Dark Snow

We take note that a red alert has been issued by Iceland regarding angry rumblings from the volcano, Bardarbunga.



Should Bardarbunga erupt, the resulting large quantities of volcanic ash would effect more than flight paths. Consider the following excerpt from a recent interview with videographer Peter Sinclair, regarding his ongoing documentation of the Dark Snow Project:



Three lines from the inner lava flows of Byron’s poem “Darkness” come to mind:


And then the last lines from the same poem:



We Tortured Some Folks

We strongly recommend close consideration of Rebecca Gordon’s recently published book, Mainstreaming Torture, Ethical Approaches in the Post-9/11 United States. In examining the question of whether torture is ever morally permissible, Gordon critiques narrow utilitarian and deontological justifications, and proposes that a virtue ethics approach (descending from Alasdair MacIntyre) permits a deeper understanding of the ways in which the socially and politically embedded practice of torture twists and distorts our national character. She also suggests an alternative path; collaborative practices oriented towards the rebuilding of our presently dismantled habits of courage and wisdom.
Below, a brief dialogue between Rebecca Gordon and DP, intended to inspire large numbers of readers to purchase this absolutely essential book:
DP     We know that torture is designed to shatter and break the identity of the victim, to make it impossible for the victim to experience the world through a coherent subjectivity, as only the torturer gets to say “I”. Less well understood is the corrupting effect torture has on the torturer, and on a society such as our own that does not merely permit torture, but often seems to celebrate and reward it. Torture deforms us all, at a deep moral level, eradicating any semblance of human virtue. Throughout your writing, I am struck by your profound understanding of the devastating moral and ethical implications that institutionalized, habituated torture carries for us all. Can you describe the genesis of such understanding, certainly within your philosophy, yet also in your political engagement?
RG      My understanding of torture as an ongoing, socially embedded practice really began with the time I spent working in the war zones of Nicaragua in the 1980’s. There I met people who had been tortured, some earlier under the Somoza dictatorship, and some later by the remnants of the Somoza’s National Guard, who formed the nucleus of the U.S.-backed contras. I began to understand how torture works – and it does work  – not by gathering “intelligence,” but as a means of destroying social bodies that threaten a regime. By attacking the minds and bodies of some of the members of a union, a church community, a political party, a beekeeping cooperative, the agents of a state can dismember those organizations.
I first started writing about U.S. torture in the fall of 2001. Less than two months after the terrible attacks of 9/11, people in the mainstream press were beginning to suggest that 9/11 meant someone needed to be tortured. Quite suddenly something most people thought was a settled consensus – that torture is wrong – was once again an open question. Both the mainstream press and academic ethicists began musing about whether things hadn’t changed after 9/11. Jonathan Alter wrote in Newsweek called “Time to Think About Torture,” in which he suggested that something extra was needed to “jump-start the stalled investigation of the greatest crime in American history.” Anyone who had qualms about it was “hopelessly ‘Sept. 10’—living in a country that no longer exists.” Ethicists, too, began to question their positions on torture. Jean Bethke Elshtain, for example, wrote in an essay in Torture: A Collection (ed. Sanford Levinson; New York: Oxford University Press, 2004) that before “the watershed event of September 11, 2001,” she was one of the many people who listed torture in the “category of ‘never,’” Afterwards, she changed her mind.
As the conversation about torture began to develop, it became clear to me that both mainstream press and academics were making a basic mistake about what institutionalized state torture is. They were treating is as an isolated activity, something that people do in moments of extremity. Both the press and academics were marshaling arguments for or against “torture” largely on deontological or consequentialist grounds. Deontological arguments against torture referred to the Kantian prohibition on treating humanity as a means to some end. Those in favor cited the duty of government officials to protect their population. Consequentialist arguments for torture most often cited the choice to torture one person to save a million from a ticking time bomb. Those against torture focused either on the danger it might present to U.S. reputation in the world, or to U.S. soldiers if they were captured. But all these arguments treated torture as if it were something that happened once, or once in a while.
My experience in various solidarity movements had taught me something different. Institutionalized state torture is a practice. It has its own histories, traditions, and even rituals of initiation. It has its own internal values, and it forms its practitioners in a specific set of moral habits – call them virtues or vices as you will. And I believe that when torture becomes quasi-public especially in a democratic society, as it has in this country in the so-called “war on terror,” it can engender vicious moral habits in all of us. One of these is cowardice – the willingness to accept any necessary evil in the (ultimately false) belief that it can guarantee one’s personal survival. Another is a distortion of practical wisdom that I call culpable ignorance, the voluntary refusal to use one’s capacity for thought and judgment, for example to be able to see torture when it is being called something else, like “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Or, indeed, to see that practices we might decry in Abu Ghraib or Guantánamo are part of the daily routine in U.S. jails and prisons.
Thinking about torture as a practice led me to look at Alasdair MacIntyre’s contemporary revival of virtue ethics, starting with After Virtue. I found his categories of telos, virtue, practice, and tradition very useful for understanding how institutionalized state torture works.
DP     Colin Powell’s former chief of staff, retired Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, recently offered an interesting comment regarding the character of one of our most stridently unrepentant torture advocates, Dick Cheney: “”Immorality is something that can be ferreted out, checked and balanced. Amorality is an altogether different affair, especially when you’re exploiting the politics of fear in order to carry out state purposes, which is what Dick Cheney’s forte is.”  Can you expand on your reading of MacIntyre’s After Virtue, with reference to state torture, once it becomes such a fully articulated and even legally codified practice? Is there any sense in voicing a moral critique once the state embraces a fundamentally amoral universe centered on the breaking of those bodies and spirits who dare to resist? 
RG     You ask, “Is there any sense in voicing a moral critique once the state embraces a fundamentally amoral universe centered on the breaking of those bodies and spirits who dare to resist?” I think that my answer is a sort of “Yes, but…” or perhaps better, “Yes, and…”
In voicing any critique, one immediate question is, “Who’s the audience for the critique?” Is there any sense, for example, in arguing ethics with Dick Cheney himself? Probably not. If Wilkerson’s characterization is accurate, it seems unlikely that Cheney would engage in good faith argument, willingly disclosing his fundamental assumptions. If he were willing to disclose the foundation of his moral approach to governing as something along the lines of, “It is right to use whatever instrument is effective in advancing the power of the state,” I am hard pressed to imagine where I would begin to seek a shared assumption from which to begin an argument. One route might be to inquire about why it is important to maintain or expand the power of the state – what value lies behind this imperative, but I’m not convinced we’d get anywhere.
If the audience is the larger public, then I think it is not only sensible, but vital, to advance a moral critique. The challenge we face here, however, is profound. Public moral discourse in this country is almost always framed in instrumentalist terms. Arguments appealing to values other than cost/benefit calculations are generally dismissed as idealist, unrealistic, or adolescent and soft-headed. This is a very difficult frame to break. It’s easier to try to think up an argument against torture within this frame (“It doesn’t work. You don’t get good information.” “Torturing the enemy puts our own soldiers at risk if they are captured.”) than it is to challenge instrumentalism as a moral approach. It may look as if we can win the argument within the terms set by the opponents, but we can’t.
This is where MacIntyre’s approach comes in. There is another way to understand the moral life than as a series of cost/benefit analyses (even if the costs and benefits we are weighing are not our own, but those of the “greatest number.”) MacIntyre encourages us to not to understand our lives as a series of isolated choices (What in this will bring about the greatest happiness for the greatest number in this situation? Shall I kill one person to save five? Will my maxim, if universalized, lead to a logical contradiction?) Rather, he would have us think of human life as a particular kind of story, a quest to discover what makes for a good human life. This is a quest he believes (with Aristotle) can only be undertaken in the company of other human beings. In its course we enter into particular practices – complex, collaborative activities that enable us to develop certain intellectual and often physical skills; activities that have their own internal goods, and which allow us to develop certain moral habits — virtues — that sustain us in our quest.
What does any of this have to do with the problem of torture? I’m arguing that torture itself is the kind of complex, collaborative activity that engenders certain moral habits – twisted versions of the four “cardinal” virtues embraced by Greek and Roman philosophers (along with Thomas Aquinas). These four are justice, courage, moderation, and wisdom. In Mainstreaming Torture, I describe this process more fully, and I suggest that especially in a democratic society, it affects not only those directly involved, but the other members of the society.
And here’s where I come to my “Yes, but…” Unlike Enlightenment moral philosophies such as utilitarianism or Kantian deontology, virtue ethics can’t be demonstrated through argument. It is a way of living. The virtue ethics argument against torture isn’t just a verbal argument; it is a life in which people rebuild our habits of courage and wisdom. Perhaps we might begin with the complex, collaborative, long-term activity of dismantling state power built on Cheney’s politics of fear.

Visceral Enmity

On this Hiroshima Day, we bend an ear to General Lee Butler, who was Commander-in-Chief of the United States Strategic Command Air Base in Nebraska, with responsibility for all US Air Force and Navy strategic nuclear weaponry, until his retirement in 1994. The excerpt above is from his 2002 essay, Death by Deterrence. Best read as a continuous loop while playing “Nuclear War” by Sun Ra, who would be celebrating his 100th birthday on earth this year, had he not decided to return to his native planet of Neptune.



Each day, we gaze out our window at our DP writing desk, and we try to think like the mountains we see in the distance. It is a humbling ambition.

We have been reading Vicious, Jon Coleman’s fiercely engaged history of human efforts to torture and exterminate wolves. We strongly recommend that DP readers purchase this book before it goes out of print, which often seems to be the fate of studies we count as absolutely indispensable to the understanding of our present agony.

For now, we excerpt a few passages from the introduction, interwoven with captivating wolf images from the eyes and hands of Mark Adlington:



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Elsewhere in the text:


About their human tormentors:




Meanwhile, very close to the present moment, an American president utters the following appalling sentence:


As Coleman notes, human beings do not represent the apex of evolution; in time, we will be gone, and no other species will mourn our disappearance.



A Fundamental Negation

A faithful DP reader in Prague has guided us towards the 1984 essay by Vaclav Havel, Politics and Conscience. Worth a careful read in its entirety, the heart of the essay — its “values and imperatives” — is excerpted below with italics added by DP for emphasis, and with images borrowed from Sanja Ivekovic’s 1982 video, Practice Makes A Master.



















We Are the Centuries

Rebecca Gordon prompted us to re-read a book we may have treated unfairly in past years, Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, a book whose meticulous dissection of various bodies within moral philosophy we now find both profoundly revealing regarding what ails us during this period of cultural darkness, and instructive with regards to that vexing question of what is to be done, “the engagement of plain persons”.

We will likely return to this careful yet distinctly revolutionary text often in months to come; for the moment we offer a brief passage from the preface (with images interjected by DP):








We find the texts lodged within the above text equally as illuminating, beginning with —–


…. and closing with this absolutely electrifying passage from the Canticle for Leibowitz:


The Tortured Body

Today we call your attention to an extraordinary essay written by the brave and brilliant Rebecca Gordon, in which she explores the implications of William Cavanaugh’s profound claim in Torture and Eucharist, that the state’s habitual practices of disappearance, rendition and torture cannot be separated from the church’s practice of celebrating the Eucharist. The entire essay (click the image) is worth a careful reading; the section Sanctus and Benedictus is excerpted below:





Torture also exists as a teaching — indeed, has it become our most emblematic pedagogy?

The Tables Turned



Now comes Duncan Watts, identified as the principal researcher at Microsoft Research, and thereby a True Believer in the social welfare merits of behavioral research performed upon users of social media networks. Worried that the recent outcry over a study of “emotional contagion” might lead to a backlash that may considerably shrink the number of acres available for cultivation in his field, Mr. Watts sets forth the familiar idea that science is always and forever a good thing, assuming that such research is conducted ethically and with full transparency:


Well, yes, fine enough, as far as such cheerleading goes. Yet the most dangerous ethical issues concern not how scientific research is generated, but how it is used. Alas, Mr. Watts does not venture into the close alliance between knowledge of social media and the exercise of power and control over communities, as evidenced for example in the self-description of a US Department of Defense (via DARPA) program tagged as SMISC, which sounds like something concocted by SMERSH:


We can only speculate as to the DARPA criteria for what constitutes “truthful information”; but Ok, so having received copious DARPA funding, what will these hired gun network researchers do?


In an example, we suppose, of how it is — according to other pioneering network scientists  — that the smartest person in the room is the room, clicking on the SMISC link for ethical implications summons forth the following:


Mr. Watts drags poor old Wordsworth into the argument, via his deeply ironic poem titled “The Tables Turned”, and in particular the oft-quoted three lines, “Our meddling intellect Misshapes the beauteous forms of things. We murder to dissect.” The final three stanzas offer a better sense of the poem, though we remain uncertain what role they could ever play in Mr. Watts’ deadly earnest and humorless plea for more and better science:




Emotional Contagion




One of our main themes here at DP:

Our social life-world has become increasingly transformed into a vast data mine, an extractive and highly lucrative corporate bonanza in which the “mine” is our own subjectivity, together with whatever is left of our communities and collective identities. 

The behavioral psychology lab offers the dominant social organizational model, with strip miners such as Facebook and Twitter at one end of the spectrum, and more specific tunnel miners at the other end, such as the torture lab at Guantanamo Bay.

The recent study conducted by Facebook in conjunction with researchers from Cornell University and The University of California, makes no bones about the nature of the ore extracted from the data mine:



As discussed at length inside James Grimmelmann’s consistently excellent Laboratorium:


In an almost unbearably mealy-mouthed and sniveling “apology” that belies not only the absence of any ethical compass but also a dregs pit in the neuronal space where one might hope to find something resembling philosophy, author Adam Kramer writes:


Mr. Kramer does not have the guts to tell it like it is: YO PEOPLE THIS IS WHAT WE DO. EVERY DAY AND NIGHT. 24/7. GET OVER IT! Read his last sentence again: even the “reaction to this paper” will swiftly become absorbed within the behavioral algorithm. Your behavior; your algorithm. Forever, for however long is left to us.

Dear DP readers, we know that the sand is spilling quickly from the hourglass of the anthropocene. Yet in this time of massive crisis in every domain in which our species does the dirty to every other living thing over and over and then all over again, there are small yet important ways we can all resist:


Friendica and Diaspora offer decentralized and user-controlled alternatives networking possibilities that remain outside the data mine. As for WordPress, though not perfect, it is certainly far superior to Facebook, and DP has discovered a variety of ways to strengthen privacy, and minimize participation within the strip mine. We are happy to share our methods with anyone who contacts us.



Just One Word

The graduate returns home for the summer. The neighbors have gathered over freely flowing cocktails at the family residence to offer their congratulations, their felicitations — and their advice:



Today we offer another word to think about, just one word: PLASTIGLOMERATE. As described in the abstract to a research paper published by the Geological Society of America:

Recognition of increasing plastic debris pollution over the last several decades has led to investigations of the imminent dangers posed to marine organisms and their ecosystems, but very little is known about the preservation potential of plastics in the rock record. As anthropogenically derived materials, plastics are astonishingly abundant in oceans, seas, and lakes, where they accumulate at or near the water surface, on lake and ocean bottoms, and along shorelines. The burial potential of plastic debris is chiefly dependent on the material’s density and abundance, in addition to the depositional environment. Here, we report the appearance of a new “stone” formed through intermingling of melted plastic, beach sediment, basaltic lava fragments, and organic debris from Kamilo Beach on the island of Hawaii. The material, herein referred to as “plastiglomerate,” is divided into in situ and clastic types that were distributed over all areas of the beach. Agglutination of natural sediments to melted plastic during campfire burning has increased the overall density of plastiglomerate, which inhibits transport by wind or water, thereby increasing the potential for burial and subsequent preservation. Our results indicate that this anthropogenically influenced material has great potential to form a marker horizon of human pollution, signaling the occurrence of the informal Anthropocene epoch.







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