“Another Green World”

Graham Johnson is a guest contributor who joins us from Suspended Reason.

ONE

A world transfigured, or a world anew? A world anew, or a new world? And if a new world, in addition, or as alternative?

I.

In September, Elon Musk announced plans to begin the colonization of Mars by 2024. SpaceX’s Interplanetary Transport System will transport up 100 tons of cargo and human passengers per ship; eventually, Musk expects the planet to reach a critical population mass of a few million, at which point the planet will become a self-sufficient colony. What was most striking, to many who watched the announcement’s promotional video, was its closing frames – unaccompanied by explanatory text, and raising only the tantalizing possibility – of a terraformed Mars.

Terraforming is an obvious long-shot (or what Alphabet Inc.’s subsidiary X appropriately refers to in-house as a “moon-shot”) project. But Musk sees it as an essential existential safeguard: should something threaten humanity’s immediate survival, there will be another planet, and eventually other solar systems, available to escape to. Human civilizations elsewhere can continue their expansion of synthesis and sentience across the universe.

The idea of creating, and not just discovering, another green world, is enough to stir imagination and controversy alike. Logistical plausibility is as-of-yet unestablished. Among environmentalists, there is the common complaint that the human race does not deserve another world, given the treatment of its home planet. There is concern, moreover, that the possibility of escape will undermine efforts to engage with problems of climate change and ecosystem destruction here on Earth. Colonial associations linger, alongside the usual concerns over the ethno-cultural makeup of settlers, engineers, urban planners. And there is the belief, manifesting along both deontological and consequentialist lines, that we cannot run from our problems – that a colonization of Mars would merely perpetuate, instead of solve, an unsustainable and ecosystem-devouring relationship between man and his environment.

To others the image of a green Mars has tapped into both pastoral nostalgia and the allure of a more “natural” mode of living. It is an attraction simultaneously romantic and practical: the freedom of one’s own plot of land – unruled and autonomous – coupled with the Edenic impulses almost inherent to our race and which have crescendoed in accordance with accelerating industrialization. Though such longings for a world before the Fall have almost always been contained as such, there have been moments – European awareness of the New World, and now a reachable Mars – where the imagined becomes suddenly actionable. We can cite the opening paragraph of Leo Marx’s Machine in the Garden, which describes European preoccupation with the New World:

The pastoral ideal has been used to define the meaning of America ever since the age of discovery, and it has not yet lost its hold upon the native imagination. The reason is clear enough. The ruling motive of the good shepherd, leading figure of the classic, Virgilian mode, was to withdraw from the great world and begin a new life in a fresh, green landscape.

We can adapt what continues into prescience:

And now here was a virgin planet! Inevitably the Earthly mind was dazzled by the prospect. With an unspoiled atmosphere in view it seemed that mankind actually might realize what had been thought a poetic fantasy. Soon the dream of a retreat to an oasis of harmony and joy was removed from its traditional… context. It was embodied in various utopian schemes for making Mars the site of a new beginning for Western society.

To some, such utopian schemes look something like the communes of the sixties, a way to disappear from the existing social structures one finds vestigially or else actively oppressive and to live within a more homogeneous group of like-minded people. To other communities no doubt, Musk’s announcement has stirred memories of Garveyan emigration, Bradbury’s “The Other Foot” less fiction than reality.* But it has brought with it as well the old tensions of engagement and escape, exit and voice, reformation versus fresh starts. This paper attempts to ask (in part through an investigation of Bradbury’s writings and A Midsummer Night’s Dream) the issues immanent in either option, and where we are headed as a culture. Shall we build society anew, fleeing to the corners of the universe, or else double-down on our existing structure, renovating it from within?


* See Bradbury’s “The Other Foot,” The Illustrated Man, which describes an all-black colony on Mars: “‘Well, the white people live on Earth, which is where we all come from, twenty years ago. We just up and walked away and came to Mars and set down and built towns and here we are. Now we’re Martians instead of Earth people. And no white men’ve come up here in all that time.'”


II.

And what are the problems we face? In part they are physical, environmental. Currently our culture is in a process of accelerating change, a process stretching back tens of thousands of years and whose effects on the atmosphere date, depending on interpretation, either to the beginnings of the Industrial or else Agricultural Revolution.[3] Increasing technological turnover is transforming the way we live but also the air we breathe – oxygen into carbon dioxide and methane gas. This is a problem exacerbated by the clearcutting of vast swathes of forest and woodland around the globe.

In part our problems are structural. While conservatives and progressives agree on little in today’s era of increased partisanship, there is one central outlook they share: that our society is not presently where we want it to be. It is the opinion of essentially no one that the world’s cultural or political order at present is optimal or utopian.* In part this is embedded in the very etymology
of utopia; it is an uninhabitable longing, more cardinal direction than concrete coordinate. Utopia’s very impossibility undergirds the steelman conservative impulse; it is part of a worldview that ascribes risk and trade-off to progressive reforms, and views liberalism as seeking “the profit of what is not” at the risk of “losing or destroying what in fact is.” (Ursula K Le Guin)

In part, at last, these problems are spiritual. Sarah Perry, in “An Ecology of Beauty and Strong Drink,” argues the existence of a metaphoric clearcutting. Modern society, she writes, has undergone a variety of ritual deforestation:

Ordinarily, rituals evolve slowly and regularly, reflecting random chance as well as changes in context and technology. From time to time, there are shocks to the system, and an entire ritual ecosystem is destroyed and must be repaired out of sticks and twigs.

Spiritual clearcuttings, like the literal destruction of a forest, result in two stages of eco-renewal. First, short-term ritual “weeds” flourish in the absence of canopies; Perry cites the consumption of toxic wood spirits by many Americans during prohibition, and the high rate of alcoholism and drug abuse among American Indians, as examples of quick but poor solutions which follow the imposed destruction of long-held ritual practice. Reforestation takes time, but it yields more sustainable and enduring practice.

If atheism (in America, the weakening of Judeo-Christian practice) coupled with accelerating cultural and technological change has resulted in our contemporary spiritual clearcutting then the prospects of sustainable ritual reforestation appear dire. Acceleration is not changing; it is only accelerating itself. We cannot assume an ecologically sustainable set of spiritual practices is possible in an environment of constant technological and cultural change. It is important, then, that we are careful in articulating exactly what it is we mourn. Is it the specific spiritual practices, or ritual itself, or is it the consequences and effects of general spirituality – community building, meaning generation, and identity dissolution? If it is the latter, there are perhaps new categories of practice and cultural organization which can better achieve these ends. Turner would cite the liminoid (defined here later, Section VII) as a post-industrial successor to the liminal, meeting many of its same needs. Allan Kaprow’s Happenings, meanwhile, provided the meditative presentness that ritualistic repetitive practice cognitively entails – though it achieved such effects through ephemerality and improvisation rather than repetition. This is a consequentialist, pragmatic, and even Deweyan approach, which prizes not the thing itself but its effects.

To many – conservatives especially but also a growing population of young liberals (reconstructionists, metamodernists, others) – contemporary spiritual scarcity is cause for despair. We must be careful: the same mechanism that undergirds our pastoral nostalgia also motivates our response to change in general, leading to reaction and push-back, pessimism and a desire to return to the purportedly “golden” years of the past. And we must be wary of the pernicious cognitive bias of an “atypical present” – the distortion in perception that causes so many generations to argue that their respective eras are deviations from, rather than logical continuations of, historical patterns. (Raymond Williams’s example of the pastoralist “escalator,” in which he accumulates a growing list of authors and social critics proclaiming their own age to be that of nature’s last breath, is an illustration of this distortive power in literal, arboreal clearcutting. Each poet or novelist sees himself as central to a long historical teleology, a sudden shift or development rather than momentary passing in geologic time.)

Yet Perry’s position, and the possibility of a pragmatic and liminoid spirituality, is a more balanced worldview. Rituals and tradition can both liberate and bind us. Clearcutting – the overnight razing of existing structures – is also an opportunity for rebuilding and regrowth; it leaves a “pristine space” in which new, better adapted vegetation can emerge.


* Along the coordinates of a Thiel 2×2, organized by optimism vs. pessimismand determinism vs. indeterminism, we can understand better our political map in relation to the twin longings of pastoralism and utopianism (intersecting in Arcadia). Determinate pessimists are traditionally understood as conservatives, who believe that liberalism and so-called progress has been to the greater detriment of society. Indeterminate pessimists, like Rousseau, believe we once beheld utopia and lost it; it is a Biblical worldview, or else a generally anti-progressive belief in “cool” societies à Lévi-Strauss. Determinate optimists, e.g. liberal humanists and Marxists, perceive a clear, single, or certain route forward towards social improvement, while indeterminate optimists must take a portfolio approach of experimentation; they can be understood, as will be later explored, as antistructuralists.

Sontag, “The Anthropologist as Hero”: “…many of Levi-Strauss’ students are reported to be former Marxists… It is strange to think of [them] – philosophical optimists if ever such have existed – submitting to the melancholy spectacle of the crumbling prehistoric past. They have moved not only from optimism to pessimism, but from certainty to systematic doubt.”

[Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation, “The Anthropologist as Hero,” (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), 73.]


III.

It is, of course, more precise to say we are living among a multiplicity of pristine islands. If public enthusiasm appears somewhat tempered in the wake of Musk’s announcement, perhaps it is because, in its own way, the Internet’s almost infinite cyberscape already enables individuals to “withdraw from the great world” and operate within virtual versions of communes. It is becoming increasingly obvious that we are today moving towards a subcultural or “fragmented” society – terminology, in part, depending on the stance one occupies in response to such developments. Many, unsatisfied with their birth lottery or the local culture they inhabit, are choosing to opt out; they are turning their time and attention towards the Internet where previously, drawn by images and the possibility of greener pastures, there would have been the burden of migrating physically elsewhere. Today, “American synth-heads will have much more in common with English, German, Chinese, synth-heads than they will the evangelical Christian or the Southern Baptist,” Gwern writes; the new social identity is trans-national and full of choice.

This American culture stands in stark contrast with the majority consensus of Cold War liberalism and twentieth century mass culture. “It is difficult to imagine now, but every night tens of millions of families would sit down together in front of their TV set watching the same show, at the same time, as their next door neighbors… We were literally in sync,” Paul Graham recalls. And Charles Murray, in Coming Apart (via Gabe Duquette):

The Neilson ratings that week placed eight CBS programs in the top ten, led by The Beverly Hillbillies with a rating of 34.9, meaning that 34.9 percent of all American homes with a television set. Since 93 percent of American homes had a television set by 1963, the upshot was that the same program was being watched in almost a third of all the homes in the United States… By way of comparison, the number one show in the 2009-10 season, American Idol, considered to be a gigantic hit, had a rating of 9.1

In the meantime, partisanship has heightened and cultural divides grown measurably so, in both senses of the term. This is not without consequences. Whereas once our cultural commentators (Bourne, “Trans-national America,” 1916; Macdonald, “Masscult and Midcult,” 1960) warned of American monoculture, today they are worried over polyculture. It is a preferred explanation for our increasing national partisanship and the election of Donald J. Trump – a potent combination of algorithmic tribes, carved up by media feeds catering to their political opinions, and an increasing intranational disintegration of shared values, priors, or language by which to communicate.* Even (or especially) within party structures, there is isolation. The alt-right perspective – though the term itself is an umbrella category encompassing neo-monarchist, neoreactionary, neonazi, oligarchal, and accelerationist views – would be virtually incomprehensible to an average evangelical voter or Midwestern unionist, though all supported Trump’s candidacy.

Many believe the Internet is no longer the tool for democracy it was once imagined to be, and indeed it is in the Internet era that the value of democracy itself is suddenly challenged among a number of American citizens.


* Nitsuh Abebe of New York Times Magazine recounts that in the early 2010s, the Internet was a good place to find conversations about music that [were] doomed from the beginning conversations between people whose perspectives on music [were] so foreign to each other that they [could] barely communicate. “You get to a point where they might as well come from alternate universes.”


IV.

Again, the reactionary and alarmist impulse, almost paradoxically, is not limited to conservatives. It is becoming routine among liberals to view subcultural society, catalyzed by algorithmic media, as giving rise to the paranoia and conspiracy theories of the right. There is little acknowledgment among those who proclaim the new ” Weirding” of society, or lament the irrationality of the reactionaries, that we have always as a race held illogical, wild, and unpredictable beliefs. The tabloids of yesteryear (and yellow journalism of the early 20th century) precede the advent of the Internet, and seem to rise almost inevitably from that potent interaction that is personhood and print.

We are at our best when we keep an eye towards the long-view, aware of the cognitive bias – itself quasi-nostalgic – that creates the impression of an atypical present diverging and differing in a paradigmatic way from the course of history. Trump’s election is not without Jacksonian or Nixonian precedent, to cite perhaps the most pertinent example. This is not to invalidate the subcultural thesis, but to qualify the lamentation which surrounds it. We would do well to note Theseus, Act V Scene I of A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends […]
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold
That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt…

Lovers imagine a utopia in mankind’s collective past, or else the childhood of their individual pasts; it is a utopia which modernity has inevitably tainted. Madmen, meanwhile, are those cultural pundits who see only the cruelties of contemporary life, ignoring all of its kindnesses. Both are complementary impulses, arising from the same internal spring and often embodied in the self-same persons. Their product will always be the distortion of our temporal and teleological perception.

The very oscillation of cultural anxiety mentioned earlier – first denouncing monoculture, then denouncing polyculture, and with little qualification of either denouncement – is evidence of these impulses. Where once we saw only a cultural phenomenon’s flaws, its issues, its problematics (“e. unibus pluram“), today we see only its elegance: common ground yielding political cooperation, shared culture yielded common language, and above all some sublime sense of cultural unity, a people connected. This pattern of cultural critique is itself unsustainable; it requires correcting, or at least wariness.

It is therefore important to note trends which run counter to, or else qualify, the subcultural society thesis. Generalized globalization, and specifically the Americanization of global culture, is at unprecedented levels. Education is becoming increasingly standardized, and ontological beliefs about the world slowly converging. While within this country, and the wealthier Western nations, we may be seeing a turn towards subculture, this does not extend internationally. But what is happening here may well be a sign of what will come everywhere, and more quickly than we would imagine.

Thankfully, a host of social benefits accompany subculture, ignored by those madmen who mourn monocultural demise. Many of these benefits are even
solutions to the problem of ritual clearcutting. Meaningness and communal belong, two of modernity’s most notoriously lacking qualities, derive from subculture. In a society of seven billion, “you can’t make a mark… unless there are almost as many ways to make marks as there are person.” Subcultures service both urban and rural residents in equal measure. They can both shrink the world’s overwhelming scope or else expand it towards equal ends – the amelioration of modern interpersonal alienation. In both phenomena there is belonging, a coming home or tribal discovery.

As much as belonging, subcultures equalize status and hierarchy. Those typically sentenced to low socioeconomic status can find high status in the recesses of the Internet, where the normal genetic and environmental privileges of mainstream society matter much less than the devotion of time and effort; this in turn minimizes social aggression: “When there are multiple overlapping hierarchies of status there is more of a chance of people not fighting their superior within the status chain. And the more severe the imposition of the single hierarchy in people’s lives, the more likely they are to engage in conflict with one another.”11

The way subcultures promote isolation and seclusion, then, mirrors the larger costs and advantages of escapism and engagement. Intra-community, people appear happier; there is less tension, more like-mindedness, more belonging. Inter-community, we cannot seem to communicate anymore as we once did; we are fragmented and caught unaware in bubbles; we cannot comprehend opposing views or see things from another side. It is an issue of prioritizing the village versus the civilization, and balancing the priorities and interests of either, in order that we may strike the optimal balance for the interests of the individual.

TWO

V.

Fig. 1: Shift in romantic feelings (left) and marriage plans (right) in AMND between the play’s start (top) and end (bottom).

Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream charts the course of four couples’ mutating relations over the course of four days (the length of festivities leading up to one of the couples’ – Theseus and Hippolyta – planned marriage day). At the play’s start, conflict emerges in a set of unbalanced, asymmetrical relationships that endangers social stability: Hermia’s father, exerting his traditional power as arbiter of his daughter’s marriage choice, threatens her with the legal punishment of exile to a convent should she protest her planned engagement to Demetrius in favor of Lysandre (with whom she is in love). A utopian, pragmatic society which adequately deals with its citizens’ conflicting desires has been prevented by tradition; this forms the central conflict of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which juxtaposes an ideal possibility with the traditional dysfunction, “two social planes, of which one is preferred and consequently in some measure idealized.”[1] In this case, by presenting romantic marriage between Hermia and Lysandre as the play’s resolution, Shakespeare privileges the “pragmatic” progressive model over the conservative malfunctioning worldview.

The fictional forest outside Athens, where much of A Midsummer Night’s Dream takes place, is described as being in no particular place except “away from” – away from parental oppression, social structure, and traditional, irrational law. It is a location which, as the site of resolution and a “happier society”[13] allows a world as it ought to be instead of as it is, Lysandre and Hermia united instead of apart. The forest’s power in part derives from its separation from the city – it is symbolically liberating in its separateness but also practically a place of disruption and chaos, which in their wake reveal possibility. These are the possibilities of identity transformation, of requited rather than unrequited love; of sudden swooping lust, miraculous and magical salvation, reversals of existing orders. Such reversals and experiments, moreover, are conducted in an almost embryonically sealed laboratory, where they can be conducted sans threat of their own messiness spilling too much into existing society (and thus disrupting it with excesses of liberalism). When individuals return to the city, the entropy has been resolved into sense-making, the disruption is reconciled with the disrupted, and only those evolutions or adaptations which can fit better, rather than more poorly, the social order to the natural, pragmatic will be inducted into urban law. (From the Amazon description of Woody Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy: “The story revolves around a party at the home of a Wall Street broker and his wife. They are joined by a third couple, a lady-killer doctor and his date, a ditzy nurse. By the end of the weekend, sexual partners are changed.”)

VI.

“‘After a couple of months out at the Penny Dreadful Mine, a jukebox looks like a stained-glass window to me. We need the town; without it, we might wake some morning and find ourselves all jerked beef and petrified rock. And then of course, the town needs us, too.’

‘How’s that?’ asked Samuel Fitts.

‘Well, we bring things into town it hasn’t got – mountains, creeks, desert night, stars…'”

– Ray Bradbury, “Almost the End of the World”

I will be more clear: The reading of A Midsummer‘s forest which I am advancing is as place culturally and physically peripheral to the main urban order – that larger social structure within which it is situated. This can be understood as what Turner more generally conceptualizes as “antistructure,” encompassing all alternatives to the present social system. The antistructure exists in dialogue with “the” structure – it informs, and is informed by the greater order; it reforms, and is reformed by, the greater political system. And it solves, in many ways, conservative objects to progressive initiatives: it acts as an incubator, an experimental lab. It is in this way similar to the idea – beloved by conservatives, with their allegiances to states’ rights – of American democracy as a product of many state and county-level laboratories: innovation is made more possible by the legal boundaries which quarantine, and thus minimize the reverberations of, any problematic new law. Though those in some provinces may feel threatened by legalizations in their sister states, memetic legislation is largely due the pros of certain laws appearing to outweigh their corollary cons. Tested prior to implementation, the laboratory of democracy allows a sort of middle-ground between exit and voice, progressivism and conservatism, engagement and escape.

(It is worth, I think, paying special attention to Midsummer Night‘s ending. A troupe of actors perform Pyramus and Thisbe at the work’s close [a play within a a play], and their performance helps facilitate, and coincides with, many of Midsummer‘s characters’ reconciliations. This raises the possibility of art as antistructural, a way of entertaining experimental moral codes and hypotheticals,[2] or else a mechanism of conflict resolution, particularly in this case between characters Theseus and Hippolyta. The stage is a destination to which pilgrims journey, experience some sort of catharsis or change, and then return back to their ordinary lives transformed, perhaps now able to work out issues which were previously intractable. Moreover, art is one of the most potent providers of cultural unity – it provides, through mirroring, a shared set of values, histories, narratives, worldview, and referents to its audience.* That subcultures so often split along lines of artistic or cultural consumption is symptom and catalyst of cultural fragmentation.)

Subcultures are promising not only because they promote pacifism or overlap social hierarchies or generate meanings, but because they act as a potent sort of antistructure. They are, of course, not entirely without precedent: before the subculture came the counterculture, which like the subculture held itself in dialogue with the greater social system. Both subculture and counterculture are in this way a part of the antistructure. Where counterculture was limited to a unifying, coalition presence, however, subcultures are of a theoretically infinite number and variety. And where the counterculture was almost inherently positioned as subordinate and inherently stigmatized[3] – undermining its efficacy – subcultures sit on level ground. A subcultural society is one without a center. We can see this in the shift from a culture of capital “C” – unifying and universal – to a lower-case “c.”


* “Arcadia would either reflect the social and political world, or be confronted by it. And as Arcadia was, from the very beginning, a product of art – with its origins in Virgil’s Eclogues – the romance also made it possible for the reader to observe the relation of art to reality as well as the effects brought about by this relation.” [Wolfgang Iser, “The Dramatization of Double Meaning in Shakespeare’s As You Like It,” in Prospecting: From Reader Response to Literary Anthropology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989), 98.] And in “Spenser’s Arcadia”: “The intentional removal of Arcadia from the setting of the familiar world, without actually cutting it off from that world, constitutes a basic condition of all literature… Throughout its history, Arcadian fiction has always preserved this distance… [which] endows the Arcadian world with a sense of otherness, and this is necessary if it is to remain detached from the political present whose problem it attempts to solve.” [Iser, “Spenser’s Arcadia: The Interrelation Between Fiction and History,” in Prospecting, 73.]


VII.

Fig. 2: Ideal town center model of inter-subcultural/antistructural communication.

We must push ourselves into conversation, of course. All of subculture’s experimental and progressive potential is wasted when it is isolated, when it does not or cannot interact with the larger society itself. Montaigne: “We seem to have no other standard of truth and reason than the opinions and customs of our own country. There at home is always the perfect religion, the perfect legal system – the perfect and most accomplished way of doing everything.” This bias demands confrontation as much as any other, as we head again away from the more easily actionable agreement of Cold War liberalism and 20th century monoculture. Importantly, subcultures cannot make the claims to universality, or deterministic worldview, which previously incentivized the counterculture. In this way, subcultures are (at least relative to counterculture) more predisposed to connection than opposition, but they will not behave automatically so. A center, somewhat like the town square of old, is necessary (see Fig. 2) which can facilitate connection. Society is re-sorting itself along new lines, lines chosen voluntarily and in direct defiance of birthright or lottery. The prominence of movements such as “Trannies for Trump,” or of figures like Peter Thiel and Milo Yiannopoulos – the latter a gay and Jewish conservative who has called homosexuals a “superior breed” – reflects political incentives (the usefulness of a deflective mouthpieces against accusations of -isms) but also a new sensibility of affiliation, or attitude towards orientation. Like the shift from “liminality” to the “liminoid,” there is a prioritization of play and optionality over obligation. It is, one might say, an increasing separation of our phenotypes from our genotypes. Yiannopoulos self-describes as anti-feminist and pro-queer; he has been spotted exiting nightclubs in the early hours of the morning and dousing himself in pig’s blood at a (self-proclaimed) avant-garde art show fundraising in support of Trump. Those who use the term “the” alt-right, or qualify that there are “two” alt-rights, in addition to “one” alt-left, are clueless to the subcultural spectrum entirely. Counter-cultural coalitions are dissolving into subcultural amalgamations with little inter- or intra-coalition dialogue. A return to European balkanization in such a climate is a dystopian possibility, perhaps already partially upon us; avoiding it involves a shedding of universalism, or of totalizing worldviews, in favor of pragmatic compromise and interaction – the belief that one’s subculture may not iterate well onto larger populations, and may itself be an imperfect system standing to learn from the whole, which if left unchecked becomes as B. R. Ambedkar would argue of the Indian village,* a “den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism.”

Insofar as subcultural society is “better” it does not mean “without problems.” It will require adaptation, adjustment, work.** Where once we had a private and a public sphere, today’s world requires a subcultural and cultural sphere. And each entails its own unique language, its own shared values system, a set of priors or metasystem which promotes and incentivizes mutualism in coexistence; perhaps this metasystem will consist of least common denominators, or optimization between subcultural and civilization-level ends, or else a concept of overlapping consensus. Certainly it must involve a symbiotic view of economics and culture, rather than zero-sum game espoused by isolationists. We must become pluralists anew-again – that is, along new lines, and in new ways – and this pluralism’s requisite bilingualism will almost certainly prove more difficult than learning a literal language. (Nor can the majority make an imposition onto the minority as once they did; we are all minorities now, and therefore all must learn). We cannot mistake our subculture for the culture, or mistake our adapted subcultural norms as the optimal solution for other subcultural environments or species.

Moreover, to extend the ecosystem analogy, and draw upon theories of cultural evolution, we are aware that interaction between diverse ideologies, perspectives, and idea-spaces increases our rate of innovation. And yet we must have both these things in conjunction for such an effect to exist – both the diversity and the interaction. The set of conditions which optimizes for each simultaneously infringes on the other. The more permeable interactive our spaces, the less unique their evolutionary paths. The less permeable and interactive our spaces, the less ideas can compete for pragmatic usefulness. The diversity and resistance to integration in America, by Jewish and black Americans, is in part what has led to the thriving cultural hybridity and momentum of its twentieth century culture. But such hybridity required a degree of assimilation as well, a mixture of opposing aesthetic and ideological approaches. Sistare notes in Civility and Its Discontents, “a distinctive feature of the last half-century has been increased resistance to assimilation and cultural homogeneity on the part, especially, of previously oppressed cultural groups.” Mirrored by anincreasingly subcultural atomization, this does not portend well for cultural or structural innovation – a stagnancy of gene pools – unless attempts at interaction are made.


* Mark Twain’s comment, in visiting India, that “All the me in me is in a little Missouri village half-way around the world,” is interpreted by Lasch in Progress and its Critics as ambiguously sentimental, but in this context it can also be read as a statement of particularism: what makes Twain specifically Twain is the parochial nature of his upbringing, and therefore that which makes him different from his fellow men. [Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics (New York: Norton, 1991), 100.]

** Culture is “a sea of intersecting tides that sweeps us up in its currents, and we often feel unable to direct… our cultural wash,” Sistare writes; we must not let ourselves be passively swept, or to passively allow our worst impulses to, like growing winds, overly disturb a placid ocean. [C. T Sistare, Civility and Its Discontents: Essays on Civic Virtue, Toleration, and Cultural Fragmentation (Lawrence, Ka: University Press of Kansas, 2004), 197.]


VIII.

“Culture is a sort of theatre where various political and ideological causes engage one another. Far from being a placid realm of Apollonian gentility, culture can even be a battleground on which causes expose themselves to the light of day, and contend with one another.”
– Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism

There is an argument among some escapists that the ideal society is one which allows all subcultures to exist with as little overarching structure as possible. David Chapman, following Scott Alexander (himself taking cues, ostensibly from Chandran Kukathas), refers to this as archipelago theory, which he sees as logistically impossible but ideologically desirable:

The ultra-condensed summary of Archipelago [Theory] is this. People have radically different opinions about how society should be organized. Probably many of these ideas are right-for different sorts of people. So, ideally, everyone who wants to live in a fundamentalist theocracy can go do that, and everyone who wants to live in a socialist welfare state can go do that, and everyone who wants to live in rationalist capitalist minarchy can go do that. If we had many spare islands, each type of society could set up on a different one, and not step on each others’ toes.

Archipelago Theory suffers from two significant problems. One is the matter if its impossibility, which is entirely the point. We must find pragmatic, consequentialist solutions instead of struggling with cargoculted ideologies and ethics. Two is its fundamental misreading of socialist and leftist arguments. Logistically, Archipelago Theory is unfriendly to a socialist islands because members would shift communities depending on which are most advantageous or desirable, and a leftist subeconomy would become impoverished and unsustainable when its wealthiest members are constantly turning over and leaving. Moreover, Chapman’s argument ignores the leftist politics of birthright obligation for a libertarian poliics of birthright freedom. The former is an outlook still very much in contention as a worldview and philosophical stance, whose steelman involves scenarios of a “prenatal vote,” in the spirit of Rawls’s “veil of ignorance” and informed by ideas of money’s diminishing returns. Voting members, on an equal ethical playing ground of democratic representation, and without foreknowledge of their life outcome or birth lottery, must decide an ideal system in which they wish to partake. We would struggle to imagine such vote deciding on an archipelago ideal, in a similar vein of practice as our contemporary – actual – insurance models. Utilitarian perspectives on diminishing returns are a useful ethical outlook in regarding the living conditions of others, but if we were to decide whether we would rather inherit a planet in which both the maximum and minimum quality of living boundaries were compressed, so that we would sacrifice the possibility of extreme wealth in order to eliminate the possibility of extreme poverty, we would likely have a substantial majority. See, for example, the rates of buy-in on insurance policies among the educated and able.

(Of course, explore-exploit optimization and utilitarian conceptions of equal ethical priority for both present and yet-unborn generations arguably impels a sort of progress – explore-exploit referring to the optimization problem of what percentage of time should be spent exploring better solutions and what proportion should be dedicated to exploiting and putting our discoveries to use. In any case, given projections of singularity, multi-planetary systems, and transhumanism, the exploration proportion will always be a fraction of near-infinity – the amount of time until entropy – and therefore itself will be virtually infinite. Slowing rates of innovation and structural tinkering can be considered immoral in that they lower the standard of living an almost infinite amount of human beings. A pre-natal vote, then, as a thought experiment, may be obligated to include not only today’s but tomorrow’s generations.)

Even if one does not accept these premises, or endorse these arguments, it is equally against the spirit of the antistructure to impose a structure which makes impossible an entire set of plausible improvements; it appears to me that the balance between libertarian logistics arguments for progress and improving living standards over the long duree, and leftist politics of short-term equality, and all within a utilitarian framework is yet to be struck.

In any case, we must cooperate more than ever because we are moving closer and closer together physically. Chapman himself acknowledges this: “there would need to be an overarching governmental structure whose main job was to keep the different systems from interfering with each other.”

IX.

Eventually, as Musk and others predict, we may begin to split geographically and physically apart throughout the universe, dispersing first among nearby planets and then among nearby systems. In the immediate future, however – at least the next forty to fifty years, and likely at least one century or two – we will increasingly move closer together.

The metropolis is, and has been for nearly ten-thousand years, an increasingly common organizational mode of our populace. This is unambiguously true in a global sense, especially the longview: even in America, despite the greener-pastures suburban exodus of the sixties and seventies (a mere anomaly in a consistent historical trend), we are returning once again to the city center. This, in the immediate sense, is inevitable and inescapable, but it also proves of considerable value, despite the increasingly necessity of geopolitical cooperation and coordination it will require in order to escape stagnation and decay.

This approach will have to be pragmatic instead of ideological; the old tribalist assumptions of supremacy and purity – not just racial or cultural but also of message, of platform, of politics – will not work. Pastoral longing can be used strategically, for example; Matthew Baldwin and Joris Lammers, publishing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencies, write in the abstract to “Past-focused Environmental Comparisons Promote Proenvironmental Outcomes for Conservatives,”:

Political polarization on important issues can have dire consequences for society, and divisions regarding the issue of climate change could be particularly catastrophic. Building on research in social cognition and psychology, we show that temporal comparison processes largely explain the political gap in respondents’ attitudes towards and behaviors regarding climate change. We found that conservatives’ pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors improved consistently and drastically when we presented messages that compared the environment today with that of the past.

But neither can we let such sympathies impede pragmatic, but ideologically uncomfortable, solutions like nuclear energy, climate engineering, or genetically modified crops.

At the environmental level again, cities are pragmatic solutions to literal clearcutting; they allow, by concentrating vast populations in small areas (despite a maintained dependence on pastoral farmland), natural-system restoration and megagardening, the restoration of the Earth’s health “at every scale from local soil to the whole atmosphere.” They minimize the imposition of man onto the landscape, preserving the existence of rural (and romanticized as arcadian) or natural areas. And as pressing as the need for coordination in our urban metropolises, our environment demands action with even greater urgency. Archipelago-esque, libertarian thinking and weakened structure cannot work when the actions of one influence the lives of many. Even island societies and libertarian seasteaders, otherwise sequestered from the world at large, inevitably affect and are affected by one another. Examples include vaccinations, antibiotic resistance, and maybe most crucially of all, environmental change. It is a metasystem that will succeed at preserving or else building anew a better, greener world.


Endnotes

This essay is intended partially as a response to Jacob Blumenfield’s essay “Infinite Crisis,” from the December 6th issue of the Brooklyn Rail. It is dedicated to the memory of Mark Fisher, who passed away early in 2017 and wrote the brilliant music criticism essay “Another Grey World.”

[1] Frye, Northrop, Anatomy of Criticism. 1957.

[2] Cf. Wolfgang Iser, “Representation: A Performative Act,” in Prospecting: From Reader Response to Literary Anthropology, 1989.

[3] Laura Chernaik, Social and Virtual Space: Science Fiction, Transnationalism, and the American New Right (Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2005), 31-36.

Further Readings

Christine Sistare, Civility and Its Discontents: Essays on Civic Virtue, Toleration, and Cultural Fragmentation, 2004.

Post-Ritual Space: Berghain,” Suspended Reason, 2017.

Stewart Brand, Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto, 2009.

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Comments

  1. Finally got to this essay. I like the broad conclusion that combines the archipelago theory with the city-state future a lot of us like, with the idea of clearcutting/ecosystem restoration in the negative space of the archipelago, modulo the presence of an interconnecting public space.

    The direct relevance of terraforming to this discussion is a little shaky in my mind, because there are other stronger reasons to explore space and terraform other planets/colonize them than to simply re-enact age-old patterns of dynamic interplay between frontiers and interiors, fragmented subcultural margins and connected civilizational centers, etc. But still, an interesting thing to consider.

    The idea of ‘In this way, subcultures are (at least relative to counterculture) more predisposed to connection than opposition, but they will not behave automatically so. A center, somewhat like the town square of old, is necessary (see Fig. 2) which can facilitate connection’ is a very key idea, one that I came to via Hannah Arendt’s discussion of the public combined with observations of the decay of Twitter in its valiant attempts to serve that particular role.

    I lean towards a more temporally decentered view of the public (fragmented not just in space by a polycentric grand narrative where there are publics besides some lineal descendant of the Athenian polis, but in time across frontier and tradition zones). Working on a post on this idea at the moment in fact, so this is very timely food for thought for me.

    I do agree that subcultures tend towards connection despite their apparent tendency to divergence and disconnection, and that something like a public is necessary to catalyze that connection. But I think there’s a different force external to culture that forces divergence anyway, with or without a public/town square. This is simply the possibility that the arc of the history itself tends towards epistemic divergence. I actually believe this, and covered it in Can You Hear Me Now which is as clear a personal epistemic manifesto as I’ve ever written.

    Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition also ponders this problem, but reaches the opposite conclusion from the one I have. She blames humans themselves for divergence, through their abandonment of freedom (which requires appearing in ‘public’ among a plurality of humans) for a weaker notion of sovereignty enjoyed within a garden-household boundary (a metaphor central to her account, and also a good one for subcultures and boundary-centric theologies in general, such as Sarah’s ‘Gardens Need Walls’ argument).

    Arendt thinks of the Public as a space defined via negativa, through the marking out of boundaries of households within which free humans (men) have their lower needs met, and which women and slaves never get to leave. Her conception of the law is precisely that boundary which marks where the interior of the household laboring space begins, and protects the public from creeping encroachment by the private. The town square, so to speak, is a space that bounds the private out rather than bounding the public in. Arendt is well worth checking out on this topic if you haven’t already read her.

  2. Bill Walker says:

    Terraforming Mars is technically trivial… a few nukes to nudge an asteroid to impact the winter pole, and another nuke to burst it before impact. Instant 50% Earth-pressure atmosphere, mostly CO2. Plants can grow, humans can walk around with just O2 masks and no suits.

    Doubt that many spacers will want to abandon their one-G high-tech habitats to go live back in planetary hell, but who knows… Mars is small enough that a Beanstalk will work for easy interplanetary transport (just need two more nukes to remove the inconvenient Phobos and Deimos… ;)