Tag Archives: inverted utopia

Last Holiday

Now comes a guest essay by our roaming poet-correspondent Jon Swan, with images added by DP:

An ancient film – it came out in 1950 – called Last Holiday and featuring Alec Guinness, tells the story of a modest farm-equipment salesman who, diagnosed as having a fatal form of cancer, withdraws his life’s savings, buys a set of handsome second-hand clothes and a car, and drives off to spend his last holiday at a posh resort, where he meets and charms influential people, falls in love, and encounters a cancer specialist who assures him that he has been misdiagnosed and has years to live. Overjoyed, our hero hurries back home to prepare for his new life and, swerving to avoid a dog lying in the middle of the road, crashes, and is killed.

Now, here we are – nearly three quarters of a century later and it seems that all those who can afford to travel are hurrying off to spend one last, or next to last, or just one more holiday – in Amsterdam, for example, which was visited by 18 million people in 2016 (a million more than the total population of the Netherlands); or Barcelona (population: 1.7 million), which last year attracted more than 32 million tourists; or the sinking city of Venice (permanent population: 55,000), which annually attracts 20 million milling tourists; and so on. These massive visitations substantiate the observation of German novelist and poet Hans-Magnus Enzensberger: “Tourists destroy what they are looking for by finding it.”

 

WE FOUND THE CANAL!

 

It’s not only the presence of so many people in such little space that creates havoc with local customs and prices, as well as the costly problem of collecting and disposing of waste; it’s the way the hordes are arriving, especially those disgorged by cruise ships.In a recent report, NABU, Germany’s Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union, pointed out that, while cruise ship companies try to make cruising appear an environmentally friendly tourism sector, “one cruise ship emits as many air pollutants as millions of cars.” The press release explained: “This is because sea-going vessels use heavy fuel oil for their engines, a fuel that on land would have to be disposed of as hazardous waste. Heavy fuel oil can contain up to 3,500 times more sulphur than diesel that is used for land traffic vehicles.”

Furthermore, NABU reported,cruise ships lack the kind of exhaust- abatement technologies that are standard in trucks or passenger cars, and the stuff they spew from their snow-white chimneys – black carbon, in particular — contributes “massively” to global warming. “Almost 50 percent of the warming of the Arctic is attributed to black carbon,” the report points out. Coincidentally, an August 29 Rolling Stone article by Jeff Goodell noted: “The Arctic has been heating up faster than any other place on the planet. Last winter, temperatures in the Arctic were 45 degrees Fahrenheit above normal.” The article bore the headline: “The Melting Arctic Is a Real-Time Horror Story — Why Doesn’t Anyone Care?”

 

CRYSTAL SERENITY ON ICE

 

While the cruise ships befoul the air at one level, the airplanes that ferry the well-to-do to their vacationland dreams are laying down layers of global-warming C02 in the skies above. In July 2017 The New York Times published an article by Tatiana Schlossberg that bore the headline Flying is Bad for the Planet. You Can Help Make It Better and that starts off by stating:  “Take one round-trip flight between New York and California, and you’ve generated about 20 percent of the greenhouse gases that your car emits over an entire year.” According to some estimates, Schlossberg notes, “about 20,000 planes are in use around the world, serving three billion passengers annually. By 2040, more than 50,000 planes could be in service.” Meanwhile, perversely if not irrationally, to encourage “brand loyalty,” airlines reward frequent fliers with so-called free miles.

On July 5 of this year Medium, an on-line platform, published an article by Douglas Rushkoff, a highly regarded media theorist, which bore the headline Survival of the Richest, with the subhead stating The Wealthy Are Planning to Leave Us Behind. It was promptly picked up by The Guardian, which ran the piece under the headline How Tech’s richest plan to save themselves after the apocalypse. The article describes the author’s surprise at being invited, for a hefty fee, not to give a talk but to take part in a series of one-on-one meetings with hedge-fund millionaires anxious to know, for instance, which region will be safest during the coming climate crisis, or how do I maintain authority over my security force after The Event – this being their euphemism for environmental collapse, social unrest, nuclear explosion, and so on.  Aware that they would need armed guards to protect their compounds, they wanted to know how would they pay the guards once money was worthless.

They were, Rushkoff writes, “preparing for a digital future that had a whole lot less to do with making the world a better place than it did with … insulating themselves from a very real and present danger of climate change, rising sea levels, mass migrations, global pandemics, nativist panic, and resource depletion.”

 

SURVIVAL SUPPOSITORY

 

Both those wealthy enough to cruise or fly in pursuit of happiness and the super-rich are, in all likelihood, not unaware of the diagnosis for our survival as a species on planet Earth – doomed unless we radically alter our priorities, including reducing our dependence on fossil fuels — but appear unable to break the habits that have become symbolic of affluence and proof of our standing in society, or are just part of doing business as usual. We have been everywhere, and now look where we are – our foot on the pedal, going faster and faster, unable – unwilling — to swerve in time to avoid the smash-up of our civilization, not to mention the demise of our reckless species.

 

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What It All Means

On this day, seventy-three years following the second use of atomic weapons against a largely civilian population, we turn to Günther Anders with an excerpt from a presentation delivered to the Sixth World Congress of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War in 1986; the untitled painting (added by DP) is from the imagination of Kazuo Shiraga, and dates from 1962.

 

 

 

The entire address is worth close consideration, and might well have been written following Fukushima, or even yesterday, and let us meditate on these lines in particular:  

For what has to be done is to harass these people who are both not very bright yet also all-powerful and capable of deciding at their whim whether or not humanity will exist; we certainly have to curtail their power.

 

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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.

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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.

I AM NOT WHO YOU THINK I AM


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.

 

PEPPER LOVES YOU!

What could possibly wrong?

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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.

THIS DOG DOES NOT LOVE YOU!

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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:


In Grace and Reverence

In recent years, the values embedded in a classical liberal arts education have come under sustained attack, cannibalized from within and degraded from all sides. Deep explorations of philosophy and art are considered worthless in the labor markets of the vast data mine that increasingly dominates every aspect of our economies, our behaviors and eventually our souls. In order to remain “competitive” in the global rat race, we must – or so the prevailing narrative goes – accept our fate as rats in the labyrinth of an inverted utopia, where we can no longer imagine the implications of our increasingly lethal inventions.

This toxic narrative sustains and justifies both market economies that increasingly reward a minuscule percentage of the world’s population and authoritarian political movements where even mild civic engagement is criminalized and suppressed in the name of “national security”. The stakes for a defense of the classical “arts of freedom” have never been higher; thus we were delighted to come across the lucid eloquence of Marilynne Robinson in a recent edition of the New York Review of Books. The entire essay is worthy of careful consideration from DP readers; we relay a couple of excerpts below.

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In the history of the West, for all its achievements, there is also a persisting impatience with the energy and originality of the mind. It can make us very poor servants of purposes that are not our own. A Benthamite panopticon would have radically reduced the varieties of experience that help to individuate us, in theory producing happiness in factory workers by preventing their having even a glimpse of the fact that there could be more to life. Censorship, lists of prohibited books, restrictions on travel, and limits on rights of assembly all accomplish by more practicable means some part of the same exclusions, precluding the stimulus of new thought, new things to wonder about. The contemporary assault on the humanities has something of the same objective and would employ similar methods. Workers, a category that seems to subsume us all except the idlest rich, should learn what they need to learn to be competitive in the new economy. All the rest is waste and distraction.

Competitive with whom? On what terms? To what end? With anyone whose vigor and good fortune allows her to prosper, apparently. With anyone who has done a clever thing we did not think of first. And will these competitors of ours be left to enjoy the miserable advantage of low wages and compromised health? And is there any particular reason to debase human life in order to produce more, faster, without reference to the worth of the product, or to the value of the things sacrificed to its manufacture? Wouldn’t most people, given an hour or two to reflect, consider this an intolerably trivial use to be put to, for them and their children? Life is brief and fragile, after all. Then what is this new economy whose demands we must always be ready to fill? We may assume it will be driven by innovation, and by what are called market forces, which can be fads or speculation or chicanery. Oh, yes, rowdy old capitalism. Let it ply its music.

A music scribbled, we imagine, in what Carl Sandburg once called “the hieroglyphs of the rat footprints”. Then in closing, Robinson writes:

We are, as we have always been, dangerous creatures, the enemies of our own happiness. But the only help we have ever found for this, the only melioration, is in mutual reverence. God’s grace comes to us unmerited, the theologians say. But the grace we could extend to one another we consider it best to withhold in very many cases, presumptively, or in the absence of what we consider true or sufficient merit (we being more particular than God), or because few gracious acts, if they really deserve the name, would stand up to a cost-benefit analysis. This is not the consequence of a new atheism, or a systemic materialism that afflicts our age more than others. It is good old human meanness, which finds its terms and pretexts in every age. The best argument against human grandeur is the meagerness of our response to it, paradoxically enough.

Then how to recover the animating spirit of humanism? For one thing, it would help if we reclaimed, or simply borrowed, conceptual language that would allow us to acknowledge that some things are so brilliant they can only be understood as virtuosic acts of mind, thought in the pure enjoyment of itself, whether in making a poem or a scientific discovery, or just learning something it feels unaccountably good to know. There is an unworldliness in the experience, and in what it yields, that requires a larger understanding than our terse vocabularies of behavior and reward can capture. I have had students tell me that they had never heard the word “beautiful” applied to a piece of prose until they came to us at the workshop. Literature had been made a kind of data to illustrate, supposedly, some graceless theory that stood apart from it, and that would be shed in a year or two and replaced by something post- or neo- and in any case as gracelessly irrelevant to a work of language as whatever it displaced. I think this phenomenon is an effect of the utilitarian hostility to the humanities and to art, an attempt to repackage them, to give them some appearance of respectability. And yet, the beautiful persists, and so do eloquence and depth of thought, and they belong to all of us because they are the most pregnant evidence we can have of what is possible in us.

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A Geography of Scars

At first glance, the idea for a memorial to mountains seems peculiar; mountains need not be remembered in that way, for mountains will always be there, beyond the need for puny human memorials. Not so, however, in the deadly anthropocene, where mountaintops are routinely sacrificed for the extraction of fossil fuel. How can one think like a mountain when the mountain itself has been decapitated, or even obliterated?

The National Memorial for the Mountains offers a powerful online resource that documents the massive scale of destruction occurring in Appalachia, carving more than five hundred mountains into a vast geography of scars. We borrow that last phrase from the third section of Wendell Berry’s extraordinary prose poem, “Damage”:

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APPALACHIAN MINDMARK: NOTATION FOR A LIMIT

The phrase “ghostly paradigm of things” descends from Yeats:

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We note that “the taws” refers to  a leather whip divided into two strands at the end, so as to leave a more complex signature upon the flesh.

KING COAL PLAYED THE TAWS UPON THIS MOUNTAIN

KING COAL PLAYED THE TAWS HERE

Returning to Berry:

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EVIDENCE OF A PESTILENCE

EVIDENCE OF A PESTILENCE

We recall Günther Anders’ “philosophy of discrepancy”, and his inverted utopians, unable to imagine the things they make. They are also, it seems, unable to conceive the implications of the things they unmake. Nonetheless, those who shake more than they can hold arrive for their last supper immaculately groomed. What fate becomes such a civilization? From the poet and DP correspondent Jon Swan, we receive the following answer:

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