6 are all extensions of the basic premise of 1; they all assume specific forms of behavioral neoteny, positing different behavioral dispositions as characteristically juvenile.

sst-banksy

Love them or hate them, it can hardly be denied that anti-authoritarians have a knack for symbolic expression.

 

3) Assumes that behavioral experimentation, exploration, and play are behaviors associated with juvenile brain stages, and thus juvenile brain stages are associated with a greater congeniality to novel stimuli. I think I have read somewhere that one’s openness to novel stimuli predicts how egalitarian one’s perspectives are, so suggesting this is perhaps cheating. If we go off this relationship, it would also bias us to expect a relationship in the direction of greater tendency toward juvenile behavior=greater tendency toward egalitarian thinking. This would further tell us that for instance with 2 we could expect increased capacity for symbolic thought to be associated with increasingly egalitarian tendencies. It likewise has implications for 4-6.

4) Assumes that a certain level of aggression—perhaps lethal aggression against members of our own species, perhaps aggression resulting in severe injury of a member of our own species—is uncharacteristic of juvenile developmental stages. Going off our insidiously creeping assumption that juvenile brain stage=egalitarian thinking, this would imply that people with more egalitarian inclinations are less likely to use violence.

Greece Financial Crisis

What does it tell us that conflicts between opposing ideologies are so often conflicts of people armed with stones against people armed with guns?

5) Assumes that somewhere in the universal pattern of human development across societies, there is some tendency for young people to own less than older people, and perhaps a tendency for young people to be more transient than older people (accumulation of property usually being synonymous with sedentism and the acquisition of some territory in which to be sedentary and keep possessions). Keeping to our pattern, we would then predict people with more egalitarian attitudes would tend to be more transient and to have more ambiguous or hostile attitudes towards ownership of property (although it’s worth noting that hostility towards ownership might be more or less synonymous with the very definition of an egalitarian outlook, at least an economically egalitarian one—but the other aspect, of transience vs. sedentism, has no such inherent logical relationship to egalitarianism). I suppose 5 assumes that, in keeping with a pattern observed in a number of animals, at some point in human evolution there was a tendency for young individuals to disperse to new territories, before settling into an adult pattern of territorial defense.

6) Likewise assumes sexual experimentation and promiscuity to be statistically more common among people in developmentally earlier phases, a pattern observed in at least some animals, and thus by extension assumes that people with more egalitarian attitudes will be more sexually permissive.

 

Because it is a subculture with which I am familiar, and in which I (somewhat marginally) participate, contemporary anarchist subculture is a convenient unit of analysis for examining some of these putative realms of covariation. This may or may not be an anthropological cheap trick. I am, for the moment, unconcerned. I think I was somewhat inspired by David Graeber to decide that anarchists per se were an anthropologically valid subject, (6) but I’ve always found subcultural analysis to be worthwhile. Anarchism is the most egalitarian of political ideologies, so in this evolutionary schema it should be expected to correspond to the most juvenile-phase brain stage behaviors and cognitive dispositions. This sounds pejorative, but neoteny in this evolutionary scheme, with its putative relationship to cognitive flexibility, is an essential trait of the human species—if one wanted to make anarchists sound charismatic rather than like people prone to throwing tantrums, one could perhaps argue that those with more plastic (juvenile) cognition are more characteristically human.

With all six of these suggested realms of covariation, there are indeed corroborations within anarchist subculture, some of which I might go so far as to describe as striking. It is important to note that “anarchist subculture” here denotes a holism of two parts: one, a specific political ideology and ethical framework; and two, a subculture (or subcultures) which are anarchist in the sense of adhering to said political ideology/ethical framework, but which also have a number of other idiosyncratic features which have no logically explicit relationship with anarchism. Punk rock subculture is a convenient and familiar example: a subculture in which anarchism is arguably the dominant political ideology, but which has a number of other distinct behavioral tendencies (transience, poverty, sexual promiscuity, tendency to violate social taboos, etc.) which have no clear, logical relationship to this particular egalitarian philosophy, and thus may be seen as reasonable candidates for covarying behavioral tendencies in the biological framework we have established.

sst-anarchists

Anarchists.

If we examine anarchism as this holism, as an ideology and as the other, seemingly unrelated cultural tendencies associated with the ideology, there are a number of clear corroborations for this biological interpretation of (some of) the observed variation in the human perception of hierarchy. Here I present some of them with merciless concision, offering no documentation whatsoever, but only the assumption that someone familiar with anarchist subculture will readily acknowledge each attribute of it I identify is valid (and why offer proof of something I already know?—this is after all just an outline to organize my own thinking which I am only just at this moment deciding I might publish online; why start troubling myself over citations at this late stage?).

1) In anarchist subculture, reference is fairly often made to adulthood or “growing up” with contempt. A number of anarchists refer to themselves as “kids” well into adulthood. It’s also noteworthy that arguably the most common pattern for participation in anarchist organizing and struggles is beginning involvement somewhere in teens or twenties and ceasing involvement later on in adulthood.

2) I note that Graeber says anarchists tend to come from a spectrum of socioeconomic backgrounds but tend to have more experience with higher education than the general population, a circumstance that would correspond to a greater capacity for abstract thought. Also, there is the interesting tendency for anarchist subculture to converge with a number of underground art movements, many of them quite experimental. This is a pattern that can be generally discerned throughout complex modern societies in history; radically egalitarian politics and art, including some very experimental art, have been intimately wedded throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, in Dada, Surrealism, Situationism, punk rock, etc.

There is absolutely no such tendency within conservative political ideologies, to consistently be infused by and entwined with art movements. There are of course fleeting moments of convergence between the artistic avant-garde and conservative politics—the poetic totalitarianism of the Futurists, an Ezra Pound or two—but overall, these moments essentially stand out as anomalies, sort of like Spain in 1936. (7) People with fiercely egalitarian ideologies tend not to excel at claiming physical territory, but they seem to almost completely dominate the terrain of artistic experimentation.

sst-dada performance

Dada performance aesthetics: why the fuck is this anyone’s means of expressing their outrage at the senseless carnage of World War One? A biological relationship between egalitarian attitudes (which predict an aversion to war) and abstract/symbolic thought, that’s why.

Here I must also deviate from the focus on anarchist subculture to make a few expanded observations about the relationship between egalitarian values in general and symbolic proficiency. One is the noted dominance of egalitarian political outlooks in universities, a phenomenon that would be expected in this framework.

Another more complicated additional note concerns the relative successes and failures of egalitarian movements, such as movements against identity-based oppression. If we take for instance the various movements for black liberation and equality in the United States, it is difficult not to conclude that these movements have had a far greater impact on culture and language, on how race is discussed and conceptualized, than they have on physical reality, in which perpetual incarceration and dire poverty consume black communities.

A number of analogous patterns could be found in the victories and defeats of modern egalitarian movements. Even the existence of phenomena like greenwashing indicates that egalitarian movements tend to succeed in claiming cultural space–in getting people to shift customs or change language–while failing to win the same contests in physical reality.

Graeber says something to the effect that anarchists tend to excel in the realm of small, difficult to regulate, easy to conceal objects (like books) and falter in the realm of large, easy to regulate, hard to conceal objects (like factories). Thus one finds far more anarchist bookstores than anarchist automobile manufacturers. One plausible interpretation of this state of affairs would be that anarchists excel in the realm of ideas, but perhaps aren’t the sort of people who are as interested in manipulating large blocks of concrete as they are in maneuvering new ideas and relationships. (Note that this has wonderful consequences for the prospects of anarchist art and tragic consequences for the prospects of anarchist revolution).

3) Alongside books on sexual assault accountability and animal liberation, anarchist book distributors and bookstores very often sell tracts detailing exploits of vagabondage, trainhopping, dumpsterdiving, and other forms of adventure. Such exploits are not merely a common narrative obsession but are also directly experienced by many anarchists. This interesting convergence supports not only the notion that novel stimuli seeking and egalitarianism are related, but also has implications for 5, the notion that transience and an aversion to ownership would be correlated with egalitarianism.

4) It seems a case could readily be made that anarchists do not excel at actual violence. Acts of defiance and property destruction far outnumber acts of actual interpersonal violence, especially lethal violence. This would lend support to the notion that a pre-lethal violence cognitive-behavioral stage is associated with egalitarian outlooks. However, it should be hastily noted that physical violence might also be logically somewhat incompatible with egalitarianism, or at least inherently less preferable under an egalitarian framework than in a hierarchical one, and thus this could also explain the relatively tepid relationship of anarchism to interpersonal violence.

5) As already noted, anarchism is indeed intimately associated, today and throughout its brief but rich history, with poverty and transience. A number of social animals (e.g. at least some species of baboons, some wolves I think, girl chimps but I don’t think boy chimps, there’s lots of others) have juvenile stages in which they leave their birth territory and wander, not belonging to any territorial social group (and thus playing no role in any hierarchy). Some of these juvenile animals, notably common ravens, form complex social groupings whose purpose is to provide collective self-defense against the adults whose territories they travel through, taking resources the territorial mated adult pairs “own.” (8) A number of friends who I have described this juvenile raven life stage to have said something to the effect of, “Oh, they’re like us.” A potentially very salient observation.

6) I think even the most casual ethnographer of anarchist subcultures would agree that they are more prone to promiscuity and sexual experimentation than the general population.

sst-sluts

Sluts.

So how to further investigate such a thing? Of course, there’s filling in all the blanks on genes and actual biologically explicit mechanisms as possible. And the vast literature review all this entails, mercilessly investigating all these heterogenous threads. Some of it will doubtlessly be abolished by a moment’s research and some of it may slowly be allowed to agonizingly convolute and re-form into something else that becomes a workable theory. Or perhaps it will all be perfectly validated and no one else will have done any of this work before. But extremely unlikely.

I could readily imagine trying to extend this ostensible terrain of behavioral covariation into other complex species, like ravens. Would be decent graduate work if I could keep my focus for long enough to remember any of this by the time I get to graduate school (unlikely for a perpetually novel stimulus-seeking anarchist like myself). One could imagine asking: is there a relationship between the time a common ravens spends in juvenile confederations and their competency at some cognitive task? Is there some behavioral test at which ravens have varying competencies which could be seen to vary with varying time in juvenile confederations? (Perhaps not at all—perhaps time spent in this stage doesn’t have a strong developmental/genetic component; perhaps all the variation is ecological, and ravens just settle down and get territories whenever they find one. I don’t remember anymore.)

But ultimately, and that truly is the point, this crazy, elaborate theoretical framework provides a number of interesting avenues of inquiry and relationships to examine, and some of it could possibly go somewhere.

NOTES:

  1. See Dan. M Kahan’s paper “Cultural Cognition as a Conception of the Cultural Theory of Risk.” In press. S. Roeser, ed. Handbook of Risk Theory. Springer Publishing. http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1123807
  2. I’m not being as small-spirited as it might seem here. The Marginal and the Magical” is my own writing, which I published on the internet in 2007 and which was reprinted in Amarantos zine #3. http://amarantoszine.blogspot.com/ In this piece, I developed a truly elaborate set of comparisons between similar institutions in a number of very disparate societies. I don’t remember them all (it was after all years ago and I was just kicking drugs), but the general implication I recall seems to be an inclination toward artistic abstraction and conceptual exploration commonly corresponds to an antagonistic relationship with prevailing social standards and institutions of power.
  3. I am uncertain of what work to cite here. I suppose one could read Silvia Federicci’s Caliban and the Witch, which discusses some resistance movements, or Engels’s historical work on the peasant wars and whatnot on which Federicci draws. Radicals seem consistently obsessed with this book, but I admit I find it incoherent. If the witch hunts are primarily to be explained by some reconceptualization of the body in the transition to capitalism, what are we to make of the very similar persecutions of lepers, Muslims, and Jews which immediately preceded the witch hunts and were virtually identical to them? I could, let me assure you, continue to rant like this for awhile. Elaine Pagels also wrote some pretty decent books about some of the mystical Christian sects who have been involved in armed conflict with more authoritarian Christians. I don’t remember what any of them are called and apparently these are the kind of notes I’m writing right now.
  4. It seems improper to cite because it’s so old, but my source for this is somewhere in the labyrinthine corridors of Konrad Lorenz’s two-volume work Studies in Animal and Human Behavior.
  5. Somewhere out there there’s a paper describing how chimpanzee brain development is similar to humans’ for a time until their brains take on more rigid patterns of activity while human brains remain flexible. If I’m ever feeling studious I’ll track down the paper and post a link here.
  6. I am referring here to Graeber’s books Direct Action: An Ethnography and Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology.
  7. For those not already heavily steeped in anarcho-mythology, in 1936 anarchists claimed a good deal of Spain.
  8. Ravens in Winter by Bernd Heinrich changed my life when I was 16 years old.

“We only become what we are by radically negating deep down what others have done to us.”

–Jean-Paul Sartre, Introduction to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth

More than three years subsequent to the last print edition of Spring Speaks Truth, I am extremely pleased to say that Ogo and I have created what is in my opinion the most substantial and well-executed — both textually and graphically — edition of the zine thus far.

SST_3_coverEpigrammatic pieces intersperse three longer and more rigorous ones. Two of these, “Mass Extinctions and Dying Dreams: On the Wilderness of the Human Mind” and “The Wounds of Elephants and the Path to Liberation” have been published on the internet previously. The former discusses the mental constructs which decline or go extinct in civilized minds, just as certain biological species are more vulnerable to decline and extinction when civilization encroaches on their habitat. The latter describes elephant social structure and the aberrant behavior that African elephants increasingly engage in as they lose crucial relationships to habitat loss and bullets.

The third piece, “Civilization as Trauma: On the Denial of Human Developmental Needs and the Behavior of Mass Society,” is a discussion of the psychosocial deviations from hunter-gatherer conditions complex civilization represents for infants and children. While a fair amount of literature has been produced, in anthropology and other fields, concluding that modern, evolutionarily novel developmental settings likely have significant and lifelong behavioral consequences, this work poses the question of what bearing this fact may have on the incredible destructiveness and brutality of modern civilization, i.e. what the relationship is between our inherently traumatic developmental settings and our willingness to engage in acts of mass murder, mass extinction and, ultimately, collective suicide.

While much literature, particularly within the milieu of anarcho-primitivism, has been devoted generally to this theme, none that I am aware of involves a reasonably thorough survey of the actual data and theory available from anthropology and behavioral ecology. Contrarily, most of the scientific literature is very timid about making fundamental indictments of the collective behavior of the civilized. I hope, therefore, that this writing, while ultimately a preliminary effort, could begin to lay some more rigorous foundations for examining the behavioral and psychological effects of civilization, and the particular permutation of it that is the modern world.

SST_3_22-23Because prison represents, in many respects, an amplification of civilized conditions which appear antithetical to evolved human needs, I feel it is particularly important to make an effort to put this issue of Spring Speaks Truth into the hands of the incarcerated. “Profits” from this project will likely be virtually nonexistent, but to whatever extent they find their way to me, I will be using them to fund sending copies to Earth/animal (including human) liberation prisoners.

I of course understand that a publishing endeavor of this nature is inherently something of a fringe effort, but I also feel that our labors in this particular case have borne particularly worthwhile fruit, and so do have a sincere belief that this publication is worth disseminating as far and wide as possible. If you find yourself desiring a copy but lacking funds, send an email to terra.enigmae@gmail.com letting me know.

With love,

Scott

Copies may be purchased from Autonomy Press.

 

When one crafts fiction, one does it, no matter how fervently fidelity to real life may be desired, with a certain narrative elegance and coherence that life itself often lacks. When one attempts to describe true events, it is often the case that a jumble of occurrences present themselves which have minimal to nonexistent relationships, but which, because human behavior is arbitrary, must nonetheless be related.

For instance, if a cohort of Wal-Mart shoppers became incensed by a price increase on a favorite item in the store and chose, as a form of retaliation, to smash the windows a local Mosque, their behavior could be said to be entirely without justification. Should, however, some ill-starred author choose to write about this topic, they might find themself almost straining to attribute coherence or validity to the events, in order to produce some kind of semblance, however tentative, of a logical narrative.

walmart

Admittedly, a legitimate source of anger.

This is, more or less, the position I find myself in. Where to begin amidst a jumble of facts which appear to my eye to be so utterly disconnected? Can these events properly be said to have a sequence? If not, and I am simply going to arbitrarily reach for something reasonably distant in time, I suppose it would be justified to start with the Nazis.

The Nazis were, for anyone not familiar, an early-to-mid-20th century political party that came to power in Germany, initiated wars of aggression in all directions, and enslaved and killed millions, before being destroyed by their many enemies. I want to make a personal note here, because this rather obvious sentiment could very well be called into question later on, should someone take offense at this writing, that I think the Nazis were very, very bad.

Really. I do.

It just doesn’t get much worse than the Nazis.

A great deal of the writing on this blog is devoted to assessing the destructiveness and brutality of things I often refer to as “industrial civilization,” or “modern society,” and I just want to make abundantly clear that the somewhat general nature of these terms is deliberate, and that I don’t, for even a heartbeat, consider adding qualifications like “industrial civilization except for Nazi Germany.”

You can always tell who the bad guys are, cause they wear uniforms and carry guns around.

You can always tell who the bad guys are, cause they wear uniforms and carry guns around.

These are, of course, all seemingly rather stupid and unnecessary things to say, or at least they should be. But I’m going really, really far out of my way to avoid any confusion here, because apparently we live in confusing times. Either that, or some people have elevated being confused to an art form.

The last thing I should say about the Nazis is that they adopted as their party symbol the swastika, a symbol that shows up in artifacts from various parts of the world dating back to the Neolithic. At the time of the Nazis, the swastika had been dormant in Europe since antiquity, experiencing a brief resurgence in Europe before they took power. It is still common in other parts of the world. If you look up the swastika on Wikipedia, you get images of swastika windows in Egyptian churches, swastika coins from ancient Greece, a Hindu child with a swastika painted on top of his shaved head, swastikas engraved on combs from Iron Age Scandinavia, and a Native American basketball team from an agricultural school in Oklahoma with swastikas on their uniforms. Oh — there’s also a swastika made out of Hebrew letters from a Kabbalistic text. Jung wrote, rather eloquently, in my opinion, about the swastika before World War II. He was — at least according to the introduction to an edition of his work I’ve been carting up and down the West Coast for the past decade — horrified that it was adopted by the Nazis.

The filename is "Jewish Swastika," which, as far as simplicity and clarity goes, can't be fucked with.

The filename is “Jewish Swastika,” which, as far as simplicity and clarity goes, is hard to beat.

So now that we have the Nazis out of the way, I think we should move on to Christwire. For those who don’t have the pleasure of already being acquainted with the site, it’s a website of satirical right-wing Christian news and commentary. A recent article, for instance, argued for the repeal of the two term limit to the US presidency, so that former president George W. Bush could again lead the nation. All I have to say about Christwire, at least for the time being, is that when I first stumbled across it I thought it was real. Am I hopelessly credulous? I don’t particularly think so. The problem with satire is that it’s virtually impossible to conceive of anything more unreasonable or stupid than things that people — often very large numbers of them — actually think and say.

Bush 2016.

Bush 2016.

Having dealt with Christwire rather more concisely than Nazis, it seems natural to move on to the Earth Liberation Front. There’s a vast, impossibly complicated terrain here that I most assuredly do not have the time to address, so I must make a heroic effort at summarization. Industrial civilization came along to kill everything. Earth First! came along to try to stop it.  Some 15 years later, in the mid-1990s, the ELF came into public prominence, continuing a tradition of ecological sabotage that already existed within the EF! movement, but adopting what had been up to that point primarily an Animal Liberation Front tactic: arson.

To again make a personal note, I want to mention that, unlike the Nazis, I have tremendous admiration, at least in principle, for the ELF. At the time of the arsons, I questioned the efficacy of some of the targets, but overall, I’ve got nothing but appreciation for people burning evil shit to the ground. And between the mid-90s and 2001, a lot of bad places did exactly that. Like a wild horse slaughterhouse. And the offices of timber companies. And a ski resort, whose owners were expanding their development into lynx habitat in Colorado, where the animal was in particularly dire jeopardy.

The last thing I’d say about the Earth Liberation Front is that lots and lots of ELF people went to jail, some of whom are still there, many of whom would have likely evaded capture for the rest of their lives were it not for epidemics of snitching that swept through various populations of conspirators.

I love it when this happens!

I love it when this happens!

We’ve now touched on Christwire, Nazis, and the ELF; this seems as good a place as any — which is emphatically not to say it’s a particularly good place, just as good as I can possibly hope to find in this absurdly tangled web — to bring up folk music. In the broadest strokes possible, folk music refers to at least two very distinct things. One is music traditional to a culture, the kind of stuff that gets transmitted generation to generation, is associated with an entire people rather than an individual artist, and is typically aesthetically far superior to modern music. The other is music that is produced within modern societies but is acoustic or otherwise has some kind of traditional orientation. In a liberal definition, this could be anyone playing an acoustic guitar and singing — this latter kind of “folk music” lacks any of the near-guarantees of aesthetic superiority one finds in the former kind of folk music.

We’re concerned with the latter kind of folk music, and with a far smaller subset of it than everyone who plays acoustic guitar and sings — neofolk. Neofolk, as I’m using the term, has been around since the 1980s, where it developed out of the context of, and in association with, industrial and noise music. It’s a thriving genre, and far too much has happened in it in the intervening decades to make any real attempt at a rigid definition. Ultimately, it has no more ideological or aesthetic cohesion than punk rock — which is to say, none. A cursory and somewhat random list of themes that have occurred in it over the years might include: Norse mythology, nature worship, mystical Christianity, Western occultism, anti-modernism, ecological destruction, love, hate, death, fear, and Nazis.

Not this. The other kind of folk music.

Not this. The other kind of folk music.

Obviously, the list of themes could have been chosen more haphazardly, because while some are superfluous to our discussion, others provide a tentative indication of how all the subjects discussed thus far could end up in the same disjointed text. If you’re one of those people who read Bruno Shulz’s Street of Crocodiles, (and by the way, wasn’t it a tragedy that he got killed by the Nazis?) and got to the end and thought, “wow, that was well written, but not much actually happened,” be assured — we’re getting somewhere.

In early August of 2014, a folk band called Ekstasis, from Olympia, Washington, or at least the general vicinity thereof, was scheduled to play a show in Oakland, California. At the last minute, the show was cancelled by the venue because of allegations that they were Nazis, or if not Nazis per se than fascists of some other persuasion. I wish I could say I was incredulous, but I wasn’t. Recall that when, a week or two later, I stumbled in a late night delirium upon the satirical website Christwire, I didn’t assume it was a parody. I thought it might be real because I am unconvinced that it is possible to say anything more ridiculous, on purpose, than the things people actually say in earnest. I thought it might be real, in other words, because I live in a world where people actually, seriously engage in campaigns against fascism that target bands like Ekstasis. It’s a world where parody is simply obsolete.

Now, I can’t make you do anything you don’t want to do — which is, in my opinion, a good thing — but really, if you never have, you should listen to at least one song by Ekstasis before reading further. Here, try this one, Angels with Flaming Swords.

Not this. The kind of angels that are holding flaming swords.

Not this. The kind of angels that are holding flaming swords.

For those of you who didn’t follow the link (or weren’t already familiar), you’re missing half the joke, but I’ll do my best to compensate with a brief description. It’s gentle, foresty acoustic music — flute and string melodies drift and swirl around a rhythmic core of guitar and percussion, I might say if I was trying to write a music review — with lyrics about moving past the nostalgia and regrets of the past and embracing the present as an equally fertile moment.

Really.

Seriously.

In case you think I’ve cherry picked here, and the link is to the band’s one and only song that isn’t about deporting illegal immigrants or maintaining the purity of the white race, you should really just go check out the entirety of their recorded output on the internet thus far. But be prepared for some of the most brutal, hate-filled a cappella harmonies you’ve ever heard.

A couple days later, the band released a statement, which read, in part:

“To be clear: we as individuals and as a band actively strive to stand against systematized forms of oppression, whether based on race, gender, sexuality, or any of the other forms of identity in the modern world. Through our music we seek to speak to that which is highest or deepest: the in-dwelling spark that unites us all and connects us to the unbroken spirit of the universe, beyond individual identity. Racism, fascism, and manipulative pseudo-politics are the opposite of this aim. We refute them with every fiber of our being.

To those who masterminded this passive-aggressive scheme: congratulations. You struck a severe blow against us, the two of us who are practicing Jews and lead High Holy Day services on the Bima every year, we who are queer and radical and wild. Against us and our ancestors. We who are actively working to dismantle systems of oppression within ourselves and our communities (one of our members is in the anti-oppression Playback Theater company Pasajer@s Playback). Yours is a blow against those who wish to come together to explore the mysteries of the world. We who would prefer to openly communicate (and even respectfully disagree) as equals rather than manipulate amongst enemies. We who would like to trust each other rather than live in a world of fear. You shut down the show we invited our friends and family to, invited our rabbi to, without a way to argue for or defend ourselves. You have appointed yourselves as the arbiters of what is permissible to think or read, as the shadow jury that decides who should or shouldn’t have the right to perform in this town. You have allied yourselves with the snitches, the McCarthyites, the secret police forces of the world. Congratulations: you are the fascists.”

In a still-ridiculous-but-somewhat-less-ridiculous world, this would presumably have been the end of this odd conflagration of nonsense. But in this world, the statement had the extremely peculiar effect of seeming to exacerbate the sentiment that the band was a medium for expressing fascist ideology, and increasing the vitriolic hostility with which this sentiment was expressed. It’s probably a good thing that the event page for this cancelled show, where page after page of heated dialogue occurred after the statement was released, is either no longer on Facebook, or if it is, I can take pride in not knowing how to use Facebook well enough to find it. If it was still there, I would likely not be able to resist the temptation to quote it.

To go any further into this tale requires that we enter a domain of what is, for me, genuine ambiguity. The scenario thus far has been difficult to relate, to be certain, but familiar — this next portion involves considerable uncertainty on my part about what actually happened. You see, the reason the show was cancelled was because one of the band members, a certain Exile — or Nathan Block to the bank, the Social Security Administration, and the United States Bureau of Prisons — is a known fascist.

Ambiguous, but more ambiguous than Foucault?

Ambiguous, but more ambiguous than Foucault?

Naturally, one might wonder how this curious state of affairs, where a known fascist is a member of a band which makes such heartfelt statements against “systemized forms of oppression,” came to be.

One’s wonder might progress to a state more akin to bewilderment upon learning he is not in the band.

After the band clearly stated this, over and over again — there was a distinct impression people simply didn’t believe it at first — a line of questioning emerged about peoples’ friendships with the aforementioned fascist, Exile. But I think it’s important not to venture too far away from what is to me this very central point, that the initial, core premise of peoples’ objection to this band was entirely false. There are, unless there is some category of falsehood that is neither a lie nor a misunderstanding of which I am not aware, only those two possibilities: people were either terribly misinformed, or people were lying. I was never able to figure out which is the case. People claimed the show’s promoter sent out a mass text message billing it as “Nathan Block’s Ekstasis,” but that would be a really weird way to promote a show even if he was in the band, and none of my friends in Oakland — people who are actually involved in the small music subculture Ekstasis inhabits — got it; the show’s promoter, apparently, chose to text only anarchist kids with a bone to pick with neofolk. If I had to choose, I’d say that at least some deliberate misinformation was spread.

So now that Exile’s clearly in the picture, we are almost ready to integrate two aforementioned themes, swastikas and the Earth Liberation Front, into our story. But first, let’s at least briefly acknowledge, before returning to it in more detail later, that This Sort of Thing Keeps Happening. There’s a long, dubious history of bands who publicly state they are not ideologically aligned with fascism getting their shows cancelled because other people say they are. This happened, for instance, in 2010, when the Austrian band Allerseelen was targeted by Rose City Antifa and others for ostensible fascist inclinations. A show they’d booked in Portland — in an anarchist space that featured among its recurring events meetings of the group Anarchist People of Color — was cancelled when the space’s curator was told by local anarchists the space would be “blacklisted” if the show occurred. When she contacted the band, and a fellow named Gerhard Hallstadt, the only consistent member, stated that he had no sympathy for the Nazis and offered to sit down with whoever had concerns and explain his art, he was turned down by Antifa.

Let me very briefly mention, to save the opposition, should it emerge, from having to do a bunch of research, that I hosted a show featuring this band shortly after the aforementioned cancellation, in a venue space I lived in outside of Olympia. There you have it. My sordid confession. There will be more.

Do you ever find yourself thrilled by traversing the very edges of your knowledge of the universe, the dim boundaries of your perception wherein you can almost make out the shapes of things inconceivable? Do you ever, for instance, smoke weed and contemplate abstract mathematics? Or marvel at how many structural similarities brains have with ant colonies, and wonder if all complex phenomena share some universal properties? If so, you might want to take a break and get yourself good and mindblown before reading further, cause this shit is about to get truly wild.

Go look into this hole or something.

Go look into this hole or something.

The dialogue around fascism in neofolk has always hinged on not believing people when they say they’re not fascists. We enter into this territory of claustrophobic suspicion: “Sure, you say you’re not a fascist, but anyone can just say they’re not a fascist; what are you going to do to prove it?”

Where it might be suggested that, if one wanted to establish some kind of credibility for themselves, burning a bunch of shit down could be a good place to start.

I don’t know Exile intimately, but I get the sense that he’s not terribly involved in any kind of political world these days. But this wasn’t always the case. And it’s not like he hung out with Stormfront or White Aryan Resistance back in the day; no friends, he spent his days — or his nights, in any case — with the Earth Liberation Front. And when people started getting arrested, and the snitching began in earnest, he was one of what ultimately turned out to be a tiny minority of the accused who held fast to a principle — a principle that is arguably deeply and fundamentally human, rather than political, per se — and didn’t snitch, despite facing the prospect of life in prison. Happily, the government fucked up its case, in its overzealous application of surveillance, and when their mistake was revealed, hastily offered the four non-cooperators pleas for vastly reduced sentences. Arrested in 2005, Exile was released from prison at the end of 2012.

Not these guys. The other resistance.

Not these guys. The other resistance.

So then, of course, comes the question of what he has done, post-arson, to so thoroughly sully credentials which would seem, in theory, to be a pretty ironclad guarantee of basic human respect, perhaps even twinges of admiration, on the part of anarchists and other political radicals the world over.

The answer is the swastika, with which his blog, Loyalty is Mightier than Fire, is copiously populated.

And boy, are there swastikas, all kinds of them — there’s swastikas from Buddhist iconography, swastikas with the anarchist circle-A inside of them, swastikas on Hindu prayer shawls, swastikas next to Orthodox crosses, a swastika made of bullets, one in brickwork, and even one made out of cocaine!

Right. So that’s awkward.

There’s lots of other stuff, too. Actually, lots of the images that appear in this blog post I am writing, the ones most people wouldn’t associate with fascism, I took from Loyalty is Mightier than Fire: the statue of Christ in the ruined church, the Moroccan folk musicians, the painting of Mary and the infant Christ, the image of Michael Foucault talking about the penal system, and the solitary man standing above the epic chasm in the Earth. And this does not even begin to summarize the scope of the blog’s subject matter, as far as imagery is concerned: there’s Asian shamans, Black Bloc anarchists, alchemical manuscripts, dancers in the Nijinsky choreography of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Viking runestones, horses, Persian mystics, Paleolithic cave art, Ayatollah Khomeini, and a woman eating a strawberry.

Loyalty is, truly, mightier than fire.

Loyalty is, truly, mightier than fire.

What do all these images have in common, or what, when they are taken in the aggregate, do they collectively signify? I’m not sure I know the answer to that, and if I did, it might be prohibitively lengthy, but if you answered “they are all inducements to the cause of white supremacy,” or “they all articulate a clear vision of a resurgence of fascist ideals in modern politics,” I’m going to have to go ahead and say you’re very, very wrong.

If you’re wondering what the blog’s “message” is — which of course makes the pretty bold assumption that in peoples’ Tumblr pages there is to be found a singular, cohesive idea — maybe the caption for the man-and-chasm picture on Exile’s blog can provide some elucidation:

“For leaving behind everything that is observed, not only what sense comprehends, but also what the intelligence thinks it sees, it keeps on penetrating deeper until by the intelligence’s yearning for understanding it gains access to the invisible and the incomprehensible, and there it sees God. This is the true knowledge of what is thought; this is the seeing that consists in not seeing because that which is sought transcends all knowledge, being separated on all sides by incomprehensibility, as by a kind of darkness.”

If you’re having trouble making sense of that, imagine what it would do to the mind of someone stupid enough to believe that white people are superior to any other human population. Seriously. Imagine trying to sell this paradoxical mysticism, as an inducement to action, to people who believe that Tampa, Florida, Jell-o salads, the Vietnam War, and the New Kids on the Block are the work of a master race.

Übermensch, or moron?

Übermensch, or moron?

So if not an expression of racist or fascist ideology, what’s with all the swastikas? Maybe this quote from Rene Guenon, featured on the blog, offers some insight:

“Such is the true significance of the swastika, a symbol found everywhere, from the Far East to the Far West, and which is essentially the ‘sign of the Pole’; … contemporary scholars have employed all manner of fantastic theories in their vain efforts to explain this symbol, the majority of them, obsessed by a sort of fixed idea, having been intent on seeing here, as almost everywhere else, an exclusively ‘solar’ symbol, whereas, if it has occasionally become such, this could only have been by accident, as a result of some distortion. Others have come nearer the truth when they see in the swastika a symbol of movement, although this interpretation, without being false, is quite insufficient, for it is not a question of just any kind of movement, but of rotational movement around a center or immutable axis; and it is this fixed point, we repeat, that constitutes the essential element to which the symbol in question is directly related.”

So there you have it — there’s at least one plausible theoretical framework in which someone could, conceivably, become obsessed with the swastika, a framework that’s got nothing to do with Auschwitz or invading Poland.

A complex discussion could, of course, ensue. One could offer any number of challenges to someone utilizing this symbol, especially in a public venue like the internet, as a locus of esoteric thought. A central question would, of course, be: at what point does something become irrevocably associated with the forces of evil? Which might turn out to be a point people define differently. Brutal, despotic empires around the world have utilized the theme of freedom, for instance, but presumably freedom is too fundamental a condition of existence for any particular empire to revoke forever our right to speak of it, to appeal to it as a thing worth striving toward.

Eagles have been associated, through iconography, with the Roman, Nazi, and American empires--but let's keep in mind they're also birds.

Eagles are associated, iconographically, with the Roman, Nazi, and American empires — but let’s keep in mind they’re also birds.

What about the American flag? It’s hard to argue that the design is, in any sense, fundamental to the experience of being human. There is no meaningful application anyone has ever devised for it other than representing, with great specificity, the nation state of America — a blood-soaked empire if ever there was one. The stars found on the American flag, on the other hand, are versatile, often symbolizing, among many other things, actual stars, which are intrinsic in the universe, and will populate our skies long after the war planes and plumes of air pollution of the United States have vanished from it. So maybe one tentative framework for discussing whether a given symbol is acceptable or not is the extent to which it has exclusive associations with, or exclusive applicability to, evil.

But what about the Guns ‘n’ Roses shirt I used to wear around when I was a young, drunk forest defender that had an American flag on it — where does that fit into all this? Is it okay to use an evil symbol once removed, to promote not a bloody empire but a rockin’ band? What about Earth First! Rendezvous in the 80s, back when there was an American flag on prominent display? Is everyone who was involved in Earth First! in the 80s bad by association? Am I bad for being friends with some of them?

Negating this line of inquiry, of course, is the esoteric conception of the swastika, wherein, whatever a given culture associates with it, the symbol has an inherent, immutable, non-substitutable relevance; it is not a symbol simply devised at random to express an idea, like the word “tree” arbitrarily signifies a tree, but an actual feature of the universe, which we are no more capable of changing than we can change the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter.

If we were going to talk about this esoteric conception — if we were going to discuss whether the perceivable universe is an ever-circling, ever-fluxing field of illusory change emanating from an immutable center in which all ostensibly disparate entities are one; if we’re going to talk, in other words, about whether the universe is a swastika — we are essentially in a realm where we are talking about something very much like “magic,” and whether or not it is, in fact, real. Talk about complex discussions. This is a subject on which people of all political persuasions remain divided.

An alternate, somewhat less ambitious, proposal, which could also be relevant to this complex discussion, would be that the universe is not a swastika, a tree, a serpent eating its tail, or any other such thing it has been characterized as in various mystical schema, but that the human mind is innately structured to perceive the swastika as possessing some great meaning. Again, this would be a circumstance we would not be at liberty to change, anymore than we can change peoples’ desire to have sex or their tendency to find objects adhering to the golden ratio aesthetically pleasing.

Behold the indwelling swastika, which has illuminated your vision since birth.

Behold the indwelling swastika, which has illuminated your vision since birth.

I want to make clear that this is not a blog post “about” swastikas per se, anymore than it’s really about the Earth Liberation Front or whether or not magic is real. And even if swastikas were the ultimate subject of this writing, I would not be arguing for their indiscriminate use. Far from it. My feelings about the swastika are complex. It is a symbol with some meaning for me, which has featured somewhat in my private life for a number of years, since I read the aforementioned texts by Carl Jung. But I’m very cautious about where it shows up, and to what extent anyone would ever recognize it as a “swastika.” I do think people have a responsibility to balance their personal interest in something with the general, public effect it might have (even when that effect is essentially predicated on misunderstanding). Cause remember — in case, in the intervening couple thousand words since I last said it, you’ve forgotten — I really, really, seriously, actually don’t like Nazis. I never have and I never will. And if you say otherwise it doesn’t make it so.

And that’s what is the point. That’s what this writing is about. It’s about complex discussions, and how they’re indispensable to anyone who wants to have a fleeting chance of even the most elementary understanding of this universe we occupy, because this universe is, itself, profoundly complex. It’s about how complex discussions are no longer allowed within radical culture, because they’re oppressive. It’s about radicals’ hair-trigger mechanism for shifting to treating someone like the enemy, rather than treating them like a comrade with whom they share broad, fundamental principles, but lack 100% agreement about more specific things.

There's just more going on here than will fit in a slogan.

There’s just more going on here than will fit in a slogan.

Does that make you feel a little unsafe? Feeling a little triggered? Perhaps even oppressed, or if not oppressed, at least incensed on behalf of someone else who you imagine probably will feel oppressed by this writing? Well, TRIGGER WARNING: I’m about to restate the preceding paragraph in somewhat stronger terms.

The reason I’m writing this blog post is to discuss how radical culture has become, or perhaps always has been, a petty, vicious, small-minded, self-obsessed clique in which the same tired conventions repeatedly echo off the same impermeable walls that define the narrow corridors of acceptable thought; a thing tragically lacking in warrior spirit but rich in behaviors far better suited to cops — or perhaps more accurately, to degenerate sub-cops, to security guards, for instance, or grade school hall monitors — than to revolutionaries.

It would be eminently reasonable — indeed, the sort of thing I’d personally encourage — for someone to question Exile’s motives for the swastikas on his blog and, upon hearing his response, to ask questions, to level critiques, to, perhaps, point out what they regard as flaws in his reasoning, or aspects of the use of the swastika he hasn’t considered. It would be eminently reasonable to decide you disagree with him, and to express this however one saw fit. All these things would be reasonable because they’d be predicated on a dialogue, and that dialogue would involve listening to what someone says about their thoughts and motivations, and taking it seriously, rather than, say, disregarding it and attributing to them instead the most vicious and horrible thoughts and motivations imaginable.

What does it mean to call someone a fascist, or a Nazi, who says they aren’t? It might mean quite a bit in, say, 1941. It might mean someone is a spy for the Nazis, for instance, in which case one wouldn’t really expect them to be terribly open about their political convictions. But what does it mean today? Is there a way to be a “fascist” but espouse publicly that you are not? What does it mean when someone has no involvement in mass politics — when indeed, ala Allerseelen or Exile, it is somewhat difficult to imagine them descending from the inner mountains up which they strive, those great snowy peaks that transcend space and time, and entering the mundane world in which politics inherently takes place — gets called a fascist? At that point, what other means are available, involvement in politics and/or public promotion of fascist ideology having been taken off the table, for someone to do something that makes them a fascist?

Beware the Mussolini that is not Mussolini, the hidden Mussolini that is shadow-and-yet-light, fascist and yet not political, inscrutably pure and yet a source of vile contamination, for he is the Mussolini of the modern age.

Beware the Mussolini that is not Mussolini, the hidden Mussolini that is shadow-and-yet-light, fascist and yet not political, inscrutably pure and yet a source of vile contamination, for he is the Mussolini of the modern age, the New Mussolini, with which the antifascists must do combat.

What did New York City Antifa mean, exactly, when they, a day or two after the cancellation of the Ekstasis show, decided to publish a post called “Former ELF/Green Scare Prisoner “Exile” Now a Fascist” — since they didn’t accuse him of saying so himself, and they didn’t accuse him of involving himself in any sort of political activity? Did they simply mean that somewhere in his inner core, somewhere inaccessible to direct scrutiny by any outside observer, in some hidden landscape lacking any means of ingress or egress to or from the world at large, he is a fascist? If so, they are likely well-equipped to understand the more abstract forays into philosophy and esotericism found on his blog.

All life is related, and the point at which a species emerges, distinct from all other species, is ambiguous. But at some point it becomes inevitably more useful to give something its own name. Bears and mountain lions share a common ancestor sometime approximately 42 million years ago, but evolutionary changes have taken place subsequently; it is useless to simply refer to both as carnivores from the middle Eocene. Something similar seems to be happening with the fascists of yore and those of the present-day.

What is happening, so far as I can tell, is that groups like Antifa are doing combat with the extremely heterogeneous — and virtually impossible to define — aesthetic, philosophical, and cultural currents which are, or historically have been, associated with fascism, rather than with “fascism” as an organized force in mass politics. I feel confident making such bold assertions because they say so themselves.

Let’s start with Rose City Antifa’s statement of opposition to Allerseelen from back in 2010:

“Linked below you will find an article describing Gerhard Petak’s far-right political views and associations—while Petak has had contact with some people who could be fairly described as Nazis or neo-Nazis, Petak has also criticized the Third Reich in print, and we do not describe him personally as a Nazi. We place Petak’s viewpoints and advocacy on the terrain of neo-fascism and the far-Right, especially that of the European New Right. Some other ideological influences will be discussed in passing. If at times Petak’s viewpoints appear as a jumble of varied and even opposing influences, it is worth noting that fascism has always been a syncretic ideological movement—one that attempts to fuse differing elements into a single whole. Indeed, this syncretic nature has given rise to one of fascism’s primary qualities, that of simultaneously being “A and not A” and often harboring diametrically opposed impulses, such as attempting mass political mobilization while also vocalizing contempt for mass society. These contradictions unfortunately do not render fascism or fascist politics harmless.”

If one bothers to really dig into the history of fascism — or the 20th century in general — one finds Antifa’s characterization of fascism, as an assemblage of extremely varied ideological and aesthetic impulses (I say “assemblage” here rather than “synthesis” on purpose; like Walt Whitman, fascism contradicts itself, contains multitudes), to be absolutely correct. It’s also worth enumerating a few of these diverse impulses which a particularly relevant to our discussion:

1. A generalized longing for/idealization of the archaic.

2. In overt contradiction of 1, hyper-modern industrialism.

3. An inherently non-egalitarian (because it presumes that people do not possess identical innate capacities) ethos of the superman, the spiritual aristocrat, the hero, etc. — an individual who rises above society and achieves a state of awareness/being impossible from within society’s confines.

4. In overt contradiction of 3, hyper-authoritarianism, and the mobilization of the collective based, in a still-familiar script from today, on the demonization of others.

5. Reverence for nature, and a belief in living in intimate relation with the land.

6. Contra 5, cutting down forests, building factories, and bombing shit.

7. Traditional religious and spiritual forms pre-dating Christianity; general esoterism.

8. Contra 7, adopting Christianity as a state religion.

He just looks like some nice blonde guy who wants to grow wheat until you notice the Nazi emblem in the lower left.

He just looks like some nice blonde guy who wants to grow wheat until you notice the Nazi emblem.

What’s necessary to point out about this list of traits/themes is that they all show up — often in the same bewildering, contradictory juxtapositions — in all manner of cultural, artistic, and political milieus.

Let’s actually step back a moment — for just a paragraph — and broaden the scope of this discussion. Industrial civilization in general, and the massive social and technological changes of the 20th century in particular, have been, to indulge in gratuitous understatement, difficult for people to adapt to. There was never a moment of true acquiescence. We never believed in this dream. It was born dead. The moment science began to explain everything, massive resurgences of mysticism and anti-rationalism spread among educated people. The moment technology offered us a way to never touch the soil again, people began to flee to the forest. Our current epoch of hyper-mechanized warfare, hyper-mechanized work, and growing distance from the land gave birth instantly to many counter-currents. These counter-currents have taken an incredible diversity of forms, but if one bothers to peer just a little ways beneath their exteriors, beneath the simple classificatory schema, one finds a wealth of commonalities.

Virtually all major 20th and 21st century avant-garde artistic movements — which, let us recall, because people so often forget, have at their conception often been thought of as actual assaults on society at large, as war, and only later became entertainment — share fascism’s simultaneous archaism and hyper-modernism. The Dadaists had their performances with “primitive” masks covered in bull’s blood, but they also dressed up like robots. The Nazis had their parades with maypoles and garlands of flowers, but also their parades with tanks.

And if one finds “diametrically opposed impulses, such as attempting mass political mobilization while also vocalizing contempt for mass society” to be troubling, what could be more alarming than punk rock? If Friedrich Nietzsche and Julius Evola are dangerous for their anti-egalitarianism, for their appalling sense of superiority to the masses, then what are we to make of Crass, when they tell us, in “End Result”:

“I hate the living dead and their work in factories/They go like sheep to their production lines/They live on illusions, don’t face the realities/All they live for is that big blue sign, it says, it says……….I’M BORED, BORED, BORED, BORED.”?

Far more plausible candidates for Übermensch are to be found in this photo than the one of Ronald McDonald--I remain, nonetheless, skeptical.

Far more plausible candidates for Übermensch are to be found in this photo than the one of Ronald McDonald–I remain, nonetheless, skeptical.

What was evil about the fascists, and the Nazis, was not the hodgepodge of mystical ideologies, the nature worship, the resurgence of pre-Christian spirituality, the anti-modernism, the esotericism, the contempt for the collective: these are common roots which have borne the flowers not just of totalitarian regimes but also of every mode of opposition to the modern age conceived of thus far: surrealism, punk rock, and radical environmentalism, to name a few I happen to like personally — but the list would also have to include aesthetic travesties like New Age.

What was evil about the Nazis — and I mean really, really fucking evil; let’s try not to forget all the parts of this document where I’ve already said I don’t like Nazis, okay? — was the oppression, violence, and ecological destruction. As a side note, the list of things that make Nazis evil is one they share with every other manifestation of industrial civilization that has ever existed.

All this has been written about before. I myself — with perhaps a slightly less weary tone — wrote on some of the similarities between avant-garde art and more traditionally “left” political movements and fascism in an essay called “Primitive impulse and mechanized slaughter: Rites of Spring.” And it’s not like I’m the go-to guy for this sort of thing. I felt compelled to write the essay because I’m more familiar with contemporary artistic obscurities — like neofolk, for instance — than most mainstream writers, but a lot of the essence of that piece is presented with far greater detail in Modris Eksteins’s book Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age.

Doing battle with “fascism” as an eclectic jumble of ideological and aesthetic impulses — doing battle with artists and writers, with broad conceptualizations of the cosmos and society — rather than with fascism as an organized political force capable of doing violence to people and land, seems to miss some of the essential spirit of “anti-fascism” as it was originally conceived. One who studied critical thinking might possess some particular term for mistaking superficial similarities with similarities of substance. Lacking any such formal nomenclature, I’ll simply call it ridiculous.

Remember how I said you could expect further sordid confessions as you continued to traverse the absurdly-ever-shifting terrain of this text? Here’s my next one: I’ve got a swastika tattooed on my arm. I am not kidding. Look, here’s a picture.

Don't hate me for the swastika. Hate me because I take selfies.

Don’t hate me for the swastika. Hate me because I take selfies.

I mean, it doesn’t look that much like a swastika, and that’s on purpose — cause I am pretty eager not to be associated with the evil things swastikas are associated with, and I know that’s what would happen — but that’s what it is to me. Got it after reading a heavy dose of Jung. Made the center (remember that’s the immutable, universal part — that part from which the apparent world emanates and all that) deliberately a lot bigger than in most traditional designs, cause evidently I think the part of the universe we don’t comprehend is vastly greater than the part we do.

You’ve got all sorts of options. You can decide not to believe me. You can decide to believe me but critique my thinking. You could even believe me and think my tattoo’s swell. Let’s talk about the first of these options: you do not believe me, and conclude the swastika, despite my repeated, fervent disavowals of any such ideology, must be an expression of fascism. If you choose this route, I can not make a statement directed at you with anything remotely near, despite my considerable talent for mockery and condescension, adequate levels of derision.

And some of you will. There is nothing I can do to dissuade some of you that my true motivation for writing this is that I am a fascist. The actual work I do in defense of all life on Earth — humans of every kind most certainly included — will do nothing to insulate me. No one possesses adequately impressive anti-fascist credentials not to get accused of all manner of evil if they stray from the discourse that is acceptable within “radical” circles. I mean, take for instance when Rose City Antifa released their statement on Allerseelen, citing as evidence of Gerhard Hallstadt’s loathsome ideology his appreciation of Ernst Jünger:

The Conservative Revolutionary movement was characterized by fervent nationalism following the German defeat in WWI; a view of the nation as an organic whole; glorification of hierarchy, militarism, industrial mobilization, as well as “folk-community;” plus deep anti-liberalism and anti-egalitarianism . . . Allerseelen has directly paid homage to the Conservative Revolutionaries Ernst Jünger (the Allerseelen track “Käferlied” is a tribute to him) and Friedrich Hielscher . . . “

Remember how awhile back I told you the tale was going to get a little wild, and you might want to smoke some weed or delve into complexity theory for awhile to get into the right frame of mind? Seriously, smoke a lot more of that weed.

Ernst Jünger was — along with Nietzsche, the anonymous authors of the Poetic Edda, and eagles — admired by the Nazis. But unlike Nietzsche, miscellaneous Icelandic poets, or eagles (who in their defense were, in the former two cases, already dead, and in the latter case, birds), Jünger, at some risk to his wellbeing, published numerous works critical of the Nazi party, both during and after its reign, and, at considerably greater risk to his wellbeing, peripherally took part in the Stauffenberg bomb plot. In case you are not familiar, this plot, named after the German military officer who carried the briefcase bomb into the conference room where it detonated but failed to assassinate its primary target, is colloquially known as “the plot to kill Hitler.” They made a movie about it called Operation Valkyrie starring Tom Cruise.

Tom Cruise: the Ündermensch.

“Ündermensch” is probably not how you actually say “Underman” in German, but I’m just gonna roll with it.

In case you’re thinking he might’ve wanted Hitler dead because he wanted to accelerate the pace of the Holocaust, here’s an excerpt from Jünger’s The Forest Passage, which is intended to discuss the notion of “the forest rebel” as an eternal resistance figure transcending any particular political or historical situation, but is clearly deeply influenced by his experience of the Nazi regime:

“In our present age, each day can bring shocking new manifestations of oppression, slavery, or extermination–whether aimed at specific social groupings or spread over entire regions. Exercising resistance to this is legal, as an assertion of basic human rights, which, in the best cases, are guaranteed in constitutions but which the individual has nevertheless to enforce.”

I was born in 1978, and I started listening to punk rock when I was 11, so that makes me just old enough to really remember what it was like when Nazi skinheads were a constant, violent threat at punk shows and the like. I have stood my ground, as a rail-thin 14-year-old, against gangs of grown-ass skinhead men. This is a history I doubt I share with many of Rose City Antifa’s members. So there’s a few points in my favor, I suppose. But you know what I never did? I never once — not in my punk rock youth, nor at any other point in my 36 years of ecological anti-authoritarianism — tried to kill Hitler. And if trying to kill Hitler doesn’t get you a pass with today’s anti-fascists, nothing I can ever hope to do or say will.

Now, regarding the other two options — believing my motivations for getting the tattoo I have on my right arm but critiquing them, in some fashion or another, or just thinking my tattoo is swell — the second of these doesn’t really leave much to talk about. If that’s the case, thanks. My friend Megan gave it to me. People from Rose City Antifa called her a “Nazi goth bitch” last night at a Death in June show, but I think she’s great (and since she’s faced down trucks carrying giant crazy pieces of tar sands equipment and industrial logging operations with me, it’s unsurprising she’s able to withstand such withering verbal critiques). But the other option leaves open the prospect of dialogue: a vast, horizonless, uncharted terrain before us — terra motherfucking incognita — in which we might actually hear something other than the ideologies we’ve already accepted and heard reiterated endlessly by the people we surround ourselves with.

I believe in open dialogue, but watch out for the sea serpents.

If our conversation doesn’t involve the possibility of being devoured by sea serpents, I just don’t want to have it.

Cause remember, that’s what this writing is really about. Just like I said before that it’s not really about swastikas, the Earth Liberation Front, Nazis, or magic, it’s also not really about Ernst Jünger, dada, punk rock, or Tom Cruise. I mean, if I’m going to make another confession — perhaps slightly less sordid than having a swastika tattoo or having once run sound for Allerseelen — it would be that this writing is essentially an escape. It’s long and rambling because I’m sick, and feeling the kind of self-pity that makes me want to avoid more onerous and obligatory tasks. But the way I justify it — the way I make this about more than a hyper-obscure countercultural dispute — is that the common theme underlying all these digressions is the utter failure of anarchist/radical circles to engage in dialogue, critically evaluate shared assumptions and conventions, and, as experience and analysis yields new results, modify paradigms. And it’s not about how we’re failing at this because we’re not smart, or we lack the right analytical framework — it’s about how we’re failing at this because we’re scared, because there’s things we’re not allowed to talk about.

I will say this as simply as possible, because if anyone actually bothers to read this they will likely misconstrue and recontextualize what I say, and the simpler I am the more ridiculous and elaborate their convolutions of logic necessarily become (if I’m going to be called a fascist, or a fascist sympathizer, or any other terrible and hurtful thing, I wanna see you motherfuckers work for it). None of us really has any idea what is going on. The thing someone said — was it Isaac Newton? — about our science being a drop and our ignorance an ocean is true. When a group of people get together and decide they’ve figured everything out they always get it wrong. This is no less true for you than for anyone else alive on the planet. And when groups of people become so convinced of the Absolute Truths they have determined that they manage to quell dialogue, and inhibit perfectly reasonable courses of inquiry with fear, they are engaging in behavior inimical to the work of creating a liveable world.

It does not matter how legitimate your core principles are. Modern history will never be clean of the blood that has been spilled in the name of legitimately noble values which were perverted into their antitheses, frameworks of opposition to imperialism, or class inequality, or systematic oppression, which became in and of themselves vehicles for imperialism, inequality, systematic oppression. There is no system of values so innately virtuous that it can not be used for evil, and the first step down the road toward that evil is no longer being amenable to dialogue or self-reflection.

You can always rethink your actions, but you just can't un-smash a Buddha statue.

You can always rethink your actions, Cultural Revolutionary, but you just can’t un-smash a Buddha statue.

I am completely and utterly overwhelmed by the horrors of this world, by living at a time when industrial civilization is ushering in the Earth’s Sixth Mass Extinction and resistance, while often brave, is so utterly futile, in a time when the world’s languages and cultures are vanishing along with its species, in a time when the baseline levels of inequality and mass cruelty we have been inflicting on one another are about to get, as the planet heats up and ecological collapse begins to destabilize our societies, a whole lot worse. And you know what? As horrifying as these realities are, as utterly and desperately as I would like to reach out and grasp at some shred of reassurance, the simple truth is that I don’t actually know what an alternate world would really look like. I don’t know how much of what we are doing — for all the ink I’ve spilled over the years, and for all the innumerable texts of anthropology, behavioral ecology, history, and analysis I’ve read — is a cultural contingency, and how much is deeply built into us. I don’t know what a society that didn’t horrify me would really look like, because I don’t know where the parameters of human nature actually lie.

And neither do you.

We just do not have this shit figured out. None of us actually knows how a just, sane world would would really be configured, or how we can get there from here. The only way any of us could possibly know such things is if we had succeeded in averting the current crises and transitioning to something else, and none of us have. A big part of this work involves acknowledging this profound shortcoming we all share. It should beget a fair amount of humility. The other part of this work is fighting like hell in what little time we have left before systemic ecological collapse creates a scenario of endless crisis and precludes what options we have now. “Fighting like hell” doesn’t sound easy, but it sounds a whole lot more plausible with a lot of friends around you, which is another great argument for trying to achieve some semblance of cohesion amongst people who share broad values rather than striving for the nth degree of ideological homogeneity, and hence another fact that should beget a fair amount of humility.

In a (presumably hopeless) effort to clarify What the Fuck I’m Talking About, I’d like to distill this whole post to one central tenet, one essential point which I’m trying very hard to make: I would like to suggest that we restrict our antagonisms, our organized political efforts, to forces that actually wield anywhere near the scale of political and economic power to really do massive harm to animals, the Earth, and other people. I would like to suggest, in other words, that people who share broad values find each other and work together, and more or less not worry about what people in other tiny, obscure subcultural echelons are up to, because I see no possible scenario in which it could possibly matter as much as what the people with all the guns and money are doing.

Here's a picture of some of the people who will still be my friends after this blog post is published.

Here’s a neat picture of some of the people who will still be my friends after this blog post is published. Love you guys!

Cause when we get into the level of hyper-scrutiny of our peers ostensible “antifascist” organizers engage in, we could all probably think of something our friends are doing that perpetuates unspeakable atrocity. I mean, I know you guys all really hate Julius Evola, but the most dangerous philosopher on Exile’s blog has gotta be Michael Foucalt, right?

From NYC Antifa’s previously mentioned piece “Former ELF/Green Scare Prisoner “Exile” Is Now a Fascist”:

“If you are unfamiliar with the more obscure references to Nazism and the postwar fascist movement, except a few decorated swastikas, Exile’s blog might look like a creepy spiritual goth kid’s elaborate art project. However, if you understand the references, it is immediately obvious that Exile is going out of his way to promote a slew of fascist writers and imagery, especially those influenced by Esoteric Nazism and other forms of mystical fascism.

The most prominent is Julius Evola, an Italian Traditionalist philosopher who attacked the “modern world” as decadent and corrupt. (Evola is the go-to guy for fascists who want a Situationist, Frankfurt School, or anarchist-style critique of capitalism and the consumer society.)”

I have no idea when it was decided what was okay to read/quote, or who got to be there for the decisionmaking, but if we’re going to talk about philosophers whose ideas contain the seeds of atrocities, let’s just start with Foucault and the whole litany of other social scientists and producers of hyperliterate textual opacities — a good deal of the intellectual heritage of the modern age — who reject the very idea of human nature. Lots of the people who have zealously promoted this idea — most of them, perhaps — have been left/anarchist types, but ultimately, it’s a justification for every excess of totalitarianism imaginable.

We are told by Foucault that "language is oppression," which is unsurprising when once considers that, according to Genesis, it's how god made the world. Cause you know who could really use to sit in on an anti-oppression workshop or two? Yahweh.

We are told by Foucault that “language is oppression,” which is unsurprising when one considers that, according to Genesis, it’s how god made the world. Cause you know who could really use to sit in on an anti-oppression workshop or two? Yahweh.

If there is no innate human nature — if everything we desire, or fear, or love, or have an aversion to is simply a construct of the society into which we were born — than why on Earth should we trouble our pretty little heads if society tells us not to be gay, or that we deserve to make less money because of our skin color, or that all other forms of life are commodities for corporations to do what they want with? What substrate of human experience would be left to conflict with these social constructions except for human fucking nature, a hard, irrevocable core of our being, inherited through millennia of evolution in which certain traits prevailed over others, that says “no”?

It is not as if I’m speculating about an alternate universe. Time and again the core premise of “antifascist” antagonism to underground music and writing projects has been someone’s propensity to quote the wrong author, an author who was liked by the Nazis, or who was a Nazi, or whose principles vaguely echo some sentiment that was once also vaguely echoed by a Nazi, and to claim that the historical atrocities of the Nazis render any such quotation inherently oppressive — indeed, inherently “fascist.” But when it comes to other of the 20th century’s worst monsters this hypervigilance undergoes a precipitous decline. For if Evola or Junger are unacceptable because the Nazis thought along same lines, then what are we to make of the historical atrocities undertaken by regimes that did not believe in human nature — why should it be acceptable to read everyone from Clifford Geertz to Margaret fucking Mead? If Nazi horrors supposedly manifested the principle of the Overman, how can we possibly forget that the horrors of the USSR and communist China (when it was still communist) were undertaken on behalf of the New Man, a being in whom good anticapitalist values could be instilled without resistance from any troublesome innate inclinations, who we are told by Wikipedia was emerging in the Soviet Union “irrespective of the country’s cultural, ethnic, and linguistic diversity, creating a single Soviet people, Soviet nation”? How can we forget that the ideology of the human mind as a blank slate, so chic amongst contemporary anarchist intellectuals, has been used to justify the re-education camps and programs of mass extermination of regimes that ultimately claimed more lives than the Nazis?

By what logic is this any more or less acceptable than liking Julius Evola? By what metric do those lives lost in the pursuit of a humanity infinitely malleable in the hands of the state matter less than those lives lost to other, equally stupid misconceptions?

When I grow up I wanna enforce structural racism!

“I agree with Chomsky in almost nothing. When it comes to innate structures and so on, I’m very skeptical.” –Clifford Geertz

And for that matter, if we’re really gonna talk about taboos on liking things associated with historical atrocities, we could step out of the realm of philosophers and critical theorists and anthropologists for a moment and ask ourselves: if it is inconceivable that someone could like Evola or swastikas without wishing to perpetuate the atrocities of the Nazi regime, by what alternate logic, in what parallel universe, is it suddenly conceivable to imagine that someone embraces socialism as a wholesale ideology but does not wish to perpetuate the atrocities of historical (or current) socialist regimes? How is it anything but an appalling double standard that people whose aesthetics or philosophy can be tenuously connected to one historical form of tyranny, with many feats of bizarre linguistic agility about “A not being A,” are automatically accused of secretly harboring the most vile interior motivations, when your friends get to walk around calling themselves socialists and its taken for granted they’re not that kind of socialist?

One can only imagine, despite that there’s no real logical distinction that I am aware of, how it would be received if someone said that they embraced a hypothetical Benign Nazism as their political paradigm. Actually, one can do a lot more than imagine, because according to Rose City Antifa’s webpage on the Death in June show that happened last night, the band manifests some obscure left-wing variant of Nazi ideology that was exterminated in the Night of the Long Knives. (I have no idea if this is true, but for purposes of this writing I’ll assume it is, which is giving Rose City Antifa a whole lot more credibility than I think they’ve really garnered for themselves).

And that didn’t go over so well: in fact, someone screamed at a friend of mine last night, as she was entering the venue, that she “killed their people.” Now of course, she did no such thing, but somewhere along the long and circuitous path from the kind of resistance to fascism where you live in the forest and get in firefights with soldiers to the kind where you assault people at concerts (last night a random audience member waiting in line for the concert got thrown into the street in front of a moving car, which managed to stop in time, and a number of people got punched, one of whom was told by protestors as police were taking her statement that they “hoped her mouth wasn’t as loose as her cunt”), a few crucial distinctions like this got lost.

Yes, Saddam Hussein wrote romance novels. Yes, Saddam Hussein was evil. No, romance novels are not, therefore, evil.

Yes, Saddam Hussein wrote romance novels. Yes, Saddam Hussein was evil. No, romance novels are not, therefore, evil.

But of course, I’m not actually going to go on an ideological rampage against all the people I know who read what are, to my mind, pretty unassailable tracts of critical theory and philosophy about how everything is a social construct and equate their readings with various brutalities and injustices. Because I know that anarchist intellectuals, in common with neofolk artists, might have some crazy ideas, but those ideas are not materially harming me, or anyone else, or the planet I live on.

And don’t get it twisted, you who so readily seize on even the slightest opportunity to completely misunderstand what someone is saying. I’m personally no more excited about benign Nazism than I am about benign Socialism or the likely response to this fucking blog post I’ll have to deal with.

I’m just not too freaked out by either because I live under a different form of domination, industrial capitalism, and it’s got a virtual monopoly on killing and destroying and enslaving these days. And since you live here, too, it means neither you or I is innocent of things much worse than liking questionable music. Even if the very worst things about all these underground artists that have ever been said were true, is it really conceivable that it would still be a good expenditure of effort and resources to fight them? Wouldn’t there be a terrible mismatch between the extent of harm they do and the extent of harm lots of other things that I, and the people protesting underground music, routinely patronize? Every time one of us turns on a light, we’re drowning Pacific islands and killing coral reefs. I’ve got money in a bank, for god’s sake. Who do you think our children will look back at this crucial moment in history and curse — neofolk or banks? I see people who ostensibly oppose all forms of oppression eat factory farmed meat regularly. If we’re going to yell at each other, rather than yell at each other about the books we read or the music we listen to, couldn’t we choose something a little more tangibly insidious?

In March of 1943, a French resistance group, receiving reports of the death camps to which Jews were being sent by the Nazis, issued a publication which read in part:

“Use every hour of your life to wound the Hitlerian beast! Strike it wherever you can! Smash the machines! . . . This is the programme that can be summarized in these words: STRUGGLE AND VENGEANCE!”

The Hitlerian beast seems, for all appearances, to be more or less dead, but a similar imperative now exists for the beast of industrial capitalism. I would like to see a little more wounding, a little more striking wherever you can — a little more STRUGGLE AND VENGEANCE, if you will — and perhaps a little less nonsense. And while we’re engaging in struggle against the immediate, physical threats that exist to our and the world’s wellbeing, perhaps we can engage in dialogue about what the world we are striving for will look like, like adults, knowing full well that only experimentation and open inquiry will reveal even the faintest contours of what is possible.

You go blow up the Nazi-controlled rail lines, I'll take care of the folk musicians.

You go blow up the Nazi-controlled rail lines, I’ll take care of the folk musicians.

But it is actually precisely this, open dialogue where ideas compete and intellectual exchange occurs without recrimination, that Antifa claims, in statement after statement, to be fighting against. On Death in June:

Creating cultural space has political meaning on its own. Meta-political fascism in an aesthetic context is important to oppose. Fascism had to take many roles after WWII and venturing into apolitic aesthetics was one of them. So even if it is “just art” it’s damaging to the cause of anti-fascism.”

I always think I’m a huge art snob, but I gotta give these cats props for straight up saying we should “oppose” aesthetics even when they’re apolitical, and backing that shit up with violence. That’s taking avant-garde to the next level.

On Allerseelen:

“Two other aspects of the European New Right are important to note, especially as they relate to Allerseelen: the ENR’s pagan aspect and its stress on fighting a cultural war. In contrast to the American New Right of the time, which was generally a Christian movement, the ENR’s identity was strongly pagan and anti-Christian. Christianity is presented as an alien force that imposed itself on indigenous European peoples; the universalist aspect of Christianity is seen as a major enemy. The ENR also sees the capitalist market as spreading the pathogen of universalism, and hence adopts a sort of fascist “anti-capitalism.” In terms of strategy, the European New Right borrows from the Italian Communist leader Gramsci, who argued that lasting political and economic change would have to be preceded by a major shift on the cultural terrain. The ENR therefore focuses on creating a cultural environment favorable to their political ideas flourishing—especially culture that popularizes (imagined) “indigenous” European cultural/ethnic identities and lashes out at universalism and Enlightenment values.”

As far as Italian Communists go, this Gramsci fellow doesn’t seem half bad. There are wars we have to fight in the here and now, of course, that are innately physical. But as far as figuring out what a long-term, quasi-stable configuration of human society might look like, I’m all for that being determined through cultural experimentation. Cause remember the part where I know the limits of my knowledge, and suspect yours are similarly bounded? If radical subculture were a little more amenable to honest, thoroughgoing dialogue, for instance, I might quote this other passage from the Allerseelen dossier:

“In the place of biological racism, the New Right began to present itself as a defender of cultural diversity and “ethno-pluralism.” What this amounts to is a form of cultural racism expressed as difference: when cultures come together, this apparently breeds homogeneity, and therefore the ENR argues for a plurality of cultures precisely through separation and the cessation of pluralism within cultures. While renouncing at least in theory any authoritarianism and conquest between different cultures, in practical terms New Right politics would necessarily lead to neo-Apartheid and bloody Balkans-like carve-ups.”

and then I’d note that these notions that different people are no better or worse than one another, but innately belong in different landscapes and that monoculturalism should retreat to allow for historical cultural heterogeneity, in a spectacular ideological Ouroboros you don’t get to see every day, are precisely the notions that a different subculture refers to as “decolonization.”

This is what excessive political theorizing does to otherwise perfectly legitimate dragons.

This is what excessive political theorizing does to otherwise perfectly legitimate dragons.

But instead, I live in a world where, rather than facing the prospect that someone might explain to me how I’m wrong, or offer a modification of my original premise, I will be treated as an enemy for failing to meet someone’s standard of ideological purity. Maybe someone will even try to beat me up, like they did a bunch of people going to a show last night.

Yes, I’d like a little more striking back, a little more wounding; I’d say a little more of what they had going on during the French resistance, but of course, as with political movements in general, if one reads the history of the French resistance, one sees that the vast majority of the time people could have spent in legitimate struggle they spent holding pointless meetings and engaging in petty rivalries and absurd, narcissistic posturing.

And little has changed. I initially wanted to write this ending on a note of reconciliation. I wanted to say it’s time for us to dispense with nonsense, time to fight or die, time to overlook our differences and focus on what we share in common that makes us strong — and in that spirit, I wanted to say, let me emphasize that I would much prefer to work with you all, including those I’ve critiqued, rather than further petty rivalries. Actually, I was so thoroughly feeling that spirit that, a few months after having written the vast majority of this piece during a binge of self sympathy brought about my ill health, I wasn’t sure I’d ever publish it, thinking perhaps it would be counterproductive, that I was only manifesting the very tendencies I was describing by engaging in ridiculous subcultural feuds.

And while all that’s true so far as it goes, last night another episode of antifascist action took place, this one involving a band I don’t know all that much about, but an audience who included a number of my very dearest friends in the world, and punches were thrown. And I thought: fuck it. Not “fuck it” purely in terms of the consequences for me personally, like the moral imperative became so great, but more “fuck it” like you people make me realize there’s no goddamn hope whatsoever anywhere in the world, so why twist myself in knots trying to make nice with a revolution that doesn’t fucking exist? That kind of “fuck it.”

Yes, instead of the note of reconciliation, the note of noble-minded sentiment for the possibility of the better world we can all create together, I’ll just say that. It’s not the overwhelmingly superior physical force wielded by “our” enemies that makes me feel hopeless. It’s not the incredibly limited amount of time we have before the world is irreversibly on a trajectory to shit. No, even taking those things into account I could feel a modicum of fucking hope if I could sell myself on the narrative that people could band together and try their best to overcome the odds.

But we won’t. You’ll keep engaging in ridiculous protests, and I’ll thoroughly debase myself by writing about it, and in the end, when we are forced to look into the eyes of those who inherit this world from us, and they demand to know what the fuck we were doing that was so important we couldn’t get it together to rise up and beat the bad guys, I imagine our sins will be reckoned as equally grave.

 

 

 

 

In the thin light of a colorless winter afternoon, the raven not speaking, the fencepost unrattling, we stumbled upon an ant hill by the dirt road adjacent to the high-tension powerlines, and we watched their inexplicable silent frenzy of motion with horror, realizing the patterns of their movement seemed to match the pulses and lulls of the insidious humming sound the powerlines emitted. Were the powerlines a deity to these ants, did they dance in worship of the humming sound, like the sun was a deity to our own kind long ago, and perhaps will be again in some distant future? We stood there staring for a long time, failing to comprehend their logic but sensing nonetheless that it existed and we could discern it from this neverending motion if we stared long enough, that we could perceive the faint outlines of a reasonable interpretation, sensing the sun swelling our minds, sensing that we were losing our grasp on the cold and non-sentient essence of the day, going insane and hearing the speech of the unspeaking world. Finally the ants spoke:

THE SKY IS BURNING. THE RED BIRD WILL BRING RUIN.

Metal_Bird_Art_by_printsILike

We could outline no procedure by which any other could derive this message, but its existence was clearer to us than the featureless sky, in which clouds had once formed but had now diffused to such an extent that they had become a homogenous translucency, revealing nothing, concealing nothing. We thought: what context exists for this moment? To what afternoon of our childhood does this refer; what sense memory pervades us? And we found nothing.

The ants, we thought, must have a messiah, who, although we hear nothing, is in his or her silence screaming at them, a screaming that invokes in them a relentless energy, a capacity to be transformed by crisis. Perhaps he is a monster. Perhaps he screams at them that the high-voltage powerlines demand sacrifice, claiming that only he can understand their humming.

Once it began, we knew, of course, it would never end. There was no limit. As we walked home we could read augurs in the yellow leaves of bigleaf maples scattered—at random, by all appearances to any other—on the dirt and gravel road and we could hear secret messages in the croaking of the frogs that occupied the wetlands by the railroad tracks. We went into our home, lay down on the floor, and listened to music in another language—I think it was Estonian; choral music of some kind—and we heard the voices chanting our ruin as we stared out our window at the season’s weak memory of the once-warm sun.

THE SKY IS BURNING. THE RED BIRD WILL BRING RUIN.

In our home there were warm hazelnuts, their skins dark from fire; the vague smell of cedar from the wood piled by the stove; a disarray of blankets and clothing on the bed to weather the incessant chill; field guides, ethnographies, natural histories, and novels on every surface in small piles; and in the corner, leaning up agains the wall, a gun.

We did not know the moments from our life that are so rich with nostalgia would be so when they occurred, but now as the moments fleet past our eyes, each one unbearably rich with meaning, each one glowing with a golden excess of warm light, we see with certainty the shape of the scars that time has etched in our skin, and we whisper to ourselves those things we did not know defined us until now: “I am sorry I hurt you . . . I never should have left here . . . I do not know what I was thinking . . . I was so young . . .”

Drummer+Boy+with+Drum+--+Charcoal

I can not even claim to know of whom this “we” consists; I do not know you, my companion, or companions, can not tell if you are friend or foe. I can not see you, have no means of proving your existence to myself or any other, only sense your presence. Perhaps I have seen, or at least heard described, your vague outlines. Once, a lover told me that while I was away working for the day three elongated figures came and stood above her in bed—shrouded, colorless men, faceless but nonetheless recognizable as my kin—and evaluated her, intimidating, perhaps, but not threatening. One of them held a seed in his long dark fingers. Perhaps these men are you. Perhaps you were warning her of something that can’t be spoken about, and so you tried some means other than language, or perhaps you, like ants, are mute.

THE SKY IS BURNING. THE RED BIRD WILL BRING RUIN.

A thing said is ephemeral, diminishing with time, diffusing in the currents of air, bending into nothing in the wind; a thing said thrice, however, is indelibly etched into the world somewhere, like our actions, a thing we may come to regret or to cherish as we lie on some bed in some distant moment losing our minds and sorting the events of our lives.

We have not been sleeping. You will offer no narcotics; no warm milk, even; no kind words; your gentle hands will not soothe my furrowed brow. That is not your purpose, you three. Were you, my three fathers from long ago, stronger in whatever lands you lived in than you are here? Did you still have the power of speech before you followed me across the sea? Or is the notion that a man belongs to a place untrue, like so many other things for which people will offer their blood?

As I grow older I grow more solitary, and I notice, if not that your presence is more palpable, that I am becoming more like you, and thus your nature is easier to infer from my own. You are not here to close my eyes. You are here to guide my hands in what comes after my eyes have been open for unbearably long and the visions come.

kukeri-1

Inside my dark room, a sun is rising, its light golden. My bed is overrun with vines. My face, once young and pale, is bearded and obscured by its own shadows. The rivers of my memory run with dark waters. Above me, a painted wood bird hung from the ceiling in some moment of my infancy, when my perception was still emerging. Beside me, a red monster, shrieking obscenities, of impossible fragility: one gaze and it will shatter. In the sky, a god. In my quiver, tiny arrows, which I fashioned from sticks and fired with bows made of rope and branches when I was a boy.

Guide my hands now, fathers, as I take aim at this god who has claimed dominion; guide my hands as they in a single motion snuff out the candles, rattle the windows, shatter the mirrors, slay the bull like Mithras and spill his fertile blood. I want to extinguish the stars this tyrant, this petty demiurge, painted over my eyes, tear the fabric of the sky he imposed, and craft a new world, one fertile of soil rich with the red blossoms of opium, one where the heaving tides of the ocean always deliver strange wreckage from far-off lands, and the serpent wends its way across the valley and through the seasons and I, oblivious to its undulations, sleep.

KNOTS

To look on a single fallen cedar tree rotting by a river is to look on a structure of exquisite beauty and structural intricacy—the wood hued deep red and brown in the cloud-muted spring light, the blanket of bright green moss that clung flat to it all winter now sending the tiny stalks of sexually reproductive organs into the air, the hemlock seedling that sprouted on its rotting wood growing where no direct sunlight falls, the river shaded by the tree, providing water cool enough for the spring Chinook to spawn.

The tree has boundaries, to be certain. There is an internally cohesive, spatially discrete entity that is the tree, a collection of cells that each contain its unique DNA and not that of moss, hemlock, or salmon. But the dead cedar also is integrated into its surroundings, providing a structure for new life, feeding soil, providing cover for animals who will range through the mountains far beyond, providing habitat for salmon who will journey into the sea. All these things to which the tree is connected are in turn connected to myriad other entities occupying other echelons of time and space.

In this sense, the tree is boundless.

If one looks at any complex structure, like a dead western red cedar lying on the banks of the Salmon River, or the wild valley in which it lived and died, one finds that it is a component of ever-larger complex structures which eventually comprise the entire world; every web consists of interconnected nodes which in turn consist of webs.

Such is the elaborate, seamlessly integrated, all-encompassing complexity which civilization destroys.

salmon fishers

UNRAVELING

To know this requires no metaphor or capacity for reckoning that which is beyond the immediately sensate, no uncanny insight, no sense of the inscrutable. Machines come, they crush the blossoming stream violet and salmonberry, they cut down the trees. Explosives are detonated, the mountain is leveled, coal removed. Oil is burned, the world warms, corals lose their color and crumble to the ocean floor. These things are true. They are simple and palpable. No one possessed of their senses can fail to perceive them.

But in terms of the the significance one attributes to this destruction, one must acknowledge that there are factors which confound a simple characterization of civilization as a diminishing of the world’s complexity. It could perhaps be roughly characterized as a predator of a complex system—life on Earth—whose predation allows it to fuel the development of its own complex dynamics. Ivory-billed woodpeckers, boreal forests, and gray whales are obliterated. In their place come prisons, styrofoam, and Stockton, California—or, depending on the polemic one wishes to write, Kafka’s The Castle, Chopin’s Nocturnes, and the scientific knowledge that informs the first paragraph of this text about the ecology of a dead tree.

And so we could, operating within the parameters of a purely logical inquiry, be permitted to ask, looking on a web of forest life negated by feller bunchers, or a mountain denuded of its top, or an ocean made dead by greenhouse gases: Is this wrong? We could ask if one form of complexity is indeed superior to another; if civilization, with all its functionally interrelated subcomponents and emergent properties, is not unlike an organism or an ecosystem; if in broad, conceptual terms its emergence, and the destruction of the substrate of the living world it was formed from, is not a continuance of an evolutionary trend present throughout the Earth’s and indeed the universe’s history, not a trend in the evolution of organisms per se, but of complex systems in general . . .

It’s an interesting avenue of inquiry, but, imagining its application to the real world, one progresses down it with a growing uneasiness. One gets the sense that they are venturing down ever-multiplying corridors, bounded by walls of torturously strict logic, corridors which always promise to lead to insight while they obscure an immediately apparent truth. What is most intuitive, most manifest, is frequently the most difficult to define in rigorous terms.

Euclid’s postulate that any two points can be joined by a line can not be proven in the same explicit terms as a geometric theorem. One must simply accept it based on the evidence provided by one’s senses. In many domains of existence, the provable is built on a foundation of the simply known. Biology can specify the complex sequence of events involved in cellular respiration, but has a far less strict definition, despite that we can all readily recognize it, of life itself.

The wrongness of destroying the living world is a fundamental truth, one too simple and too clear to be readily proven. But if this truth is intuitive, then by what means do we account for the fact that our global society fails to grasp it?

At which point we may ask another, related question. In the external, physical world, industrial civilization destroys rainforests, fills wetlands, kills frogs. Are its effects on our internal, subjective world similar? Is the human mind like a wilderness, and is the psychosocial environment we occupy akin to a bulldozer? In which case, do we possess the perceptual capacity to understand our own actions? Our journey down this path may be self-reinforcing, a feedback loop, in which the more we destroy the more we lose our senses. I imagine us operating a machine that negates the existence of the world around us and, as that operation progresses, our awareness of it becomes dimmer and dimmer, our eyes growing ever duller, until eventually the features of our own faces begin to deteriorate, the contours of our hands become indistinguishable, formless from too many repetitions of killing.

And those who resist, however nobly or feebly, are we not, in our own manner, also poisoned? In attempting to confront the machine—a machine we must acknowledge we reside in, however fervently we criticize it—do we not gaze the longest on the horrors it commits? While we attempt to diminish the pace of its physical destruction, is something in our own minds accordingly degraded, diminished, perhaps ultimately destroyed? Some manifestation of the human psyche that withers when one can not take their eyes from their enemy, when one is wholly occupied by oil infrastructure statistics, by accounts of open pit mines, by political meetings, by filing lawsuits or locking oneself to trucks?

In committing oneself to struggle, does one forget the songs of their ancestors, the lighting of fires, the howling at the wild infinitude of the unconquerable sky? And if we are speaking of what is forgotten by minds shaped, whether through acquiescence or resistance, by the machine, would gods and monsters not be among the entities that occupy places of great prominence in the wild psyche, places of prominence from which they are being thoroughly banished?

harlow monkey clutching effigy

DREAMS

We may speak of the wild as a totality, the sum of the mountains, rivers, deserts, and oceans that comprise wilderness physically and the perceptions, dreams, emotions, and cogitations that comprise wilderness mentally. If a wilderness is occupied by a bear, that wilderness does not stop at her fur, nor does it stop at her skin; it consists also of the representation of that place that exists within her, of the infinite tangle of bear dreams, fears, and memories—dreams experienced beneath the ground during long winters, memories of ancient springs and the awakenings they engender—that her ancestors bequeathed to her. The wilderness is not only the savannah, fires, or large predators that shaped human evolution, it is also the spirits we imagined to inhabit those large predators, the stories we told about them in hushed voices around fires, the deities who occupied forbidden mountains, their peaks obscured by clouds, upon which we gazed for millennia in fearful reverence.

As the physical wild dies, jaguars, sage grouse, and green sturgeon lose their habitat and thus die; as the mental wild dies, the habitat of the Trickster, the axis mundi, and the Sky Father are accordingly destroyed.

It is perfectly reasonable to ask—more pointedly, it would be radically amiss not to—if these perceptions are indeed useful to us. The question is not necessarily a proxy for whether any of the gods and monsters we have forgotten in our march toward some terminally civilized mind (which, at least according to civilization’s current trajectory, would correspond to some some hypothetical state of a terminally destroyed Earth, an Earth no longer possessing a single unpaved surface or a single undomesticated species). To my mind, an argument that any of the river spirits, half-women half-swans, or horses pulling the sun across the sky that populate humanity’s mythical heritage actually, physically exist would be too agonizingly convoluted, too hopelessly quixotic, to even warrant dismantling. The question is not whether the spirits of winter are real, but whether, as spring approaches, it helps us to be human to put on a mask and bang furiously on a drum in order to scare those spirits away.

In some regards, gods and monsters are undoubtedly a detriment to human wellbeing, in that a belief in them may compete with another explanatory framework which has the appealing quality of actually being true. (I will not, for purposes of this writing, attempt to refute any of the academic narratives that there is no objective truth and all narratives are equally valid—such discussions are, to my mind, so manifestly absurd as to be completely uninteresting). But the mythical world can have this adverse potential while still having a crucial place in the human psyche which we would do ourselves great harm by denying.

For instance, as is the case with Old World primates in general, humans have an evolutionarily inherited fear of snakes. It is valuable that we know that this fear relates to ancestral environments and is disproportionate to the threat of snake mortality we face today. This knowledge, however, does not entirely negate a visceral response many people have to snakes. Simply pretending that this dimension of the human psyche does not exist would have a significant traumatic potential.

Likewise, in common with much of the animal kingdom, humans have a cross-cultural aversion to sexual contact with close relatives. This aversion—called the Westermarck Effect after the Finnish anthropologist who first described it—has a very legitimate biological basis, in that reproduction with close kin has negative consequences for offspring. Of course, in many modern sexual scenarios, one is hardly intending to reproduce—indeed, one may be doing everything possible to avoid it—and thus one must acknowledge that there are no tangible, physical impediments to having sex with close relatives. This acknowledgment does nothing, however, to negate our psychobiological predisposition to avoid such contact. We could choose to ignore it because it does not refer to any external exigency, but the result would doubtlessly be a great deal of psychological turmoil for those who did so.

The question is not, therefore, whether it is a tragedy we have forgotten ancestral mythical narratives—narratives which comprised a good deal of the environment in which the human mind functioned throughout deep time—because they are true. The question is simply whether the human mind works better when these narratives, in some fashion or another, form part of the world it perceives.

Dismantling a literal belief in dominant mythical conceptions of the world, such as Christianity, is crucial to humanity’s wellbeing. Such literal beliefs, with which we are so easily enamored, have done nothing throughout history but tether the human genius—a genius born to ascend into the sky and encompass the wild and boundless complexity of the universe—to ignoble rocks of absurd conviction. They have chained minds capable of knowing infinity to a flat Earth orbited by the sun, an Earth crafted through no particular mechanism by a stupid, petty, vengeful god, a god who, if he existed, would be humanity’s paramount duty to destroy rather than to worship, to rid the world of a cruel and capricious oppressor.

As these systems of belief are abandoned, however, the tendency has been to replace them with absolutely nothing. This impulse is understandable, but a fair amount of evidence indicates it works poorly for the human psyche. Many sophisticated minds, born into modern environments and apprised of and convinced by scientific ways of accounting for reality, still find themselves orienting toward mythical modes of perception.

Dore_joshua_sun

EXTINCTION

One can walk in landscapes and feel a palpable presence of the ghosts of what used to live there. One can walk in mountains and feel the aching absence of wolves, grizzlies, and—accounting for losses further back in time—saber-toothed salmon, mastodons.

Just like the ghosts that haunt a forest denuded of its large predators by civilization, the vestiges of similarly potent, mysterious forms populate the damaged wilderness of the human mind—women who can become birds, demonic elk, gods dying on trees.

Of course, the Earth is far from static. It is relentlessly dynamic. The mountains I walk in have been changing ever since they were born, and the species that occupy them have come and gone with those changes, and, over time, some of them have disappeared altogether.

The mythical world is likewise dynamic. The gods and stories that have occupied a given people’s mind in a given time and place have constantly shifted, changed in subtle ways through permutation after permutation, story after story, until, in a process very similar to biological evolution, they have taken on new forms altogether; and, in some cases, just like species throughout deep time, disappeared altogether.

For the most part, a dynamic equilibrium has prevailed. Species inhabit and disperse from landscapes, gods likewise rise and decline in minds, new forms emerge and old ones die, but their diversity, the complexity of interrelations between them, remains.

Now gods, like biological species, are going extinct at an unprecedented rate, a rate which threatens to undermine the very fabric from which they are formed, extinguishing the capacity of the mythical proto-material to generate new entities. In the great extinction at the end of the Permian, it was not one, or even many, sea scorpions that went extinct. It was the entire class Eurypterida, eliminating the genetic pool from which new species could emerge. It is likewise not just Odin or Inanna dying; it is the very dream world in which they took shape, the equivalent of their DNA that is dying, or their habitat, or both.

euryptid

RESURGENCE

What was the first word ever spoken? The question is simultaneously potent and futile. It is doubtful that such a moment in prehistory clearly exists, but it is a useful moment to speculate about nonetheless. The same is true if one asks what the first myth was, or who the first god.

If it may be assumed, just as the words of every living language have been produced from gradual, largely inadvertent modifications of a primordial lexicon, and just as these first words are unknown to us, that all deities which exist today are evolved from mysterious and forgotten ur-gods. Did these initial, primordial manifestations of the divine impetus suit the needs of their creators better than those that exist, products of a prolonged series of haphazard modifications, presently?

For as much ink has been spilled on the nature of the religious psyche—and by extension, the deities it creates—the pervasive sense remains that something is right there, staring us in the face, that is being overlooked. If one were to seek out first gods, one would of necessity journey deep into the mental wild, a journey as far from human habitation, and perhaps as perilous, as those that took humanity out of Africa to the far corners of the Earth.

A tension exists. The narrative may be compelling in and of itself, but does it have any real purpose, or is it merely a literary conceit? Would such a venture, were it indeed possible to travel so far into our collective internal space, to negotiate an inner wild populated with bird-headed men and talking serpents—forms faded from the contemporary mental landscape, if not entirely forgotten, like wolves and grizzly bears have faded from, but are not entirely forgotten by, the physical landscape—actually be useful? Are these deities so much more potent than modern ones that they will, unlike those to which so many of us uselessly pray with such heartfelt fervor, break down the walls of prisons, or stop tar sands machines in their tracks?

It is doubtful. But in making such journeys, in connecting with those vestigal, primordial forms that haunt the far horizons of human memory, one is also, hopefully, freeing oneself from the constraints placed on the human mind by civilization. One should recall that aphorism of Nietzsche’s about taking care when fighting monsters, lest one thereby becomes a monster. The nature of civilization dictates, to a large extent, the methods used in, and the logistical parameters of, the fight against it. This is an inexorable truth. One can not simply pray to forgotten gods and hope that, contrary to all the evidence the world presents one with, it will suffice to halt the machine. An equal danger, however, lies in becoming lost in the small-minded and dead-eyed quasi-logic of the world killers.

It is necessary to fight on the terms dictated by the present moment, but a fatal mistake to acquiesce to those terms on any deeper level, particularly to make the final and most terrible mistake of confusing those terms with reality itself. One can easily be consumed by the logic of politics, of economics, of conflicts with police, corporations, and governments. These things are ugly. These things are not the wild beauty that resides, the product of millennia of evolution, in the human psyche. A resistance that only dreams is futile, but a resistance that has stared for too long at the vulgar and petty horrors of international summits, trade agreements, and pending legislation, never remembering the totality of being on which resistance is predicated, until finally its own thinking comes to emulate the vulgarity and pettiness of the very horrors on which it gazes, is likewise doomed.

Do not be your enemy. All weapons are useless that are not wielded by your wild self. Look upon, in the farthest reaches of your memory, in those same distant lands you first felt the warmth of fire or wrapped yourself in another creature’s skin, this face: It is horned, coarse-haired, wild, shrieking. Gaze upon it until its fury shapes the features of your own face and you return to this place which has grown pale with forgetfulness and fat with the the blood of faceless, mechanized slaughter; return with your fist raised, return monstrous, return ravenous; return howling with the voice of the first god who ever stalked the forest or raced across the stormy sky and brought terror to our kind as we took shelter from the howling wind and the knives of light it threw down; return with this visage and take your revenge on the civilization that robbed you of your primordial strength.

wildman

From suffering, birds

July 30, 2014

Our hands agents of mercilessly, inextricably predetermined courses of fate, veins etched into the universe in the process of its inexplicable self-birthing from nothingness, inherent in its existence, veins through which the blood of events flow, confined to one and only one path which came into existence at the beginning; these paths are the ones along which our hands move as we wrest birds from our anguished breasts, which contorted along complex trajectories as we suffered our lives, the intricate shapes of the shifting muscular tracing the anatomy of a bird until it came into being and we tore it from inside of ourselves and our pain, thus transfigured, from sensation within us to bird taking wing, flooded the sky, incomprehensibly numerous—for great, after all, were our agonies—their superabundance blackening the sun a thousand times over, white-feathered bringers of an artificial night which gradually lessened as the birds continued their trajectory upward, growing less dense as they achieved impossible altitudes, until we lost sight of them and they were consumed in flames as they approached the all-seeing, nothing-comprehending red brilliance of the relentlessly burning sun.

Then we walked on an Earth made new by our liberation.

white_bird