Descent Into Darkness

On this, the fiftieth anniversary of the massacre at My Lai, we turn to historian Howard Jones, with an excerpt from My Lai: Vietnam, 1968, and the Descent into Darkness. Jones places the massacre in the context of American exceptionalism: our exceptional disposition towards atrocity. The second image is a 1968 assemblage with skulls titled My Lai, by Hans Burkhardt.






We also urge consideration of an exceptional film, The Sound of the Violin in My Lai, available in its entirety at the website of the equally as exceptional Madison Quakers.


Forgeries of the Self

Now comes Henry Farrell, in excerpts from an essay exploring key themes wired from the brain of Philip K. Dick, an essay that is included in the Global Dystopias issue of Boston Review. Our title descends from an essay by PKD himself, in a passage cited by Farrell:

Images are from the fecund studio of Senga Nengudi.









In the midst of the Sixth Extinction, we can say with a fair degree of certainty that the future looks absolutely splendid: for the forgers of the self.


Strange Loops

Here in New England, home base for DP navigations, we have gyrated in recent days from weather conditions one would expect in mid-July two days ago to yet another “once-in-a-generation” Nor’easter snow dump. In Northern Europe, our correspondents report near-Arctic conditions, while in the Arctic scientists record temperatures a full thirty degrees above the norm.

All of this loopy, weird weather represents what climatologist Jason Box referred to in a recent interview  as a “signature” of climate change:

The greenhouse effect has been enhanced by human burning of fossil fuels. That’s elevated atmospheric CO2 almost 50 percent now. OK, so that’s heating the planet. And it’s the Arctic that is warming at twice the rate of areas to the south as a consequence of this.

And there are feedbacks that allow the heat to stay in the Arctic. And when the sea ice, which has lost half of its thickness in the last 50 years, moves away from the shore, we have an ocean surface that is about 30 degrees Celsius warmer than the surface would otherwise be of the ice. That releases heat into the atmosphere. And there’s something called the lapse rate feedback, which allows that heat to get trapped near the surface in the atmosphere. It allows it to warm up further.

So, there’s an interaction between the loss of Arctic sea ice that’s been retreating—it’s now at record low, it’s about the area of Alaska below its average—the interaction of that heat release with warming in the lower atmosphere, that reinforces the slowdown of the jet stream, the polar vortex. They’re the same thing. And what’s normal is the jet stream, polar vortex, to have a circular shape around the Arctic. But the warmer it gets, the Arctic, the more wavy that structure becomes, and the jet stream starts to meander more. And those meanders, they get locked in. This is a signature of climate change, a more persistent wave pattern, which is now driving extra heat into the Arctic, that wasn’t possible before, and allowing more heat out.


Now comes philosopher Timothy Morton. In an essay contributed to the exceptional research/art organization Sonic Acts, Morton sketches the outlines of a well-riddled theory for our twisted present. An excerpt below, with a painting from the wonderfully weird imagination of  Kristine Moran.





Pepper Loves You

Who is Pepper? From the SoftBank website, we read:

Pepper is a human-shaped robot. He is kindly, endearing and surprising.

We have designed Pepper to be a genuine day-to-day companion, whose number one quality is his ability to perceive emotions.

Pepper is the first humanoid robot capable of recognising the principal human emotions and adapting his behaviour to the mood of his interlocutor.

To date, more than 140 SoftBank Mobile stores in Japan are using Pepper as a new way of welcoming, informing and amusing their customers. Pepper also recently became the first humanoid robot to be adopted in Japanese homes!

Wow! Japanese homes! Yet there is even more to gush over:

Pleasant and likeable, Pepper is much more than a robot, he is a genuine humanoid companion created to communicate with you in the most natural and intuitive way, through his body movements and his voice.

Pepper loves to interact with you, Pepper wants to learn more about your tastes, your habits and quite simply who you are.

Pepper can recognise your face, speak, hear you and move around autonomously.

You can also personalise your robot by downloading the software applications that take your fancy, based on your mood or the occasion. Dance, play, learn or even chat in another language, Pepper adapts himself to you!

Your robot evolves with you. Pepper gradually memorises your personality traits, your preferences, and adapts himself to your tastes and habits.



What could possibly wrong?


Last week saw the release of a report on potential malicious uses of AI, the result of a collaboration among fourteen institutions and twenty six distinguished authors. We urge careful review of the entire report; the conclusion is excerpted below.



Our own view on the dangers of AI will be familiar to longtime DP readers. Our ability to invent clever technologies accelerates while the development of moral consciousness and empathic conscience degrades, resulting in an ever-deepening discrepancy that, if left to its own lethal devices, will eventually terminate in a world without us. In the words of Gunther Anders:

Erasure of the Unseen

Now comes the estimable Rebecca Solnit elucidating how degrees of power shape, distort and often obliterate what experiences, and whose experiences, become publicly visible and acknowledged. The entire essay is worth close consideration; a couple of brief excerpts below, with images from the studio of Lesley Dill.





Though Solnit focuses mostly on sexual abuse of women by more powerful men, we would suggest that the identical dynamic applies to a more distant form of violence. Jill Stauffer, author of Ethical Loneliness: The Injustice of Being Heard, directed us to a remarkable analysis of drone warfare in an essay titled Phenomenology of a Drone Strike, in which Nasser Hussain traces how the military power to obliterate “unseen” civilian bodies becomes inscribed within the perceptual parameters of the weapon itself:

“We have become too accustomed to seeing from the air, which violates all the familiar geometry and perspective of our mundane, grounded vision. The exhilaration of the bird’s-eye view, or the god’s-eye view, so palpable in early accounts of flying, stems from the possibility of outstripping human limitations. But in another respect, aviation is very much tied to the modern mode of seeing, because from the very beginning it has been linked to photographic and cinematographic representation. Shooting a film, or focusing on a target, are not cheap puns, but reminders of a shared genealogical origin. Indeed, this way of looking is so naturalized that we forget that seeing through an aperture produces a particular and partial visual construction.

Aerial vision at once expands the range of view and hones in on a perceived target. But this focus inwards, this claim of precise aim, is not just one among other ways of looking. Rather, the accuracy of the drone’s eye structures more than vision; it shapes the way we think about, talk about, and evaluate a bombing. We focus on the target, the moment of impact. We dispute how contained or collateral the damage was, how many civilians died alongside the chosen target. These questions begin to eclipse all other questions about the global military apparatus that makes the strike possible or about civilian injury that goes beyond body counts.”



“Inequality makes liars of us all.”



Precarity and Suicide

We are indebted to Amy Goodman for alerting us to a number of recent suicides among professional taxi and livery drivers in New York City, under tremendous stress as a result of the so-called gig economy, as expressed in app-based “disruptive” enterprises such as Uber and Lyft. According to the co-founder of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, Bhairavi Desai, speaking on Democracy Now:

It’s a race to the bottom. Every day, people are going deeper and deeper into poverty. And this is the reality of the so-called gig economy. It’s about destroying what has been a full-time profession, turning it into part-time, poverty-pay work. Uber and company—Uber and Lyft—and, by the way, they are absolutely the same. It’s all one same business model. They use their political might. In 2016, Uber and Lyft combined spent more on lobbying than Amazon and Walmart combined, and Microsoft, as well. And so, they use their political might to win deregulation bills.

The destruction of the taxi and livery profession exacts a heavy price; writing in a social media post shortly before killing himself in front of City Hall, driver Doug Schifter delivered a blistering attack on those who enable such a duplicitous transfer of wealth:



Writing in the Boston Review, Clara Hendrickson names and shames the delusions of the gig economy with specific reference to Airbnb, Uber and Lyft:

The first gig economy delusion we need to clarify is that these platforms offer temporary work to help bridge gaps in employment. In reality, many gig economy platforms tend to encourage full-time work, not the empowering, flexible part time arrangement they so often claim. While sharing economy platforms promise freelancers they can earn income on their own terms, evidence shows that to enjoy this promised economic security, freelancers often have to labor under conditions that mirror those of full-time employment. For instance, an analysis of Uber earnings data suggests that average hourly earnings only become reliable for those who work over thirty hours a week while the earnings are typically erratic for those who drive part time. Not to mention Uber, Lyft, and Postmates incorporate psychological tricks into their apps, like those used by video game designers, to keep their drivers on the road longer.

Freelancing in the gig economy is thus not just a safety net for those in between jobs or those looking to “get back on their feet.” In reality, it is often a full-time job. Yet because these companies assert they’ve created a safety net rather than a labor market, they’ve successfully justified abnegating their responsibility as employers. Given their status as independent contractors, gig economy workers are denied the benefits, such as health care and paid time off, usually enjoyed by workers in traditional arrangements.

The second delusion we must address is that these platforms offer a path forward for a more equitable and inclusive economy. Airbnb calls itself “an economic lifeline” and often boasts about the economic opportunities it has opened up to ethnic minorities. Similarly, Lukas Biewald, the CEO of CrowdFlower, argues that the crowdsourcing industry is “bringing opportunities to people who never would have had them before.” Anyone “who wants to can do microtasks,” Biewald says, “no matter their gender, nationality, or socio-economic status, and can do so in a way that is entirely of their choosing and unique to them.”

Such inspiring and hopeful talk is common among the platforms, but it represents a willful ignorance on the part of their executives who have not only denied their freelance workforce benefits but excluded them from the byproducts of corporate success. As economist Robert Solow notes, the “casualization” of work means that many of today’s worker “have little identification with the firm,” and thus “correspondingly little bargaining power.” As a result, these workers “have little or no effective claim to the rent component of any firm’s value added.” This reality stands in stark contrast to the empowering message of economic inclusion delivered by gig economy platform executives.

Moreover, though they are often advertised as opportunities for economically excluded communities to build wealth, there is emerging evidence that these platforms enable a regressive wealth distribution. Wealthy Airbnb hosts, for example, typically spend extra money on cleaning and booking logistics services that are specifically designed to boost hosts’ ratings and attract more guests. The platform often ends up advantaging hosts who reside in wealthy, urban hubs even while the platform boasts it is building wealth in underserved communities. As New Yorker staff writer Nathan Heller keenly observes, the platform is “helping divert traditional service-worker earnings into more privileged pockets.”  


The gig economy embodies a particularly toxic form of neo-liberalism, whereby workers become the agents of their own precarity, experiencing a steadily deepening impoverishment and marginalization. As Douglas Schifter so powerfully expresses, “I will not be a slave working for chump change. I would rather be dead.” Returning to his post:


The gig economy is an economic disaster disguised as “game-changing” (gag) innovation, providing a classic example of what Gunther Anders called “inverted utopianism”,   a state of mind where we are no longer able to imagine the social and existential implications of our clever inventions. Let us collectively reject “disruption” that is based in precarity, exploitation, immiseration and death.

A Place of Harm

During his recent State of the Union address, the deranged individual presently pretending to be President announced that he would reverse Obama’s 2009 executive order to close the Guantánamo Bay detention center. Now comes Dr. Homer Venters, director of programs at Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), with the following statement in response to this dangerous change in policy:

“We strongly condemn President Trump’s decision to keep the Guantánamo Bay detention center open. The facility is a symbol of U.S. torture and injustice known around the world. It represents the unlawful, immoral, and harmful regime of indefinite detention and should be shuttered immediately.”

“Physicians for Human Rights has long demonstrated how policies of torture, ill-treatment, and indefinite detention have caused lasting physical and psychological harm to detainees and have undermined the rule of law. Most of the men remaining at Guantánamo have been there for more than a decade without charge or trial. Many have been tortured and abused, and they have all been denied full protection under the Geneva Conventions. To this day, detainees continue to be subjected to ill-treatment in the form of force-feeding and medical neglect and continue to face difficulty receiving proper medical treatment or rehabilitation as torture survivors.”

“Guantánamo is a place of harm. First and foremost to the men confined within its walls. But also to the medical professionals enlisted into abusing detainees, in violation of their ethical obligations. And, finally, to the United States’ reputation as a defender of human rights and the rule of law.”

“We call on President Trump and his administration to unequivocally confront the human rights violations presented by Guantánamo, address the urgent medical needs of the 41 detainees, and close this chapter of American history for good.”


In June 2017, largely ignored by mainstream media preoccupied with whatever distraction filled the air with buzz and bluster, Physicians for Human Rights published a report that documents in meticulous detail a Gitmo reality that we have long suggested was at the very heart of the “state of exception”: the administration of Guantanamo Bay as a research lab for the exploration of the phenomenon of “learned helplessness”.

From the executive summary:


Words In Freedom

We lament the silencing, in this world at least, of that infinitely playful and protean voice named Ursula Le Guin. From her A Few Words to a Young Writer:



From her 2014 acceptance speech at the National Book Foundation:





Slavery and Slaughter

Since the very early navigations of DP, we have underscored the deep connection between the violence inflicted upon “food animals” and core human identity. Now comes  Paul Tritschler with an analysis of killing floor psychology. The entire essay is worth a close read; excerpts below, with images added by DP, depicting various gradations of intensity in the transformation of sentient life into industrial meat.


Animals may well have some sort of psychic antennae, some mysterious means to transcend the known substance of this world, but it seems more likely that their hysteria on the approach to the slaughterhouse has its source in the stench of entrails and in the distress calls of fellow creatures being mutilated and dismembered a short distance away. The notion of a profound death instinct at once masks this reality and assuages guilt: it allows people to acknowledge a discrete form of animal suffering, and at the same time to dissociate from the animal’s dreadful ordeal – in short, it shifts the responsibility for suffering from humans to the animal itself. Viewed from this perspective, the problem is not our desire to consume animals, but their desire to live.




The idea of a death instinct on the part of inferior life forms, otherwise referred to as food animals, is reminiscent of the mindset prevalent among many psychiatrists in the mid-nineteenth century – men such as Doctor Samuel Cartwright, who observed the outbreak of a curious condition among black slaves: the impulse to be free. Having dreamed up a diagnosis (dubbed ‘drapetomania’), for this mental illness – an illness with clinical characteristics that included a persistent longing for freedom, mounting unhappiness, or even occasional sulkiness – Cartwright concocted a cure: pain. He recommended the afflicted slave be whipped until their back was raw, followed soon after by the application into the wounds of a chemical irritant to intensify the agony. It brought the desired result: this mental shackling didn’t cure the condition, but it helped control the outbreak, greatly reducing the compulsion on the part of slaves to break away from their masters.




As revealed by researchers such as Gail Eisnitz, a similar sort of logic prevails in slaughterhouses, where clubs or hammers are used to break the legs or spine of frantic animals in order to settle them down, and where cries of agony are addressed by cutting the animal’s vocal chords – especially when they get caught in the gate and are forced, fully conscious, to have their legs or head sawn off to speed up the line. And speed-up is very much the character of the slaughterhouse today, as increased efforts are made to meet the wholly unrealistic and unnecessary rise in global demand for meat – a rise that is monstrously resource intensive, environmentally damaging, and a major contributor to climate change.




If not for reasons based on personal health, ethics or simply disgust, evidence suggests that becoming vegan is one of the most immediate and effective ways for an individual to reduce harmful emissions that affect climate change. Research by Peter Scarborough at the University of Oxford found that switching to a vegan diet – depending on the choices made for meat substitution – was a more realistic option for most people as a way of reducing carbon emissions than attempts at reduction within the areas of travel, such as driving or flying. The vegan diet, according to the research, cut the food-related carbon footprints by 60 per cent, saving the equivalent of 1.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year.




Animal slaughter has an adverse impact on the climate, the quality of life in society, and our identity. The extent to which we are willing to accept animal exploitation, and to tolerate animal cruelty – increasingly the key feature of the industrially-paced slaughterhouse today – bears some influence on how we see ourselves and others. At a number of points along the continuum, for example, there are clear indications that animal cruelty is a predictor of human violence and crime. The dangers in this regard were raised in Counterpunch Magazine by the investigative health journalist, Martha Rosenberg, who found that criminologists and law enforcement officials were at last beginning to acknowledge what the anthropologist, Margaret Mead, declared back in 1964: “One of the most dangerous things that can happen to a child is to kill or torture an animal and get away with it.” 


The Fierce Urgency