on Nostalgia and the Great Human Fight

A footnote (from a comment about Levi-Strauss placing the Golden Age of humanity somewhere around the Neolithic.): Marshall Sahlins places it even ealier, in the Paleolithic; the view that the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture constitutes a Great Leap Forward, he discounts as nothing but a “neolithic prejudice.” Countering the entrenched theoretical position today, wherein the question “How did the primitives managed to live?” is topped only by the question of whether their existence deserves to be called living at all, he argues in his Stone Age Economics that theirs was, as the title of his opening chapter puts it, “The Original Affluent Society.” Affluence being a ratio between means and ends, by keeping their ends modest- want not, lack not– their means were more more adequate to them than is the case with us. It is we who sentence ourselves to life at hard labor; the primitive is in business for his health. Hunters keep banking hours: “reports on hunters and gatherer… suggest a mean of three to five hours per adult worker per day in food production”. The rest of their time is reserved for gossiping, entertaining, dancing, and other arts, and daytime sleep. “Savage days are nothing but a pastime” a 17th century explorer reported. Passing to the question of what our industry has got us, Sahlins answers: ” This is the era of hunger unprecedented. Now, in the time of the greatest technical power, is starvation an institution. Reverse another venerable formula: the amount hunger increases relatively and absolutely with the evolution of culture.”

(from a very easy to miss footnote in Huston Smith’s Forgotten Truths.)

The old conversation on the topic went like this:

Not having been around to actually experience it (don’t have the book by the way)…I suppose I have been saturated with “modernist propaganda,” overlaid with acquired consumer needs. All the “follow the hunter into the woods” depictions I’ve seen (ie. the “Africa” series just recently on ed. t.v.) makes it look like they track for days to find something and lug it back to the village. Of course, the other point of that program was how scare game was because of the destruction of forest, to remaining native tribes and long ago it would have been much more abundant.

But plenty of other things we see in “hard life elsewhere” stories reinforces that idea for me. If the woman had to weave her blanket, she had to first sit and spin the wool with one of those yo-yo things, set up the loom (around her waist if South American Indian depiction), etc. etc. Everything seems infinitely laborious, and with only 24 hours in a day, computes as “having very little” at the end. What most of us lament is not the circumstances of primitive existence but all the lost “comeraderie” time these closer-knit people seem to have, beating their wash in the stream or building the leaf huts together, etc. But as soon as we contemplate “medicine man” instead of doctor and “dung fire” instead of Carrier h.v.a.c. system, the romance fades away.

So, I dunno. More time to live primitively doens’t sound like a lot better deal than office slave driving to work instead of walking to water hole, or getting food at Kroger instead of plowing with water buffalo. Maybe the nature of how trapped we are doesn’t change, but the heaviness of the labor and the (perceived anyway) hazardousness of it is all we’ve changed. Most of us would rather whine along with arthritis than die younger from impalement on anti-tribal spear.

And my response: Well, the problem with the anti-idealized version is: we can’t go back, and even if the proponents of the idealized past version of life are saying it was better (and I have my doubts), I don’t think the authors are suggesting we follow the hunters back into the woods anyway– we’ve been culturally transformed to the point where we can’t accept that life.

And then comes the crushing conclusion of all we hold dear, from the Huston Smith book proper:

(pg 122) The long-range prospect for our universe are not encouraging. Whether it ends by collapsing into a widening black hole or winds down to an entropic deep freeze four degrees above absolute zero does not much matter; be the finale a bang or a whimper, its human import is the same: our universe will not support life indefinitely. Given the rate at which the sun is spending its energy, our particular solar system will die long beofre our universe does, of course. In 5 billion years it will have thinned out to 250 times its present diameter and swallowed our planet.
Such prospects caused a former dean of Canterbury Cathedral to cry, “Short views, for God’s sake, short views.” But with the , the short-range future, too, looks bleak. etc. etc. Sartre is not profound, but he is a shrewd phenomenologist, and on the existential level where he works he advises that “we must learn to live without hope.”

This is simple entropy. Things fall apart — it’s scientific. (Except, really they simply change shape.) No wonder human-kind frequently becomes nostalgic for less-than-stellar moments in the past. What is the deal with those Middle-Aged theme restaurants, where people eat sloppily as per celebrating the worst eras of Western History? “Remember Fiefdoms! The Hun Invasions! The Bubonic Plague! 30 year life-spans! Those were the days, weren’t they?”

New Yorkers are rapt to rail against the post Rudy Giuliana Disneyfied Times Square. Not to celebrate Rudy Giuliana’s grand Disney vision of New York (soon to be imported to New Orleans, with post-modern “safe” transvestettes acting as tour guides) Was the Times Square of the 1970s anything to write home about? It was a grimy celebratory of the city (and, for that matter, the nation’s) economic woes and stagnation… the city’s malaise, the national malaise.

Take the Michael Ruppert thesis on Peak Oil, a blog entry I never got to where I muse about how he seems to believe we have arrived at a state where our future is in a series of localized neo-feudal Anarchic collective communities… of which Portland, Oregon is in the best shape in the nation to adjust to. Or take, Curiously enough, Bush’s recent echo of Carter of the Carter Era, and we’re back to the approaching void that the nation faces up to every so often… as per Hoover’s 30s, Nixon-Carter-Ford’s 70s. In the 30s, Fascism was on the March — or perhaps Stalinism. In the 70s, the American Empire was declared dead in the jungles of Vietnam (wish it were so)– the Soviet Union was triumphant — Sparta had defeated Athens yet again. Today, China is on the March, and Europe is building itself up against us.

And yet… I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but … we’re fine. We’re okay.

The much celebrated Chinese Economy is creating schtuff and moving wealth around — somewhere or other — and… plow over a 3 year old story on China’s economy because it’s the first thing that pops up when I google something germane here… and it’s all pretty much familiar terrain, only… more so there than here. (Economists have been quick to point to certain signs of America’s Great Economic Revival, before quietly noting that… large swarths of the public is not really experiencing the improvements, and another large swarth are returning to crappier jobs than the jobs they lost when the economy most recently turned sour.)

It’s 1978. America is falling apart at the seams. Here’s the question: which superpower nation would you rather be living in, which superpower nation do you have the better opportunity for a sort of personal atonomy: the USA or the Soviet Union? (Perhaps it’s a trick question to some concerned. Let’s pretend we conquer Venezuela and rid them our hated Hugo Chavez, replacing him with our latest shady Oil Magnate. Would you rather live in Soviet Poland or United Stateside ultra-neo-liberalized Venezuela?)

75,000 miles.

Another asteroid near-miss.

This happens 2 or 3 times a year. It has fit itself into a nook and cranny of our culture’s psyche. An asteroid comes by an astoromical whisker yet a human tonnage from hitting the Earth. The astronomers who spotted it either spotted it just as it was coming by or many months ago, and knew its import. In either case, they told nobody until weeks after it happened. No sense in causing an unnecessary panic over something potentially deadly that nobody has any control over.

In some small fringe sectors of society, it fuels the desire for a “Star Wars” missile defense system. In others, it reinforces the belief that a bureacratic government acts as the goliath police state that it is for no other reason than to compensate for their very real impotence in the realm of security and control. Collision with religious fervor for the apocalypse, and the paranoia runs deep… ’cause buried and bubbling from this psyche is the tale of the Extinction of the Dinosaurs — the idea of the Rise and Fall of Mighty Bemoath Empires. In the same vein as the thought of the fall of the USA is akin to the fall of Rome, we have the Fall of the Dinosaurs (anthromorphized into a culture) and the Fall of the Humans. […]

I muse over this old essay I wrote. “they told nobody until weeks after it happened. No sense in causing an unnecessary panic over something potentially deadly that nobody has any control over” is fit into the politics of our color code schem — which has been proven to bear no relationship with any actual matrix of terrorist threats, and was a purely political trick for a few uptiks in a government’s approval rating. (I also note an important part of Human Nature: When New Orleans fell apart, the New Orleans residents behaved perfectly well, despite rumours to the contrary that fell into a sort of unconciously racist echo chamber of the media collective. The people adjusted to their horrid conditions… little thanks to the Mayor of New Orleans and no thanks to the President of the United States of America.)

The government which tears apart FEMA, because of an ideologicalical opposition to such a thing. This is Entropy Forced… Entropy by Design. (We will now cut back on various government services not in the Defense Budget and not in the Highway Pork Budget and not in the Purchasers of the Government Slush Fund so as to (a) rebuild New Orleans with Disnefied post-modern transvestette tour guides and (b) return America to the pristine state it was under the McKinnley Administration.

Perhaps that is too conspiranoid. But make the adjustments as appropriate to our needs… and fight the good fight, because… we will win.

Leave a Reply