Tuesday, September 23, 2008

a quiet death

Our blogging compatriot RL recently posted a fascinating commentary on our (collective) obsession with apocalypta. It has led me to wonder why humans as a whole, and I personally, find the concept of Armageddon so interesting and perhaps even appealing. Since my childhood, our societal visions of apocalypse have evolved from ones filled with mushroom clouds and Australian biker gangs, to diseased corpses, and now Atlantian tombs. Every now and then, an ironic cynic or cynical ironist provides us with a humorous psychological outlet: zombie apocalypse scores high on our cultural preference (e.g., Dawn of the Dead, The Walking Dead), but I also find old-fashioned monster Armageddon satisfying as well (e.g. Godzilla, Crush Crumble & Chomp!).

But in the end, our greatest tragedy may be that we don't actually go out with a bang, and with nary a whimper. More likely than death by meteor or hadron, there lies the possibility of our dissolution through inauthenticity. This has become increasingly fertile ground for bioethicists and philosophers concerned with how scientific and cultural "progress" has fundamentally eroded our very nature. It's not like we're going to wake up tomorrow and half our town is dead with some virulent flu (although I suppose it's a possibility) - but rather, our grandchildren will wake up in a town/nation/world full of metaphysical zombies (reference: first 15 minutes of Shaun of the Dead). Some examples...

Fukuyama is infamous for declaring the "end of history," but I found his treatise on the philosophical implications of biotechnology to be a tour de force. In Our Posthuman Future, he explores how genetic engineering, pharmacotherapy, and other revolutionary breakthroughts of the modern age have the potential to destroy defining aspects of our being. For example, the use of Prozac (and other anti-depressants) to treat painful mood disorders seems a great step forward in psychiatry. Certainly, these drugs have provided profound psychological relief to millions of patients, and helped prevent thousands of suicides from occurring.

However, we must consider the possibility that depression itself is periodically functional. If we eradicate the possibility of psychic pain, we lose a critical facet of our humanity. Fukuyama suggests that depression (on a societal scale) may be a reflection of a vast undercurrent of popular dissatisfaction with the status quo - and that in our historical past, such disenfranchisement led to revolution. What effect might pharmacotherapy be having on our cultural evolution? Are we feeding ourselves a version of state-sanctioned Soma that placates us proles as the elite few rape and pillage our world to stark oblivion?

When I first opened The End of Nature, by Bill McKibben, I expected something more speculative and hyperbolic. And, at times, I'll admit that it reads a little too "fruity" and unscientific for my taste. But his primary argument rang deeply true with me, as I'm sure it has with anyone even moderately concerned with how humans have affected their environment over the past several hundred years. A quote:

"...Our comforting sense of the permanence of our natural world, our confidence that it will change gradually and imperceptibly if at all, is the result of a subtly warped perspective. Changes that can affect us can happen in our lifetime in our world--not just changes like wars but bigger and more sweeping events. I believe that without recognizing it we have already stepped over the threshold of such a change; that we are at the end of nature. By the end of nature I do not mean the end of the world. The rain will still fall and the sun shine, though differently than before. When I say 'nature,' I mean a certain set of human ideas about the world and our place in it."

One of McKibben's primary arguments is that by altering our atmosphere, humans have eradicated the line between man-made and natural. Nothing in our environment, at this point, is untouched by man since we have affected the very sky we live under. This corruption of nature's "purity," if you will, can have a profound impact on our own sense of well-being and pride. In addition to being concerned with the physical damage that global warming and other environmental hazards threaten, we might also worry about the psychological toll of living in a concrete empire.

As an aside, Tolkien was well-aware of this as he wrote his Lord of the Rings trilogy, and I am convinced that Sauron (and perhaps to a more obvious degree Saruman) represent the threat of burgeoning industrialization in the post-War era. The "temptation" of the rings of power that Man falls prey to is this very notion that one can exert control over one's environment. Elves (and hobbits, and other fairie-folk) have always represented a more balanced and respectful relationship with nature. I hope that my nieces at least absorbed some of this, at a subconscious level, as they consumed the absurd Peter Jackson extravaganzas.

Perhaps my favorite piece of post-apocalyptic fiction, Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake is a fascinating examination of our philosophical dissolution. I'll choose just one of the many incredible examples from the book: ChickieNobs. Atwood suggests that in our near future, we will genetically engineer animals to provide meat more efficiently. We are already doing this, by breeding chickens with a greater percentage of breast meat, for example - but taken to its extreme, one can imagine something quite horrifying.

The protagonist, Jimmy, is touring a biotech facility run by his former high-school friend, Crake:

"Next they went to NeoAgriculturals. AgriCouture was its nickname among the students. They had to put on biosuits before they entered the facility, and scrub their hands and wear nose-cone filters, because what they were about to see hadn't been bioform-proofed, or not completely. A woman with a laugh like Woody Woodpecker led them through the corridors.
'This is the latest,' said Crake. What they were looking at was a large bulblike object that seemed to be covered with stippled whitish-yellow skin. Out of it came twenty thick fleshy tubes, and at the end of each tube another bulb was growing.
'What the hell is it?' said Jimmy.
'Those are chickens,' said Crake. 'Chicken parts. Just the breasts on this one. They've got ones that specialize in drumsticks too, twelve on a growth unit.'
'But there aren't any heads,' said Jimmy...
'That's the head in the middle,' said the woman. 'There's a mouth opening at the top, they dump the nutrients in there. No eyes or beak or anything, they don't need those.'
'This is horrible,' said Jimmy. The thing was a nightmare. It was like an animal-protein tuber.
'Picture the sea-anemone body plan,' said Crake. 'That helps.'

Of course, after a couple years pass, Jimmy (and the rest of the populace) find themselves happily easting cheap, tasty fast-food chicken provided by ChickieNobs. Wouldn't our society behave in a similar manner? Aren't we already?

And finally, my favorite song by Outkast. If you ignore the forgettable gangsta opening stanzas by Big Boi, Andre 3000's astute analysis of our growing inauthenticity may give you pause.

Synthesize, microwave me
Give me a drug so I can make seven babies
Pump my breasts up, can you suck the fat up
Please make my life appear
like ain't no such thing as bad luck
My nose ain't right
Like I need a new one
Just take your pick, a yellow, red
A black or a blue on
Virtual reality, virtual BULLSHIT
Synthesizer preachers can reach you
up in the pulpit
Who a bitch?
Give me my gat so that I can smoke this nigga
Tell his momma not to cry
because they can clone him quicker
than it took his daddy to make him
Niggaz bitin verbatim
Thought provokin records radio never played dem
Instant, quick grits, new, improved
Hurry hurry, rush rush, world on the move
Marijuana illegal but cigarettes cool
I might LOOK kinda funny but I ain't no fool
Now if you wanna synthesize, I empa-thize
Now if you wanna synthesize, I empa-thize
But if you synthasize, I will understand
Your synthasizer MAN.


  1. Hi how are you? I was looking at your blog and I like it. I would like to become blog friends are you up for it?

    I have an art blog and it is here in sunny San Diego, I am creating conceptual art pieces as well as my own personal journals and funny sections. I have friends from all over the world. How about it?
    If you comment on my blog I will on yours. Take care and see you soon? Jesse

  2. Maybe we have to be willing to surrender our identity in order to survive.

    Is authenticity ethically or pragmatically important, except on a purely philosophical level?

  3. Regis -

    It is our authenticity as human animals that is necessary for survival.

    It is our identity as human-as-god that we must surrender. Otherwise we only dig ourselves deeper and deeper into oil wells and ozone holes, into a false survival on our own life-support-system in the gray halls of a dead world.

    Avoiding nursing-home style planetary "survival" seems more pragmatic than philosophical.

    Authentically, we are animals who need natural systems to survive.

  4. One function of the cathedral in Medieval Europe was to dazzle the worshipper with the power of God: The architectural splendor and grandeur reminded the visitor of his or her smallness.

    When the shift of the Renaissance brought a rebellion against the idea that humans were small and significant only in relation to God, we were given art that celebrated the individual: it showed we could be more than just worshippers. It showed we were not less than God. I think the idea of "human as god" is that idea taken too far.

    If you accept that our abuse of the system in which we live is the byproduct of the idea that a person is not less than the things he or she worships, maybe what's necessary to surrender our identity as human-as-god is a return to that cathedral. Maybe we need to identify the modern cathedral: a place where a person can go to be reminded of his or her smallness in the face of the wider system of which human beings are part.

    Fortunately, the modern cathedral is the outdoors. I am reminded of Anne Lamott, who wrote that she has one genuine insight into life: She simply remembers to go outside. There is nothing better than the natural environment to remind you that you’re not the center of the universe.