Saturday, October 30, 2004

The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists by Gideon Defoe

This book is boisterous, preposterous, & presumptuous. It's filled with big words and anachronisms and caricatures. It is funny, witty, quirky, and frequently ridiculous. I think some of you reading this review may like it very much. A ship full of pirates getting bored of their relaxed lives seeks new adventure. Lead by their fearless Pirate Captain and a bad tip on finding gold, they end up mistakenly sinking the Beagle which carries Charles Darwin. After rescuing Darwin and the rest of the crew, the real adventure begins. Along the way are outrageous happenings, unlikely sequences, and even plenty of footnotes containing historical tidbits. I think of this book as a cross between The Onion (in which it’s being advertised), The Magic Treehouse, Dave Barry, and The Three Stooges. If that sounds like the ride for you, come along.

Monday, October 18, 2004


I can’t remember who put me on to Kay Ryan, but I’ve been enjoying her poems in Say Uncle. I’ve also been reading Gary Snyder’s recent offering, Danger on Peaks. He has not published a book in a while. The first time he climbed Mt. St. Helens was in 1945 and to parallel that with a hike I took a few weeks ago to a drastically different mountain is fun. I’ve also enjoyed some of Richard Hugo’s poetry (from The Complete Richard Hugo) that describes the Olympic forests and mountains, Cascadia not Greece. I’m not a very big poetry reader, but at when I do find an accessible poet and the space for reflection, I’m always thankful (to myself) for having done so.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Tequila! A natural and cultural history by Anna Valenzuela-Zapata and Gary Paul Nabhan

Keeping consistent with my interest in the intersection of humanity with other species, I grabbed my new favorite biologist's latest work and jumped in. A fascinating story of the agave plant and the roasting and the pulque and mezcals created from it. I learned that since the tequila boom of the past couple of decades, tequila is now the most frequently consumed spirit in the US, having surpassed whiskey. This also fits with the popularity of spicy foods and with the outpacing of salsa compared to "traditional" catsup as America's most-consumed condiment. (80-81)

In 1893 (Devil in the White City--for you readers), "the internationalization of tequila, crowned by the 'brandy awards' given to the Sauza family's mescals at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, ushered in this upscaling of fermentation and distillation of technologies." (48)

And because of the boom almost a century later...
"The problem was one of demographic vulnerability--two-thirds of the two hundred million agaves growing in Jalisco were planted within just a couple of years of one another, all derived from the same clone, blue agave." (57) ie: monocultures are not very smart (ecologically or--in the long term--economically)

and some tidbits:
"It is remakable that jimadores around Tequila still retain knowledge of the ancient and formerly widespread practice of descogolle. This demonstrates the complex of agronomic and ecological issues addressed by orally transmitted reservoirs of traditional knowledge, which, unfortunately, scientists misunderstand more often than they understand. There remain many parts of the agrarian tradition of the jimadores that have yet to be investigated, and there will be many surprises when this tradition is given proper attention. It is important to document the logic of traditional practices before they entirely disappear." (42) italics are matt's

from Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano (1971): "The real cause of alcoholism is the complete baffling sterility of existence as sold to you." (18) (matt's note: the hotel where the movie version of "Under the Volcano" was filmed was bulldozed a few years ago so that a Costco could be built)

Sunday, October 10, 2004

The Middle Mind by Curtis White

This book just appeared in paperback. I read it a few months ago and typed a few passages for my dad. It's worth the read for a person in the context of academia, media, entertainment, religion, or the context of caring what is happening with this culture.

Reality=imagination. “The reality that we refer to as our daily reality is simply the work of the human imagination that has become ossified, codified, and generally naturalized. It is imagination that has achieved such consensus that it is an ‘of course.’ This is so in both a good and a bad sense. We need a shared reality because we need to live together, we need to be able to communicate, and we need to be able to trust that we’re part of a shared world. This is ideology, or a shared imaginative understanding of the world…. We’re not much in the habit of poking at these dominant realities that are so much the ‘of course’ of our lives. We’re delicate. We’re used to deferring. What parents, teachers, presidents, and media spokespeople like Dan Rather (the bosses in our social factory) say is good enough for us. We demur out of habit and fright over what not demurring might require of us. We sacrifice our lives out of a feeling that there is some sort of comfort in deferring.” (3-4) For instance, here in Central Illinois, it makes sense to people to think, ‘It’s a good idea to plant corn to make into ethanol to put into our cars so that we can continue to undermine the present and future quality of our lives through [count the marvelous ways!] congestion, pollution, endless asphalting, stripping the nutrients from our topsoil, eroding the topsoil, traffic injuries and fatalities, and the spiritual damage of endless consumption, debt, and work.’” (6) “Instead we endure a situation in which we are free to think and say what we like so long as what we think and say doesn’t matter, doesn’t threaten dominant state/corporate/military narratives.” (22)

“The imagination is real, and its defining concept is freedom. Without freedom it cannot do its work and so cannot be itself.” (9) “I will argue that we need to allow the imagination and its impulses to instability and change a central role (and incorrigible part of me wants to say a “promiscuous” role) in our national conversation about our shared future. Let art out of the museum and out of the university. Deinstitutionalize it. Take off the straightjacket of philanthropic support. Defeat the corporate ownership of what little imagination we have.” (20-1) “…one does not begin philosophy with a definite notion of method. One begins by beginning. My models of the concrete sublime, then are books without method, books that begin by beginning, that are not sure what they think, but think passionately and purposefully nevertheless against the administered world of the ‘automatic.’ These works of the concrete sublime are antagonists to the status quo in entertainment, intellectual orthodoxy, and political ideology. They are advocates for change, and they need to be much larger public presences.” (23-4)

In the introduction he references Wallace Stevens, Dante, David Byrne, Paul Goodman, Herbert Marcuse, David Foster Wallace, Jim Jarmusch, Mingus, Messiaen, Francis Ford Coppola, Frank Zappa, Coltrane, TS Eliot, Derrida, Michael Moore, Ezra Pound, Molly Ivins, Bill Moyers, Kant, Henry James, Hegel, Marshall McLuhan. In chapter one he takes on icons like Terry Gross of Fresh Air, “Saving Private Ryan,” and Radiohead, He’s clearly jumped thru the academic reading hoops but is also well-read and his scope is wide. His arguments are sufficiently complex so that I find myself (only 50 pages into the book) agreeing with him, disagreeing with him, and being pulled back and forth. Overall, I like his clarity, his passion, his humor, and his provocation.

I rarely read a nonfiction book cover-to-cover but I was compelled all the way thru with The Middle Mind. It’s sloppily written (for me, this adds to the appeal…with right kind of sloppiness with style). It’s full of synthesis, full of rant & diatribe, full of half-completed arguments (again, good in my evaluation log). I appreciate his general argument (The Middle Mind is currently integral to American Culture and far-too-prevalent in academia/media/entertainment/religion/etc) and I also appreciate his arguments about/against the technological imagination (core is pp. 99-108). And in many more ways, I appreciate his arguments.

Having finished this book, I feel both despair and hope/beauty/imagination. Despair because Americans have been stupefied by schooling/media/culture/religion/etc. Hope/beauty/imagination because I see so many bright hearts and big-minded people and even a few full-spirited folks willing to tango.

This fucked-up world has far-too-much room for the bullshit inanity of our culture as it stands and far-too-much room for the normalcy of our culture as it stands. Can you speak about current TV Shows or national Sports Teams and their happenings? You’re a part of this culture for better or worse. When hundreds or thousands or ten thousands of Oregonians have more energy to expend caring about the results of a football game than they expend thinking about those thousands of humans dying for lack of clean drinking water and those other thousands dying for lack of food; something is desperately wrong.

A few more quotes from Curtis White’s The Middle Mind:

“The fundamental lack in the approach taken by American Cultural Studies is that it looks at culture only as a critic, as a member of the faith of criticism, and it can’t imagine what it might mean to look at texts from the perspective of artists….For an artist, difference is everything. The difference between the hack, the dilettante, and the artist as both master of a tradition and inventor of the ‘next best thing’…is everything. The reason that these distinctions are important has nothing to do with supporting high culture, or disdaining pop culture, or maintaining standards, or appealing to timeless and transcendental notions of the beautiful. It is much simpler than that. It has to do with the difference between feeling alive and feeling dead….Each day’s practice [for the artist] is the requirement of going once more to that abyss, where life’s failure is a real possibility, and plucking life out in the possibility (if not the realization) of its human capacity. This cannot be done in a context in which, as [Wallace] Steven’s wrote, ‘the deer and the dachshund’ (or Eschenbach and Manilow[--referring to earlier Terri Gross’s Fresh Air] are one.” (64-5)

“Cultural Studies utterly fails to see why certain aspects of the past are values that we ought to want to insist on. This is something that artists understand very concretely. The past is something that lingers. It is carried in the body. The internalized music of Shakespeare’s phrasing, that is what matters to the artist, not his status as Harold Bloom’s culture hero.” (67) “I think what has happened in these so-called Culture Wars has been unfortunate, unnecessary, and destructive of the social and artistic health of the imagination. A review of the positions of the academic left and conservative traditionalists should reveal that the Culture Wars are a mere sideshow in relationship to the real action: the operations of the media-oriented Middle Mind. Taking sides in this pitched battle royal, the Great Canon Debate, the most recent Battle of the Books in which moderns fight it out with classics, is a fruitless diversion. Commitment to either side is an error, especially as the Middle Mind marches on, its truth on four hundred clear channels, coming soon to HDTV, wireless, broadbanded, and downloadable into every frontal lobe.” (71)

“The traditional practices of the humanities, based in deep engagement with primary artistic texts and not abstract theoretical renderings, provide clear instances of art’s capacity for creating imaginative environments.” (72)

In the context of the “Culture Wars” debate about “canon” about how the canon inclusion question frequently skips the idea of those qualities that make for a work that is worth reckoning with as “great.” “Shklovsky pushes this understanding of complexity by introducing the aesthetic force of ‘difficulty.’ We could say simply that difficult comes with complexity, but Shklovsky would remind us that difficulty is also about the risk of moving outside of the familiar, outside of the diatonic, outside of what Derrida likes to call our ‘closure.’ The virtue of the difficult, or what we often call the ‘experimental,’ is that it keeps the necessary stability of our ‘closure’ (which we surely need in order to share a common culture and live together in it), but it keeps that closure from becoming something deadening. The problem that art helps us face, and great art helps us face best, is the problem of creating social stability without creating a state of administered conformity. In other words, art helps us to think what it would mean to live together as a whole and yet be fully human as individuals.” (86)

“…what consequences can we expect from the work of Chalmers Johnson or Noam Chomsky? None. Their writings are taken up as part of the spectrum…of info-pornographics. The truth-function of Chomsky’s work is neutralized because there are people who will participate in actions leading to death and worse all over the world and then tell you about it. In detail. In great detail. The truth that everything is known, the revelation grotesquely vivid. Turn Salvadoran death-squad commanders into millionaires for killing peasants? We do that. It’s called the Fort Benning School of the Americas. There’s a budget line for it every year. Every year you pay for it. It’s a crime without consequences. By any traditional standard, the United States is a corrupt society because it refuses to be responsible before ethical facts that it knows perfectly well. This is corruption: after years of disgraceful shilly-shally, in the spring of 2002 the administration of George II acknowledged that there is a scientific basis to global warming but that there is nothing to be done about it (or nothing to be done that wouldn’t piss off Detroit, Exxon-Mobil, the so-called soccer moms,” who are now, according to Republicans, the wild card in national energy politics). So, we’ll just have to adapt. Truth without consequences is a good working definition of corruption. The only bizarre ‘unconsciousness’ provided by the New Censorship, where everything awful is pink and in your face, allows this corruption a shred of cover.” (96)

(reread 99-108)—good shit about the technological imagination!

“Let me suggest a little experiment to you. Take a copy of the Sierra Club’s Sierra magazine in one hand and a copy of Wired in the other. Go someplace quiet and read the two at the same time. Now you have the substance of a real Culture War. It has nothing to do with C.P. Snow’s ‘two cultures,’ and it has nothing to do with postmodern tenured radicals. Both magazines are utterly dependent upon science. But the narrative trajectories of their social imaginations are wildly different. Do trees even exist for Wired?” (115)

“I wish I could tell you that the well-funded scientists at Carnegie Mellon are off on some delusional trip with no real consequences. But the truth is that they’re behaving as if they were in an arms race with themselves, and the insane point is to accelerate and push technical reasoning in a long, slow suicide. But I can also tell you this, about technology as social destiny. That fate is not internal to technology itself. That fate is elsewhere. Technology will not drag us to its Faustian destination if its stories are not good. Thus the real battle is at the level of the imagination. If other stories about the role of technology are stronger and more persuasive, a future ‘beyond human’ won’t happen. Unfortunately, the technophiles, those who think of technology as destiny, are not only good scientists; they’re pretty sophisticated storytellers as well.” (134-135)

Thomas Berry The Dream of the Earth

“Beyond Human [PBS documentary about robots/humans] and AI [Spielberg movie] are both cunning in the way they make their arguments. They are not even willing ot confess that in fact they are making arguments. The purport to be merely ‘documenting’ or ‘entertaining.’” (138)

“The wrong, as I’ve said repeatedly, is that the vocationalizing of creativity has the tendency to impoverish the imagination and thereby impoverish the imagination’s most basic social functions: to critique and to imagine alternatives to the social status quo. The imagination is really at work only when it is biting the hand that feeds it.” (161)

Hegel and Marx: “Their story is noe of freedom, ethical community, and the end of exploitation of humans. Hegel…argued that in the end the only ethical human condition is the mutual, shared, respectful, civic recognition of human interdependence. This vision…is an ultimately spiritual vision. To talk about these things is to talk about religion. For Hegel, spirit was not something existing in a superior or transcendental realm. It was exactly the condition of our social lives in a given moment; it wa exactly wha tw think and do. If our culture is corrupt, cynical, and cruel that is exactly what our spirit is. In Hegel’s thought, corruption, cynicism, and cruelty cannot endure fo rthe simple reason that they are inadequate to our true end: freedom. Freedom, in this tradition, is the ultimate openness to human possibility. The gap between what we want and what we are creates a despair that spurs us to change. We are obliged to try something else. In other words, the difference between what we want and what we are is the goad to dialectic.” (163-4)

“Because our culture is besotted with commodity and entertainment, we are a culture in despair….that feeling we have that we’re living in a foreign culture even when we’re in our own. It is the shame we feel when we think that our community itself behaves badly. Dropping uranium-hardened missiles on Iraqi cities, killing some citizens immediately and others over time due to radiation exposure, is not something of which any of us should be proud, never mind what our political representatives tell us. We know at some level that it cannot mean anything good to have political leaders such as George Bush, a man who has betrayed the public trust to the interests of corporations—and not furtively, but as an open, fundamental premise of his campaign. He is a man who, as of July 11, 2002, could advocate jail terms for corporate criminals accused of precisely the same corrupt accounting practices that he and Vice President Cheney were being investigated for (in Cheney’s case with Haliburton, one of the firms implicated) and with exactly the same deceitful accounting firm, Arthur Andersen….With regard to foreign policy, it cannot mean anything good to be hated by so much of the rest of the world. And we’re hated for good reason. Here’s our lofty foreign policy in a nutshell: muck about in the world ‘protecting our national interests,’ and when this mucking about blows back (as it has in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, and many other countries), return to overt indignation with B52s and cluster bombs. Bunker-busters. Stuff that bursts lungs and eardrums for miles. And it cannot mean anything good to live well at the expense of those who live in squalor. Once we get past Tiger Woods’s beguiling smile, his entertaining style, and the lust for Buicks that he inspires, it cannot be good to have as a national ‘role model’ a man who makes millions from a company like Nike that has the millions to give only because it is willing to run a global sweatshop. What Tiger Woods must represent for African Americans is bad enough, but what does he represent for his mother’s people, the Thai, who along with other Asian people must live with the reality of these sweatshops? We might as well have Imelda Marcos for a role model. If I’m wrong and facts like these don’t cause us any national despair, I, for one, am willing to say that I despair over the absence of despair.” (164-5)

“The world in love is the reconciliation of ethical thought with the real. Spiritual life, and thus God, is achieved when the concept of the ethical is realized concretely in the community. This is in marked contrast to political leaders who feel free to pay lip service to religious faith in a very abstract God while behaving like warmongers in the service of death merchants such as Lockheed-Martin in their everyday life.” (173-4)

“From Adorno’s perspective, the meaning of the Information Economy is the final victory of the organization of ‘facts’ over truth. The brutal consequence of this victory is suffering and death for certain ‘administered populations’ and, at the best in the First World, a great diminishment of what it means to be human. Demographics, population trends, market analyses, and gross national products replace truth. To say that such a context is a bad place for artists says very little. It is first the description of a general spiritual death.” (176)

Monday, October 04, 2004

The Party's Over by Richard Heinberg

This was the first book I read about such a topic. I've read a few since and they all point in the same direction. Finite resources, ideology of infinite growth. Can't work both ways.

One day the earth’s accessible oil will run out. What will happen then? More importantly, what will happen as the peak of global oil extraction hits in the next decade? (the US peak was in 1972) With great clarity, Heinberg explores the background and potential answers to this question. We learn how energy works, the story of Western Civilization regarding energy, the potential of alternatives to fossil fuels, and powerful analytic tools such as EREOI (energy return on energy invested). A wonderful blend of science and social science, ecology, history and hope. “It is realistic to hope for humankind to move collectively from being a colonizing species to becoming a cooperative member of climax ecosystems.”

Gifts by Ursula Le Guin

Here, we enter a feudal world in the Uplands where some people have Gifts, such as the gift of “unmaking” (Orrec’s family’s gift) or the gift of speaking to animals (Gry’s family’s gift). To protect the continuance of those Gifts (as well as horses, livestock, and farmland), families and feudal domains are in a constant tension. Orrec is caught in the middle of this. This is the story of Orrec growing up, and the deeper into the book, we realize how caught he is. Leguin is a master of storytelling. As she weaves episodes and flashbacks into the narrative, I found myself taken in and sharing the difficult emotions of Orrec. Though this is technically a “fantasy” book, the complex family dynamics, strong friendship, the struggle with ones place in the greater social order all ring true for growing up (as well as the rest of life).

Lionboy: the chase by Zizou Corder

I've been awaiting part two of this three part novel. Wow, not disappointing at all. Provocative, suspenseful. For young adults, this is a must, for adults, I think many might like it. Zizou Corder is a pseudonym for a mother-daughter team who write well and compellingly.

Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce

A fun story of a young kid (who might be diagnosed with a disorder, but who's heart is pure and who's actions are totallly understandable and touching) and his brother and how they handle their social context and their mother's absence and an extraordinary circumstance that comes their way. Good stuff for a young adult audience or an adult who might be open to entering a form of literature that has so much to offer.

Sunday, October 03, 2004

Love, War, and Circuses by Eric Scigliano

"...Jumbo, the most celebrated elephant of all time, would share a large bottle of stout each night with his keeper, Matthew Scott, who pitched his cot by Jumbo's pen. When Scott forgot himself and drank the whole bottle, Jumbo shook him awake and demanded his nightcap." (13) This book is subtitled The age-old relationship between elephants and humans captures an interest of mine. I'm often attracted not just to "nature studies" or "ecological studies" but to those areas where humans affect and are affected by other species. Obviously, this happens every day in every hour, but Of Wolves and Men was fascinating because it tells the story of that relationship in many contexts. This book is about that human-elephant relationship and is also fascinating. Not as artfully crafted as Lopez' book, but worth reading none-the-less. But, I've got a stack ten feet high right now, so I contented myself with reading the first four chapters and quickly scanning/skipping the rest. Cool stuff about mammoths and mastadons and extinction. Also, one of his theses is that elephants created the ecological context into which early humans stepped. Because of their foraging habits, they converted some forested areas to savannah which made for optimal human terrain. Another tidbit: "Brain size alone is not a strict predictor of intelligence, but elephants' brains are richly folded and convoluted, indicating sophisticated development, with expansive cerebral lobes, the seats of memory (at least in humans). More telling is the degree to which their brains grow after birth, an indicator of learning ability. Most mammals already have about 90 percent of their ultimate brain mass at birth. Humans have just 26 percent, and chimpanzees about 50 percent. Elephants have 35 percent." (13)

Who's Who in Hell and Fortune's Bastard by Robert Chalmers

I found Who's Who in Hell buried in my pile of books to read. I picked it up a year ago when it came out and let it sit. Maybe this happens to you also: I have a pile of books to read or to consider reading. I sit down and read the first page of each one until I reach one that I really want to continue with the second page. Then the third. I promise myself to put it down the moment I’m not engaged. This book didn’t begin that strong for the mood I was in but something compelled me to turn to the next page and the next until I was thoroughly engrossed. The “Britishisms,” the simple observations of American culture, the familiarity, and the trueness of characters, the love, the outrageousness of contemporary life, and the wonderful humor all make for an extraordinary book.

So, I was pleased when this author came out with a second novel a few weeks ago. Fortune's Bastard is equally humorous, although a different sort of plotline. It's mostly less tender than Who's Who but more transformative. I've enjoyed talking with Derek briefly about both. Anybody interested in a couple of good novels, here are two, for the right taste.