Barbarism and its Discontents

[amazon-product]0981709125[/amazon-product]In The Barbaric Heart: Faith, Money, and the Crisis of Nature, Curtis White deploys for ideological battle in a literary academic’s full panoply, and there is pleasure in seeing so much wit and erudition put to such radical ends, but it’s precisely at the all-determining extreme points that his argument breaks down – that he stammers just like the bar-bar-barbarians whose vast and immortal heart he wants to tear to pieces.

Even in a work of less ambition, there would be no good excuse for a paragraph like the following, which appears at the finale of White’s extended attempt to bend the Second Law of Thermodynamics into an iron law of capitalist un-sustainability:

Unhappily, technological fixes will always run foul of the Second Law:  they will never succeed in being perfectly efficient, and they will create round after round of entropic events requiring each their own fix.  Examples of this are on the front page of our newspapers every day.  We speak of energy sources like ethanol or nuclear power as alternatives to carbon-based energy and as responses to climate change.  To the degree they do what they were intended to do – reduce CO2 – they create order.  But they create other forms of disorder (pollution) by a huge and frightening factor, not the least of which is the potential for “nuclear winter” should nuclear fuel get into the wrong hands.  Such “fixes” obey the Second Law of Thermodynamics by allowing disorder (entropy) to cascade in new directions.  In the end, the only fix is not technological but conservative:  conservation.  Literally, “working” less (especially our machines).

To put the matter perhaps a bit heartlessly, White knows his comp. lit. backwards, forwards, and round the world, but does not seem to have spent enough time on the other side of campus.

We can start with the most obvious error:  Contrary to White’s assertion, nuclear winter has nothing to do with “nuclear fuel… getting into the wrong hands.” The term refers to the theoretical aftereffects of the near simultaneous detonation of a large number of megaton-range nuclear warheads on or near their targets on the ground.  Though somewhat insusceptible to experimental verification, nuclear winter is easy to grasp.  Someone like White, who always assumes whatever worst case ecological scenarios as his starting point, ought to find the concept easy to understand, assuming he has ever actually looked into it, since nuclear winter is a simple version of anthropogenic climate change – one in which a very particular human action blots out sunlight by filling the sky with ash and dust.

As for the slightly more complex process that gets all the headlines, because carbon heat capture theory is sound and has been known to be so for well more than a century, the proper question regarding the “greenhouse effect” is not whether it will occur, but whether and how much it matters. The same goes for White’s other observations, at least if they are intended for practical or political consideration rather than as mere statements of faith or of moral or aesthetic judgment.  So, on that more general argument regarding the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, we can stipulate that unbounded material expansion of present-day industrial economies would eventually overwhelm the Earth’s ecosystem, but whether the ultimate and necessary limits of sustainability are likely to be met this year, this decade, this generation, this century, this millennium, or merely somewhere between today and the heat death of this universe makes all the difference in the world.  If the answer leads us to amend “The End Is Near” to “The End Might Be Near,” we’re back in politics, weighing comparative advantages and falling back on precepts of pluralism and compromise whose culturally fundamental character White at other points fully recognizes even as he suggests we may no longer be able to afford them.

That last contradiction ought to fill the author with despair:  Under his general line of argument, it would seem to imply that a catastrophe of Biblical proportions is inescapable, and still might not be sufficient to change people’s minds around to his point of view.  Yet rather than sign off on a lament, or on a prayer for strength, White’s final reaction is that of a patient under a terminal diagnosis, first grasping at a miracle cure, and eventually seeking solace in pure religious belief. After a rambling discussion under the heading “Democratic Vistas” – a discussion in which, I think rather indicatively, neither the word “democratic” nor its variants ever appear – The Barbaric Heart‘s last chapter gives way to an invocation in the early-Nietzschean mode of the “Dionysian” – ecstasy over reason, nature over civilization, art over science, Haight over Ashbury  – ending on a call for faith in “making our own world, demanding the impossible, and calling it Beautiful” (capitalization in the original).

I confess I find myself unmoved, but, if White and other keepers of our global eco-hospice find hope and comfort in such ideas, and otherwise pose no obvious danger to themselves or others, then it seems to me that interfering would be nothing short of barbarous.

33 comments on “Barbarism and its Discontents

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  1. @ miguel cervantes:
    Actually, the basic idea is sound. It’s just questionable whether we ever had enough nukes to bring a nuclear winter about. You should read the first comment under the post you link before you spin off into conspiratorial hyperspace beyond recall.

  2. Isn’t it curious that this theory came about, when Reagan challenged
    the premise of ‘the nuclear freeze, Jonathan Schell made his bones, on that topic. The Day After, was based on the premise that any challenge to the status quo, like the Pershing missile deployment, would ‘necessarily lead to WW 111. This is the thin gruel that Obama, and Biden, and even Kerry supped on.

    Ironically, many of these same folks are blythely unconcerned with having the bomb fall into the hands of a chiliastic psycho like Ahmadinejad, then I might be reading it wrong

  3. miguel cervantes wrote:

    Isn’t it curious that this theory came about, when Reagan challenged
    the premise of ‘the nuclear freeze, Jonathan Schell made his bones, on that topic.

    It might be, if the theory hadn’t preceded the nuclear freeze. The popularization of the theory was part of the counterattack against Reagan, but also against the resurgence of “limited nuclear war” and “nuclear warfighting” strategies. I don’t think you want to compare SDI or for that matter CIA assessments of Soviet intentions and capabilities to The Fate of the Earth on the fallibility scale.

    The Day After was not based on the premise you describe. It was based on heightened consciousness of the dangers of nuclear war. No one, it seems, had a higher consciousness of those dangers than Reagan himself, who relentlessly shocked and pissed off the far right with his determination to deal. Human Events and George Will were about ready to drum him permanently out of the conservative movement for his embrace of the “zero option” – now seen retrospectively as one of the great successes of his presidency.

    And, yes, you are reading it wrong, probably because you spend so much time reading the wrong. If you got your head out of Pajamas Media and AmericanPower and the like, you wouldn’t come up with such absurd characterizations of Obama-Biden-Kerry’s supposed levels of concern. Even if they did believe that the Iranian nuclear threat was overblown, they’re smart enough about their own interests to recognize a political threat.

  4. Obama from the Sundial piece, among others believed the nuclear freeze didn’t go far enough, in furthering his ‘peace and justice’ views, Kerry, slandered a whole generation of his fellow servicemen, and used
    that as his stepping stone to office, The 2007 NIE, was curiosly absent
    of many contradictory notes, like the Mousavian communique to Khamenei. (Candor that rendered that fellow, a fate similar to that of Krasin). Van Diepen was promoted for that last view point, to higher
    ranks in the bureaucracy.

  5. miguel cervantes wrote:

    Obama from the Sundial piece, among others believed the nuclear freeze didn’t go far enough, in furthering his ‘peace and justice’ views,

    So what? What does that have to do with anything?

    Kerry, slandered a whole generation of his fellow servicemen, and used
    that as his stepping stone to office,

    What does that have to do with anything?

    The 2007 NIE, was curiosly absent
    of many contradictory notes, like the Mousavian communique to Khamenei. (Candor that rendered that fellow, a fate similar to that of Krasin). Van Diepen was promoted for that last view point, to higher
    ranks in the bureaucracy.

    What does that have to do with anything?

  6. In critiquing your critique, I would say it lacks something in regards to CK humor. I know you’re at a disadvantage because you can’t expect your audience to have read the book. As you know, I have. For an English professor, I think White actually did a very nice job with the religious hopefulness. It was presented in a way that I think a lot of anti-religious people could go with. There’s something fair and balanced about it and the book in general. He doesn’t just blame corporate fascism like me, for example. He gives it to Gore in really reasonable way, in connection with a misplaced faith in science. I think what you’re sensing is that his previous time as an anti-religious type makes him feel that his present relatively pro-religious position is new and surprising when not everyone (including you) feels that way. You do that in connection with your old Marxist beliefs. You’ve been there and done that, so you must have been a better type of conservative when you went into the “conservative nuthouse” for a time. But just as I think you do actually do a good job with conservative perspectives, I think White actually does a good job with his spiritual take. You were “unmoved.” That’s okay. You appreciated what was there in the way I thought you might. Again, when I saw what your post was about, I was like, “This is going to be good.” I ended up being underwhelmed, especially in respect to humor. You are a thousand times funnier than White. Humor is what’s missing with him. Maybe another pass at it?

  7. @ Scott Miller:
    In his fiction, White can be quite cuttingly funny, and, though I was being generous in the review when I mentioned his wit, it does peek through now and then. I think, however, since he’s writing not just to persuade, but in a sense to alarm, outright humor would have been out of place.

    As for taking another pass on the book, I just don’t have the time, not if I’m ever going to cope with a backlog of pieces, dive all the way into my larger writing project, and advance a certain editing project you know something about… and also keep on blogging, and also keep on running my business… and catch a few bowl games… and mew-mew-mew, sorry for whining.

    On the “religious” perspective, having just finished reading a philosophical biography of Freddie Nietzsche, I was very much primed to be underwhelmed by White’s ending, which comes across as extremely derivative. For many people unfamiliar with Nietzsche, I think it would come across as kind of insane, and as far less than White seemed to be promising or at least calling for, which’s what people reading hair-tearing-out manifestos like this one most want to know: OK, OK, OK – I hear them yelling – so what the heck are we supposed to do?

    In my opinion he punts, then just decides that he’s playing a different game entirely, and that punting is actually scoring – not to mention Beautiful. Like many who turn to anti-rationalism, White (like Nietzsche, too, for that matter) seems to propose the Peter Pan solution: If the audience just claps hard enough, Tinkerbell will come back to life, and if they believe hard enough, they can fly, too. Maybe it creates a Dionysian ecstatic spell for a little while, but I don’t think those last, and White asserting that a whole replacement civilization can be built on it doesn’t convince me at all all – and least of all because it dismisses and laughs at reason. Just because he says it’s a plus, doesn’t make it a plus.

    In short – I really, really wanted to avoid voicing the name “Hegel” – White is nowhere near dialectical enough in his understanding or his process. At one point he asserts, in a footnote, that so-and-so helped him to understand Hegel, and I laughed out loud.

    It looks to me like you could do your own pretty good counter-review of the book, however, and perhaps convey more of what it has to offer.

  8. @ CK MacLeod:
    Well, since you put it that way (and there’s something in it for me), I guess you’re off the hook. I’m afraid that if I did write a counter-review that that would also distract you. So I think I’ll let it go. Carry on.

  9. @ Scott Miller:
    Don’t worry about distracting me… I’m not heading off to a cabin in the deep dark woods for isolation… So what did you think of that twerpy rightwinger calling for Vick to be “executed.” I know you probably don’t want to be in the position of standing up for Vick… but… sheesh… Should I do a follow-up post on twerpy dude’s explanation and non-retraction retraction?

  10. @ CK MacLeod:
    If you do, can you include something from that Hot Air post that proclaimed that the only reason that Vick got a second chance in the NFL was because he could throw a football ?

  11. CK MacLeod wrote:

    So what did you think of that twerpy rightwinger calling for Vick to be “executed.” I know you probably don’t want to be in the position of standing up for Vick… but… sheesh

    Right. Ugliness is all directions. You’re right, I read it and realized I was feeling terrorized both ways. Rare moment. I’m all for everyone getting a second chance, and that does trump my militant feelings about animal cruelty and animal rights.
    So I’ll practice some avoidance. One of the things I kept thinking throughout the whole Vick deal was that it was stupid for supposedly smart football people to think he couldn’t come back. I new he could. Football is not a subtle sport. What works with it works and giving his legs a rest actually played to Vick’s advantage and that was predictable.

  12. What is the proper punishment for a thug like Vick, maybe great contemplation and isolation, but not to be rewarded handsomely
    for his slip up, then again Goodell is a reprehensible judge of character, so it’s not that surprising

  13. miguel cervantes wrote:

    rewarded handsomely
    for his slip up

    As usual, comment is in the wrong place, and, as too often, comment is a mess.

    The reward for his crimes was prosecution, public scorn, conviction, and prison, miggs. As well,his NFL contract with the Falcons was voided and he lost tens of millions of dollars.

    He doesn’t have any of my sympathy but he sure as hell not rewarded.

  14. An interesting and useful appearing review.

    I find myself dazzled by the fact that the discussion went so quickly from the threat (or not) of nuclear winter, attendant as it would be to 3 or 4 billion deaths from the nuclear war and global economic disruption regardless of the climate issue, to the threat (or not) of Michael Vick’s rehabilitation to public morals.

  15. Come to think of it, I am going to make one point, CK. It’s an old point and one that you’ve swatted away before without much consideration, so I can count on you doing that again and thereby not distracting yourself. Please, don’t let this distract you. Just read it and blow it off.
    My point has to do with “splitting.” That’s what I have pointed out before. To keep stuck–to be “unmoved”–you find fault on one side of the issue or another, knowing unconsciously that the two things are split, opposing, and not resolvable. Bush was brilliant at splitting. When someone questioned him on a moral level, he would talk practicalities and when someone questioned him on a practical level, he spoke of morality. “The war costs too much.” Bush: We are liberating people. “Democracy doesn’t happen in context of chaos, we need to help them rebuild…” Bush: We don’t have the manpower. I’ve notice you do something similar, only in a much more difficult to notice and difficult to figure out type of way. Unfortunately, all I can do (with my limited mental resources) is guide you toward a recognition. You’ll probably think that’s not fair, but from my perspective, this is for your benefit, so it’s okay to leave it to you to figure things out. The clue is that you criticize White for having a weak solution. Let’s say that’s the moral side. So you find fault with him on that level. You credit him in respect to practicality, even rightly explaining to me that it would have been a mistake for him to be funnier. You’re right. But if he didn’t do well in a practical way, you’d find fault with him there. And here’s the kicker. Even if he did do well on both levels, (which I think he did), you would still use splitting to make sure you weren’t moved. Why? “Inertia” is my guess.

  16. @ Scott Miller:
    No way am I going to remain un-distracted.

    My view is that, regardless of White’s or my or your performances, there is some greater or lesser conformity between White’s depiction of the universe and the real universe. If there is no real universe, then his book doesn’t matter at all, nor our opinions of it. White very much assumes that these things matter – and then with only a few pages to go he starts advocating an attitude of willful irrationality: If reason tells us (him) that the world is going to Hell, well, then, fuck reason and believe in redemption! Yet that’s what the barbarians believe, too, they just have different aesthetic and moral preferences, and different ingrained habits, than he does.

    The contradictions, or the need to develop a strategy for dealing with a hopeless/terminal situation, are inescapable if you assume the extreme case, as White does, but, since he gives the critical reader a set of “outs,” it’s too easy to avoid White’s self-entrapment. “The End Might Be Near” also means “The End Might Not Be Near.” So maybe there’s a role for reason and all that it implies after all. Maybe perfect and infinite sustainability is impossible, but maybe relative sustainability, what most people would just call sustainability, would be more than adequately terrific while we get about the long-term business of cultural and spiritual evolution, especially since reason and experience tell us that rushing that business often leads to conflict and contradictory real-world results.

  17. Uh-oh. Now I’ve done it. I agree with you that White does have some Barbarian tendencies. That’s why he can explain the B Heart so well. But it’s not just a question of him saying fuck reason and believe in redemption. You overstate that radically in my opinion. I think he’s a reason oriented guy who is trying to speak to the value of spirit. What he quotes Beethoven saying to the scientists is what applies: You want to dismiss what the musician knows because it’s pretty, but the real fact is that the musician knows what you don’t. Now, White is not the perfect spokesperson for spirit. Realized beings are the best spokespeople for spirit. But he does a good (albeit imperfect) job on the spirit side and I would think that people who value reason over “redemption” might be willing to go along with the imperfect reasonableness of White as he tries to open up to what he doesn’t know, but still recognizes as a viable (and maybe singular) alternative.
    I’ll have to think about the “White’s self-entrapment” part before commenting on that.

  18. Not having read the book I’m at a(n) (dis)advantage, but/so I’ll press on ahead.

    The except from White suggests to me Heidegger’s point (as I understand it) that Being is toolness and toolness is only possible/revealed through broken toolness.

    Technology is invisible to us unless it is new (to the user) or broken, because it functions as an extension of both consciouness and activity.

    So there can never be a technological fix for anything on an ontological level.

  19. @ Scott Miller:
    That doesn’t necessarily, or even unnecessarily, follow. There is no excuse for flubbing something as simple as “nuclear winter” when you’re setting yourself up as judge and jury on all of civilization, and when you don’t hesitate at other points to mock the “barbarians” for their stupidity. In addition, aside from what it does to White’s overall credibility, in the immediate context it puts in stark relief how much he’s pushing it with the 2nd Law stuff. Maybe we’re as far from the real limits of sustainability and of the usefulness of technological fixes as nuclear fuel “into the wrong hands” is from nuclear winter.

    And, very incidentally, “into the wrong hands” is a sloppy cliche. The whole point of his book, it seems to me, is that nuclear fuel is already in the wrong hands. Elsewhere he gives the impression that he doesn’t really believe that it’s ever in the right hands.

    I think I get bob’s point, but maybe I take from it something different from what Scott does. I take it to mean that White has problems at the collision points between feelings about everything and knowledge about things.

  20. White’s handling of the nuclear thing is pretty sloppy.

    I mean the Tsar knows nuclear.

    Part of my point is that we can’t/won’t really see the world until we break it. Just as we only really get a glimpse of ZC when Scott almost breaks it.

  21. Doing anything with “nuclear fuel” except making a dirty bomb at the cost of a whole lot of nasty radiation casualties on one’s own side, requires industrial effort on so large a scale as to be impossible to hide. And it’s probable that even extracting and concentrating the “good stuff” to make a dirty bomb would be detectable by drones taking air samples near a crude industrial effort.

    Already in our current world terrorists can steal mediocre stuff for making a dirty bomb from any number of hospitals and industrial operations that use isotopes. Or they can just take their conventional bomb to such a location and thus magnify its effect, at least psychologically. For instance, I’m sure it’s gone now – at least I hope it’s gone now; but IIT had a research reactor in a high floor of a research center back in the 1970s about five miles south of Chicago’s Loop. Even then, before Chernobyl, I thought that insane.

  22. Sully wrote:

    I’m sure it’s gone now – at least I hope it’s gone now; but IIT had a research reactor in a high floor of a research center back in the 1970s about five miles south of Chicago’s Loop.

    After hearing in a movie that New York’s Albert Shanker might be close to possessing them, Mayor Daley insisted that Chicago have a program that would provide an equalizer or two.

  23. @ fuster

    One nice thing about that research building, which also housed a lab specializing in the dispersal of aerosol agents, was its position at the end of campus near the McDonalds we shared with our redneck neighbors to the west and our pre-community organized neighbors to the south. The fact that a couple of Chicago cop cars were always, and I mean always, patrolling around that building, and more on warm evenings when one imagined hearing the boom of drums, the whetting of assegais and the duelling of banjos near the source of the all important Big Macs in those days when campus cafeterias were still primitive was very reassuring.

  24. @ fuster:

    That’s a very important fact. I already had you classified as a very exotic entity; but this puts you in a whole new light.

    I shall certainly mention to people that I’ve encountered a lifelong New Yorker who has never eaten a Big Mac, nor a fast food hamburger or cheesburger I assume.

  25. @ Sully: never eaten a cheeseburger anywhere.

    I began cooking and eating burgers at age 10 and have been employed as a grill cook in a couple of different placesas a teen, including in a chain shop called White Tower. I ate what I cooked there, but it was twice as thick as what I served to the customers and cooked differently.

  26. @ fuster:

    My fast food career was short, one summer, woring at Heap Big Beef. The franchise was more a southern thing and didn’t last long in upstate NY – pretty much that summer. I did save up enough to buy a Guild D-40 Bluegrass Jubilee. The balance of the sound is reqlly quite something. I haven’t played it in a couple years – it had been a once a year thing for a long time – a shot of scotch, a little blues, then general collapse. Sounds knda good, maybe give it a go tomorrow.

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