Rivers of Blood

Listening to much of the conversation between Paul Kingsnorth, Leire Keith, and David Abram in this podcast from Orion Magazine, I am left with a snippet, I’ve used as a title for this post.

Rivers of Blood.

I must admit, I can only intuit the context. After listening to most of the first half, I was sampling my way through the second. I was chaffing at the “journalistic” quality of the interview, so unlike the dialogue between Dougald Hine and David Abram I wrote about last winter.

The phrase had something to do with the Eco-warrior stance, and Abram was voicing his concerns in this regard – concerns shared by Kingsnorth.

In a tweet, I can’t remember right now from who, this same phrase, rivers of blood, came up in relation to industrial hog farms. An actual river turned red by blood run-off from a slaughter-house.

Rivers of Blood! As Apocalyptic a phrase as any! Once used as a rally-call for racial hatred, it holds the outrage and righteousness called up whenever any perceived injustice registers as supreme violence perpetrated by some other. Curious how this rhetoric is never neutral. It always refers both to the cause of outrage and its hoped for result, an eye for an eye….

We are surrounded by travesty, by monumental acts of enormity. Our very existence has become an enormity in and of itself. Remember this word has a specific meaning and it ain’t just something large. It is a predicament unraveling at a horrible level that unleashes a cascading avalanche of destruction. Antarctica is enormous. The loss of ice on a massive scale due to our releases of carbon dioxide is an enormity.

There is a particular outrage expressed by those swept up in urgency at the enormity of our predicaments – and by “our” I do mean the predicaments affecting the world entire. By “The world,” I mean it in the way David Abram uses the term, as encompassing all that enters our awareness through perception. This outrage is accompanied by incredulity that their reaction is not shared by everyone. In response, it is considered proper form to shake our heads and blame ourselves, and human frailty, for the lack of a universal uprising against what is righteously proclaimed beyond intolerable. “This must not stand!”

I don’t argue with the conclusion that such enormity is horrible. My disagreement comes with the reaction. Once this line is presented the conversation – not just this one, any conversation along these lines – shades off into the rhetoric of solidarity, of movements. There is a sickening compulsion to draw us all into a narrative of struggle. There is no appreciation that this removes any difference between this stance and the nihilism of those who fuel their outrage.

One of the advantages, maybe the only advantage of having no faction of my own to defend or extend by political response, is that I feel no need to accept this coercion. I’m not looking for allies. Not striving after generating any movement….

Let’s follow a few potential scenarios. Let’s start with one of the favorites of the Eco-warriors, blowing up dams.

I should think that the aftermath of the Japanese tsunami would have brought some pause to this rhetoric. I haven’t detected a single hint of awareness of the lessons to be found in this incident. Let’s imagine that instead of an earthquake and tsunami bringing down the hegemony of modern civilization over a densely packed corner of the first world, let’s imagine it was a series of Eco-warrior attacks. The system brought to a grinding halt. The infrastructure destroyed. “Peace at last!”

Well, no, not exactly. What we did get was a nuclear disaster rivaling Chernobyl and a plume of debris now beginning to reach the far side of the Pacific, even as it swells the gyre of plastics in the quiet center of this largest ocean.

The effect on the hegemonic culture? None of any lasting consequence outside the affected area. Some electronic trinkets were delayed in arrival to meet “demand.”

The myth of restoration and continued growth marches on. How would that have changed had this been a righteous campaign? All of what did result would still be true. On top of that, anyone – most probably including this writer and any of my readers – simply by broad association with any resistance to the status quo, would have been rounded up and disappeared into the maw of a revitalized and rabid authoritarian backlash.

What would that have accomplished? What would have been left undone?

Martyrdom is an extreme Narcissism expressed in a dark and total nihilism. This would be one result. What else?

There’s a hint in Paul Kingsnorth’s earlier remark,

“If we haven’t stopped believing in it, we will try and build it up again.”

He is referring to the juggernaut of civilization, its destructive capacity. In the outcome of every violent defeat of a pathological power we have seen a similar outcome. Those humiliated – the word shares letters with humility, but it has no actual relation! – Those humiliated and brought down do not “learn a lesson.” They are bonded even more fully to their delusions. “The South will rise again!” “We were betrayed!” and many other examples exits through history, some too fresh and divisive today to even mention. This response is not remedied by achieving “total victory” over such opponents. It thrives in abject, unconsidered defeat.

These examples show us that we cannot coerce anyone into a change of heart. But we can destroy our own hearts by taking up any means to strive after our goal, however righteous.

Rivers of blood.

Let’s go back to the literal version. Pigs raised in such densities and slaughtered so efficiently that their blood colors rivers. This too is an act demonstrating enormity.

Do we go in and blow up the slaughterhouse? Do we break fences and set pigs free? Do we hide behind a vegan diet supported by similar, if less iconic violence?

If our enormity is to have any meaning, the destruction around us, that already done; that which is already built into dynamics that have been set in motion and cannot be averted by any series of simplistic actions; will continue to unravel. If this destruction can be atoned for, beyond a direct accounting in a complete and utter devastation. It can only be through a lesson thoroughly learned, one as great as the enormity which calls out for it.

We’ve been called by this desire before, repeatedly in the past century, from “The War to End All Wars” to the Holocaust, Shoah. In each case before now what began with great feeling and strong pledges of “Never again!” ended in continued bouts of reflexive tragedy. None of these lessons have been taken to heart.

This time the effects are, or will soon be, universal. This time, the enormity is so all-encompassing its results will reach into every heart. There is no way to maintain these fictions that we may carve out a “good” side and fight for “right” against an outside “evil.” The world is whole. It is broken.

Those who continue to gain at the cost of perpetuating destruction on a universal scale will fall of their own doing. Let that be made plain, not muddied by actions that only provide a scapegoat and an “enemy” for them to blame what happens upon. The world needs no champion. Least of all those willing to be selectively naive and insincere enough to fall back on righteous indignation, whatever the cause.

Only one thing remains undone. That is fleshing out what it might be to do otherwise than to jump back into the same seething pit of rage and outrage that got us here. Nothing is more destructive than the ubiquity, the hegemony – not of any particular faction – but of the language of conflict and opposition itself. Nothing fills me with dread more than hearing that my erstwhile allies hunger for more of the same, only with them on top. Their ends justifying any means. Their outrages fueling our wars.

Kingsnorth, in his critique of environmentalism, has perhaps not gone far enough! It’s not just the business of environmentalism that needs to be denied. It is the entire “War on Everything!” mentality so eagerly accepted when it suits one’s particular outrage, pursued by righteous warriors on all “sides” for their brand of social or environmental or economic “justice.”

Outrage is a cry calling out for violence. The adoption of any means cannot be justified in the name of peace or to carve out space for life. The attempt, no matter who is leading it, is a blow against what is, hurled in the name of some u-topia, a no-where.  These options are truly unavailable to us if we care to learn what needs to be learned.

The world is whole or it is broken. There are no outposts. No bastions to be “successfully” defended. Insistence on the language and mentality of war and struggle is but hubris displaced. It is a sign that our exceptionalism cannot be challenged. It is a rejection of what it is. It is the continuation of our habits of placing our intention in a position of entitled superiority over what is.

Ends do not exist. There are only means.

Is this so hard to see?

Faced with rivers of blood, what do we gain by insisting on generating yet another?

I’ve called before on an image, hard to look at, of whales and dolphins swimming in a sea covered in oil. The life’s blood of earth sent flowing upon the waves by cruel greed.

It hurts us to imagine it! We want to turn our pain into anger. We may even turn some of our anger against its “victims.”

How could they just swim on like that? Or the birds? Landing in an oil slick. Or seals, or turtles, the beaches themselves, their sparkling pristine nature accepting the flow of such pollution, such a defilement? Without protest?

What are they telling us? What is their view?

We cannot know for sure, but could we consider that, as with every raccoon and rabbit flattened on crossing a roadway, that they are standing on the truth?

The world is whole or it is broken.

If we cannot swim here, cross here, fly here, land here; then we will suffer here, die here!

This is not an “act of war!” It’s not defiance.

It is not directed in opposition and, this might be what makes these acts so galling even to those of us who feel their suffering and struggle to clean them up and repair some little bit of the damage.

They ignore the violence done to them. They refuse to accept it as a limitation. They  die rather than be contained in this way, to have their spirits burdened by these evils. In their deaths they affirm life. Not in any abstraction. They don’t die for any ideal. They live. Their world is entire. We destroy the world. They suffer. But they live in the meantime!

The meantime. It’s all there is! For all our striving, for all our talk of “futures,” there is only now.

This equation remains within what is. In it there is no insistence on intentions. There is no running away from being so as to strive to become.

Confronted by the righteous – for the perpetrators of these atrocities claim their fair share of it as well! They refuse to be drawn in.

Swimming in another river of blood these whales gave a response to domination that is not a form of opposition. Theirs is a refusal to accept domination as a condition in any way.

In this there is liberation. They declare,

“Here we swim in a clean and whole sea!”

“Now we swim in poison.”

“We are in pain and difficulty.”

“We expire.”

No energy wasted on hate.

None spent to give attackers any space within their hearts, other than to declare that what was whole is now broken, not for some selfish “I” or clannish “we,” but for us all.

12 thoughts on “Rivers of Blood

  1. i was left feeling like a question mark when i listened to that podcast. the eco-warrior stance attracted and repelled me at the same time, and i found myself clinging to david abram’s disagreement with the stance. but i couldn’t quite find a firm ground to stand on. that’s the problem with outrage coupled with urgency, it makes it seem as though there are no other options. i remember feeling exactly the same thing some time ago. back then i didn’t find my way out of being left without options and the world seemed so huge and dark – like an enormity indeed. but life continued and i had to live in the meantime! you’ve given me some ground to stand on here, thanks for this post.

    • Jeppe,

      Thank you for your response.

      This question dealing with our visceral responses to acts of clear victimization are among the most difficult we can ever face. A discussion like this one is just that, a chance to air out what we may not have considered. I don’t know how it might inform action, only that for me, it closes off avenues of justification that seem on the surface to be irrefutable, but which in a closer reading appear full of holes and do more to protect Ego than to affect any significant changes.

      H. G. Welles has a character in “War of the Worlds” who embodies the gung-ho attitude and he shows him up as in the end no more than a poseur. It is troubling when some of those who have done so much to further our understanding of the psychology of victimization then decide to stop thinking and wrap themselves in the same sorts of justifications oppressors have always used to hide their culpability.

      The hard part is not deciding on a stance, but finding where we stand. The stance will always lead to defensive attacks to bolster will and dominate opposition, whether from outside or from within. Finding where we stand requires us to defer judgements and look for whatever ground is under our feet so that we can then build upon that reality. This always requires more patience than we think we can afford, but can we really afford repeated stabs at futile action, just because we are impatient?

      The scales of time and the sheer enormity we are involved with are beyond our capacity to fathom. Pretending it ain’t so, is just to condemn us all to more of the same.

      • “The hard part is not deciding on a stance, but finding where we stand.”

        I agree. A friend of mine talks about developing a ‘slow’ way of looking at the world in order to avoid what Michel Serres calls the ‘soft pollution’ of constant bombardment with images/white noise. I think of this ‘slow look’ as cultivating a sense of beauty (Krishnamurti: when you are not there, beauty is there). Sometimes I feel that may well be the most appropriate response to injustice and victimisation. But in other moments the pain is almost too hard to bear. It is indeed a most difficult question.

      • We do need to slow down. It’s one thing we gain from our moment of clarity. If things weren’t so dire, on so many fronts. If we could make a case for urgency that wasn’t simply delusional. What else could we do but just jump back in. As it is, I don’t see how we can.

        As for the pain. Physical pain is something else, but the kind of emotional pain we’re dealing with can be managed by the same realizations that lead us away from the other traps of Ego. I’ve been coming up to a sense that all pain, anger, fear; all of the extremes of emotion along with flights of transport and exhilaration; are affects of Ego. Remember that Ego wants primacy. It wants to take up our attention and doesn’t much care whether we are excited or terrified by its machinations, either way it gets its way. This is where an awareness of proprioception and developing habits that allow us to suspend emotional pain, fear, anger; allow us to be where Ego is not.

        This is not the same thing as repressing emotion. It is not a form of dominating our natures. It is a realization that while Ego establishes the illusion that these are things happening to us, in actuality these are things we are doing to ourselves. As we gain proprioception we move away from the domination of Ego and we don’t just replace it with another form of domination.

  2. Eco-war is just another war; I get that.
    But I’m not convinced we have a right to your whale’s release of sinking without qualm into waters calmed with oil.
    “The chief environment of man is man” – the polluted seas we swim in are oceans of our own imagining. To wash our hands of the grease of that feels… complicit.

    It sounds childish in light of many of your previous posts, but I believe that our own minds are the easiest and hardest things to change – that the world of the ‘spectacle’ may have formed over many years, but that sometimes the tiniest prod in the right place can make the scales fall from our eyes in seconds. Is that what you mean by disillusionment?

    I believe there is a struggle with ourselves implicit in not fouling our own nest. No matter how many metres of insulation or how many low-flow shower roses I specify, I will never be ‘sustainable’ without some more fundamental change in my own mind – a change that I can’t even picture yet, no matter how hard I try – and there I am in the buddhist bind of desiring the release from desire…

    Intent is a blunt object. It is eternally subject to the laws of unintended consequence. It leads to violence. I get that, too. But chopping down a tree to form a keel is a violent act. Tending a garden is an act of will.

    • Jack,

      Thanks for your comment. I believe you are struggling with the consequences of our position, as are we all.

      I would agree that we don’t have the same psychological space as that of the whale. But I would, and do, question the uses of the guilt you’re referring to.

      Disillusionment is a process, and it does go through gates when one’s attitudes shift and never return to where they were.

      The bind of desiring a release from desire. That speaks in part to the difference between us and those whales too. Though I’m reluctant to build too much onto what is only a projection. We do not know what they think or feel, other than that they do both….

      I refer to a sense I have had many times that other creatures have a different relationship to what is, and a looser tie to expectations, including expectations of security, of an expectation of self-preservation. This is one of the things that leads me to question the primacy we give to intent.

      We also seem to misplace will. It seems to belong in the world of actions. Will is fine in harnessing our energies to complete an action. It’s just that we want to put it into the realm of deciding instead of merely acting. There it seems to be a crutch and the narrow end of the violence of domination.

      This leads to the difference between human violence that is willful and the violence of other creatures which results from interactions in which force is applied, but in which we cannot assume that there has been the same kind of self-domination to screw-up the determination to carry out a specific plan.

      This begins to touch on considerations around the difference between Craft and technology. The attitude I’d like to call Craft includes actions that are violent, but does not allow for the wanton hubris entangled in the attitudes of technology. This may be a way into our finding, or recapturing a human way to act and respond to the world and each other that comes closer to what is hinted at in the actions of other creatures.

      Of course, we cannot give our attention to any of these questions if we allow ourselves to fall for the same old traps of urgency and righteousness, and chasing after release.

      • Antonio, once again thank you for your thoughtful reply.
        Having re read my comment, I hope that my frustration at my own confusions and concerns doesn’t read as frustration towards your post or insights. Trying to imagine yourself thinking differently becomes a maze of mirrors. Vertigo kicks in.

        It is hard not to fall into the trap of thinking of changes of mind as tools toward an end (what end? Sustainability? Social justice? Happiness?) – and therefore talk about’paradigm shifts’ as solutions to problems as we see and understand them now. Of course, as you have suggested in previous posts, that is not how gateways of thought work. You can’t build a new world view using your current one, and even if you managed it, your previous aims and concerns become irrelevant in the new world…

        …and so I missed the point of your post altogether, and replaced a battlefield of whaling ships or hog farms with one inside my own head. Urgently seeking a less urgent world. Seeking solutions to an obsession with solutions. Internally fighting for peace.

        watching my family tend their garden reminds me that stewardship is closely related to craft. A garden tells you what it needs – it doesn’t need solutions, doesn’t respond to magic bullets, requires a dancer rather than a drill sargent. With all that we hear every day, can you forgive a gardener’s fingers for twitching?

      • Jack,

        No need to apologize. I don’t feel you were lashing out in any way.

        You are finding the shape of the room we are in. It is difficult not getting caught up in such imaginings. It’s just that this is one of those habits we need to adapt. It is so easy to think of imagination as an unequivocal good. In fact it tends to be a prime way to keep us enthralled to becoming. The vertigo you feel, we all feel in these cases, is a sign of our reaction to that. Once the Ego-high of imagination is distrusted, instead of our getting caught up in yet another bought of futurism, we recoil at the way the process takes us further and further off balance. Being doesn’t take “imagination.” It takes presence. This is related to another distinction. What if we distinguish between thoughts and insights? Thoughts are patterns of programming based on memory and run through conditioned pathways as we strive to make plans. Insights come to us. They are, and they are inseparable from the situation that brings them to us. Of course we tend to want to harvest them and store them away. Even to find ways to “profit” from them. At that point they are reduced to just more thoughts.

        In a similar way, it seems that we tend to confuse imagination with creativity. Imagination is the unrolling of speculation unmoored to anything but our desire to be impressed. Creativity is tied to what is, and comes out of an understanding of the restraints of a given situation and how we must meet its requirements and not skip over them. This is exactly what you find in the garden.

        This has been a wonderful set of exchanges! Thank you and Jeppe both for your contributions!

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