In the past we had place. Now we don’t. In the future place may re-assert itself – at least I hope so….
Any search for a carving out of our own agency soon comes to the absolute necessity for a place on which to stand. Most fundamentally that distills down to a physical place upon which a community can be created piece by piece, as people and habits and ways of being evolve to fit into that place’s circumstances. This takes time and stability, so that evolution can take hold, and develop a fabric of inter-relationships that bolster and aid in life’s constant struggle with entropy.
If this is a valid description of what we need, then we would be hard-pressed to find a less propitious moment world-wide for the establishment, or recreation, or salvaging of ways for life to continue. Everything within the dominant world culture – not monolithic on the surface, but spanning five dominant religions and at least as many historical cultural traditions – modern culture is not limited to Western Industrial Capitalism in this way, although within the dominant world culture all its strains are failing to avert Modernism’s capture.
We decry habitat loss for other species. What we fail to see is that along with such losses – not accidentally, but out of the same cause and effect, we are systematically destroying habitat for human life at an accelerating rate approaching complete “success.” Our spiked numbers, our over-reach in all its particulars, are evidence as well as the mechanism of this destruction. Our instability – whether in the current boom, or in the coming crash – is the sign of its destructive power. As atomized individuals or scattered “remnant” populations amidst the cultural wastes, we are little different from a smattering of relatively healthy cells subsumed within a virulent tumor. Even as our general numbers seem to signify strength, our fractured relationships and inability to find traction show us to be precursors of the kind found in all post-crash populations, from Codfish, to Tigers, to Sea Turtles struggling to make do without sufficient space, or stability, or support from interlocked members of a wider community of living things.
Physically in our fractured ecology and struggling in the shattered remnants, mere fragments of what had once been a healthy habitat; it might be impossible to set out to create strong-holds from which to regrow. The forces of destruction are too powerful and ubiquitous. Their inertial load is stupendous, and will spend its force in great turmoil before it ever abates. We cannot escape these physical truths. We may not survive them, either as individuals, or as a species, or even as a planet hospitable for life. The results of this titanic conflagration are beyond our individual power to affect. To think otherwise is a delusion with no salutary silver lining.
On the other hand, we are not limited in our field of action to the physical. We have our internal world in which we can work – not clear of physicality’s affects – but within a sphere that is much less constrained by what goes on around us. Within this internal world, we can begin to work on the foundations of what we need to build around us. Granted that we may get some way along this, and still face destruction by what has already been loosed on the world; but it is essential that unless we develop these internal foundations, we will never counter or replace the outer forces working so hard at our joint ruination.
This is not a call for “ghost riders,” or any retreat into fantasy. Precisely the opposite. It’s a call for a rejection of fantasy and facing four-squarely the reality at hand.
As conscious beings or embodied consciousness, we first need an internal place to stand before we can hope to establish, defend, and nurture any outer place. In a healthy biosphere this is a constant process, continually building and adapting what was there before. In this way there is a continuous back and forth between the internal and external conditions and circumstances. We are not in this kind of situation today. Pretending, or hiding away will not alter this fact. Those of us showing the slightest concern over these questions find ourselves in zoos, or in prisons, where we have little or no power to carve out physical autonomous space, but we do still have the ability to do this within ourselves.
For some of us the bars are more subtle than they are for others. For some of us the bars are even relatively permeable. We can communicate, if we can find each other, and if we are open to listening for and developing the shreds of contact we have available to us while we still can.
In some ways I feel we are only now able to pick up where the prescient voices of the turn of the Twentieth Century laid out the conditions of our predicament. One of the giants of that time was H. G. Wells. He was prolific in his warnings and uncanny in his ability to dramatize these trends and conditions in bold and memorable stories. War of the Worlds was one of these. Throughout the Twentieth century it was seen as a warning of the coming world wars, but that was during and just after the time when these events played out. We were transfixed by their unprecedented horrors and unable to see the deeper horror at their root. I think today we can see beyond this that Wells was on a deeper level showing us the End-Game of Modernity itself. The Martians are not from “out there,” they are modern rapacious industrial capitalism itself, searching out for life to process into “resources,” in a pitiless paroxysm of greed. Avatar is, by comparison, a mere spasm of guilt fully embedded within the system it purports to criticize, while Wells’ short novel is a colossus that continues to cast a long shadow over our lives a hundred years later.
Our hero’s progress throughout the story is one of an awakening to a growing concern, the rejection of denial, the struggle with panic, and eventually a stoic survival under the very feet of his gigantic oppressors’ machines until their own inherent blindness to their own weaknesses finally brings them down.
One of the hardest lessons for me has been to follow his example in dealing with the likes of the knowing, cynical plotter our hero attempts to befriend. He welcomes the apparent insight of someone seemingly neither caught up in blatant denial or panic, someone who has developed a comprehensive plan for how to deal with their foes. In the end, our hero is horrified to discover the binds this “revolutionary” has so carefully constructed to hold himself and anyone with him. All his knowing, all his worldly-wise “sagacity” was just an incantation to cover over his profound surrender, his inability to see beyond “power-struggles” combined with a certainty of his own failure. As a result, he was caught in a cycle of ever more complex strategies, and ever more paralyzing doubt. In the end, he was eager for his own destruction in a fruitless confrontation instead of facing the need to give up his basic illusion that life could and must be controlled. He was as great a danger to our hero as were the Martians unless he could escape this man’s circle.
We are surrounded by such dangers today, partial “answers” that are doomed to failure, precisely because they seek to define life as a problem, and tenaciously refuse to do anything but look for its “solution.” Our stand-in in the War of the Worlds was unable to bring down his oppressors. They were too powerful and too many. He was able to abide, and keep his head while over-reach took care of his adversaries, both Martian and human. His predicament, our predicament, is Existential, it is not a set of “problems” to be “managed.” “Success” was not guaranteed. “Success” was not even an option, and working for it was merely a projection covering over a deep nihilistic despair as dangerous as the opponent it purported to “fight.”
In this reading of Wells, as sketchy and partial as it is, I’m looking to lay down some of the parameters for this action of carving out an internal place from which to stand, and the direct efficacy of such an effort as opposed to the competing claims of some alleged pragmatism. We need a place to stand. We are thwarted in our efforts to find a literal stage on which to stand and carry out effective action. Therefore, we need to find ways to carve out interior spaces within our own consciousness, since this is the sphere of our greater autonomy. And, without this preparation, this act of building foundations, we would be doomed to flailing out of balance, carrying out acts of desperation that do no more than feed the self-destructive nature of a rootless nihilism no different – in the end – from that which drives our oppressors.
We cannot win our War of the Worlds, but we could lose it.