“Who Is Donald Draper?”

Don Draper was always a man in crisis. He held on to another man’s name as his fragile secret with which he was able to begin a life from scratch – a blank slate. The new identity was supposed to be a new start, the chance to be whoever he wanted to be and forget his troubled past, but it was never that easy. Don Draper is not just some empty name which we can filled up with one’s dreams for a life without all that “rough childhood” stuff, that is not why the character has so fascinating to millions of Americans. Don Draper fascinates because he is able to take his own crises, his own truly frightened disposition as he teeters on the edge of breakdown into an understanding of the general sentiment of the population – his target audience. By living on the edge of secrecy and isolation, he can connect with the stranger and get a real sense for the desires of a decent sample of the population. His wit, ease, willingness to experiment, and observation skill allows him to probe people, learn from them their concerns, and make great art. Of course, that art is not art for the sheer pleasure of expression or taking sensation in new directions, but to channel that desire sweeping through the country into ends that satisfy the accounts (corporations) – getting people to buy their commodities. Don Draper is the great anonymous stranger, so mysterious and intriguing that you never feel like you can get to the bottom of him, wandering to wherever his fancy takes him as some seemingly wise traveling man of the world, collecting insights during his adventures but always coming back to the firm.

Not that he is necessarily infiltrating the masses consciously and strategically. His own life crises and urges toward flight seem genuine enough, but he also has to work, as nearly all of us do. Don Draper is the idealized businessman on the surface – handsome, practical, and articulate. His job is to reach the customer for the businesses he has helped win to his side; he has proven that he knows the customer and he can enact their desires to buy their products because he is better than any other at discovering what they want. He finds that desire by extracting himself from his contexts (becoming a new man each time) and hooking up with various other interesting individuals. But the individual that Don Draper is is a void, ready to take on whatever new form is needed to learn some new truth about people and assuage his angst. But instead of turning that intensity into existential art and improve himself, as he did for a time during his personal notebook phase in season 5, he tears that prospect up and answers to the client, influences the fleeting impulses of the consumer.

His first known affair is with a young artist of the late 1950’s beat era, establishing himself in the contemporary pop-trends. When she turns to heroin a number of years later, he takes one of her artworks and contemplates it during a crisis at his advertising firm to make a bold strategic move. It is at this moment that he decides to tear up the diary and engage with his business issues more fully, in contemplation of an abstract painting fashioned out of the dark emotions of addiction.

The woman that he dates most similar to himself comes into his life at work. She is a psychologist who utilizes ’focus group’ at an early era for the technique to extract from the participants a sort of group confessional. Her expertise are employed at Don’s advertising agency to extract consumer tendencies and reactions that help them more effectively target people. They made for a good team. She nails him when they break up: “… you only like the beginning of things.” It seemed as if he was taking a life-changing turn, being less engaged with his work at the office, exercising frequently, and acting less impulsively. But that doesn’t last long and his thoughts are recaptured by reestablishing his agency as a major force in the world of advertising. Don Draper must only experiment with different modes of living, affairs with women, and the various persons of interest he befriends. His flashes of inspiration and drifting desires always find their way back to his true home: the corporation on Madison Avenue.

His ad agencies takes on different names as the show progresses, depending on the partners that come to own it, with his name eventually reaching on the wall. After they merge with another agency to be more competitive, they have a hilarious conundrum of how to name a business composed of seven partners. “The business side of life” is always fought with shifting pressures from both the outside and in, which sets up a perfect complement to the other side of the show: the domestic family. Don Draper goes through two divorces and maintains a fairly amicable relationship with the family of the man whose name he stole. The image of the happy family that is perpetuated in the advertising strategies of American advertising in the fifties and early sixties gets upturned in the later part of the series, especially in the campaign they pioneer with the Burger-chef episode. Here Don defers to his protégé Peggy when her research shows that the family is torn up by the supposedly tranquil place of the house and they choose to shoot their commercial inside of the store – a release from chaotic place where conviviality is barely held together into ’another place’ where the family can regain their sense of coherence. Both the firm and the family undergo turbulent transformation throughout Mad Men, where roles are almost always up for grabs.

At one point the agency opens up a branch in California, but after Don draper takes one of his vanishing-act “vacations” that double as quasi-reconnaissance missions. He let’s his desires pull him towards the same place to where a cultural shift is taking place in America: the California coast where young people are flocking to in the mid-to-late sixties. It’s this experience floating around L.A. that allows him to woo a defiant client later on by saying approximately this (left resonating in my head for many years afterward – quoted from memory):

Draper: “A number of people understand this but few can actually implement it, if you do not like what is being said, simply change the conversation.”
Client: “And what is that conversation?”
Draper: “I’ve been to California. Everything is new there, people are filled with hope. New York City is in decay, but with Madison Square Garden… it can be a bright and shining new future.
Client: “Just like that, it’s that simple?”

It was Don Drapers little flight of fancy that gave him the courage to speak like this to a powerful person and win him over to his side. It wasn’t so much any particular epiphany that he had that allowed him to discern what it was about California that made it such an attractive place, he was just following his desires and linking himself up with the general movement of the activated population of young and edgy hipsters. He can detect the tendencies of the target audience – the amorphous persuasions of the movers and shakers of the cultural atmosphere. He can only do this by getting lost somewhere else, evading his identity, and following his impulses. When falling in with a bunch of jet-setter Europeans in California, he says very little at all and merely rides along.

It shouldn’t have been surprising that Don Draper ended up back in California with the only member left of the old Draper family (before he stole the name): a young woman to which he is like an uncle. Together they go to a hippy-communal retreat where much of the sentiments of the time are typified. She leaves him there after she has a crisis about an abandoned child (a common motif throughout the series), which is symbolic of the fracturing of the family at the time while highlighting the difficult choices that women face in gaining more freedom outside of their role in house. Adam Kotsko has a great articulation of this thought on the shifts in reproduction and elite power here [As Good as It Gets: Mad Men and Neoliberalism]. When she is gone, Don Draper goes into crisis mode, becoming totally despondent by the only pay-phone of the secluded retreat and looking like the spitting image of a scared runaway child. He calls back to his home (the agency office) to talk to his Peggy, who tells him: “Don, you can come home…[They’ll] take you back in a second… Don, come home… I don’t think you shouldn’t be alone.” He responds: “I’m in a crowd, I just wanted to hear your voice.” and before that: “I only called because I… I realized I never said goodbye to you.” The scene just reeks of a runaway boy calling home to his family as the feeling of loss and vulnerability crept in. It fits in properly to have a gushy love scene for two soon-to-be engaged office coworkers.

At the hippy-retreat, we constantly hear the refrain “how do you feel?” or “how does that make you feel?” or some other such enticement to express your inner thoughts to the rest of the group. Everyone there is more-or-less lost and seeking some kind of therapy beyond the psychiatric methods of healing that wrecked so much havoc on the bodies of “troubled” “hysterics”, and “deviants”. The psychoanalytic methods deployed on Don Draper’s first wife Betty demonstrate such techniques in the earlier seasons of the series. She would lie alone and talk while the psychiatrist would take notes – and describe his conclusions on the phone to her husband. As objects isolated and analyzed by a scientific procedure, patients cannot be faulted for seeking alternatives for care. The dominant formation of the family model was there at the start and all throughout the psychoanalytic discipline, and the individuals congregating at the California coast retreat are searching for another way. But they are not enacting some alternative mode of living altogether (as was once depicted when Roger went to attempt an abduction of his daughter from a commune [Mad Men’s Commune] – another instance of a mother abandoning her child in Mad Men), instead they are all strangers gathering for some healing in confessional-therapy sessions of the collective kind. This is where Don Draper thrives, but he must go through his dark period first to get his artistic pay-off. Right before his breakdown by the phone, he remarks to an attendant in frustration, “everyone just comes and goes as they please and no one says goodbye?” It’s as if any real attachment that one may find in a family setting or elsewhere cannot be found here.

Here California retreat is where everyone must feel their most open and vulnerable, yet also encouraged by others to and expecting themselves to express their deepest feelings openly and gain some peace and tranquility. Stuck here for a few days is where Don Draper will excel. A woman comes up to him seeing that he is lost and implores him to come to her therapy session, with her stated reason being “I’m late and I don’t want to go in alone.” There, Don Draper is jostled from utter fright and listlessness into passion and direction by one average man’s self-reflection. The man is constantly worried that his family doesn’t love him, but he understands at the same time that “they’re trying” – he just “can’t see what it is.” He says this twice. “I just don’t know what it is.” How does one find that human connectivity, that true bond people always seem to long for in the relationship, that spark in-between we call love?

The man then gives us a dream-image of himself as a food jar on the shelf of a house cupboard in a kitchen, which isn’t picked by his family to eat. In this image, the man is seeking love as the product seeks to be consumed.

The love we feel with a friend or with our family can feel right and true, but it can also feel lacking and for good reasons. The oft-spoken of disintegration of the traditional family that happened during the time-period of Mad Men is a real disruption of a form that only survived and reproduced itself by-and-large through conservative and reactionary means. The rituals and repetitions that solidified that formation took a major hit with advent of new technologies that bursted into the fore with the speed of electricity that flew through them: television, the billboard, the internet and computer all assert themselves into our home lives with a glut of new images and styles. They are suddenly present and demanding your attention, tugging your desires to meet their ends.

Donald Draper is there to fill the void left in the family, a void that he and his like have helped create in their clinical dissection of the desires of the masses. He does this not as the returner of good-old values (far from the case) but as an above average man that learns from his crises – a trait one would find admirable if not for the purposes to which that education is made to serve. His bro-hug with the average man comes off as self-serving and unequal: Don Draper is not overlooked, he is very much desirable, and he is very interesting. He isn’t really commiserating or sympathetic to him. He seems to be saying something more like: “congratulations on such great self-expression. I needed to be reminded of what ordinary people are feeling, for I have been lost.” He is now ready to become new again, “a new day, new ideas, a new you” the guru says, as Don Draper has become many times already. And then the commercial kicks in:

“I’d like to buy the world a home and furnish it with love… And it’s the real thing, what the world wants today. And it’s the real thing…”

If it doesn’t make you furious, or at least irked in a mysterious way, then you have missed the point of Mad Men.

The Century of the Self

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Imagining a World without Cars

Stepping out of the front door to my co-rented house, the streets are lined with cars packed into every available sliver of parking space. A common talking point amongst neighbors in passing is the parallel parking skills of a driver and how much space a car leaves for the next spot, front and back. I carry my small, blue one-speed bike (much too small for me, but cheap and easy to maintain) down the stoop and wade through two cars to get on the road. I bike up my street and almost without fail avoid one car before reaching the bigger street, where a row of speeding cars greets me in the far right lane. I get on the busy street constantly looking over my left shoulder and try my best not to simply trust the car drivers to avoid running me over. Thus begins the adventure of riding through the perilous city streets everyday.

Dodging giant chunks of metal speeding past me is the most immediate concern of my day. Screw up just once on the road and anyone: biker, car-driver, pedestrian, or skateboarder could end up dead.  City and most suburban streets are dangerous places. The imperative that everyone who enters them act in a strictly predictable way, with any slight deviance from the norm putting so much at stake, makes everyone edgy. “Driving like a lunatic” puts everyone around you at risk but sticking your neck out and yelling out the window from the comfy confines of the driver’s seat is likely to arouse “road rage”. Our disposition can take a sharp turn from pacified (with your favorite tunes on and a temperature set perfectly to the degree) to incensed at someone who so blithely brought us so close to death. And such is life on the road: so casual and familiar a place, yet a place where we must also constantly straddle the line between tranquility and fury, life and death.

Stop on any street (on the sidewalk of course!) and look around you: you will almost always be able to locate about 30 cars just in your immediate sight. These vehicles are heavy and travel at a speed unheard of just 100 years ago (without tracks), and with just a gentle push from your right foot. The driver sits as they please and barrels from one side of the town to the other, transporting living bodies through a grid of straight lines and inside a steel cage. We control the car’s movements, but stand back and gaze upon the elegant mess of a city street and everything goes according to plan – if your lucky.

A car is sold as a commodity of freedom. Finally at the age to drive, we can now travel dozens of miles away without doing a lick of exercise and be alone, with our friends, or on a date. A car is a status symbol, one only briefly confined to one’s class in the first half of the twentieth century and now representing something purportedly more democratic: the freedom of the individual to travel to wherever it likes. The thrill of owning a car is sold as a ticket to the free life but also as an identity [Jeep’s 2009 ad campaign]. Unbound by your place of upbringing, you can now go to any-place your heart desires (the idea of ’anyplace’ being the main selling point vs any particular place) and deck-out your interior and exterior however you find stylish. With this one big purchase, the ritual is completed and the coming-of-age story closed. Now you’re off into the ’real world’ of the road.

Hiding in plain sight behind our now common sense notions of individuality and personal freedom is a sprawling world of metal objects zooming past each other at the distance of a few feet, a giant industry that created a new form of capitalist production [Fordism], and a rule-ridden “public space” where you either behave exactly according to geometrical lines on the ground and lights hanging in the air or risk fines and jail time. The police can and do pull people over whenever they want and can make up any reason to claim why they are doing so, “probable cause” being a flexible phrase that the police can always invoke by lying, then searching your car [When Can Police Search Your Car?].  Before going on, I feel it is important to note the shear dominance of the automobile and the roads its tires roll over on the daily life of an American. The concrete grids mapped onto the landscape must be maintained at tax-dollar expense (though mostly from, thankfully, a gas-tax [Transportation FAQ]) so that we can choose wherever we want to live and still get to work on time. These roads are not only dangerous and hurried, they are the place where we expend most of the carbon, threatening most life on the planet (only surpassed, perhaps, by our use of electricity indoors [EPA: Emissions by Sector], and interact with the most strangers. Unfortunately, the only time we give these strangers moving at different speeds second notice is when we collide, and that contact we make with them is often deadly [Car Crash Fatality Statistics]. To get past our fossil-fueled present and envision a sustainable future, we will have to imagine our roads otherwise than blank spaces only to be filled up by personalized cars.

Some cities are already embroiled in a war between cars and cyclists as shown in this documentary: [Bikes vs. Cars: War on Cyclists], and car driving will not go down without a fight. People are attached to these things and the convenience, status, and ’freedom’ they provide. Managing the reduction in car driving will be key to stopping runaway climate change and will have to be done with minimal outrage. Not only do alternatives need to be readily available in public infrastructure to travel long distances (which America is currently failing at epically [Last Week Tonight: Infrastructure]) but people will need to be able to live closer to their work and their family and friendship networks. This would ideally happen gradually, but this planetary problem has a time-limit; we only have so many years to plan for this change and one can only hope for fair warning. It’s hard for me to get over the expectation that family members have of being able to converge seasonally for celebrations and holidays while having moved so far away from each other. The good reasons we have for taking long car rides hide the decision to move so far away from each other in the first place, leaning on the car to whisk us back to see loved ones. We simply cannot make these long journeys (often by even worsened by jet-fuel) anymore without very low-carbon public infrastructure as an alternative.

People I talk to almost always bring up the prospect of electric cars and while this sounds appealing, there is a lot of energy that goes into making a car at the point of production [Carbon Footprint of a New Car], so some kind of renewable energy will be required to assemble them and gather all of the raw materials they require. Bicycles can be created entirely from bamboo, as some of the earliest ones were [Bamboo Bicycles]. It’s not unimaginable but I find it hard to believe that these electric cars could replace gasoline-powered cars one-for-one, especially thinking of where the electricity will come from when most electricity is generated by coal, which is worse than oil. It would be much easier to get everyone, by-and-large, to simply travel less, shorter distances, slower, and by low-carbon rail when necessary.

The planning of cities is a big culprit in this matter as well, and, to be quite honest, some cities just won’t function without cars and need to be abandoned [America’s Most Unsustainable City]. Many people simply need to own and drive a car to and from work because they live in the residential district which is on the complete other side of the city from the industrial, commercial, or financial district. This will have to change too, and the migration of people to houses closer to their work will have to be assisted instead of restricted by high rent and real estate bubbles. Many people have moved out of cities and into suburbs, who then commute long and tedious hours that almost nobody enjoys. A forewarning and assistance of some kind (be it state or otherwise) will be necessary for this massive transition in housing and transportation. If this seems too far-fetched and like central planning just consider the alternatives: do we really think that we can all collectively cover this much space in our travels everyday without the assistance of gase-powered automobiles?

The supply chains industry distributes all of the goods we consume via cargo-ship, seaports, airports, rail, and trucking – all using massive amounts of fossil fuels. Wind power has been used for thousands of years to transport goods by sea but, again, much slower and rail could be powered by other means. But trucking handles a great deal (~70%) of domestic and close range distribution [Logistics: Transportation Industry] and a different method must be found for getting goods to us from nearby. Why not paid bike caravans full of goods in their trailers traveling on car-less, roads? Without just-in-time logistics and with a better planned distribution system, we could afford to travel slower and in a big pack for the last short-distance leg of the chain ending at the market. Wouldn’t that be fun?

Some sectors just need to travel fast and will not negotiate: ambulances and fire trucks will need to be kept running. But this is not very difficult to deal with: with so few cars on the road, these fleets could easily be converted to electric power, itself powered by solar energy. In a nightmare scenario, the police would still be able to cruise in their cars while regular people could not. So let’s not let that happen.

All of this is merely a means to stimulate your imagination for what a sustainable future that is not at odds with the biosphere could look like. This blog post isn’t going to jump start a bill to send before congress. A good idea concocted recently has been solar roadways that would capture sun energy and use it to power nearby electricity needs and its own lighting [Solar Roadways Already Producing Energy] [Solar Freaking Roadways]. Yes, legislators, please try it.

We desperately need to be able to imagine how a society could work that doesn’t consume this much fossil fuel and excrete this much carbon into the air. Without the ability to see how it would work, what we would do differently, how we would get around, how we would relate to each other, etc. then we will fumble our words and remain locked in stunting fear or other sad affects. It hit me hard and gave me a glimmer of hope upon seeing an artwork done by my friend Sandy, who would ride his bike around Oakland with big posters glaring out at everyone who passed by. The posters were usually Occupy inspired art, but this one stands out as being a positive image of what a desirable future would look like:

And then there is this trend: [Millenials Reject Car Culture]

It is important to stay positive and creative, but until cars as the dominant for of travel are usurped, I’ll be getting pissed at every car that gets in the way of me and my beautiful, low-maintenance, exercise-giving, gas-less blue bike that costs nothing to park, rides nearly anywhere in the city, endangers next-to nobody, and doesn’t harm the biosphere. And I’ll be secretly pissed at every other car I see, secretly, that is, to decrease the chance I get killed by someone who got angry all-of-the-sudden and could only express that rage by pushing their foot on the gas petal. Everyday.

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Astra Taylor on The People’s Platform


This question of organization in the age of the internet seems to be one of the most crucial in any political project. How do we relate to each other on the internet, blogosphere, email, comment sections and all? How does this new form of largely isolated interaction effect more vulnerable embodied assemblages (groups/collectives)? Coming together in a common place as proximal bodies for a common purpose can never be replaced and I feel it must be emphasized – even in a blog post. What blogging does for me and others (to get all meta on you) is exchange ideas, or, if not an equalized interaction, absorb and affect each other’s expressions. I’ve learned quite a bit from the blogosphere – it is a neat surrogate for academia – but emplacing one at the screen as the site of learning and sharing has its drawbacks. The internet has a great many strange places, but the one in which the user tends to inhabit is the glowing screen.

The debt activism that Asta Taylor is involved in is one case that I can relate to: I’ve done some organizing with Strike Debt Bay Area. It is extremely difficult to reach out to people *as debtors* and organize individuals into a collective *as debtors*. The isolation and shame attached to the position of debtor vis-a-vis creditors makes it less than desirable to claim as a subjectivity to come out as and own (although ‘gay’, ‘queer’, and I’m sure many others have odd histories of their own worth noting), yet the vast majority of people here in America (and many other places) are debtors burdened by the extractive economy. Is it alone, in our rooms, cafés, and other places of comfort that we will break off from adherence to a morality that sucks our energies up and keeps us from straying off of the main road? For some people yes. But for a mass movement of active bodies, most people need to meet up with others in greater gatherings. Debtors Assemblies have played that role, but in order to get people to come, to build that force, you’ve got to advertise. If you want to get people to come to your events I’ll give you some advice I gave to some students at the last Strike Debt Bay Area meeting: images everywhere. Posters, flyers, stickers, bulletin boards, walls, heavily trafficked areas… If you have a good idea, you need to get in people’s faces.

Too often do I turn off my tablet after a few hours and then think: “Okay, what did I just do on that one screen?”

Originally posted on synthetic zero:

“The Internet is said to be a space of democratic expression and transformation, both culturally and politically. But how true is that claim? What are some of the economic, technical, and legal obstacles in place? Drawing from her recent book, “The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age,” and her experience as an artist and an activist, Astra Taylor — filmmaker, writer, and political organizer — addresses campaigns by musicians against streaming services and debtors against creditors to reflect on the larger question of how to organize and leverage change in an age of virtual networks — be they networks of cultural distribution or financial ones.”

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Geopolitics and Ecological Spirituality in Avatar: The Last Airbender

Avatar: The last Airbender gives us a stylistic and colorful look at a fictional world of warring nations together with a sharp focus on the planetary and even cosmic elements. The problems and conflicts of nations are interwoven with the quest of a group of teens or pre-teens as they try and right a world that is on the verge of total domination by one nation. These kids have no problem taking on a nation imposing its will on the rest of the planet, primarily using their powers to manipulate the elements but also teaming up with other nations to mass attacks and engage in war. This American cartoon with a decisively Asian stylistic influence, despite its heavy use of spiritual abstractions and flashy battle scenes, highlights some of the most important aspects of global geopolitics for us to learn today.

The imagined planet we begin on is one populated by four different peoples, each representing one element of nature as they were conceived in ancient times: water, earth, fire, and air. The first three nations are locked to a continent, with the air people being monkish nomads inhabiting mountain-top temples and the water nation having territory at both of the planet’s two poles. Keeping these nations each with their disproportionately weighted qualities from invading other territories and assuming power over them is the avatar, a Dali Lama like character that reincarnates upon death and wields enormous power. The avatar alone can learn the power to “bend” the element of each nation, while a select number of people can learn to bend the element from their own nation of origin. It’s an international system that weaves together martial-national ambition with individual spiritual enlightenment into an icon in such a way that nations can be nations, monks can be monks, merchants can be merchants, farmers can be farmers, etc., while a mechanism exists to keep empires from rising. The avatar is like Buddha and Sun-Zu mixed together, as if attaining enlightenment also granted this single great figure a god-like fighting power.

This scenario is an enchanting thought experiment and I’m tempted to ask: “who are the avatars today?” To quickly answer that question, no individual has that power nor should they. But rather than musing on the avatar as inhabiting a middle-place between this fictional world and the real, what I’d like to turn your attention to the way that international politics and forces of the earth work together in Avatar: The Last Airbender. The show is particularly effective in making the personal/emotional trials and tribulations that most everyone faces in their life blend together with the grand scale of nations and the problems afflicting each. The disruptions and excesses of individuals, villages, and nations, felt by each other when they come into conflict with friends, our travelers, and other nations are all indicated at the same level and with similar affects gone astray. The difficulties of keeping the crew together and on task, moving toward their goal and not at each other’s throats, etc. are reflected in the deficiencies of nations in maintaining an international balance of power. For instance, the leadership and resilience that water bender Katara learns in rallying the band is reflected in the qualities that the Water nation lacked in beating back the Fire Nation, but have had traditionally: resilience and adaptability.

Isaac Yuen has already pointed out many of these connections in his ekostory of the show, so I’ll just link you to his great piece here: [http://ekostories.com/2012/09/08/avatar-airbender-forces-change/]. And there’s two more pieces on Avatar lying that way.

Our heroes eventually pick a member of each elemental to form the final version of their team, but thanks to the main protagonist, the new Avatar Aang, and his giant flying bison (that’s right) Appa the group itself operates nomadically in their quest to “restore balance” between the nations and reestablish harmony. The absent peoples of the show is the air tribe – not only has the Fire Nation killed them all but Aang in an act of genocide but of the three seasons (Books) of the show the book of air is the only one missing. Seeing as the crew we follow on their adventure is always moving from place to place and they are led by the only airbender Aang, we can say that they represent the missing element themselves: the nomadic opposition to the ascendant empire.

The fire nation is in the midst of a conquest of the rest of the nations, having pacified the Water nation more slowly by capturing its water benders and is in the process of laying siege to the Earth Nation. In the finale to season 2, we are taken brilliantly through the stages of a coup in the vast capital of the Earth Nation, Ba Sing Se, with the rest of the war to be fought in clandestine fashion with sneak attacks by the cobbled together rebels met in past episodes. They will attempt an invasion of the Fire Nation and all those left willing and able to fight are accepted, regardless of nationality (or age), in this teenage (at best) militant resistance force.

It is the Avatar’s duty to maintain the balance of power between nations, and she/he is not restricted by the nation in which he/she was born. In season 3 we are told of a particularly significant recent Avatar who was born in the Fire Nation and grew up best friends with the Fire Lord (king), who also happened to have started the fire nation’s dream for expansion and conquest. He was born in the Fire nation and trained together with the soon to be Fire Lord in adolescence, remaining friends until a turn of events allowed the Fire Lord to cross him and begin his multi-generation plan to spread the Fire nation influence and control over the rest of the planet. This cultural superiority was justified by the time of unprecedented technologically-infused prosperity that had to be “shared”. No culture is judged here in its entirety. The ambition of a nation is to be expected; it was the avatar’s inability to foresee the danger of his expansionist fiend and his untimely death due to a natural disaster that disabled him from preventing it. Luck and lack of precaution by those with power seem to be the holders of blame for the war rather than the Fire Lord alone, should blame need be assigned.

The real strength of the show lies in its planetary perspective of warring nations and their continental territories. When the Fire Nation attacks, the Earth Nation loses the will to fight (falling to authoritarian propaganda, fear tactics, and class dissension), and the Water Nation gives way to eking out an existence as scattered and relatively disempowered tribes, the cause is attributed to a lack of harmony. The guarantor of harmony in the Avatar was simply absent, and, in his youthful anxiety in the face of his destined the role, he hid himself away in a kind of bad faith. A lopsided spike in the forces of the planet results from a similar imbalance in the psyche of the main character. It’s as if the show is saying that, in a world where the planet is fully charted out and populated with regional powers, the burden for the excesses of an erratic nation falls with personal make-up of certain well-placed individuals. While the idea of the Avatar is a product of fantasy, people with intentions toward global stability could be inspired to maintain a similar balance within themselves in their rise to a position of influence on the geopolitical stage.

As we look for answers to the question of how such historical atrocities were able to happen we are invariably led to the decisions of some politicians who either scheme on the behalf of others and interest groups or are motivated by their own ambitions toward power. Granted, some obvious imbalances of power can be identified as causing such horrifying effects, such as when technologies are developed and manipulated for war sooner than others (Europeans, the Fire Nation) or when a glut of natural resources are discovered in regions that damn them to strife or obedient subjugation (the Middle East), and not the aspirations of individuals. There are always forces beyond our control on one side and those that we can influence on the other. What Avatar is telling us is that for those decisions that we can make for situations within our ability to exert influence over, it would be better off for all those considered to make those decisions in a state where we are not ourselves under the grip of one passion at the expense of another.

It is much more difficult for someone to excuse something like the Fire Nation for an act of genocide against the people of the Air Tribe. This is the case of a planetary extinction decided by an individual (the Fire Lord) in order to eliminate the next Avatar and consolidate his power. The people of the Air Tribe did not have a standing military to withstand the threat of invasion on their temples. They led their lives as concerted monks living to pass on their wisdom detached from “worldly concerns”. This mode of living puts them at an obvious disadvantage as they lacked the affect of anger and a strategic instinct for survival, opting instead for the pursuit of knowledge and practices of self-mastery. This deficiency of the Air Tribe does not doom them but is symbolic of a ripped apart world where hyper-aggression has eradicated that which would be the very thing that would prevent domination and empire – understanding and composure.  The self-criticism that the Air Tribe has got in spades doesn’t stop them from being bulldozed by the Fire Nation, but the Fire people are capable of self-criticism too – it was a result of bad luck, a turn of the wind, that the Fire Lord was able to act in the absence of the Avatar.

When such an outside force is felt, one that seeks to destroy merely for the sake of power, expansion, and triumphal cultural superiority, the only way to defeat them is head on with an opposing force. The show understands this and our heroes and heroines use whatever is at their disposal to defeat the Fire Nation. Anger is often the best way to mobilize that force which would fight and topple a domineering force headed your way, but it also can quickly turn into that which it is fighting against, as that other force is using the same affect against you. The self-mastery of such a wide array of affects evidenced in the Avatar’s mastery of all four element bending, so that each one can be drawn on as the situation calls for it, can keep the body (as well as the planet and the nation) from being contaminated by a single force, dominating all of the rest. Although, we are admittedly still within the realm of power and forces with the word “mastery” as in self-mastery and not the tranquility of ascetic contemplation.

Nowhere is this struggle better displayed than in the character of Prince Zukko of the Fire Nation. He begins at the outset of the show with the single goal of finding and killing the avatar to restore his lost honor. His sole goal in life is winning back the favor of his father the Fire Lord. But with some good life coaching from his uncle Iroh (vs. his father) he comes to despise his father for the destruction and fear which he has wrought upon the people of the planet. Due to his transformation and his decision to join the avatar in his quest for peace and “harmony” in season 3, his uncle gives him one last piece of advice: he must disrupt the coronation of his sister Azula and assume the throne to better lead the Fire Nation. It is a change of rule at he highest possible level of political power, with a 180 degree change in policy that is required to seal the transformation and complete the revolution *within* the imperial Fire Nation. Princess Azula took his place as the enemy that the crew fights most often after season 1 and her ruling style is based on fear; she consequently alienated her own friends and servants leading up to her coronation, ending up alone and full of frustrated rage. The Fire Lord himself attempted a jump up from the throne of the Fire Nation to the throne of emperor of the world: the Phoenix King, with new totalitarian symbols and everything.

It is the transformation of Prince Zukko in the later part of the show that demonstrates best the personal/political trajectory of its message. The harmony sought between nations, those great powers set against each other in differing, competing interests is mirrored in the competing emotional drives of the individual and the band of traveling friends. Zukko has a tough time convincing the crew to accept him, being their former enemy number one, but once he does join he helps each of them confront their past demons and clear current barriers. [For the record, Toph didn’t need him. She’s as solid as a rock.]. He is ideally placed to reverse the disastrous policies of three generations of Fire Lords and his internal struggle between the imperial ambition of his father, motivated by aggression, and the advice of his uncle, no slouch in battle himself. Uncle Iroh was once a conquering Fire Nation general himself who turned another leaf after his own son died in battle. The shear force of anger represented by the Fire Nation is an undeniable fact of life; it can be a great ally when unleashed at the right time, but mustn’t be allowed to continue unchecked.

The question of holism in a world of nations fighting geopolitical battles with each other remains. The figurehead of the avatar with its ultimate power to control the elements of the planet/cosmos holds a super-national position with respect to everyone else, and the viewer is led to believe that the avatars are always balanced and harmonious themselves because of their training from the greatest masters of each respective nation. In a world where one elemental people is entirely eradicated, it is hard to see how a balanced avatar could ever arise. The avatar receives not just military training but spiritual training from gurus. They teach them to meditate, that “everything is connected”, and to let go of all worldly desires. After achieving a kind of enlightenment, avatars become “one with the cosmos” or whatever the religious equivalent be in a culture’s spiritual/metaphysical tradition. How could such concepts born of an ascetic eschewing of the material world *also* be the great liberators of military oppression having turned away from such existential commitments? This is not so much a problem within the logic of the show as one for the reality that we face.

The recent actions of Pope Francis could be mentioned when he derides nations and industries for imperiling the life-producing capacities of the planet with carbon emissions resulting in global warming. [http://www.dailykos.com/story/2014/05/21/1300969/-Pope-Francis-Causing-Climate-Change-Is-a-Sin#]

His position as spiritual leader of a large chunk of the believing people around the world puts him in the unique position of letting his voice on such crucial matters. Millennia of entrenched religious practices cultivated from the power of the pastorate have placed someone like this (and other similar religious leaders) in a privileged position to let these global matters be explored by their subjects. The scientific community as well, especially when there is as much consensus as is healthy for an organization of skeptics to have [http://www.skepticalscience.com/global-warming-scientific-consensus.htm], has an authoritative voice that is heard when looking for support for creating policy and action. The religious wisdom of the avatar could also be understood as the very forces of the biosphere itself as it responds to the threat of human activity by vanishing until, many thousands of years later, it is time for the life inducing complex ecosystems to emerge again. But let’s not get too confused.

The avatar is shown in various flashback scenes manipulating the very substance of the planet itself in a bid to alter the consequences of other human’s actions. An avatar uses her powers to create an island and isolate her people from a different conquering Lord generations earlier, killing him in the process, and another avatar limits the damage done to a village by a volcano by controlling the elements around it. These are actions performed *on* the earth by a privileged person in the context of human dramas. Such talk invokes geo-engineering – which may become necessary after, or during the time we pull together and put a *gigantic* dent in carbon emissions. But this must be in conjunction with a major effort to severely limit carbon emissions largely resulting from market actors and their allies in nations.

What Avatar: The Last Airbender can teach us is the importance of keeping oneself on an even keel affectively, with the sentiment it provides being extractable onto nations whose actions have a more direct effect on the planet. The cosmic-spiritual aspect of Avatar does a great deal of good in connecting itself to the planetary elements of earth, air, fire, and water – as dated as those natural elements are claiming the status of ’substances’.  This makes Avatar an excellent ecological fantasy – a rare blend of grounded spirituality *and* rough and ready international warfare.

As for the issue of idealistic holisms and realistic political forces, the wonder that springs from holistic contemplation should not be divorced from the planetary and human forces those ideas effect. Avatar does this extremely well. Even when extra-terrestrial phenomena like a solar eclipse and a comet come at key plot points in the narrative, they do so not as transcendent forces from another world but as immanent forces effecting the elemental powers of people on the planet. Planetary-natural and national-political forces intermingle in the narrative seamlessly, as displayed by the threat of Fire nation imperialism and its ecosystem destroying weapons factories. The closest we get to transcendent other-worldly phenomena is when the avatar meditates himself away into the “avatar realm” and there are other problems with having an avatar around. But the avatar is best thought of in relation to one’s own choices, even though a select few people have vastly more power over the masses. There’s no telling what a committed and balanced individual can do, however, especially when taught at an early age with good works of fantasy that they can change the face of the earth.

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The Anthropocene and the End of Postmodernism


Read Edmund Berger on the meaning of the Postmodern turn in philosophy, resulting from the rise of systems theory and cybernetic sciences. This cursory history hits some of the most important factors that shaped the composition of forces across the earth including the climate forces of the earth itself. The creation and implementation of new machines in the second half of the 20th century have networked human societies in such a way that our imagination of a political future must reckon with. Any sustainable image of the future in the age of climate change and the anthroposcene, and therefore philosophical-conceptual framework from which to elaborate it, will involve an intertwining of human social forms and earth forces.

When researching politics at the earth scale, we must pay attention to the history of imperialism and the variety of techniques used to subjugate peoples. At the highest levels, the international policies and agreements forged by the U.S.A. and detailed by Michael Hudson in SuperImperialism go along way in giving us present day neoliberalism. Geopolitics, which includes monetary forces and debt enforcement as well as raw material extraction, alliance make-up, and topography, has largely been shaped by U.S. foreign policy since WWII. We must think of a post-neoliberal social system together with a geopolitics post-U.S. hegemony.

Originally posted on synthetic zero:

In his 1979 book The Postmodern Condition, Jean Francois Lyotard famously described the coming age of postmodernism as a the dissolution of grand narratives, that is, overarching schemes or horizons of thought that move the unifies social forces. “…it is possible,” he wrote, “that these narratives are already no longer the principal driving force behind interest in acquiring knowledge.”[1] From then on, postmodernism became a buzzword, bound up in a nebulous array of definition, counter-definition, debate, celebration, and disgust. It found its application rapidly in the worlds of art, literature, and architecture: postmodern allowed the creator to step outside the conditions of progress and time itself, blending effortlessly the old and the new, the high-brow and the low-brow, the abstract with the concrete.

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The Postmodern Condition is name-checked endlessly, yet something that seems to be repeatedly glossed over is that fact that the argument put forward by…

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Graeber, Dual Power, and Monetary Reform

A friend of mine asked me to explain what it means for Graeber to say that he is an anarchist in the context of money and banking and this was my response, expanded for the blog post:

Graeber calls himself a “little a” anarchist in that he is not tied down by the ideology or any of the big names in the canon and considers it a principle of practicing politics. Anarchism mostly just means “without rulers” and the model of decision-making, the process a meeting takes on, is more important to him and other practically-minded activists that also use it. It is called the consensus model and, when done right (which is actually much harder than he makes it out to be in my experience), it is an extremely powerful and uplifting tool for organizing ourselves. The ideal in the consensus model is that a solution to a problem is worked out through deliberation that everyone can agree on. Voting is not desired but sometimes necessary when the group gets too big, but the intention is that the best solution for all people involved is reached with everyone getting to participate.

So when he talks about himself as an anarchist, it is the consensus process and direct action outside of/without communication with government agencies that he is mostly referring to. It sure as hell worked wonders during the occupy movement, but there were plenty of other factors that propelled and also hampered that movement. When you break it down, (little-a) anarchism is about self-rule instead of command rule. In a general assembly, people don’t interrupt (I love this), get on a stack (a serial list of who will talk next), clarify and debate proposals, take “temperature-checks” (in lieu of voting), and communicate non-verbally with hand-signals. It is very involving and gives everyone a sense that their thoughts actually matter and will have an effect on the course of the greater body-politic.

This style of self-organization will have limits when it comes to making policy in the present state of government, so legitimacy in the agencies of power and our liberal society is definitely lacking. The model itself comes off as antagonistic to the rest of our law-based, market oriented society because it refuses to negotiate or make demands. Although, there is no reason why some group of folks couldn’t consent on doing so. An anarchist, on the other hand, tends to hate the state as a quasi-religious ideological tenet. It started out as a humanistic desire for a non-violent world where nations did not continually embroil their populations in ruinous wars. It has spread deeper into culture with punk music – “don’t tell me what to do!”, hippies – “make love not war, man”, and the general protest politics that got big in the sixties. From the mid 1800’s until then, it was mainly thought of in the political economy sense of an alternative to capitalism that espoused grassroots revolution against all forms of oppression. Worker movements like the IWW or Wobblies wanted to use the power of the recent uprisings for a world run by those who work rather than those who profit off of them. They tended to be nomadic and were better organized before they were crushed, provoking many strikes by workers toiling in horrid conditions.

There are anarchists who are utopian socialists and engage in prefigurative politics like the syndicalists, but they generally refuse to take power and limit themselves to something like: “destroy all the states in a total revolution with a maximally invigorated population!” What comes afterward is up to your imagination, but I think some of the more committed anarchists would just continue fighting whoever seizes the obviously inevitably power vacuum that would result – probably until they are all dead. I think Graeber and those like him would be less militaristic, opting instead for constant organizing to the side of whatever government takes shape. However, there is something inherently aggressive in occupying space and claiming it for your own, marching around nearby (loudly and breaking shit occasionally), and defying all other mandates and orders but those you have crafted on your own inside. He makes the point that the Occupy movement was the most non-violent movement of its size though, probably ever. He also makes the point that occupying is somewhat of an aggressive assertion of a mass of people.

Some anarchists like to emphasize the ancient times before states and organized religion as if they were the manifestation of a timeless grassroots earth-people. It’s actually kind of appealing, until you notice the romantic folly of mixing ideals from the present, the historical past, and the ancient past and saying that underneath them there’s a timeless one that I’ve got. Still though, mythology and elemental worshipping sounds better to me than monotheism – if you have to have something of a cohesive cultural understanding through spiritual agents.

As for the debt subordinating nations and democracy, he gets most of his economic insights from Michael Hudson. He’s just a far better writer. Hudson talks about the nefarious ways in which America subordinates other nations to its interests being largely a result of its international monetary practices between the large, economically and militarily powerful nations. The U.S. has operated on a double standard for decades and forced the victorious allies after both world wars to repay it for supplies. It was through unwavering debt repayment that the U.S. got Britain to relinquish its status as top nation in the world, and the money shortages after WWI due to debt services to the U.S. all but directly caused the Great Depression. Since then, as you probably know, nations are under the illusion that they need to borrow money before it is created. But is it a failure in economic thinking or a veiled threat from the U.S.? If nations begin to print their own money debt-free and do anything socialistic like nationalize their industries, their currency will be attacked and they will be targeted for regime change. The only nations big enough to challenge this system are on the move right now, but it is still unclear whether their policies will differ from the U.S., especially in terms of debt and money policies. The interests of bond and share holders and bankers earning interest at all levels of lending (even when it shouldn’t need to be lent), plus American hegemony across the globe has got to be what he means.

What gets me is how so few people know about this, yet it is the most powerful force shaping and constraining governments and people throughout the earth. There is a gigantic geopolitical battle going on right now over trade areas and currency, yet the American public is simply not informed about it. Did you hear about Putin’s proposal for a free-trade area throughout all of Europe? I think Eurasia might be slipping away from the U.S. I heard a military (probably Navy) commander speak on a Democracy Now sound bite about how the Trans-Pacific Partnership would be a major boon to his strategic efforts to control the Pacific – “as good as another aircraft carrier.” Hudson also points to the intertwining of neoliberal philosophy and American foreign policy.

To wrap up, I think anarchists like Graeber would be willing and able to understand this stuff. Between he and Taibbi, we finally have people that can communicate complicated stuff to the public. But anarchists strategy is all delegitimization and uprising; you can’t count on them to create a public bank.

[Going further]

Graeber discusses monetary policy in this article for the Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/mar/18/truth-money-iou-bank-of-england-austerity. In his usual flowing style, he covers the history of money and how debt is built directly into money at its very source of creation in a breeze. I’ve written about it previously so I won’t go into it in depth, but the important thing in my eyes vis a vis anarchism is this question of how monetary reform could ever come from an anarchist movement espousing a consensus process. Here enters the concept of dual power:

“…the Occupy movement is ultimately based on what in revolutionary theory is often called a *dual power* strategy: we are trying to create liberated territories outside of the existing political, legal, and economic order, on the principle that that order is irredeemably corrupt. It is a space that operates to what extent it is possible, outside the apparatus of government and its claims of a monopoly on the legitimate use of force.” The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement

A burning question for someone like me who is interested in the undeniable force and vivacity of grassroots political organizing and the comfort it brings at meetings, and reclaiming the power to create money for the public is this: how can we reconcile these two opposing positions in the vein of the old populist movements around the turn of the century? The self-imposed distance from the state will make anarchist movements unwilling to touch any kind of policy objectives, no matter how transformative and how beneficial they would be to the current economic realities that most people must endure today. And yet, the greatest impediment to the liberating goals of revolutionaries is the debt structured central bank and international financial institution rule – a rule that would most easily be broken by the reinstating of sovereign money creation by governments and not private banks. Public control of money creation and distribution is more powerful in terms of confronting global oppression than any seizure of power in the traditional revolutionary sense. Such a “reform” in any individual nation would certainly travel very far in our hyper-connected age, the ripple effects of which would eventually turn power relations upside down.

So do we abandon these practices and start campaigning for political parties that would enact these reforms, form “broad coalitions” with public interest groups, and appeal to big-spender representatives with a list of demands? We should never allow ourselves to be pressured into taking sides on anyone else’s terms before we consider the options placed before us and determine if such a decision is actually required of us. Graeber’s appeal to dual power allows us to consider two different opposing forms of power and organization at once, not having to make them both find a common ground. Consensus-based direct action works well in autonomous spaces for non-bureaucratic people. Representatives regulating the money supply of a nation and administering loans at the local level would work too. The latter operates with the backing of national governments and organized military violence. The former an ideal of peaceful villagers cooperating amiably. Neither models are wholly adequate, but neither do we have to insist that they work out their differences and gel together to make the one right model. Such would be a forced choice insisting that we have one political identity and eliminate all other contradictory beliefs.

Expanding on the dual power concept Graeber elaborates on four different recent political strategies for turning grassroots political movement into sustained machines that have influenced their regions greatly.

The Sadr Strategy: armed militias with top-down discipline like those found in Iraq, which are much more likely to eventually become political parties and require a culturally cohesive base.

The San Andés Strategy: Zapatista organizations that fight and negotiate with national governments to keep their seized territory.

The El Alto Strategy: as found in Bolivia, “using autonomous institutions as the base to win a role in government and maintaining them as a directly democratic alternative completely separate from government”, which then elect representatives while putting “enormous pressure [on them] to do exactly the opposite of what they elected them to do.” This gives those representatives even more negotiating power.

The Buenos Aires Strategy: “try to strip [the political establishment] of all legitimacy.” This apparently worked in Argentina to default on its international debt. “… doing so set off a cascade of events that nearly destroyed international enforcement agencies like the International Monetary Fund, and effectively ended the Third World debt crisis.”

One gets the feeling that to enact major monetary reform would require delegitimization from populist grassroots movements *plus* inside economic policy makers pushing good ideas for public financing.

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The Trick of Language

Language plays tricks on us. Distinctions separate from each other as an effect of successful meaning-making during our recurring tasks that we perform with the help of this meaningful communication. The two sides of the distinction grow apart as we vacillate between them, organizing things to fit neatly inside of two opposite containers. (A) is not (B), (b) is not (A); suddenly what you are saying makes sense and I can hone in on the thought you are having.

Often people will take the distinction, spend a long time considering what is in one side and then the other, and declare that they are illusions – the real makes no such division, all is one (although, between ’all’ and ’one’ there is, without a doubt, a distinction). Other times people will take the difference, the ’not the other’, and give it special powers. Many will leap into one container berate the other to no end, holding the front-, the hard-line.

These concepts are a product, and perhaps even a by-product, of language. We can try to imagine without language, but it still remains a profound method for expression and will not go away. We simply must be on guard from its trickery. To accept the spellbinding, yet not be coerced.

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