Electrified Stories

Electronic images pass through the mind, a plushy chair cushions a straight back.  Simpler times are conjured up by an graphic bits of light set upon a screen.  Sitting still, the imagination soars backward and we try place ourselves in a natural setting performing essential tasks.  I fetch water in a wooden pale from my own well dug up by my great grandfather, I buy a sickle to ease the next harvest, I feed the livestock with grain stored up in the barn, I head to the pub to find my neighbors – all of whom I know, I get into a brawl with my rival and nobody is actually hurt.  I am inside of a community and feel reassured by this sense of belonging as I lay me head to rest.  Night becomes day, day night, and “harmony” is won again.

Continue reading “Electrified Stories”

The Art of War and Geopolitics

In Sun Tzu’s military classic from ancient China The Art of War we get an early work of geopolitics. The text is well known for providing insights into commanding a military, maintaining discipline within ranks, and emphasizing the right mind-set for victory but a large part of it is devoted to classifying and evaluating terrain. The relationship an army has with the earth upon which it travels is one of the key aspects that leads it to victory or defeat, perhaps the key. The word geopolitics evokes control of resources, topographical access routes and choke points, and alliance-building amongst nations and states (or lords and chiefdoms) – all of which are discussed in the Art of War, only in the context of war in the ancient world instead of economics. Continue reading “The Art of War and Geopolitics”

On Cowboy Bebop, part one

Cowboy Bebop crams so many different styles from visual art, music, and storytelling together that it becomes easy to miss how profoundly deep it reaches into the human condition. The allure of wayward dreams, friendship and finding home, and facing up to a difficult past and certain death all subsist beneath the flare of this single 26-episode season. Fight scenes dazzle with such exuberance, the soundtrack composed by Yoko Kano and performed by The Seatbelts unleashes a fury of notes reminiscent of all-night jam-sessions, and the tv show’s writing so seamlessly weaves death-defying adventure with boredom and bickering-inducing downtime that it’s easy to get caught up with the Bebop crew. Look close enough at the show and you will find more than an abundance of style; Cowboy Bebop’s brilliance lies in capturing the affections of an entire generation and putting them into a single story.

It’s a bold claim, as bold as the sign the show throws up in the middle of an episode, prompting a commercial break, that reads: “The work which will become a new genre of its own will be called Cowboy Bebop.” But hang with me a bit longer. This anime tv show launched in Japan in 1998 to universal praise. It tops many a list of best anime shows of all time and I am not alone in my unflinching praise of it as a masterful piece of art. What I will do here is attempt to probe Cowboy Bebop and unearth some things that might have been missed by viewers, hoping to explain just what it is that has kept this show so fresh. Continue reading “On Cowboy Bebop, part one”

On Cowboy Bebop

Cowboy Bebop crams so many different styles from visual art, music, and storytelling together that it becomes easy to miss how profoundly deep it reaches into the human condition. The allure of wayward dreams, friendship and finding home, and facing up to a difficult past and certain death all subsist beneath the flare of this single 26-episode season. Fight scenes dazzle with such exuberance, the soundtrack composed by Yoko Kano and performed by The Seatbelts unleashes a fury of notes reminiscent of all-night jam-sessions, and the tv show’s writing so seamlessly weaves death-defying adventure with boredom and bickering-inducing downtime that it’s easy to get caught up with the Bebop crew. Look close enough at the show and you will find more than an abundance of style; Cowboy Bebop’s brilliance lies in capturing the affections of an entire generation and putting them into a single story.

It’s a bold claim, as bold as the sign the show throws up in the middle of an episode, prompting a commercial break, that reads: “The work which will become a new genre of its own will be called Cowboy Bebop.” But hang with me a bit longer. This anime tv show launched in Japan in 1998 to universal praise. It tops many a list of best anime shows of all time and I am not alone in my unflinching praise of it as a masterful piece of art. What I will do here is attempt to probe Cowboy Bebop and unearth some things that might have been missed by viewers, hoping to explain just what it is that has kept this show so fresh. Continue reading “On Cowboy Bebop”

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.

The Boy the Earth Talks to: Gold and Progress in Deadwood

I gave a show called Deadwood a chance a few weeks ago and was swiftly plunged into television series binge-mode. The addicting nature of Deadwood comes from the carefully worded script illustrating the political forces acting on and inside a town that suddenly emerged and rapidly expanded its commerce on the borders of the American federation. The show depicts a camp out in what will soon become a part of South Dakota where people flock to mine gold during America’s westward expansion era. The economic-political dynamics of a not-yet-town in a “lawless” region are interesting enough, but what lit my curiosity up was the end of season 2 when a major capitalist finally came to Deadwood in order to establish scaled-up mining production with an imported labor force. Until then, men had mostly paned for gold and spent the plentiful bounty in the camp on food, alcohol, tools, clothing, property, and whores. But with the coming of the gold-mogul George Hearst, the times of freedom from the law and riches for all (European men) would come to a close.

What gives these people the drive to set off on a journey across the continent is the prospect of riches: the officially recognized currency is just waiting to be plucked from the earth. People say “money doesn’t grow on trees,” but it was once freely gathered from rivers, streams, mountains, and the ground. Gold is advantageous to be used as money for many reasons, and American expansionists lucked out when a commodity that would spur commerce appeared in its desired territories. Take away the convertibility of American and European money into gold and the movement westward, with its instantly flourishing commerce and activity, would never had been accomplished so rapidly and with such excitement. The people of Deadwood find money so easily that exchanging goods and services is intensified, simultaneously spreading the American population throughout the continent and increasing the money supply for fortunes to be made. The possibilities for furthering both Capitalists’ interests and American imperial ambitions in their bordering territories were overwhelming and after the first wave of entrepreneurial miners and military battles against Indians, the next phase of large scale production and low-waged labor now seems all but destined to spread across the continent.

George Hearst first sends his close advisor and chief geologist Wolcott to oversee the purchasing of other’s claims, drawing the land under his ownership and away from the less sophisticated miners. One character remarks, “Pretty soon, this’ll be a company town,” and that’s the design: one town owned by one company owned by one man. Wolcott sees this coming and repeatedly speaks about “inevitable change”, which he helps move along by working for Hearst. In challenging the current manager of the largest gold producing comstock in the camp on its site, he says “the noise is terrible isn’t it… like fate.” Wolcott is the agent of the transformation in America that the viewer already knows will happen: the frontier adventure in the edge of civilization will give eventually way to streamlined production and tightly managed labor.

As the character representing this transformation, Wolcott must be a truly horrible man. He speaks not as a common, “low-born” man with the usual outpouring of obscenities and the ease of transition from casual encounter to a heated confrontation. He holds back his expression without a hint of his inner feelings, but not with the aristocratic elegance of the other characters who fit the sophisticated model. When other well-schooled, upper class characters speak they speak in an excess of coded language to make conversation a game and an art. The dizzying flurry of pretty words with an accompanying sensitivity to inflection conceals the simple meaning of the sentence and forces the interlocutor to carefully decipher it. This is a major marker of class difference between those who can follow the train of thought in the conversation and those left dumbfounded by all of those long and confusing-sounding words. The tensions that so easily boil over with the lower classes and their readiness to project their emotions onto the other party is channeled by the upper class into word-play and a kind of conversational poetics. This dynamic is handled beautifully in Deadwood, with the rapidly spoken obscure words contrasting with the angry crude words, a distinction that signals who is capable of planning ahead and likely scheming in one direction or another.

Wolcott fits in an odd place in this dynamic: he speaks much more like a sophisticate, but also directly and without the radiance of the others. He gives simple commands that speak exactly to his interests without any of the masks that must have made conversation so enjoyable. He does not visibly express himself and offers very little bodily gestures to hint at his meaning. He prefers to speak only to other individuals and not in crowds or groups, giving instructions or listening to new information. He only wants to work with a selection of individuals with major stakes in the camp on a singular basis as he does with his employer. He is merely an officer sent to perform a task for his extremely wealthy employer.

The worst instance of Wolcott character comes in the violence he unleashes upon women. It seems all of the reserve he maintains in his affairs becomes concentrated, and when he becomes frustrated or disadvantaged he takes it out on whores by slitting their throats. It is one of the more gruesome scenes in Deadwood when he takes out three women without any cause other than his own pent up rage. It has happened before in Mexico, so we know this is a character flaw that recurs: he is overcome by an urge to inflict death and dominance over those he can without conflict. His cold and unflinching disposition is suddenly reversed in an explosion of violence.

Might this dangerous flaw be connected to his occupation under the capitalist Hearst? Or perhaps his knowledge and foresight of the direction of the macro-level of the economy brought him to a resigned despair? His murderous actions themselves where predictable – a matron of a high-end brothel knows of his propensity to kill women, but cannot stop him from accessing his favorite whore. He eventually kills her along with the matron and another woman, suggesting that the fate of Wolcott’s favorite whore was already sealed. But is the doom of the young and beautiful whore connected with the foreseeable expansion of mechanical production and proletarianization of the population?

I’ll leave that question unanswered and point to a conversation that Wolcott has with Hearst when Hearst arrives to Deadwood to take control of it. Hearst proclaims an interesting relationship with the earth: he believes the earth speaks to him and that “she tells me where to dig into her.” Spending his life mining for gold has made Hearst extremely wealthy, and his fame is enhanced with such sayings like this. He believe he is listening to the earth and that this intimate relationship with it allows him to find “the color.” When Hearst learns of Wolcott’s murderous tendencies he confronts him:

Wolcott: “As when the Earth talks to you particularly, you never ask its reasons?”
Hearst: “I don’t need to know why I’m lucky!”
W: “What if the Earth talks to us to get us to arrange its amusements?”
H: “Sounds like god-damned non-sense to me.”
W: “Suppose to you it whispers: “You are king over me. I exist to flesh your will.””
H: “Nonsense.”
W: “And to me, there is no sin.”

[Hearst then severs their relationship]

Hearst: “Does some spirit overtake you, is that what you mean by the talk?”
Wolcott: “No.”
H: “Tells me where the color is, that’s all it tells me.”

There is a great confusion about the Earth and God in this conversation. Hearst has personified the Earth in his labors as a miner, propagating the myth that it speaks to him and tells him where to find gold. Wolcott observes Hearst’s relationship with the Earth as one of subjection. In the absence of The Lord God in heaven above, the Earth below becomes for Wolcott the replacement God, yet one that is vulnerable. A wealthy man like Hearst can listen to the Earth and digs into it, extracting its precious metals and in effect becoming lord of the Earth by freely picking at it.

The relationship between a single great God with all power and knowledge and creation in it and the individual human worshiper is a relationship that could only be one of dominance. The voice of the Earth is taken by Wolcott to be like the voice of God, yet also the voice of a slave-body to be drilled into and harvested for its valuables. In the absence of a master-God (which in the later 19th century was becoming a greater cause for concern in European culture than it had been before) the great voice in the cosmic sky above fell mute with but only the Earth beneath our feet to remain attached to. The relationship of power, however, remains only reversed: the great Capitalist owner of the land and producer of goods becomes The Lord of the Earth. The Voice can no longer speak of correcting wayward souls or offering guidance, instead the security of God is replaced with the subdued body of the Earth. He will not talk to the sinners and provide assurance of the moral value of actions, instead, She will be dissected and exploited for what is universally valued in commerce: gold/money.

So is nihilism and the disgust at the sight of a subdued Earth the cause for Wolcott’s horrifying murders? The unstoppable force of Capitalist progress? His inability to take pleasure in the conversational habits and games of the well-to-do? One is about a great loss of meaning both personally and culturally, the next is about the sweep of history and the material conditions that seemed inalterable, the last is about the simple enjoyment of other’s company – the little twists and turns of the conversation that could either enflame our body into passionate action or create lasting bonds in the face of another’s skill and grace. In understanding the death of God, the subjugation of the Earth, and the coming age of mechanical production, Wolcott finds no comfort in the company of others. He repeatedly tells people not to touch him. These issues are connected in Deadwood as a show and as a artwork; stepping outside of it, we can say that keeping up the pleasures of our bodies in the company of friends (verbally and with proximal remove as well) can have an effect on the other issues that would drive a man to death and despair.

befitting his character, Wolcott hangs himself at the end of season 2 after being fired and during a wedding. Nobody seemed to notice.

John Protevi: Earth and Terra

From John Protevi’s Life War Earth: Deleuze and the Sciences:

“Now in thinking about the geo– of geohistory, we have to recognize first of all that the French word terre in A Thousand Plateaus has various meanings that interweave ontologically and politically in what I have elsewhere called political physics (Protevi 2001). Terre has at least four registers, the first three of which are equivalent to the English “earth” and the fourth to the English “land” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987). In A Thousand Plateaus, earth is (1) equivalent to the virtual plane of consistency on which strata are imposed (Deleuze and Guattari 1987); (2) part of the earth-territory (terre-territories) system of romanticism, the gathering point, outside all territories, of “forces of the earth” for intensive territorial assemblages (333-39); and (3) the “new earth” (une nouvelle terre), the correlate of absolute deterritorialization, tapping “cosmic forces” or new potentials for creation (423; 509-10). Land, by contrast, is terre that is constituted by the overcoding of territories under the signifying regime and the State apparatus (440-41).” (p.43)

I am not so sure about that one bit from the second sense of terre – that it is “outside all territories”. As I recall, D & G repeatedly call it the “close embrace” at the “heart” of the territory. This would make it inside but also intensive; in fact, “pure intensity.”

Studying Geophilosophy

The following is the result of a close reading of ’Of the Refrain’, a middle chapter from Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus. It is in this chapter that I believe the most thorough and detailed terminological outline of what they call Geophilosophy is given. The basic project is to draw a diagram that allows for a better understanding of the relationships between geophilosophical terms. I will mostly let the quotes to the heavy lifting. There is inevitably a process of selection in determining which quotes stand out as useful for the task and the copious marks I left on the pages of ATP hopefully brought the key passages forth. I believe this diagram stands up to the text, but it is the result of a singular reading.

After a series of chapters on language and linguistics, where the symbol, sign, signification and the ‘body without organs’ have been elucidated, territorialization comes into play along with the process of deterritorialization and reterritorialization on the surface of the earth. Rhythm and the wave-nature of existence integrates with the territory-making impulse, which produces assemblages of lived bodies in a complex process of motion with respect to their surroundings. Both the rhythm and the territory are like conditions from which social forms may develop and interact with each other: the geographic landscape is brought into consideration in an abstract way that identifies the background of artistic expressions, modes of thinking, and philosophical commonalities in their emergence – their coming-into-being. Geophilosophy is their attempt to dig into the conditions on the earth required for forming societies/assemblages and the complex processes they undergo, as well as the character of the their motifs and manners. What comes out of this study is a diagram that I believe is very helpful to understanding the importance of Geophilosophy for any project involving assembled masses of people.

In this story we begin in the middle, as Deleuze has always been fond of saying. Though the chapter must begin with an opening sentence, there is never any pure beginning free of forces that contort and influence one in this or that way. That said, D & G are describing a process in the form of a writing exercise as they are well aware, and this process, this story if you will, begins in the middle with the milieu. We actually begin with a little scene of a boy lost in the woods. With chaos creeping all around him, he sings a song for the sake of comfort and establishes what little order he can out of the chaos. In the beginning it seems there is only chaos and the rhythm of the song, maybe hummed or whistled or skipped to, to protect oneself from it.

“From chaos, Milieus and Rhythms are born. This is the concern of very ancient cosmogenies. Chaos is not without it sown directional components, which are its own ecstasies… Every milieu is vibratory, in other words, a block of space-time constituted by the periodic repetition of the component. Thus the living thing has the exterior milieu of materials, an interior milieu of composing elements and composed substances, an intermediary milieu of membranes and limits, and an annexed milieu of energy sources and actions-repetitions. Every milieu is coded, a code being defined by periodic repetition; but each code is in a perpetual state of transcoding or transduction… The notion of the milieu is not unitary… The milieus are open to chaos, which threatens them with exhaustion or intrusion. Rhythm is the milieus’ answer to chaos… Chaos is not the opposite of rhythm, but the milieu of all milieus. There is rhythm whenever there is transcoded passage form one milieu to another, a communication of milieus, coordination between heterogenous space-times.” (p.313)

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“Meter, whether regular or not, assumes a coded form whose unit of measure may vary, but in a noncommunicating milieu, whereas rhythm is the Unequal or the Incommensurable that is always undergoing transcoding. Meter is dogmatic, but rhythm is critical; it ties itself together in passing from one milieu to another… It changes direction.” (p.313)

Territory is introduced as an act, the process of territorialization affecting milieus by settling them, at least for a moment.

“The territory is in fact an act that affects milieus and rhythms, that “territorializes” them… There is territory precisely when milieu components cease to be directional, becoming dimensional instead, when they cease to be functional to become expressive. What defines the territory is the emergence of matters of expression (qualities)… It becomes expressive on the other hand, when it acquires a temporal constancy and a spatial range that make it a territorial, or rather territorializing, mark: a signature…
Territorialization is an act of rhythm that has become qualitative. The mark of a territory is dimensional, but it is not meter, it is a rhythm. It retains the most general characteristic of rhythm, which is to be inscribed on a different plane than that of its actions.” (p.314-315)

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“What we wish to say is that there is a self-movement of expressive qualities. Expressiveness is not reducible to the immediate effects of an impulse triggering an action in a milieu: effects of that kind are subjective impressions or emotions rather than expressions…
In effect, expressive qualities or matters of expression enter shifting relations with one another that “express” the relation of the territory they draw to the interior milieu of impulses and exterior milieu of circumstances*. To express is not to depend upon; there is an autonomy of expression.” (p.317)

Every matter of expression is necessarily linked with a territory – the taking on of a territorial aspect of matter that then gains/makes an expression.

“The territory is first of all the critical distance between two beings of the same species: Mark your distance. What is mine is first of all my distance; I possess only distances. Don’t anybody touch me, I growl if anyone enters my territory, I put up placards. Critical distance is a relation based on meters of expression. It is a question of keeping at a distance the forces of chaos knocking at the door. Mannerism: the ethos is both abode and manner, homeland and style” (p. 319-320)

So, we have a relationship with milieu and territory… Now we get to an explicit appearance of the earth. After all, this is all about geophilosophy:

“… The territory groups all the forces of the different milieus together in a single sheaf constituted by the forces of the earth. The attribution of all the diffuse forces of the earth as receptacle or base takes place only at the deepest level of each territory… Moreover, although I extension the territory separates the interior forces of the earth from the exterior forces of chaos, the same does not occur in “intension,” in the dimension of depth, where the two types of forced clasp and are wed in a battle whose only criterion and stakes is the earth. There is always a place, a tree or grove, in the territory where all the forces come together in a hand-to-hand combat of energies. The earth is this close embrace.” (p.321)

Pause and let that sink in. After gaining dimension and losing direction (and expression over function) they posit a depth that is irreducible to graphic dimension, a special “intension” counter-posed to extension. I take extension to be continuous with the notion of the “external world” and the bare, objective world we subjects (with our new mind-space) contemplate or inquire into. The separation that extension makes between earth and chaos must be a direct result of the sectioning off of the ground in territorialization and the displacement of chaos into those “non-secured areas out there”. The earth as ground was the ground of chaos – chaos and panic were everywhere to be found on the earth – before the staking of one’s territory, before a domestication of extension. Or perhaps the earth is only constituted as this intense center located in at the very core of the territory upon the phenomenon of territorialization. Conntinuing on:

“This intense center is simultaneously inside the territory and outside several territories that converge on it at the end of an immense pilgrimage (hence the ambiguities of the “natal”). Inside or out, the territory is linked to this intense center, which is like the unknown homeland, terrestrial source of all forces friendly and hostile, where everything is decided.” (p.321)

Let it sink in even farther. The depth of intension is why the Earth should be placed below, but this is not a vertical downward. This demonstrates the limits of diagraming this idea of the earth in “intension” – a place that is at once the scene of battle, convergence, and decision. This is one of the great passages of Deleuze and Guattari’s writing that has kept me hung up for a number of months now. It is over fast and they move farther on down the diagram briskly, but what a claim! The intense place where all things are decided, the coming together of forces hostile and in serious deliberation: Earth. And there’s is a Geophilosophy.

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“We always come back to this “moment”: the becoming-expressive of rhythm, the emergence of expressive proper qualities, the formation of matters of expression that develop into motifs and counterpoints. We therefore need a notion, even an apparently negative one, that can grasp this fictional or raw moment. The essential thing is the disjunction noticeable between the code and the territory…. It is because there is a disjunction between the territory and the code that the territory can indirectly induce new species.” (p.322) [my emphasis]

What is this necessary notion that appears negative, fictional, and raw? It is a tenuous motion that plays on the boundaries between margin and center. It does not change the coding of a species or alter the genes in a mutation, but it does change bodies with respect to their environment or territory. The fictional moment considered here is not a genetic mutation or deviancy from a norm, it is act of “differentiating” that the variations in territory prepares the way for the act of decoding.

“Biologists have stressed the importance of these determined margins, which are not to be confused with mutations, in other words, changes internal to the code: here, it is a question of duplicated genes or extra chromosomes that are not inside the genetic code, are free of function, and offer a free matter for variation.” (p.322)

The necessities of a sustaining life, the nourishment of the gene with its structurally sound code that only replicates or mutates, are not under examination but the expressions of the outer layers. With that base level of stable coding, the variations of the rest of the body in conjunction with its surrounding environment take on much more interesting and territorially specific traits.

What isn’t being mentioned here but is lurking like a giant elephant in the room is evolution. D & G are trying to emphasize the propensity for species to change, differentiate, and adapt to their environment without a “natural selection” as the operative concept but instead a transformative creation in concert with its territory and irreducible to mutation. The genes are kept the same, while the species morph into something else to fit with the critical distances included with the terrain features. “It is less a question of evolution than of passage, bridges and tunnels.” (p.322)

Assemblage.

“The territory itself is a place of passage. The territory is the first assemblage, the first thing to constitute an assemblage; the assemblage is fundamentally territorial. But how could it not already be in the process of passing into something else, into other assemblages?” (p.323)

“The first question to be asked is what holds these territorializing marks, territorial motifs, and territorialized functions together in the same intra-assemblage. This is a question of consistency*: the “holding together” of heterogenous elements…
But another question seems to interrupt or cut across the first one. For in many cases, a territorialized, assembled function acquires enough independence to constitute a new assemblage, one that is more or less deterritorialized, en route to deterritorialization. There is no need to effectively leave the territory to go this route; but what just a minute ago was a constituted function in the assemblage has become the constituting element of another assemblage, the element of passage to another assemblage.” (p.324)

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Cosmos:

“It is no longer adequate to say that there is interassemblage, passage from a territorializes assemblage to another type of assemblage; rather, we should say that one leaves all assemblages behind, that one exceeds the capacities of any possible assemblage, entering another plane. In effect, there is no longer a milieu movement or a rhythm, nor a territorialized or territorializing movement or rhythm; there is something of the Cosmos in these more ample movements. The localization mechanisms are still extremely precise, but the localization has become cosmic. They are no longer territorializes forces bundled together as forces of the earth; they are the liberated or regained forces of a deterritorialized cosmos.” (p.326)

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“This being the case, in considering the system as a whole we should speak less of automatism of a higher center than of coordination between centers, and of the cellular groupings or molecular populations that perform these couplings: there is no form of correct structure imposed from without or above but rather an articulation from within, as if oscillating molecules, oscillators, passed from one heterogeneous center to another, if only for the purpose of assuring the dominance of one among them. This obviously excludes any linear relation from one center to another, in favor of packets of relations steered by molecules: the interaction or coordination may be positive or negative (release or inhibition), but it is never direct, as in a linear relation or chemical reaction; it always occurs between molecules with at least two heads, and each center taken separately.” (p.328)

“Consolidation is not content to come after; it is creative. The fact is that the beginning always begins in-between, intermezzo. Consistency is the same as consolidation, it is the act that produces consolidated aggregates, of succession as well as of coexistence, be means of the three factors just mentioned: intercalated elements, intervals, and articulations of superposition.” (p.329)

“Consistency necessarily occurs between heterogeneities, not because it is the birth of differentiation, but because heterogeneities that were once content to coexist or succeed one another become bound up with one another through the “consolidation” of their coexistence and succession…
What we term machinic* is precisely the synthesis of heterogeneities as such. Inasmuch as these heterogeneities are matters of expression*, we say their synthesis itself, their consistency or capture, forms a properly machinic “statement” or “enunciation.”” (p.330-331)

Assemblage is not to be confused with machine: “That in fact is the distinction we would like to propose between machine and assemblage: a machine is like a set of cutting edges that insert themselves into the assemblage undergoing deterritorialization, and draw variations and mutations of it.” (p.333)

The Natal:

“The natal is the innate, but decoded; and it is the acquired, but territorialized. The natal is new figure assumed by the innate and the acquired in the territorial assemblage. The affect proper to the natal is the lied: to be forever lost, or refound, or aspiring to the unknown homeland. In the natal, the innate tends to be displaced…” (p.332)

The natal stretches from what happens in the intra-assemblage all the way to the center that has been projected outside; it cuts across all the interassemblages and reaches all the way to the gates of the Cosmos.”

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Black Hole:

“Thus the black hole is a machine effect in assemblages and has a complex relation to their effects. It may be necessary for the release of innovative processes that they first fall into a catastrophic black hole: stases of inhibition are associated with the release of crossroads of behavior. On the other hand, when black holes resonate together or inhibitions conjugate and echo each other, instead of an opening onto consistency, we see a closure of the assemblage, as though it were deterritorialized in the void: young chaffinches. *Machines are always singular keys that open or close an assemblage, a territory*.” (p.334)

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Life and Matter. Stratum and (de)stratification.

“The very words, “matters of expression,” imply that expression has a primary relation to matter. As matters of expression take on consistency they constitute semiotic* systems, but the *semiotic components are inseparable from *material components and are in exceptionally close contact with molecular levels. The whole question is thus whether or not the molar-molecular relation assumes a new figure here. If general, it has been possible to distinguish “molar-molecular” combinations that vary greatly depending on the direction followed. First, individual atoms can enter into probabilistic or statistical accumulations that tend to efface their individuality; this already happens on the level of the molecule, and then again in the molar aggregate… Second, it is clear that the distinction to be made is not between the individual and the statistical. In fact, it is always a question of populations; statistics concerns individual phenomena, and antistatistical individuality operates only in relation to molecular populations… Third, the intramolecular internal forces that give an aggregate its molar form can be of two types: they are either covalent, arborescent, mechanical, linear, localizable relations subject to chemical conditions of action and reaction or to linked reactions, or they are indirect, noncovalent, machinic and nonmechanical, superlinear, or nonlocalizable bonds operating by stereospecific discernment* or discrimination*, rather than by linkage.
… it is, in effect, a distinction between matter and life, or rather, since there is only one matter, between two states, two tendencies of atomic matter… Stating the distinction in the most general way, we could say that it is between stratified systems or systems of stratification on the one hand, and consistent, self-consistent aggregates on the other. But the point is that consistency, far from being restricted to complex life forms, fully pertains even to the most elementary atoms and particles.”

“There is a coded system of stratification whenever, horizontally, there are linear causalities between elements; and, vertically, hierarchies of order between groupings; and, holding it all together in depth, a succession of framing forms, each of which informs a substance and in turn serves as a substance for another form. These causalities, hierarchies, and framings constitute a stratum, as well as the passage from one stratum to another, and the stratified combinations of the molecular and the molar…
If we ask ourselves where life fits into this distinction, we see that it undoubtedly implies a gain in consistency, in other words, a surplus value (surplus value of destratification). …both at once: a particularly complex system of stratification and an aggregate of consistency that disrupts orders, forms, and substances. As we have seen, the loving thing performs a transcoding of milieus that can be considered both to constitute a stratum and to effect reverse causalities and transversally of destratification.” (p.335-336)

Summary.

“We have gone from stratified milieus to territorial assemblages and simultaneously, from the forces of chaos, as broken down, coded, transcoded by the milieus, to the forces of the earth, as gathered into the assemblages. Then we went from territorial assemblages to interassemblages, to opening of assemblages along lines of deterritorialization; and simultaneously, the same from the in gathered forces of the earth to the deterritorialized, or rather deterritorializing, Cosmos.” (p.337)

By the geophilosophical process laid out in ’Of the Refrain’ we have been taken through Chaos, Earth, and Cosmos as resting places of a sort, or as concepts representative of certain limits reached in the flow of matter. Chaos is the scary prospect that must be warded off with the proper comforting rhythm. The empty disorder that one reaches when contemplation approaches chaos is the result of the totalizing “milieu of all milieus”. Earth is a depth that is irreducible to dimension, an “intension” that gathers all of the forces in a single place. The intensity of the moment or the event (so often expressed to qualify a particularly momentous past experience) is “the close embrace” of the Earth in its act of drawing forces and bodies together at the heart of the territory. Cosmos represents the perpetual motion of an assemblage undergoing deterritorialization, not yet closed upon inside the inescapable black hole. Opening onto the Cosmos is to remain in motion – even if just in expressive semiotic/aesthetic way – as a both stratified system of horizontal causalities, vertical hierarchies, and framing forms holding it together, and a destratifying action of passing. A nomadic machine on the move, but towards what? The Cosmos… still not there yet.

This becomes a bit easier when in the next part of the chapter, D & G fit these three different motifs into loose art history categories: Classical, Romantic, and Modern (for lack of a better term). This will be dealt with later. We have still not yet explained what they mean by ‘Refrain’.

Cleaned up a bit for the finale:

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