My latest in the International New York Times. Click here to read the pdf.
1. As with, say, colour perception, reports on the direct experience of feelings are necessarily veridical. E.g., you cannot report (in good faith) that you are experiencing fear, while not in fact being afraid.
2. This experience reveals that fear is real. One needn't go looking for fear in the world, as one would go looking for bigfoot or quarks. This is just not what we have in mind when we attribute reality to certain things.
3. I experience love.
4. God is, by definition, love.
5. Therefore, God is real.
Issue will be taken, of course, with step 4, as having a stipulative character. I am taking it from 1 John 4:8, but others will look to other biblical passages and to other religious traditions to say that God is an anthropomorphized being of some sort, or a theriomorphized one, or a many-headed chimera: in any case, a conscious agent, not a feeling.
But here one might also note that any virtue or feeling at all can be, and often is, anthropomorphized: justice, beauty, purity, etc., have all been represented as human beings in the history of art, and a future historian or a Martian anthropologist would be forgiven for inferring, for example, that late-modern New Yorker-New Jerseyans follow a cult around the goddess of liberty. This is one of the central concerns of the Jean Seznec's great book of 1940, The Survival of the Pagan Gods: the Mythological Tradition and Its Place in Renaissance Humanism and Art. We cannot make a facile distinction between the polytheism of the ancients and the artistic symbolism of the Renaissance: we often don't even know of ourselves whether we have in mind a concrete being, or rather an abstract ideal, principle, or emotion represented in the figure of a concrete being.
So I take it that in the Gospel of John what we are seeing is a stripping away of the symbolic dimensions of the social experience of God in order to lay bare the truth of the personal experience of God. And what we are left with is a sort of proof that is, in its own way, as forceful and incontrovertible as G. E. Moore's "Here is a hand, here is another hand..." It says, to distill the five steps down to the basic inference at their core: "Here is love, here is God..."
...the executioner himself adopts beside the block an offensively heroic pose, as if to do the thing with dignity were the only motive of the doing.
--Angela Carter, "The Executioner's Beautiful Daughter"
I knew another of my periodic retreats from the public expression of political opinions had arrived when, contacted by a certain French media outlet for my views on the recent electoral victories of the Front National, I muttered something about how I've been busy writing about animals recently, and then quoted Kropotkin to the effect that the animals, unlike us, seem to get by just fine without holding elections at all.
The name I've just invoked should serve as a guide to the sort of 'deviations' I am about to express, relative to what is increasingly a party-line view among young metropolitan leftists and their hangers-on in fashion and lifestyle.
Well, it's hard to really talk about 'views' in the age of memes. Surely you've seen it by now: the ironized, memified representation of the guillotine, often accompanied by slogans announcing that this is the fate awaiting the CEOs of Goldman Sachs, that 'the French knew how to deal with the 1%', etc. Likely the most iconic representation of that execution device in the past few years is the one presented on the cover of the Spring, 2013, issue of Jacobin Magazine, showing it as the 'Giljotin': an IKEA-bought, home-assembled, mass-produced piece of furniture.
I am not an admirer of the original Jacobins, and for this reason I cannot support any media venture that derives its name from that movement. The magazine has on occasion shown itself to be a lucid defender of truth and justice, as for example in a recent defense of serious social-scientific critique of capitalism, against the frivolous academic-blogger culture's displacement of our attention to the all-pervasiveness of gender, and that same culture's vain dream of fixing the associated problems by compelling everyone, pretty much, to just watch their language, and to make regular public performances of preparedness for privilege-checking, of 'radical humility'. "Give me a card-carrying brocialist over one of these oily 'allies' any day" is surely among the most refreshingly exasperated pleas from the left I've read in a long, long time.
But still, shame on Jacobin for helping to turn a murder weapon into an icon of urban radical fashion. I understand that from a certain point of view it is the same desire for 'realness' that motivates them both to publish lovely screeds against silly liberal moralizing and dead-end identity-mongering, on the one hand, and on the other hand to insist that what they are really pushing for is revolution, and that revolution means heads are going to roll, etc. But in truth I strongly suspect that most educated urban twenty-somethings who flirt with the symbol do so in the secret hope and expectation that it is never in fact going to come to that, that they will never be called on to pull the lever on a Goldman Sachs CEO, or on the small child of a Goldman Sachs CEO (nipping inheritance structures in the bud), or on a former comrade now accused of harboring too many deviations. Anyhow I know I would not pull the lever, and in fact I do think a scenario in which I would be called upon to do so is likely enough in the near future that I consider it important to spell out my position now. I am on the side of the people being guillotined, whoever they are, by definition.
Am I with the 1% then? It is only the most ill-informed and romantic idea of the history of the guillotine's use that would lead a young person today to suppose that it is an execution instrument uniquely suited to the despatching of people who have it coming: one-percenters, idiot bourgeois with Izod shirts and with pink sweaters tied around their necks, or this ridiculous pair. You would have to know nothing at all about the actual events of the French Revolution to suppose that only the late-18th-century equivalents of these familiar types met their doom at the guillotine. At the university in Paris where I teach, for example, there is an ampitheater, in which I sometimes have the honor of lecturing, named after Olympe de Gouges. She was a brave and lucid French feminist, murdered by the Jacobins in 1793, at the guillotine, effectively for no other crime than taking the idea of égalité a bit too seriously.
Many also do not know that the blade continued to fall long after the French Revolution had congealed into the French state. It was a weapon of state violence, by which the state monopoly on violence, against its own citizens, was continually demonstrated and reaffirmed up until the last French execution in 1977. The death penalty was formally abolished in France in 1981, and it is this abolition that now gives France, along with other EU states, a compelling moral voice in its routine denunciations of the continued use of capital punishment as state terror in the United States.
During the 187 years of its use in France, the guillotine was also deployed by other regimes whose claim to be exacting revolutionary justice by means of it was even more disputable. It was deployed in the murder of at least 16,000 people in Nazi Germany, and was used in countless secret executions in the GDR. Anyone can use a guillotine, in fact, just as anyone can use an electric chair or a 'cocktail' of fatal chemicals. The idea that one method of capital punishment is specially suited to revolutionary justice, while others are strictly the mark of oppressive regimes, is a symptom of the same pathetically sloppy thinking about capital punishment that currently enables it to continue in the United States: if only we could find the right way of doing it, liberals and lawmakers seem to think, then it would be just fine.
Until his retirement in 1981, France employed a single state executioner, a functionary of the Republic named Marcel Chevalier. He was married to the daughter of the previous state executioner, and at the moment of the abolition of the death penalty his son was in training to succeed him. (Revolutions generate their own inheritance structures.)
Chevalier was last called to duty for the beheading of a certain Hamida Djandoubi, a 28-year-old Tunisian immigrant, on September 10, 1977. Djandoubi had murdered his former French girlfriend, Elisabeth Bouquet, three years earlier. He was the sort of criminal who could easily find his way to an electric chair in the US. He was a sadistic murderer, a member of an increasingly detested minority group, and there was nothing, but nothing, counter-revolutionary about his transgression.
Remarkable testimony of his death was given by Monique Mabelly, at the time the chief examining magistrate of Marseille [doyenne des juges d'instruction], who was obligated in view of her position to bear witness to the execution. She took personal notes on what she saw, and confided them to the Lord Chancellor Robert Badinter, who in turn had them published in Le Monde in 2013, a year after her death.
She bears profound and revolting testimony to the true nature of what she sees. She relates surprisingly significant details, as when the executioner Chevalier takes off Djandoubi's handcuffs in order to replace them by a cord, and exclaims in joking reassurance, "You see, you're free!" She describes how the condemned man desperately stalls for time like a child who does not want to go to bed.
She describes turning away just before the blade comes down, not for fear of 'losing it', "but out of a sort of instinctive, visceral shame (I do not find another word)." And she describes what happened next:
I hear a dull sound. I look again - there is blood, a lot of blood, very red blood - , the body has tumbled into the basket. In one second a life has been cut off. The man who spoke less than one minute before is now nothing more than a blue pair of pyjamas in a basket. A guard takes up a spray hose. One must quickly remove the traces of a crime... I have a sort of nausea, which I control. I have in me a cold revulsion.
The return of the guillotine remains, for now, not a crime, but only a meme. It would be good if some of the people who are spreading it could feel a trace of the shame Monique Mabelly felt when the French state last asserted its power by using that revolutionary weapon on a sorry and powerless man.
Surely no one makes the case for orthophemism as a virtue of public speech more clearly than Cicero: "When you speak of the anus," he writes, "you call it by a name [‘anus’, i.e., ‘ring’] that is not its own; why not rather call it by its own [i.e., ‘culus’]? If it is indecent, do not use even the substituted name; if not, you had better call it by its own" (Epistolae ad familiares IX xxii).
This sounds like a reasonable enough demand: say what you mean, don't hide it, don't hold back. But notice what has happened in the languages that descend from Latin or that have borrowed heavily from its vocabulary: the straightshooting word (culus) has become a profanity (French cul, Spanish culo, etc.), and the word (anus) previously used for talking around what was really in question has moved in to serve as the orthophemism par excellence: doctors now say 'anus' to their patients to signal that they mean the actual anatomical region, with no cultural, moral, or aesthetic judgment implied; family members and other intimates will speak of their 'butts' or (Br.) 'bums'; prudes and kindergarten teachers say 'bottom'; while Lyndon B. Johnson, in celebration of his presidential might, proudly sings the song of his own 'bunghole'.
There is a wide array of choices here, but one senses that none gets it quite right. One senses in fact that it is impossible to get it right. All you can do is speak of the thing in question at various registers, and the trick of communication is to be able to judge what the correct register is in a given situation.
Anus started out as a euphemism, one meant to bring to mind rings in general rather than that particular sphincter (thus the noteworthy similarity to words such as the Latin annus, the Spanish año, and the English annual: all suggesting a cyclical or ring-like motion of the seasons back to where they started). Anyone who thinks that bodily opening can always be adequately discussed in total abstraction from its cultural, moral, aesthetic, etc., implications is missing out on most of what in fact motivates people to turn to this topic of conversation. We are not proctologists. If we insist too hard on using the proctological orthophemism, we will find that it, too, starts to sound funny, and we'll have to move on to another supposed anchor of correctness.
When it comes to words for the genital organs, the truth is I just don't know what to say. 'Penis' and 'vagina' are out of the question. These, too, like anus, started out as Latin euphemisms. 'Penis' for example derives from a word for 'tail', and thus, like the German Schwanz, originates as a euphemism of the most common sort: a terminological displacement to another slightly more acceptable bodily part, presumably rendered safer by the fact that it is a part human beings lack. It is hard also not to believe that it is this particular lexeme that prevailed, at least for a time, in part as a result of a fortuitous impression of onomatopoeia: penises pee, just as bees buzz. It's all so hopelessly diminutive, primitive, fundamentally unserious, notwithstanding its pretense of directness.
'Penis', 'vagina': people never just use these words, without also wanting it to be registered that they are using them. You've surely felt this yourself, as a speaker or a listener: the way they hang in the air, the way they demand recognition, even as the official rule of the conversational game is that one must take them straightfacedly, like adults. Like urologists.
As I've said, I just can't play along. Nothing seems to work. I go searching in foreign tongues: I speak of le sexe, le membre. I go looking for archaicisms, such as 'the yard', or I deploy poetical convolutions, like 'the mound of Venus'. But these overreach, and I retreat in embarrassment. I want to rewind and erase. I go searching instead in the dusty old files of vulgarities I learned in youth. But these are too low, now, and would give the impression of slumming (only 'cunt', I find, has any philological nobility). No, nothing works. Not the dysphemistic dick, nor the orthophemistic penis, nor yet the various high-brow talkings-around to which I have access thanks to my education in arts and letters. I just can't find the right register.
When I do say these words, against my very nature, they hang in the air like lies.
Cicero missed the point, later established by solid sociolinguistic evidence, that any attempt to fix the right word once and for all will only send our imaginations elsewhere. This is what Eve Ensler has missed too, and all of our earnest young-adult friends in academic and self-styled progressive circles who use the language of urology to publicly display their coming of age, their sérieux. But there is perhaps a corollary point to the one Cicero makes: that if you wish to speak about something, you had better be sure you are ready to do so. On this line of thinking the fact that it is so hard to find the right register when it comes to the genital organs is a result of their, shall we say, particularly charged role in human life, in human imagination, phantasm, lore.
Academics, and other right-thinking people, imagine that it would be a mark of progress to drain the genitals of this charge. It seems to me however that the difficulty of finding the right register, and the essential instability of any elected orthophemism, could be a perfectly appropriate reflection of the significance of the domain of human life in question. Insisting on the clinical term neither deflates nor faces up to this significance, but in the end only constitutes its own sort of evasion.
If cultural studies were not so wrapped up in the vapid and fleeting, to the point where they forget all about Baudelaire's injunction to find 'the eternal in the ephemeral', they might just be able to discern some important truths about the sacred character of popular music.
Les Murray has compellingly described religion as poetry spoken 'in loving repetition'. When I was 13 I was baptized in the Catholic church. I had been the only unbaptized student in a Catholic elementary school, and it was judged at some point that I might fit in better if I were to become a member of the flock. I acquiesced, happily, and for a year or so I muttered the rosary with deep inward yearning, an obsessive-compulsive freak: in loving repetition.
This experience overlaps in my memory with a period of intense, ridiculous, adolescent Beatlemania. I knew all their birthdays, all their parents' birthdays, the precise layouts of the streets of Liverpool, of Hamburg, the bra size of May Pang. I knew, most of all, the precise contours of every available recording of every Beatles song, whether canonical or bootleg.
I do not remember whether the Beatles came before, or after, the Catholicism. What I remember is that they blended perfectly into one another in my fantasy life.
Now the recordings, though I played them back in loving repetition, were not, strictly speaking, repeated. They were each performed only once, in a studio, at some point in the 1960s, before I was born. Perhaps these singular performances involved tracks, and so multiple recordings of different elements, but in any case the whole production of the authoritative version was completed in a finite, no doubt very short, series of steps.
What was produced was what Nelson Goodman would call an 'allographic' artwork: a work that can be fully experienced even if the thing itself remains remote, even if the thing itself is indefinable. My copy of the White Album, scooped up at a San Francisco garage sale from some kindly hippie, repairing his VW bus, circa 1985, cannot in any sense be said to be the White Album, and yet I have experienced the White Album as fully as anyone has simply by bringing this copy home and putting it on the record player and listening to it: in loving repetition.
The recording of that album fixed and eternalized a number of contingencies, a number of things that could just as well not have happened: some words muttered, George's fingers staying on the strings a microsecond too long and generating that superfluous but not unpleasant string noise for which I'm sure there's a term. These contingencies become canonical. They are awaited lovingly by the knowing listener. They arrive as expected, and they reconfirm the aesthetic order of the world.
This reconfirmation is just as strong when it is experienced in supposedly bad pop music as when it is experienced in the great instances. It is there when Rufus calls out to Chaka Khan, and when Paula Abdul dismisses her would-be lover with just the number of stuttered consonants she has to offer up, and not more or less: B-b-b-b-b-b-b-b-b-bye. Who, tuned into the FM radio universe of the mid-1980s, did not know what that number was? Who could not feel it coming on, and feel it, when it came, reconfirming the order? This is an unusual way of experiencing music: in the form of allographic, canonical tokens of singular type-recordings. But it supervenes on something much older, even something primordial.
For me, conceptual questions in aesthetics, and perhaps in philosophy in general, are best answered genealogically. And a key genealogical question to be asked for most modern and technologically mediated art forms is: What is that human experience out of which this new form emerges? In the case of cinema, we are fairly familiar by now with the analysis of this new art form into its constitutive ancestral lineages: the realist novel, certain schools of European painting, the shadow theater. We know, also, that the era of musical recording was preceded by a period of commercial standardization of sheet music, which was sold and distributed and played around household pianos by a bourgeoisie that was generally far more musically literate than would be later consumers of vinyl, or CDs, or of the services of Spotify.
The domestic performance of sheet music allowed, certainly, for variability in each instance, but the very standardization of the notes on the page was already a stage on the way towards recording. What surely remained most variable, when families gathered around pianos, was the recitative element, that is, the lyrics, the part of music that has the most evident share in poetry.
To the extent that music involves repetition, whether of melodies or chords or words, it is all rooted in poetry. This is ancient, but still clear in certain traditions that survive into the era of recording, such as the Russian bard style of Vysotsky (the homonymy with Shakespeare's moniker is not coincidental). Here, as in the music of Seikilos, there is a cycle of words, whose transcendent or non-mundane force is heightened by an accompanying string instrument, but not subordinated to that instrument. In general, if one wishes to find the pre-recording roots of popular music, one does well to look, not only to the history of music strictly speaking (melody and harmony in particular), but also to traditions of oral poetry and oral lore. Alan Lomax seems to have understood this very well in his field recordings: he realized he could not go in and ask only to hear the tunes of Appalachia or the Mississippi Delta, but had to listen to the folk tales as well.
We know that a number of the world's most glorious works of epic poetry, including Homeric epic, began as traditions of oral recitation, presumably involving some degree of rhythmic articulation, and perhaps also inflections of the voice's pitch and timber. In this respect, literature and music are really only different trajectories of the same deeper aesthetic activity: a repetition that reconfirms, or reestablishes, or perhaps recreates, the order of the world. To be invested in this repetition aesthetically is to experience it with love, which again, following Murray, is nothing other than religion itself.
I've been reading recently the transcribed version of the Yakut heroic epos, the Olonkho-- considered to be the Urtext of pre-Islamic Turkic mythology, preserved across the centuries in the oral tradition of northeastern Siberia. It speaks of snow, and reindeer, and human beings, and ancestors, and the transcendent cause of all of this. What I am reading is a trace, not the real thing, and it is enjoyable to attempt to imagine the proper mise-en-scène, by a trusted elder, of these events to which I have only minimal access, and from which the trace nature of the textual version distances me even more. One imagines an expert raconteur, someone who relates the Olonkho with a degree of mastery comparable to the mastery we recognize as involved in conducting the Ring Cycle or playing Othello.
What one would particularly relish, it is easy to imagine, experiencing the recitation directly, and intimately, would be the variety of deviations, and the way the master raconteur controls the deviations for such-and-such desired effect. 'Here comes that part where he's going to make a bear-grunt noise!' the Yakut adolescent might think to himself. And then it comes, and it's slightly different than the last time, yet perfectly, satisfyingly different. The repetitions are irreducibly social, variable yet constant, and mediated through a figure who in turn mediates between the human and the transhuman spheres of existence.
It is an unusual state of affairs when the repetition can be experienced both in a way that is not directly social, at home with headphones on in front of a record player, and in a way that involves total invariability from one 'performance' to the next. My experience of the Catholic faith was also somewhat unusual: it consisted almost entirely in private mutterings of memorized prayers, in a way that remained almost completely oblivious to the existence of the Church, the coming together of two or more people that in turn calls God to presence as well. But these obsessive compulsions, like the socially mediated recitation of epic, or like technologically mediated communion with god-like pop stars through recorded tokens of their canonical creations, are all, as I've said, the work of love.
This love seems to send a person straight outside of himself. But since this cannot really happen, since we all in fact stay right where we are, the ecstasy arrives in the next best way possible: through a cycling back, again and again, to the syllables and sounds that order the world, and that may give some hint of its true cause and nature.
God, on a certain widespread understanding, is an imaginary friend for the childish and simpleminded. Those so accused will often defend themselves: but I don't mean a white-bearded old-man God. I just mean, you know, something. A first mover, a ground, an ultimate end of the series of causes. If that all sounds too medieval, then you are free to invoke some vague and universalist notion of a 'higher power', which we cannot know directly but in reference to which our own lower powers, of goodness and love in particular, make sense. God can be mostly gutted of mythology, and with some success re-stuffed and propped back up as a pure product of reason, or even just of right-mindedness.
Not so with the angels: there is likely no way to enter into angelological disquisitions without being received as a hollering streetcorner proselytizer, with those bright, kitschly illustrated pamphlets depicting life in the clouds. God might not be an old man with a beard, but angels are always ridiculous wingèd humanoids in white, perverted fat cherubim, Michael Landon. They are for sad and lonely people with diminished resources, people locked away in rest homes, who live their lives anchored to the cycle of the daytime TV line-up.
A pair of considerations, coming from the history of European philosophy, might help to liberate the angels from this reduced and degraded repertoire. The medieval period is of course often mocked as the span of centuries in which philosophers wasted their inborn talents debating pointless questions about angels on the heads of pins. But as many scholars have noted, this long period is by no means static, and what we in fact see is a gradual progression from the 12th to the 16th centuries in which angels evolve, from beings whose nature and properties are in need of straightforward explanation, to the posits of thought experiments. It becomes ever less important to account for how angels actually are, and ever more important to use the concept of angels in the analysis of, say, intelligence, or individual substance, in order to better be able to account for what these things are. (And these things are, the reader is imagined to presume, more plausible candidates for the status of actual things than angels are.)
Now it might be supposed that this changing role is simply a stage on the path to the eventual full disappearance of the angels from the way we talk about the world. This would not be entirely incorrect, and it brings us to our second point: between roughly 1650 and 1750, angels appear to be replaced by aliens. To put this slightly differently, talk of supernatural beings intermediate between God and men gives way to talk of advanced celestial beings that are far greater than human beings, but not for that reason supernatural. There is virtually no European philosopher writing in this period who does not affirm their existence, under various descriptions and titles. Leibniz called them génies, Kant conceived them as "the more perfect classes of rational beings." The reasons for this transformation are several, and it has most importantly to do with the uniformization of nature, the collapse of the distinction between the superlunar and the terrestrial spheres, and the consequent rise of what is sometimes called 'the Harlequin principle': the idea that toujours et partout, c'est tout comme ici.
I've written about this transformation at great length elsewhere. What I want to emphasize here is something different: that you can't get rid of the angels. You push them out of your ontology, or you allow them to remain only as etiolated conceptual posits without any real being of their own, and lo, they return in a new guise: from the angelic hierarchies of Ezekiel to the many-worlds fantasies of early modern science fiction, it has proven exceedingly hard for human beings to think of themselves as the end of the line, as the ne plus ultra of the cosmos's various actors.
One might mention at this point the fellow beings, convoked or hallucinated, whenever DMT is illegally ingested (and thus adds to the DMT already naturally occurring-- your brain is always already on drugs), and one might in the same breath recall the SETI program and the vain hurling of bottled messages, in the form of radio waves, out into space. Both of these experiences, in very different senses of the word 'experience', and from very different spheres of contemporary culture, reinforce the idea, as it is also often said of God, that there simply has to be something. We cannot get these beings out of our minds-- our minds even seem neurochemically predisposed to recall them to attention under certain circumstances.
The astrophysicists engaged in the search for extraterrestrial life generally suppose that this search is limited to our xenobiological counterparts, and does not concern disembodied or ethereal beings, but only beings of flesh and blood, or whatever the materials are on the extraterrestrial's planet that come together to constitute something we would be in a position to recognize as a living body. But the search itself is the practical culmination of the speculation that we see in Leibniz and Kant, and this speculation is plainly the descendant of angelology. We conceive the celestial beings according to the idiom and conventions of our era, and so in this era of naturalism they are organic beings, like us, with internal organs, mixtures of fluids and soft parts and bone, that come together for a time as a result of natural generation. They are generally humanoid. But just a moment of reflection should suffice to reveal the improbability of such a situation. Extraterrestrials as currently conceived are arguably just as absurd, and just as much a reflection of our own cultural moment, as the Seraphim and Elohim have been to those whose world is shaped by the Talmud.
Do I believe in angels? Well, I believe that supramundane intelligences are not going to go away, and this quite apart from the question whether they turn out in the end to exist or not. With angels as with God, our own era has lapsed into a sort of thinking that would be more appropriate to the search for Bigfoot: looking for clumps of rough orange hair brushed off on trees, for footprints and photographs. Though even here there is room for debate: Tim Ingold for example argues that cryptozoology is but an impoverished form of mythology, and that it is always a misunderstanding to attempt to give a biological account of the beings that play a role in our cognitive and imaginative landscape without for that reason needing to exist as masses of hair and flesh and blood. I believe it is very plausible to see SETI and similar undertakings, in the same way, as impoverishments of premodern angelology. It is not at all that I am opposed to xenobiology as a collective scientific project. But I do wish that there were improved understanding of the ways in which our contemporary preoccupations are rooted in deep history, and emerge out of preoccupations that only appear foreign and distant as a result of our general and total historical illiteracy.
I believe we need to pay serious attention to the recurring patterns in the way human cultures experience the world as filled and animated by different classes of being. This can be done scientifically, and indeed is far truer to the spirit of science than the thick-skulled and thoroughly uninteresting dichotomization of the existent and the non-existent that currently prevails in the tedious Culture War opposition between believers and non-believers.
People experience the world as filled and animated by beings of all sorts. Daniel Dennett calls this our evolved hyperactive intentionality detection device. This may be the case. It may also be that my pervasive habit of thinking about myself, say, or of Dan Dennett, as the sort of things it would be a shame to kill needlessly is the result of an evolved hyperactive morally-relevant-entity-detection device. In all these cases, though, whatever the evolutionary account that can be given, there is surely also an interesting fact --a phenomenological fact, an anthropological fact, perhaps a moral fact, and perhaps even a theological fact-- that people tend to experience the world in the way they do. For certain immediate purposes in everyday life it is a lot harder to dispatch the self or midsized physical objects than it is to get rid of angels, and this is perhaps why we still allow people to deploy the latter sort of evolved detection device, while we ridicule people who mistake the former for a revelation of angels, ghosts, or benevolent ancestors.
But beyond the accomplishment of these simple tasks --opening doors, asking for directions-- there are the full and rich lives we live out, made rich largely by the stories we tell and the beings that figure into these stories, whose existence as clumps or masses does not require proof. This aspect of life receives little attention, or is only condescendingly and passingly treated, by the prideful professional spokesmen for the exhaustiveness of contemporary science. It is here, in these stories --'in loving repetition', as Les Murray describes religious faith-- that one encounters the angels.
‘Nature’, in common usage, can mean a number of different things. Sometimes it refers to the external world, and more particularly to the earth’s surface, and more particularly still to that part of the earth’s surface made up of biomass. In the same general conceptual vicinity, we also find the notion of nature as environment, as the surrounding medium through which we move. At other times, ‘nature’ refers to the particular nature of a given being, or what is sometimes called ‘essence’-- what it is to be a particular entity rather than another.
The first sense of ‘nature’ reflects the word’s etymology, which is rooted in the Latin verb nasci, ‘to be born’. Nature, on this understanding, is that which undergoes generation and growth (and generally also corruption or death). This connection between nature and birth is similarly reflected in the Slavic and many other Indo-European languages (in Russian, for example, nature is priroda, connected to the verb rodit’sia, ‘to be born’; in the Sanskrit prakṛti by contrast the verbal root has to do more with active creation than with generation). If less evidently, the concepts of generation and growth are also embedded in the Greek term physis, from which of course we get both ‘physical’ and what is sometimes held to lie beyond this, the ‘metaphysical’.
In Aristotle, physis describes what is everywhere the same, in contrast with human-based nomos or ‘custom’: thus he observes in the Nicomachean Ethics that in Persia as in Greece, fire burns the same. This burning is governed by nature rather than by culture, and therefore national boundaries have no bearing on it. Yet nature as the indifferent background to or support of human life is not prior, conceptually or temporally, to nature as essence. In fact, the first occurrence of physis, in Homer’s Odyssey, refers to the particular nature of a plant: here we read of Argeiphontes, who draws a plant from the ground and shows it to the narrator, revealing its unique physis.
How are these two primary meanings of ‘nature’ related? And what is the significance of their lexical overlap? In Aristotle, physis had been in different senses both the matter and form of a thing, that is, both the ‘physical’ stuff from which a thing is made, as well as the immaterial principle that makes that stuff into a particular thing. In the modern period, there would be little room for form, and we see attempts such as Descartes’s to account for all of nature as consisting entirely in the modifications of res extensa or extended stuff. Eventually, the notion of the ‘metaphysical’ would take on connotations very much like the ‘supernatural’, which latter is in the end a Latin rendering of the former Greek, even if the two terms have had very different and only partially overlapping histories. For many in the modern period, beginning roughly in the era of Descartes, we are left with nature, or nothing at all (except in the very reduced domain of the human soul): there can be no principles above or outside of the natural world giving it shape or imbuing individual things with their particular natures, and nor can this ‘within’ be conceived as consisting in immaterial principles such as form or entelechy or soul.
Nature is also often held to be a first principle or a source, a behind-the-scenes operator that makes the scene what it is. In this role it can move between both form and matter: on the one hand, it is the essence, or the immaterial something that makes a bodily being the sort of being it is; on the other hand, nature is the formless generative stuff out of which forms arise. In this latter role, it is sometimes popularly envisioned as ‘Mother Nature’, a personification that is not at all surprising when we bear in mind the etymology of the term. Nature so conceived is not just a source but also a ‘secret’: as Pierre Hadot has compellingly shown, the idea that ‘nature loves to hide’, first expressed in an enigmatic fragment of Heraclitus, is very deeply rooted in Western intellectual traditions.
Nature, as we have seen, sometimes contrasts with social or custom-based nomos, and at other times it contrasts with what is above or outside of nature; it also contrasts with the unnatural. This latter term itself is understood in many different ways. Often, ‘unnatural’ is used simply as a veiled moral judgment, against ‘sodomy’, for example, or pizza for breakfast. To identify a thing or a deed as unnatural here is simply to disapprove of it, while invoking, plausibly or implausibly, an eternal moral order that somehow governs the order of nature. Beyond simple moral judgment, the ‘unnatural’ can be understood to describe products of human activity that violate or go against the proper functioning of nature, or, in turn, simply those products of human activity that cause nature to do something it wouldn’t ordinarily do, and this for the betterment of human life. While Aristotle excludes most products of the technical arts [technai] from the domain of the natural, he also recognizes that not all art is merely imitative: “the arts either, on the basis of Nature, carry things further [epitelei] than Nature can, or they imitate [mimeitai] Nature.” As William R. Newman notes, for Aristotle certain artisanal procedures, such as broiling and boiling, are also natural processes, and so their products can be understood as natural, albeit ‘perfected’ --not in the sense of outdoing nature, but more modestly of improving or furthering its works-- through human ingenuity.
There does not seem to be any clear criteria by which to judge a particular artificial process imitative or perfective, but there is a clear evaluative judgment in this distinction: if we manipulate nature, we should be careful to limit our manipulation to steward-like direction, rather than setting ourselves up as gods capable of reproducing nature by our design and for our own ends. All three of these sense of ‘unnatural’ --as setting ourselves up as the makers of processes that imitate nature, as harnessing for our own ends the latent powers of nature, and, finally, as moral transgression-- blend easily into one another. Wherever human beings probe too deeply into nature’s hidden forces, there is a perceived threat of what Newman nicely calls ‘Promethean ambition’: getting into trouble by attempting, as they say, to play God. The poet James Merrill describes this condition forcefully in his lines, from The Changing Light at Sandover, on nuclear technology: “Powers at the heart of matter, powers / We shall have hacked through thorns to kiss awake, / Will open baleful, sweeping eyes, draw breath / And speak new formulae of megadeath.”
By now we have identified several pairs of opposed concepts:
1. Nature (as source of generations, as natura naturans, as ‘Mother Nature’) vs. particular generated beings
2. Nature (as formal essence) vs. matter
3. Nature (as external world) vs. the self
4. Nature (as external world) vs. culture or nomos
5. Nature (as wilderness) vs. human settlement
6. Nature vs. the supernatural
7. Nature vs. the unnatural
7.1. The unnatural as moral transgression
7.2. The unnatural as mimetic artifice (including the mechanical reproduction of natural systems).
In view of this tremendous polysemy of the term in question, it is worth revisiting a well-known scholarly thesis, most closely associated with the innovative work of Carolyn Merchant, according to which the early modern period witnessed the ‘death of nature’. This death is supposed to have been caused by the equally well-known ‘mechanization of the world picture’, whose principal agent, or culprit, René Descartes is often taken to be. But which nature, exactly? Surely Descartes could not have taken down all of these different senses of the term together? In fact, when Merchant speaks of the death of nature, she has in mind only 7.2 above. She believes that as a result of the scientific revolution, we have lost a world that was ‘organic’, and we have reconceptualized the entire world instead on the model of the machines of our own invention. For 16th-century Europeans, she explains, “the root metaphor binding together the self, society, and the cosmos was that of an organism.” As a result of the scientific revolution, by some time in the 17th century, Merchant believes, the world came to be conceived as a machine rather than an organism, as a clockwork rather than a living being. In its core claims Merchant’s account differs little from the triumphalist historiography that long dominated in the secondary literature on the early modern European rise of science: she simply describes disapprovingly what E. J. Dijksterhuis and Alexandre Koyré in their classic studies, for example, relate with pride.
But why should we suppose that 16th-century Europeans had any particularly valuable insights into the nature of the surrounding world and of our place within it? By now the ‘death of nature’ thesis has been criticized on many fronts, but so far most of them have remained within a philosophical and idea-historical perspective which takes for granted the universal validity of the classical Western concept of physis or natura, and fail to take seriously the significant comparative evidence for the peculiarly local dimensions of the history of the concept of nature, or of concepts from the non-European world that partially overlap with nature. The announcement of nature’s death turns out to be little more than a notice of death within a fairly small parish, and this parochial perspective makes it very difficult to take adequate stock of the real significance of the local changes that occurred in the history of the concept at the beginning of European modernity.
In the modern period, nature, notwithstanding rumors of its death, is alive and well. It is not the case that until the modern period Europeans and non-Europeans alike were blissfully pananimist, and that with the rise of science the Europeans turned their nature into a machine while the rest of the world went on happily conceptualizing it as a living, growing, vital being that existed in constant harmonious interchange with human society. This account is inadequate for two reasons. First, the mechanical world picture never became hegemonic in modern European philosophy, or even predominant, notwithstanding the prevailing interpretation offered in much 20th-century historiography. Leibniz, for example, continued to believe long after Descartes that nothing happens in nature that is not underlain by the activity of a mind-like entity; well into the 20th century, moreover, there is a prominent tradition of vitalistic natural philosophy that disputes the central claim of the mechanistic world picture, namely, that all natural change can be accounted for in terms of the mass, figure, and motion of intrinsically inert physical particles. Second, there is no real evidence that the picture of human society existing in harmonious interchange with a living nature is the picture of humanity’s place in the world is, in a cross-cultural light, the default conception of humanity’s place in the world. The best evidence suggests not that non-Western people inhabit a society cradled within a living nature, but that there simply is no meaningful distinction between society and nature at all.
Before moving to some properly ethnographic examples, it is important to bear in mind that, as with so many other concepts, when it comes to ‘nature’ even the European past is a sort of foreign country. The concept has undergone radical transformations over the centuries, and there is little that binds the Greeks, Romans, medievals, and early moderns. Our own conception of ‘nature’, finally, which takes places like Yellowstone National Park as its paradigm instances, is an extremely recent, mostly 19th-century innovation.
As Philippe Descola argues in his important 2005 work, Par-delà nature et culture, ‘wild’ and ‘domestic’ are subject to a rare polarization in Western history; even in other agricultural societies, what we tend to find more often are “multiple forms of gradual discontinuity or englobing.” In the West, by contrast, these notions are “mutually exclusive and only acquire their entire meaning when they are brought into a complementary opposition to one another.” Outside of Europe, the ‘mental and technological contexts’ did not “favor the emergence of a mutually exclusive distinction between that which is anthropized and a residual sector that is unuseful to people, or destined to fall to their domination.” Within Europe, by contrast,
a major contrast takes shape that of course opposes cultivated to non-cultivated spaces, but also, and above all, domestic animals to wild animals, the world of the stables and of grazing space to the realm of the hunter and of game.. Perhaps such a contrast was even sought out and maintained in an active way in order to preserve spaces where qualities could be exercised --such as the ruse, physical endurance, the pleasure of conquest-- that, outside of war, could no longer find an outlet within the very controlled space of the agricultural field.
Again, however, Europe is by no means an eternal and static entity, and we see radical changes over time in the understanding of the division between the human realm and the natural realm. For the Greeks, “the habitat of the wild beasts constitutes an indispensable belt of non-civilization that enables it to thrive, a theater where it can exercise its virile dispositions that are the polar opposite of the virtues of conciliation required in the treatment of domestic animals and in the political life.” In medieval Europe, particularly in the Germanic realm, the ‘belt’ of nature around human settlements would be increasingly conceptualized as part of society, as a carefully kept zone in which privileged members of society could cultivate particular virtues. Surprisingly, in this respect, forests full of ‘wild’ animals were in some sense more tightly controlled by human beings than were pastoral spaces in which domestic animals were permitted to graze. A prohibition on grazing in a given space does not preserve its wildness, but rather sets it apart as an artificially maintained non-grazing zone, an exception to the dominant human economic order that is made all the more human in virtue of its exceptional status:
If it is not the straightforward opposite of the agricultural enterprise, the domain of the Wild is not any less socialized. It is identified with the great forest, not with the silva that is unproductive and that impedes colonization, but with the foresta, this giant game park that, from the 9th century, the Carolingian dynasty undertakes to create by means of edicts that limit the rights of pannage and of defilement.
In a sense, the culmination of this process of incorporation through preservation, that is, of making a region a part of human society by keeping it cordoned off from certain types of human use, can be seen in the creation of national parks, the first of which appear in the United States, under Theodore Roosevelt’s administration and at the energetic encouragement of the romantically inclined Scottish-American thinker John Muir. It was in this period, Descola maintains, that
the moral and aesthetic dimension that continues to color our appreciation of these places. This is the epoch, we know, in which romanticism invents wild nature and propagates a taste for it: this is the epoch in which the essayists of the philosophy of wilderness, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, or John Muir, incite their compatriots to look, in their visits to the American mountains and forests, for an existence that is more free and more authentic than the one for which Europe had long furnished the model. It is also the epoch in which the first national park is created, at Yellowstone, as a grandiose staging of the divine work.
The language of ‘staging’ is Muir’s own, not Descola’s. When Ralph Waldo Emerson attempted to entice Muir, in his distant outpost in California, to accept a faculty position at Harvard, the author responded stubbornly: “I never for a moment thought of giving up God’s big show for a mere profship!” Muir takes his refusal to be one in favor of a timelessly and self-evidently distinct zone of reality: he is on the side not just of trees and mountains, but also of the transcendent creator, with whom direct contact is facilitated by means of an attunement with the mountains and trees. This zone is in turn contrasted with the artificial, the institutional, and even with the ‘back East’ that precedes, historically and conceptually, the braving of the great frontier that did so much to shape 19th-century ideas about nature. And significantly, Muir seems entirely unaware of the historical conditioning of his preference for nature, and of the way in which his essays, his lobbying, and his mediation between the East Coast and Yellowstone themselves amount to a domestication of the natural.
One of the great problems in Western thinking about nature over the past several centuries is that we have transported throughout the world “a very particular vision of [our] environment, a great baggage of prejudices and sentiments,” that the Amazonians, for example, would find utterly unfamiliar. Descola writes of the voyage in the early 20th century of the Belgian artist Henri Michaux to the Amazon:
The conquest of virgin spaces was for [Michaux’s company] a tangible reality and a desirable goal, as well as an attenuated and confused echo of a more fundamental contrast between nature and civilization. All of this, we discern, would have made no sense to the Indians who see in the forest something quite different from a savage place to be domesticated or a motif for aesthetic delectation. It is true that the question of nature hardly comes up for them. Thus we have a fetish of our own, a very effective one at that, just like all the objects of belief that people offer themselves in order to act upon the world.
Many non-European groups, in Descola’s view, seem to be better able to think about the wilderness without setting it apart from the zone of human existence as if it were on the other side of some ontological divide. Thus for example Descola notes that
certain peoples of Amazonia are perfectly aware of the fact that their cultural practices have a direct influence on the distribution and reproduction of wild plants. This phenomenon of indirect anthropization of the forest ecosystem, long misunderstood, was well described in the studies of William Balée on the historical ecology of the Ka’apor of Brazil. Thanks to a precise labor of identification and counting, he was able to establish that the clearings that have been abandoned for more than forty years are twice as rich in useful species of plant than the neighboring portions of the primary forest that however they hardly distinguish at first glance…. Pursued for millennia in a great part of Amazonia, this fashioning of the forest ecosystem certainly contributes not a little to legitimating the idea that the jungle is a space that is as domesticated as the gardens.
For our purposes, what is significant about Descola’s sweeping account are the implications it holds for the ‘death of nature’ thesis, that is, for the idea that until modernity Western thinkers had a conception of nature as vital and agentive; further, implicitly, that to the extent that nature was conceived in this way pre-modern Westerners also had a conception of nature more or less continuous with that of people in other parts of the world. What this account misses is, first of all, that modes of production, as well as ecological circumstances, significantly impact the human conceptualization of the surrounding environment, and that here the most important shift in Western history is not at all the scientific revolution of the 17th century, but rather the agricultural revolution several millennia prior. Second, it appears characteristic of those cultures in which nature is not set apart from human culture as if across an ontological divide, that precisely in virtue of the absence of such a divide there can be no need for a distinct concept of nature.
That is, nature comes into existence as a concept precisely to the extent that humanity sets itself up against it. We must therefore not imagine that indigenous peoples throughout most of human history thought of themselves as living ‘in harmony’ with nature, any more than they thought of hunting and gathering as ‘a good line of work’. Nature could not have been killed by Western thinking, if it only existed in the first place as a concept to the extent that it measured the human sense of distinctness from the external world. And when it is finally supposed to have died, in the modern period, what we in fact witness is a widening of the gap, or a more thorough clearing of the belt that Descola perceived already surrounding the Greek polis, and so, ultimately, a strengthening of the ontological division between the ‘in here’ and the ‘out there’. Various ‘back to nature’ sentiments of late modernity, including Muir’s, and including the occasional camping trips of educated urbanites, are a symptom of this division, and not an overcoming of it. They have nothing to do with a return to the way in which some imagined prelapsarians once experienced the world around them.
 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book V, ch. 7.
 Homer, Odyssey, 10.302-303.
 See Pierre Hadot, Le voile d’Isis. Essai sur l’histoire de l’idée de Nature, Paris: Gallimard, 2004.
 Aristotle, Physics II 8 199a15-17.
 Aristotle, Meteorology, IV, 381b4-5.
 William R. Newman, Promethean Ambitions: Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004, 17-18.
 James Merrill, The Changing Light at Sandover, New York: Knopf Doubleday, 2011 , 55
 Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution, San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1980, 1.
 See E. J. Dijksterhuis, The Mechanization of the World Picture: Pythagoras to Newton, tr. C. Dikshoorn, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961; Alexandre Koyré, Du monde clos à l’univers infini, Paris: Gallimard, 2003 . There has been significant revisionist work in the past couple of decades, which calls into question the typically Whiggish and triumphalist historiography of earlier generations on the advances and attainments of early modern science, focusing instead, or in different degrees, on the concerns and aims of the actors in the period themselves. See for example, John Henry, The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008; Peter dear, Revolutionizing the Sciences: European Knowledge and Its Ambitions, 1500-1700, Princeton University Press, 2009 . However, no amount of revision has succeeded in displacing the idea that something of great significance took place in early modern Europe in the way people conceptualized the structure and nature of the external world. Steven Shapin expresses the limits of revisionism very well with the opening sentence of his introductory book on the scientific revolution: “There was no such thing as the Scientific Revolution, and this is a book about it” (Shapin, The Scientific Revolution, University of Chicago Press, 1996, 1).
 Philippe Descola, Par-delà nature et culture, Paris: Gallimard, 2005, 79.
 Descola, Par-delà nature et culture, 79.
 Descola, Par-delà nature et culture, 84.
 Descola, Par-delà nature et culture, 84-85.
 Descola, Par-delà nature et culture, 86. For an unsurpassed investigation of classical Greek conceptions of wilderness, and its contrast with society, see Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Le chasseur noir. Formes de pensée et formes de société dans le monde grec, Paris : Éditions Découverte, 2004.
 Descola, Par-delà nature et culture, 83.
 John Muir to Robert Underwood Johnson, May 3, 1895, in John Muir: His Life and Letters and Other Writings, Seattle: Mountaineers Books, 1996,321
 Descola, Par-delà nature et culture, 90.
 Descola, Par-delà nature et culture, 71.
[This is an excerpt from a forthcoming essay-review of several books on animal extinction.]
There is a great die-off under way, one that may justly be compared to the disappearance of dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous, or the sudden downfall of so many great mammals at the beginning of the Holocene. But how far can such a comparison really take us in assessing the present moment?
The hard data tell us that what is happening to animals right now is part of the same broad historical process that has swept up humans: we are all being absorbed into what was once comfortably called ‘civilization’, and in the process we are being homogenized, subjected to uniform standards, domesticated. A curiosity that might help to drive this home: at present, the total biomass of domestic mammals raised for food vastly exceeds the biomass of all mammalian wildlife on the planet (it also exceeds that of the human species itself). This was certainly not the case 10,000 or so years ago, at the dawn of the age of pastoralism.
It is hard to know where exactly, or even inexactly, to place the boundary between prehistory and history. Indeed, some authors argue that the very idea of prehistory is a sort of artificial buffer zone set up to protect properly human society from the infinite expanse of mere nature that preceded us. But if we must set up a boundary somewhere, it would be difficult to do better than to choose the moment when human beings began to dominate and control other large mammals for their own, human ends.
We tend, still today, to think about history as by definition human history. Yet a suitably wide-focused perspective reveals that nothing in the course of human affairs makes complete sense without some account of the non-human animal actors who show up as well: history has in fact been a question of human-animal interaction all along. Cherchez la vache is how E. E. Evans-Pritchard claimed the social life of the cattle-herding Nuer of South Sudan might best be summed up --‘look for the cow’-- but in fact one could probably, without much stretching, extend this principle to human society in general. The cattle who now outweigh us are a mirror of our political and economic crisis, just as cattle were once a mirror of the sociocosmic harmony that characterized Nuer life.
Most of history, to the extent that it is understood narrowly as a human affair, has consisted in a patchwork of interconnected, but still largely autonomous, human societies; or at least they were autonomous in their self-conception, even if in fact they were always intricately interconnected by trade, war, migration. In the 18th century, a period in Europe sometimes called the ‘Enlightenment’, thinkers such as Immanuel Kant had come to understand history precisely as the process whereby European civilization radiates out and progressively engulfs the Arctic, the Americas, and the South Sea islands: progressively bringing them, that is, into the fold of history. And however we define ‘history’, it is certain at least that these areas were enfolded into something new and unprecedented. When Kant was writing, the Inuit, for example, lived more or less independently, as hunters and foragers, in a mode of life that was directly adapted to and integrated with their environment. Today, the Inuit live under the administration of a Euro-American colonial state, and many depend for their food on transport of mass-produced, processed commodities from the urban, industrial south.
What is often overlooked in the familiar summaries of this process --overlooked, perhaps, for fear of appearing disrespectful by running indigenous peoples and wild animals together-- is that it has not been limited to a single species. Non-human animals are swept up in exactly the same frenzy: either join up with what is increasingly the only game in town, and you will grow fat, and homogeneous, and your very body will be instrumentalized for economic ends; or die out. Mammalian biodiversity is dropping, while the biomass of cattle is skyrocketing. Cattle, which is to say the bovine portion of modern global civilization, are even driving indigenous humans out of their habitats, most notably in the Amazon, either to assimilate into the urbanized proletariat, or, likewise, to die off.
We do not need to exaggerate the analogy between human cultures on the one hand and biological species on the other in order to appreciate the unitary nature of the process that is under way. History has always been the history of humans within their environments, and it is crucial to understand history in this trans-species way in order to place the recent idea of the ‘anthropocene’ in proper perspective.
It may seem a terribly presumptuous thing to propose that the principle characteristic of the present period of the Cenozoic era is the presence of human beings on the planet. After all, these are divisions in a geological time scale, and the rocks go fairly deep, and hide from even the most ill-thought-out plans of men. But in truth all the epochs and eons, going back to the boundary of the Archean 2.5 billion years ago, have been named according to their representative life forms, and no life form represents the present better than homo sapiens.
The supposed presumptuousness of acknowledging this role fails to take into account that we literally couldn’t have done it without the animals. We brought the world to its present state, but we did so by putting non-human nature to work for us. A crucial part of this has been the exploitation of, and occasional cooperation with, animals, and it is not surprising that as we appear to be approaching some sort of climactic finish, the animals that remain are now principally the ones that have been incorporated into the process in some way or other: the ones that are regulated, conserved, bred, consumed, and in so many other ways made to play a role in the global world system.
Herb and Harry were the names of our two steers, the one a Hereford, the other a Holstein. They did not do much but stand, bovine and stoic, from one day to the next. They sculpted strange rolling shapes into the salt lick with their fat blue tongues, and delighted, with minimal expression, in the delivery of fresh hay. My father liked to joke that they were 'out standing in their field', and they were. They excelled in matters of bovinity, one could not dream of surpassing them. That there was not much to do in the role of bovine did not diminish their excellence, and did not increase their strangeness. In fact, it made them so much more familiar, so much more like me. I was seven, and I did not do much either. I had no known talents, and it would be a long while yet before I would get the idea to try to write. I spent my time taking the world in, watching the animals, mostly. Sitting in the pasture as Herb and Harry grazed nearby, and calling them, in imagined conversations, by their names.
I do not remember when these two appeared, but I do recall, as if it were yesterday, the day the deep-freeze was delivered: a freezer, waist-high to an average adult, as long and as wide as a comfortable bed. It was a descendant of the old ice-boxes that had brought the miracle of long-term food storage to the sweltering Central Valley of California already in the 1920s. Fifty years later, every household in Rio Linda would have in its kitchen a vertical refrigerator with a small freezer compartment at the top, but only a special few would have a ground-dwelling vault, a shiny white tomb dedicated solely to the preservation of sweetmeats and tissues in an eternal solid state, installed with pride by toothless men with tool belts in a corner of the family garage.
We were of indeterminate class. We inhabited a defunct chicken farm, inherited from the Scandinavian grandparents of my mother's side. My father, born in Southern California to a renegade Utah Mormon and an Arkansas dustbowl migrant, was exposed to big ideas and the hope of some upward mobility thanks to a naturally curious mind and also in part to a stint in naval intelligence (involving the transcription of Chinese and Russian radio signals) followed by the GI Bill and graduate study. My mother, born in Sacramento to Minnesota Lutherans (softened by the pseudomystical fun of Shrinerdom), went to law school by night, with the dream of eventually helping the poor white women of the trailer parks of Rio Linda escape their abusive relationships. When the JD in family law was finally earned, and nailed to the wall of the strip-mall office, she would discover that the local economy still functioned mostly by barter, and she would receive, in remuneration for her services, a 1978 AMC Pacer, home grown tomatoes, a vicious goat named Snowy (of whom we have not heard the last), and many a hand-scrawled misspelled Post-It note of gratitude.
There were some lean times in the Valley, and though San Francisco was only a two-hour drive away, though Michel Foucault was just down the road at Berkeley, where my own mother had been an undergraduate at the end of the 1960s, speaking of technologies of the self and the liberatory potential of pleasure, I recall a Central Californian childhood in which the cycles of drought and flood still played a role, in which the desperation of James Agee's interbellum South had been translated Westward with little change. While my parents were not themselves peasants or 'harvest gypsies', to speak with John Steinbeck, the simple fact of their choice to settle in Rio Linda, California, was sufficient to pull us downward, classwise, and to ensure that in all of my subsequent motion through elite East Coast institutions and centers of metropolitan sophistication, I would never, for a second, be free of the singular thought: you are from Rio Linda. You are white trash.
A profile of that community in the Sacramento Bee, dated January 13, 1993, might help to impart a sense of what this brute fact means, and why it is so hard to be free of it. The article (which my mother sent to me as a 'joke' when I was an undergraduate studying in Moscow, and which I have carried with me, among a precious few possessions, to Paris), entitled "Greetings from Rio Linda," is worth quoting at some length:
Rio Linda is the land of yard cars and roaming dogs, where chain-link fences are a status symbol and the local law is something the cops call 'Okie justice'.
There is a story from a few years back about a man jailed for beating his wife; she supposedly carried on with a neighbor while he was away. One morning, soon after his release, the neighbor woke up in extreme pain. He'd been hit over the head with a beer bottle during the night -- and castrated.
The article goes on in this vein. We are told that Rio Linda is "a place that still has bloody family feuds, witchcraft, biker gangs... and active methamphetamine labs. The Ku Klux Klan used to burn crosses here" (acknowledging the Klan in the present tense would likely have drowned out the jocular tone of the article). The predominant crimes, we learn, "tend to be cattle rustling, horse-stealing and domestic violence."
All the stereotypes exhaused, of dogs on chains and broken machines on front lawns, the article turns to history. "It started as a land swindle of sorts," we are told. In 1919 "the Suburban Fruit Lands Co. in Minneapolis bought 12,500 acres of the Rancho Del Paso Grant and began selling parcels for commercial agriculture." The problem was that the soil was too hard to raise citrus, as the Minnesota Scandinavians had dreamt of doing, and so they were forced to resort to the much less lucrative life of egg farming. The Company "had claimed the land would be worth $1500 to $3000 an acre within six months and that 10 or 20 acres was enough to grow commercial crops of nearly every fruit known in the United States." After a lawsuit brought against them in the 1920s, "the land value dropped to $35 an acre."
The historical excursus then concludes: "Some of the old coops are still standing today" (pictured above are my sister and I standing in front of our grandfather's defunct coop, circa 1975).
In any case I've already acknowledged that somehow, within the microcosm of my own family, the endless generations of desperation gave way to higher hopes, which is to say to aspiration toward a slightly higher status. By the time I came along there was no longer any possibility of clinging to the pride of the silent dirt-farmer, the solidarity of the truly poor. We were, notwithstanding the newsletters that still arrived from the local Grange, lower-bourgeois Bohemian dabblers. My parents had desk jobs, and even if the tuition often went unpaid my sister and I were brought up through the Montessori system, and habituated to its ethos of freedom and self-determination. Yet at the end of each day we children put down our construction paper art projects and our Marlo Thomas records, and our parents put down their grown-up work files, and we returned to the land, and to the animals that ranged upon it, as if back to some primordial necessity.
At various times there were chickens, goats, horses (kept but not owned), ponies (owned), steer, two demonic llamas, a German shepherd named Flicka who had 13 puppies, 12 of which soon fell ill and died before they could open their eyes. There was an Irish setter named Rose, who snuck into the neighbor's yard one night, and dragged back the mortal remains of 78 prize turkeys, their necks snapped by her strong jaw. She had laid them out across the front lawn to show them to us, with evident pride, before animal control came and took her away later that morning. There were cats roving in and out, cats who'd lost eyes in unimaginable fights, cats to whom it hardly made any sense to give names. There was Snowy the goat, whom I often saw in dreams walking upright with calm evil. And there were Herb and Harry, who had no trace of evil in them at all, who did not respond when you called them but who nonetheless seemed eminently worthy of their names: their names that, by simple alliteration with their breeds, seemed to pick out their very essences, just as, so it is said, the names given by Adam to the beasts were not just arbitrary sounds, but true names, names identical to the beings they name.
Herb and Harry, and the deep-freeze, their destiny. When the day arrived I was bursting with giddy anticipation. I rushed around the playground at our Montessori (the backyard of a converted home), reporting to teachers and kids alike that I would be leaving school early that afternoon, to watch my two steers, Herb and Harry, get butchered. If I was pressed for further explanation of my excitement, I would explain that this is simply the natural cycle of things: the animals are raised up to be eaten by the humans. The animals are raised up to be put in the deep-freeze. You can't fight it. You can't change the way things are.
Our grandfather, my mother's father, the retired Norwegian chicken farmer, picked us up at noon, and we made our usual course away from the modest center of Sacramento, out past the air force base, past the Country Comfort Lounge, toward the feed lots and the ramshackle Baptist churches of Rio Linda. Toward home. He seemed sullen. Who knows how many chickens he'd killed in his lifetime, how many defective runts discarded that could make no economic sense? He never made a spectacle of it.
I do not recall whose idea it was to pull us out of school that day to teach us a lesson about the natural cycle of things. I do not recall whose idea it was to name Herb and Harry, but the lesson that I drew from that day, a lesson that gestated long before coming to my consciousness and that stays with me still, is that you cannot have it both ways: naming breaks the natural cycle of things. It turns a brute beast into a fellow creature.
When we arrived my mother and father were already in the pasture, standing with a man who had pulled in with his pick-up truck covered in a camper shell. He may have been Hank, the man with the turkeys who lived next-door, and who sometimes came over and with truckloads of hay bails, which he could throw great distances. Or he may have been someone else, and my memory has created a composite. He had, I think, thick black hair, greased back, reptilian, like Ronald Reagan, and he was wearing a leather smock, a torturer's smock. He pulled a shotgun out of the truck bed and manipulated it with expertise. Herb, or Harry, stood 10 yards or so away, grazing, outstanding. His partner was being kept in the other pasture, away, for now, from the impending carnage.
Hank lifted the shotgun, it cracked, and Herb, or Harry, fell. Hank walked swiftly, purposively over, and slit the steer's throat. Blood poured out in waves, mixed with the grasses, and steamed just like all the half-digested pats of hay and manure on frosty autumn mornings that Herb and Harry had deposited and left for me to stare at with wonder. The heat and mystery of life! When the beast had been thoroughly bled and the steam had ascended like a soul to the sky, Hank cut open the stomach, and all its terrible unthinkable viscera poured out. There was nothing to wonder at here, but only a surfeit of escaping life, indecent to behold. I think it is at this point that I turned my eyes away, that I had had enough. You can't fight it, but if you are still a boy you can be whisked away from that hard world of men acting in accordance with necessity, men named Hank with guns and knives, and taken indoors by your dear indulgent mother, to rediscover a world of diverting storybooks where animals talk, and have names and human intrigues of their own.
The deep-freeze was full for years to come, of the parts of Herb and Harry, wrapped in thick white paper, stained here and there with brown blood. They survived divorce, floods, the deaths of grandparents, and so much more yet of the unending flow of human life. Parts still remained when we finally sold the farm land in 1987 and moved into a condominium in a proper suburb of Sacramento, bringing to a definitive end the vestigial agrarianism that had come down to us from the millennia. There was a small orange light that glowed on top of the white vault, which was intended to signal that the device was properly plugged in, and that the current was flowing, but to me it always remained a faint sign of life, like the steam that once rose from manure, a sign that our glistening appliance had been imbued with the souls, now blended together, of my two loved ones.
I did not rebel that day, I did not demand that the farce of false necessity be called off. Up to a certain point I delighted in it, and I had faith in the adults' insistence on its legitimacy. But the seed (to remain with safe vegetal metaphors) of an idea was planted: that it is a lie adults tell themselves, which keeps the animals cordoned off from us as mere brutes, which refuses to recognize our community with them...
It is hard not be struck by the severe parochialism, and usually the US-centrism, of the now-popular approach to human diversity that calculates a person’s ‘privilege ranking’ by considering a few supposedly basic features of identity, particularly gender, religion, sexual identity, physical ability, and ‘race’. The combinatorics involved do not diminish the essentialism of this approach, for there is a fairly short list of elements from which one may come up with the formula telling us who one really is. These are typically the elements that will be of interest to offices of equal employment opportunity in a particular developed western country, but they hardly help us to map the diversity of people beyond those who might be applying for jobs in that country—which is to say beyond those people who are already in fundamental respects acknowledged as members of one and the same society. This leaves out people who have radically different forms of social organization, food production, kinship, and literacy. It is of little use for coming to terms with the sort of difference manifested by peasants or hunter-gatherers.
Beyond these obvious, and sometimes excusable, forms of exclusion, there is a particular danger involved in passively accepting an approach to human diversity that sees the world through the distorting lens of American history, for this history is highly peculiar. The history of the United States has brought it about that in that country ethnic diversity is generally conceived in binary terms, with several residual classes that tend to be added on as afterthoughts. There are the people who descended from African slaves, and there are ‘white’ people. If this seems a bit reductive, it is important to understand that ‘white’ functions here almost entirely as an aspirational category, into which any ethnic group may eventually hope to blend through the proper displays of cultural affiliation-- any ethnic group, that is, except for the descendants of African slaves. This latter group constitutes a structural underclass, which ensures that newly arrived immigrants from different ethnicities will never start out, as they do in Europe, at the lowest rung of the social ladder, and that wherever they start out on the ladder they may hope to climb from there. If they climb high enough, they will be ‘white’, and in this respect the principal function of the category of whiteness in American society is to preserve the black underclass: to preserve, in other words, the racial economic order, formerly called ‘slavery’, on which American society was built.
It is in reference to this local history that we must understand the notion of white privilege, and not in reference to some supposedly natural taxonomy of skin pigmentations or other physical features. Does a Muslim Chechen migrant laborer in a provincial Siberian city --a ‘Caucasian’ if anyone ever was-- enjoy ‘white privilege’? It seems offensive to suggest that he does. Of course, there is some scenario on which his children could be taken to the US and raised by Americans, and if this were to happen they would have a set of privileges denied to African adoptees. But that scenario is so remote from the actual range of advantages of which this Chechen can avail himself as he navigates his own social reality that one may as well not mention it. In his context, though racially ‘white’ by American standards, he is the object of suspicion, contempt, and exclusion. The thought that he is ‘white’ has almost certainly never crossed his mind.
Now of course there is nothing wrong in principle with focusing on our own parochial context—indeed it is our responsibility to be concerned with it, and to strive to improve it. When Kimberlé Crenshaw first introduced the intersectional approach, she had just such a focused and non-global concern, namely, to analyze the actors’ categories that come into play in government responses to domestic violence against women in the United States. But one serious problem with staying faithful to actors’ categories and thinking of local contexts in terms of ‘race’, is that this seems to imply a universal natural order in which the locally salient distinctions between different types of people are grounded. And there simply is no such order. What we find when we move to the global context, and to the longue durée, rather, is that the focus on supposedly racial physical attributes is generally an a posteriori rationalization of a prior unequal system of interaction between members of different ethnic groups. The more aggravated this inequality, typically, the more racially different the people on different sides of the ethnic divide will appear to one another. We have seen this regularity played out in so many historical instances that there is no need to argue for it here.
What is the sense of invoking the universal order of race to account for local systems of exclusion and discrimination? And why is it the sort of system that tends to prevail in the Atlantic world broadly speaking, including the Americas and Western Europe, that tends to be invoked as the one-size-fits-all schema for understanding human diversity throughout the world? An important part of the answer to these questions is the fact that the most ambitious attempts at a universal taxonomy of human racial types, the so-called ‘racial science’ that flourished from the late-18th to the mid-20th centuries, was primarily interested in accounting for, and naturalizing, the social order that had emerged in the Atlantic world as a consequence of slavery. The racial science is posterior to the racism, and the racism is posterior to the economic order of the region, which was built on the labor of Africans not because these people had been seen at the outset as inferior and thus as suitable for enslavement, but mostly because shifting power dynamics in the Mediterranean region had greatly diminished the Ottoman slave trade by the 16th century and had sent European traders to West Africa for a more reliable supply.
The Ottoman trade was significant, but took place at a much smaller scale than the trans-Atlantic system that would come after it. This latter stage of the world history of slavery, in fact, unfolded at such a large scale, and had such a profound impact on the global economy, that it was possible to take the categories of human being implicated in this system to be, so to speak, universally valid. It is not coincidental that the early modern period, which witnessed the explosion of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, also witnessed the first post-classical large-scale projects for a universal taxonomy of natural kinds, most notably of plants and animals, culminating in particular in the universal ‘system of nature’ of Carl Linnaeus in the early 18th century.
‘Race’ is an historical artefact of these ambitious projects of the modern period, and a result of a simple failure to understand the nature of the object of study. Traits do cluster in populations, and this is a biological fact about the human species-- one eminently worth studying. Yet the way these traits cluster almost never has anything interesting to do with the sort of questions people are talking about when they talk about ‘race’. What are people talking about, then? Considerable insight may be gained here by looking at the period of early modern globalization prior to the emergence of ‘racial science’, and prior to the casting of Africans as the ultimate other. We already noted above that in the US context there is a binary system of race, between ‘white’ (conceived as an aspirational category) and ‘black’. But this opposition leaves out an important tertium quid, namely, the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas.
For the first two centuries or so after the first contact with the New World, it was the origins and nature of the Native Americans that most preoccupied Europeans interested in the question of human diversity. If this third term is left out today, this is not because Native Americans have been made ‘white’, as, say, Irish people have been, but rather because genocide and ethnic cleansing have made Native Americans mostly marginal to political debate and to the efforts of Americans to define the present reality of their multicultural society. Yet much of the way we continue to think about human diversity, under the poor cover of ‘race’, in fact continues to look a good deal more like 16th- and early 17th-century conceptualization of human diversity, in which the key binary division was not based on some purportedly significant physical traits, but rather on the distinction between the civilized and the savage. This distinction is in turn rooted in a more fundamental opposition between the realms of the properly human on the one hand and the natural on the other. ‘Natives’, as the shared lexical root plainly attests, are those people who are thought to be grounded or ‘at home’ in nature in a way that others, the properly human, are not.
Today, in most theoretical reflection on human diversity in the developed world, there are, as we’ve already claimed, varieties of difference that seldom enter into consideration. Again, this exclusion is not inappropriate, if what we are doing is mapping or enumerating the forms of difference within our own society. But it is important not to forget that the reason why certain other forms of difference fall out of this sort of consideration is not because they are intrinsically of little interest, but because the people who embodied these forms have been decimated, exterminated, and marginalized. If it is a challenge for a disabled person to obtain full equality within our society, it is already a fait accompli that a forager or a practitioner of subsistence agriculture can have no place in our society at all. But intersectionality does not concern itself with such forms of life; it is not principally concerned with the full range of human difference, but only with the various intersections between the various ways of being American. The legacy of imperialist genocide has brought it about that hunting and gathering are not among these ways.
Intersectionality barely scratches the surface. It is an ornamentation of the present order, not a radical questioning of it.
 For the locus classicus of this approach, see Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity, and Violence against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review 43, 6 (1991): 1241-1299.
 For a particularly compelling account of the historical continuity between the era of slavery and the era of mass incarceration, see Loïc Wacquant, Prisons of Poverty, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009; Wacquant, “Deadly Symbiosis: When Ghetto and Prison Meet and Mesh,” Punishment & Society 3, 1 (2001): 95-133.
 See in particular Peggy McIntosh, “White privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” Peace and Freedom (July-August 1989): 9-10.
 To cite just a few popular case studies, see See Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White, New York: Routledge, 1995; Karen Brodkin, How the Jews Became White Folks, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1998.
 On the Western European turn away from the Eastern Mediterranean and towards West Africa as a principal source of slaves, see in particular John Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
There is a risk of appearing perverse or flippant when, in the face of unfolding events, one insists on taking the very long view and invoking centuries-old battles. Often, indeed, one senses that many of the seemingly intractable problems on the fringes of Europe could be swiftly resolved if history were finally forgotten, or at least deemed definitively irrelevant to politics.
And yet sometimes such a perspective is just what is needed. I do not know whether Crimea is one such time, but when I read of a new Russian annexation of the Black Sea peninsula, I cannot help it: I think straightaway of 1783 and the fall of the Crimean Khanate.
There is talk in the Russian and Ukrainian social media of a 'Second Crimean War', the first being, of course, the war of 1853-56, which pitted the Russian Empire against a coalition of Ottoman, British, and French troops, along with an assortment of minor players. Paris has both a 'Crimée' as well as a 'Sebastopol' metro stop, and the French role in this affair seems to have been crucial for France's rediscovery of its bellicose potential after Napoleon I's defeat. But the First Crimean War can tell us little about its supposed sequel, since in truth it was not principally Crimean until the tail end, but rather pan-Pontic, and even Baltic. France's military objectives were reached in the conquest of some territories in the Danube delta that had been seized by Russia. But by the time of this small victory the French public was hungry for more, and so the troops went on to the mythic battle of Sebastopol, and took at least a part of the peninsula, at least for a time, ostensibly in the aim of reconstituting a lost Turkish hegemony around the Black Sea.
So what is happening right now is less a repeat of the 19th-century battles around Crimea than it is of the initial 18th-century annexation. In neither case, of course, was there any question of Ukrainian sovereignty or historical claim to the peninsula. The khanate was one of many realms controlled by Muslim Turkic Tatars to the north and east of the Black Sea. It was established as an Ottoman vassal state in the late 15th century, and had its capital at Bahçesaray (now moderately Slavicized as 'Bakhchysarai'). The de-Tatarization of the peninsula was the principal concern of the Russian Empire from the time of its initial annexation.
A great number of Crimean Tatars assimilated, or went to Anatolia and assimilated there in some degree (estimates for the Crimean Tatar population of Turkey today differ wildly, from a few hundred thousand to several million; it all depends what criteria are used). Over the couse of the 19th century the Tatars were ethnically cleansed, expelled, and brutally repressed. In this respect, one should see the Russification of Crimea as part of the same broader process of annexation and incorporation of the Caucasus region (some but not all of whose ethnolinguistic groups are also Turkic). We see in fact a close parallel history with the Adyghe or Circassians of the Krasnodar region around Sochi, who like the Crimean Tatars ended up relocating in large numbers to Anatolia.
This project continued well into the Soviet period, and the Crimean Tatars were subjected to particularly brutal repression by Stalin and Beria in 1944, under suspicion of being 'fascists'. From the Soviet perspective, Ukranianization of the region was nearly as good as Russification. Both replaced an inherently intractable ethnic group with people from the USSR's Slavic core. This history is worth recalling because it reminds us that, today, it is somewhat superficial to analyze what is happening in Crimea in the way we've become accustomed to doing for the events in Kyiv and points west. Crimea has a long history as a Russian colony, and when it fell into Ukraine's hands at the collapse of the Soviet Union this was effectively the transfer of a colony, rather than the consolidation of a historical nation.
There is no question but that Putin is leaping on the opportunity opened up by the instability of Ukraine to attempt to reconsolidate the empire that partially contracted in 1991, and that has been going through phases of contraction and expansion for centuries. To this extent, the re-annexation of Crimea is to be vigorously opposed, not because it fractures a natural unity (as, say, a Russian invasion of Western Ukraine would), but because it marks the renascence of a properly imperial power. Ukraine had simply enjoyed temporary usufruct, by geographical circumstance, of a sliver of that empire.
I see Crimea more in continuity with recent events in Sochi than in Kyiv: the symbolic consolidation of Russian hegemony in historically non-Slavic, Muslim regions that have been contested since the late-18th and early-19th centuries. This development is in many respects more significant than the matter of Kyiv's geopolitical orientation. It hints at a growing thirst for hegemony over the entire Black Sea. This could eventually lead to a confrontation with Turkey, which for its part is rediscovering, in parallel fashion, its own neo-Ottoman imperial ambitions.
Putin's only argument to justify the new Russian imperialism is that, as a matter of fact, Russia is strong enough to pull it off. There is nothing more to it than that. If you have some time, watch a video or two of Ramzan Kadyrov on YouTube. Watch him on horseback, or at target practice, or throwing money in the air while dancing. This is Putin's appointed warlord in Chechnya, and his only claim to authority in that beleaguered republic is (i) heredity, and (ii) his proven track-record of violence. One rises to the position of statesman, under Putin's regime, by the display of virtues that would not have been out of place a millennium ago: strength, mightiness, ferocity in the field of battle.
There have been recent reports that Putin has sent one of his faithful ministers of parliament, Nikolaï Valuev, to assess the situation in Crimea. Valuev is a former heavyweight boxer, who is over seven feet tall and once knocked out Evander Holyfield. He looks like a classic James Bond villain. One of the leaders of the Ukrainian revolution is a man named Vitali Klitschko, leader of the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform-- UDAR, which means 'punch' in both Ukrainian and Russian. He is also a former professional boxer who once fought Lennox Lewis. There is already talk in the Russian Twittersphere of an inevitable match between Klitschko and Valuev that will decide the fate of Crimea. Such a thing is not impossible in a moral-political climate set by Putin.
There is a legend that extends at least back to the stories the Greeks told themselves about the Scythians, according to which these people were such savage warriors that they were prepared to kill great numbers of their own people just to make the enemy quake and run the other way. While the Scythians were probably northern Indo-Aryans, the label 'Scythian' has always been slippery: sometimes it's the Turks, sometimes the Mongols, and sometimes Russians. Balkan and Slavic peoples are praised or condemned for being able to turn back their enemies by adopting 'Scythian' ways themselves, as when Vlad the Impaler made a wall of impaled Transylvanian Christians before the gates of Brașov, and drove back the invading Turks. The stereotype extends all the way to popular entertainments of recent years, as when the vaguely Turkish character Keyser Söze, in the 1995 American movie, The Usual Suspects, resolved the crisis of his family's tragic kidnapping at the hands of evil enemies by shooting, not the enemies, but his entire family.
One cannot help but think of this ancient trope when one recalls the Russian security forces' response to the hostage crisis in Beslan in 2004, or the Nord-Ost siege in Moscow two years earlier. The enemy shows force, we show more force in retaliation, and we demonstrate our invincibility by demonstrating our indifference to the loss of innocent lives on either side. The regime acts as force majeure, as a power of nature that can't be talked down or made to see things differently. We are in the realm of stereotypes here, and there is nothing natural or inevitable about Russia taking up the ancient role of the Scythians. But I am convinced that Putin himself believes in these stereotypes, that playing out these stereotypes is a winning strategy for his political career, and that this does not bode at all well for Russia's neighbors.
I'm drawing mostly on memory here and I hope I'm getting my facts straight. In the past, I have found Alan W. Fisher, The Russian Annexation of the Crimea, 1772-1783 (CUP, 2008), particularly helpful for understanding the history of the region.
I'm also thankful to Andrey Slivka for recently reminding me of the crucial role of the Tatars in shaping Russian and Soviet policy toward the Crimea.
And thanks to Vladislav Davidzon, for taking me to those dark corners of Twitter where boxing and politics blend naturally together.
By the end of the 17th century, attacks on the Cartesian philosophy were often rather unoriginal and derivative, philosophically speaking. Yet many continued to reflect new preoccupations of philosophy in the post-Cartesian period in imaginative ways. A good example of this is the Jesuit Gabriel Daniel's 1690 satire, Voiage du Monde de Descartes, which envisions an interstellar journey through Descartes's World, now conceived not as a mere thought experiment, but as a sort of science-fiction construction, as a parallel possible world. Such a construal, as I would like to argue, though not so significant with respect to the history of critiques of Cartesianism, nonetheless reveals important developments in the deployment of the philosophical concept of 'world'.
It will be useful perhaps to begin with a question that might seem too obvious to need asking, but that in the 17th century was at the center of a number of fundamental philosophical debates: what, in general, is a world?
It is a commonplace in history-of-science scholarship since Alexandre Koyré to acknowledge that the beginning of the modern period witnessed a transition between two very different cosmological models, from the closed world to the infinite universe, as the title of Koyré’s most influential book put it. But beyond its closedness, there are a few other important features to note in the most familiar cosmological models inherited from antiquity.
Aristotle, like many of his contemporaries, had found it useful to divide the world into two basic regions: the superlunar and the sublunar. The first of these is the home of the celestial bodies. They are immortal and, relatedly, unmixed. They are entirely composed of a single element, and therefore cannot be corrupted, cannot cease to be, through a separating out of their constituents. They must of necessity move, since only the unmoved mover is free of all change, but their motion duplicates the perfect quiescence of the supreme being as much as possible: it is perfectly circular, and so the immortal celestial bodies always come back to the very points in the cosmos that their motion has already traced. Sublunar bodies, for their part, consist in various mixtures of earth, air, fire, and water, and for this reason are destined sooner or later to come apart, to cease to be, when the elements that constitute them go their separate ways. Some sublunar beings, which we today would call ‘biological’, in turn imitate the circular motion of the celestial spheres --in much the same way their circular motion imitates the stillness of the unmoved mover-- through what Aristotle calls ‘cyclical’ motion (as distinct from circular), which is, as he explains, a ‘cycling back upon oneself’ in sexual reproduction, which wins for the individual mortal natural being a share of eternity ‘in kind if not in number’.
So much for the sublunar and the superlunar. What about the moon itself? What side is it on? If it is on neither, then what is the significance of such a fundamental ontological divide? In this paper I would like to look at a few ways in which the moon, as a boundary entity of crucial significance, has since antiquity played a fundamental role in thought experiments that have helped natural philosophers to come to a picture of nature as a whole, to arrive at least partially at what Thomas Nagel would call a ‘view from nowhere’. This is particularly clear in the early modern period when the Aristotelian two-region picture of the cosmos is rejected in favor of a picture of the cosmos on which the same laws hold everywhere in the same way, and the study of projectiles on the earth’s surface may be carried out in exactly the same way as the study of planetary orbits.
In On the Generation of Animals, Aristotle makes a special plea, evidently intended for unnamed critics, for the idea that there is something worthwhile about the study of perishable living creatures. He acknowledges that the celestial bodies are more divine, in large part because they are immortal (and also, by the way, intelligent), but, he adds, they are also very far away, and therefore hard to study. Living creatures are less divine, but they are also close at hand. It would be a mistake, moreover, to exclude them from the realm of the divine entirely simply in view of their perishability, for here too, as Aristotle says, there is something beautiful and wonderful. He cites in this connection the fragment of Heraclitus who, when caught lounging naked on a stove by distinguished visitors, protests: “Here too dwell gods.” Here, what Aristotle is first and foremost doing, in his way, is defending the integrity and the legitimacy of the study of living beings.
‘The world’, for Aristotle, is a system in which certain events happen in one region, which in turn trickle down and cause homologous yet different events in another region. Astronomy and ‘biology’ (to use a blatant anachronism) are two domains of a unified science of nature. In his own, directly inverse, way, Descartes too would aim to present biology as a regional instance of a general science of nature: this aim is precisely what is at stake in Descartes’s expressed desire to explain the formation of the fetus “in the same manner as the rest,” that is, by appeal to the same minor laws that also explain the motion of projectiles and the orbit of planets. Here, plainly, the unity of the superlunar and the sublunar is no longer a result of some cosmic trickle-down from the former to the latter, but rather of the fact that for Descartes no region is special, no region has causal or explanatory priority over any other.
Aristotle’s world is closed, as Koyré emphasized, but it is also hierarchically structured. In the modern period, we do indeed witness a sudden and tremendous expansion of the world, an ‘infinitization’, but also a destructuring or disassembly. And here, there were different available models for reconceiving the structure of the cosmos. The most significant division, perhaps, was between those who imagined the new infinite world as, so to speak, an ‘infinite extension of the same’, and those who envisioned an infinite fracturing or reduplication. That is, one could go with Descartes, and maintain that the world is simply extensus indefinite, that it consists in res extensa, in the same way it does right here, however far out from here one may travel; or one could take up the alternative view, espoused by Henry More after his initial exposure to the philosophy of Descartes, according to which there are infinite worlds, or infinite centers of well-structured kosmoi. Thus More reflects in his Democritus Platonissans of 1646 on the ‘fair glistering lights in heaven’, that:
If onely for this world they were intended
Nature would have adorn'd this azure Round
With better Art.
The evident disorder of the heavens is for More a reason to suppose that each star is the center of its own world, rather than having its raison d’être in relation to the earth, or indeed to life on earth.
There is, in the multiplication of worlds from More to Bernard de Fontenelle, who published his famous Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds in 1686, a deep ambiguity in the meaning of ‘world’. Are we to understand by a ‘many-worlds’ hypothesis that there are multiple, inaccessible, self-contained ‘realities’, so to speak; or are we rather to understand that there are simply multiple regional centers of one and the same reality? A clear illustration of this ambiguity (which extends in important senses even into David Lewis’s defense of modal realism) may be found, for example, in the Spanish-Inca political philosopher Garcilaso de la Vega’s Royal Commentaries of the Incas, first published in 1609, in which the author devotes the first chapter of the first book to denying the impious view that there are ‘many worlds’, and affirming that the ‘New World’ is so called only because it was discovered recently, not because it is in any sense a discrete or independent reality. “If there are any men who imagine that there are many worlds,” de la Vega writes, “there is no other response to offer them, unless they persist in their heretical belief until they are disabused of it in hell.”
We see in de la Vega that the problem of many worlds extended all the way from the cosmographical to the much more fine-grained questions of geography, and the Spanish-Inca author is firm in his objection to what might be called, in deference to Lewis, ‘many-worlds realism’. For him, the term ‘worlds’ offers nothing more than a poetic way of describing spatially distant but potentially traversable regions. We might say of Henry More that he takes just the opposite approach: for him, spatial distance, or at least a significant amount of spatial distance, is already sufficient for establishing the true, proper distinctness of one ‘world’ in relation to another. What is more, he even manages to extend his ‘many worlds’ realism to Descartes by eliding his own conception of ‘world’ with the French philosopher’s model of the world as consisting in infinite extension: “Nay,” More writes, “and that sublime and subtil Mechanick too, Des Chartes, though he seem to mince it must hold infinitude of worlds, or which is as harsh one infinite one. For what is his mundus indefinite extensus, but extensus infinite? Else it sounds onely infinitus quoad nos but simpliciter finitus.” Even this early, we see More’s characteristic attitude towards Descartes already in place: to the extent that More can claim common cause with Descartes, it is only by separating the latter’s claims from the concerns that motivated them. Prima facie, it is an odd thing to recruit Descartes for one’s case for the infinity of worlds, and the case for these worlds is not much strengthened by Descartes’s commitment to one indefinitely extended world.
Willy-nilly, then, by entering into the world business, Descartes becomes implicated in the problem of worlds in the plural. This implication continues long after More, and can perhaps be better understood by a brief consideration of Fontenelle’s famous work on the plurality of worlds. The moon is a world like ours," Fontenelle causes his protagonist to assert, "and to all appearance, inhabited." In the Conversations, Fontenelle is evidently playing on the dual signification of the French notion of ‘monde’, as describing both the physical universe as well as human society, or, more particularly, a single, self-contained human society. Where there are intelligent creatures living together and constituting un monde for one another, it follows that this amounts to a distinct world. But if a part of the cosmos is made out of the same matter as the earth is, and is subject to the same laws, then it naturally follows that it will be inhabited by intelligent beings like us. There are multiple worlds not in any strong Lewisian sense of parallel intraversable realities, but simply in the sense that there are multiple mondes with, ordinarily, no traffic between them, even if in principle one could in fact move from one to another. And the existence of such multiple mondes is a direct and inevitable consequence of the fact that the entire cosmos is governed by the same basic laws, and can be explained, like the formation of the earthling fetus, “in the same manner as the rest.” The dismantling of the structured hierarchy of the ancients leads directly to extraterrestrials.
Or at least this is the conclusion to which many late 17th-century satirists and fantasists were drawn. There appears in fact to be a direct translation of the Cartesian doctrine of explanation “in the same manner as the rest,” into what would come to be known as ‘the Harlequin principle’: toujours et partout, c’est tout comme ici [‘always and everywhere, it’s the same as it is here’]. This is the catch-phrase exclaimed by a chorus of lunar characters in Anne Mauduit Nolant de Fatouville’s comic opera, Arlequin, empereur dans la Lune, spoken in unison as a response to reports about the hypocrisy and vanity of social life on earth. In other words, wherever there is a monde, the same human (or humanoid) comedy will repeat itself. Later, in the New Essays concerning Human Understanding of 1704, G. W. Leibniz would adapt this catch-phrase as a pithy summary of his own theory of monads, according to which the world consists in an infinity of ultimately identical perceiving substances, which are individuated only in virtue of their perspective from within the order of reciprocal perception. From the hierarchically structured and closed world, we move through the world as indefinite extension of the same, a view crystallized in the formula partout comme ici, which is then taken up as the motto of a metaphysical system grounded in the infinite repetition of perception, fractured, kaleidoscopically, into infinitely many points of view.
Leibniz does not mean to present his system of monads as science-fiction. He takes it as a true account of how the world really is, and this account, while seldom taken as true today, is considered worthy of study by the designers of undergraduate curricula in philosophy. And yet it is, as we have begun to discern here, in large part a sort of following-out of the implications of a way of thinking about the world, or about the plurality of worlds, that was already set in motion by Descartes. As Leibniz himself acknowledges, important, if theoretically unsophisticated, voice was given to this way of thinking not only by philosophers, but also by fantasists such as Nolant de Fatouville (elsewhere in the New Essays, Leibniz also mentions Cyrano de Bergerac in the same connection). It is perhaps worth taking more seriously the role of science fiction, and of literary and satirical works more generally, in the uses to which the concept of 'world' was put throughout the course of early modern philosophy.
Insomma dici che il razzismo che c’è in Francia non c’entra proprio con la razza, che è più che altro “culturale”?
È un po’ come la storia degli amministratori francesi che, al tempo delle colonie, invitavano i capi locali a cena e quando questi imparavano a distinguere la forchetta dell’antipasto da quella della portata principale, allora erano riconosciuti come veri francesi. Se ci pensi, è il discorso che fa Finkielkraut, dice che quei selvaggi delle banlieue devono imparare a usare la forchetta se vogliono essere francesi. Poi però ti ritrovi, com’è successo il mese scorso, un po’ di gente a Parigi che grida “via gli ebrei dalla Francia”, ed evidentemente a loro il fatto che Finkielkraut sappia stare bene a tavola non interessa. Questa storia comunque mi ha convinto che non si può portare avanti una politica anti-Islam senza aprire le porte all’antisemitismo.
Tornando al tuo op-ed. Stando a quello che ho letto lì e ad altre cose che ho letto sulla tua bacheca, in pratica stai dicendo che la xenofobia è molto più mainstream, diffusa e, soprattutto, sdoganata, di quanto non si pensi. Che anche la nostalgia, diciamo “di sinistra” e “di classe”, per la vita francese, insomma lo slow food e cose simili, sono anche quelle cose un po’ xenofobe. Perché si parte dal presupposto che c’è un modo giusto di essere francesi, e dunque è l’altra faccia della medaglia della xenofobia in stile Le Pen.
Uh, mi ricordo che questa cosa ti ha un po’ stupito. Ho fatto arrabbiare un sacco di amici francesi, quando ho detto loro che il loro amore per lo slow food, per la convivialità, rimandava a dei concetti di destra. Ma, se ci pensi, è la stessa cosa che succede in Italia quando ci sono le ordinanze anti-kebab, nel nome dei cibi locali. Immagina che un kebabbaro apra proprio di fianco a una fromagerie… e tutto intorno c’è gente convinta che la fromagerie e gli altri negozi tradizionali sono l’espressione suprema del “fare le cose nel modo giusto”. In questo caso la xenofobia diventa molto più facile da giustificare, perché in teoria avviene in nome di un concetto, ufficialmente apolitico, come “la bella vita”. Ma in realtà è una discussione molto politica, perché si tratta di chi ha il diritto a stare dove. Non dico che lo slow food e il localismo siano intrinsecamente fascisti, dico che dobbiamo pensare diversamente ai valori fondamentali che si scontrano.
Più che xenofobia, però, mi pare una questione culturale…
Già, mentre all’estero la Francia continua a comportarsi come se fosse un impero, al suo interno il nazionalismo francese si è trasformato, da nazionalismo imperialista a una forma di nazionalismo culturale.
Over the last few days, a disheartening consensus has emerged among self-styled Western progressives that there is little or nothing in the current Ukrainian revolution that merits solidarity. This mixture of wariness and indifference was already evident in the build-up to the bloody crackdown in Kyiv on February 18, but it has been stoked and heightened considerably since then by the clear and central role played in unfolding events by the Ukrainian extreme right, particularly by members of the so-called Right Sector and by the somewhat less extremist group Svoboda.
It is undeniable that the far right has taken a leading role in the shaping of post-Yanukovych Ukraine. But what international observers have entirely failed to grasp is that the choice between either supporting fascism or disowning the revolution is an entirely false dichotomy. Progressives worthy of the name could instead have taken the role of the far right as yet another challenge within a political situation that presented a complex cluster of challenges, including, most importantly, the removal of an utterly corrupt lackey of a neighboring dictator. The far right has come to own this revolution in part because of the prissiness of the left, the inability to accept that the situation might be intrinsically complex, and might impose common interests on groups that are otherwise entirely at odds.
The one place where the left seems to get this basic fact is in Russia. Now by 'Russian left' I don't mean people who watch Alex Jones or whomever on RT and who meet every criticism of Putin with the subject-changing remark, 'Well, it's no worse than what the US does'. By 'Russian left' I mean the Russians who want to see Putin go the same way as Yanukovych, so that they can really start building a free and egalitarian society.
It was pointed out to me in Moscow a week ago that there is a direct, graphable correlation, over the past 10 years, between unrest in Kyiv and repression in Moscow. That is, the louder the demands for freedom in Ukraine, the more firmly Putin clamps down on the expression of dissident views at home. Putin fears nothing more than a contagion effect, the spread of disorder from Ukraine into Russia. And Russian progressives brace themselves for another cycle of repression, while inwardly rejoicing when Ukraine rises up, because it gives them hope that the same thing could happen next in Russia.
This is a slim hope, of course, and no one I know has any illusions. Putin could count on the army to repress any Maidan-style movement in Moscow, while Yanukovych knew all along that he could not be certain of the loyalty of the Ukrainian armed forces. His great error was to suppose that it would be enough to clear the square with police repression, and to fail to recognize the high degree of military organization on the part of the demonstrators. Police snipers are intimidating, but insufficient to bring down the sotni: hundred-strong legions of soldiers, first attested as centuriae in ancient Rome (for linguists this is a lovely instance of the famous centum/satem split), but incarnated much more recently by communist brigades in the Spanish civil war.
The tweets I am reading from the sotni are nationalist and ultranationalist in character. There is near constant invocation of the call-and-repeat formula: Слава Україні — Героям Слава! [Glory to Ukraine -- Glory to the heroes!]. This phrase goes back to the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), a hard nationalist and anticommunist group during World War II that also fought for Ukrainian independence against the Nazi occupation. The pair of phrases continues to be used today as a slogan for all supporters of Ukrainian independence. I chanted them myself at the demonstration in front of the Ministère des Affaires Étrangères in Paris on February 19 (there were some prickly fascists lurking around, to be sure, but there were also Odessa Jews, orange-bedecked Kyiv democrats, and assorted other good people singing the national anthem together). They have been consciously and carefully taken up by left supporters of Maidan in Russia and Ukraine. Thus for example Aleksandr Pivtorak, writing in Russian from Kyiv for the Ukrainian online news source Hvylya, concludes his article on Maidan and 'the crisis of left mobility' with the sign-off Слава Україні! He knows where the phrase comes from. He also knows what it means right now.
I recently read a comment from someone whose Jewish communist grandparents used to like to say that the only argument for Stalin was that he could keep the Ukrainian fascists in check. To me this comment said more than it intended: it drove home to me the fundamentally neo-Stalinist character of much of the vocal left in the West. In their own way, too, by turning their backs on the Ukrainian revolution for fear of its ugly fascists, the Western left is sticking with Stalin. The current incarnation of Stalin does not even pretend to represent a hope for a radiant future for the oppressed of the world. He is a pragmatist and a realist, but, like the dictator who represented both the apex of Soviet power and the beginning of its decline, Putin's own power rests on convincing enough minds, at home and abroad, that the people he governs need this sort of government, that they are historically or genetically (the distinction is always blurry here) incapable of enlightened self-rule, and therefore must be ruled with an iron fist.
This is nothing more than an ugly prejudice, and it is clear that Western Ukraine isn't buying it anymore. Putin had sought to keep Ukraine within Russia's tighter sphere of influence through corruption, poison attacks, and, most recently, through a major, $15-billion-dollar loan to the Yanukovych government. It was implicit as a condition of this loan that the Ukrainian president would not go along with any movement for a reorientation toward the EU, and therefore that he would not tolerate the EuroMaidan movement, and would do whatever was necessary to suppress it. He tried to suppress it, and failed, and now Putin is very unhappy.
I have been reading many comments from Ukraine to the effect that we are only now seeing the true end of the pax sovietica, the true collapse of the USSR. The first collapse was partial, it let loose those republics, like the Baltics, that had only been seized in the chaos of World War II, and those of Central Asia, that always remained culturally and demographically very distinct (with the exception of major portions of Kazakhstan). Russia continued however, after the collapse, to perceive the world beyond its borders in terms of two distinct kinds of foreignness: the true abroad, on the one hand, and the ближнее зарубежье, or 'near abroad' on the other. Nowhere did this latter category apply more fully than to Ukraine. The very name 'Ukraine' suggests that it is 'at the border': u kraya.
In the early 1990s, when the final arrangement had yet to take shape and we were hearing strange acronyms like CIS ('Commonwealth of Independent States'), exiled Russian nationalists like Solzhenitsyn were unequivocal: let the 'Stans go, let the Baltics go, but keep greater Russia, historical Russia, together. This would include the RSFSR, 'White Russia' or Belarus, and 'Little Russia' or Ukraine. When that could not quite be realized at a formal level, Russia, at least since the beginning of the Putin era, did everything possible to make it a de facto reality. And it was, more or less, until now.
Left-leaning analysts in the West, including Stephen F. Cohen writing for The Nation, have appealed to the same ancestral ties that excited Solzhenitsyn's patriotic imagination in order to argue that we must not rush to suppose that Ukraine has a right to be independent from Russia. This is ironic. Solzhenitsyn used to be the arch-conservative Western progressives could tolerate because of his truth-to-power exposure of the excesses of the Soviet Gulag system under Stalin and Khrushchev. Now there are echoes of Solzhenitsyn in the left's defense of Russia's neo-Soviet clinging to what's left of its imperial power. But, again, this unlikely twist can be explained in large part by the fact that the left is far more Stalinist, mostly unknowingly, than it was a generation ago. (It also was not reading a magazine called Jacobin, a detail that seems to trouble me a lot more than it does my peers.)
We should not be talking about Ukrainian independence tout court. There are real political, economic, and cultural ties between much of Eastern Ukraine and Moscow, and it would seem to be a violation of the popular will of this region to break those ties by force or decree. There also does not seem to be any natural reason why Sofia, say, belongs any more in Europe than Lviv does. Many borders are artefacts of historical contingencies, and it would be ridiculous to seek to set them all just right once and for all. But as I've been arguing elsewhere, the current uprising in Western Ukraine is not primarily about geopolitical reorientation or about chasing the glossy consumerist dream of the EU.
Indeed, to suppose that this is what it is about, as many who are eager to abandon the Ukrainian revolution have argued, is a direct contradiction of the view that what the revolution is really about is ultranationalism, fierce defense of Ukrainian soil, etc. Again, ultranationalism is one of the elements in the current events, and so, admittedly, is Euro-optimism (on this latter point, the Russian line is of course a compelling one: there is no good reason for such optimism; Russia is richer by far than, say, Romania or Bulgaria, and only fools would rush to join the EU only similar terms). But I would conjecture that a deeper historical reason for what is happening right now is the desire in Western Ukraine for a free and independent society, and this means, most importantly, a final end to Russian domination.
I hope they attain this, and I declare my antipathy to any Westerner who does not have the same hope, or does not believe that this is something to which the Ukrainians have a right. I believe mutatis mutandis that this rift is the same as the one that separated defenders of the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 from those who saw it for what it was. Again, one great difference between 1956 and today is that Putin is not even pretending to hope to bring about a better world (or, if he is, it's only in the same obviously disingenuous way Alex Jones and other guests on the Russian propaganda network are). Were there craven Hungarian antisemites who resented those Soviet tanks coming and interrupting their plans for an independent Hungary? Of course there were! Does anyone today doubt that the Soviet Union overreached its legitimate exercise of power? I hope not.
And again, I declare that in this hope I look most of all to what the dissident Russian left is saying, and I don't care much at all about the opinion of Americans who think Fox News is the only media outlet capable of lying, or that Obama is the only world leader prepared to kill innocents. The Russians I know look to Ukraine, and they see a glimmer of hope that they too might soon be free of the old prejudice that validates and excuses their being ruled by an iron fist, and that the pax sovietica might collapse even within its core of power in Russia. I'm on their side.
Yes, there are fascists playing a central role in the Ukrainian revolution right now. And yes, the US and the EU are trying cynically manipulate the revolution for their own geopolitical interests, just like Russia is. Don't let these parties prevail. Don't abandon Ukraine.
I dreamt last night that I was sharing a taxi with Putin from Moscow to Sheremetyevo airport. He was being very friendly and I could tell he liked me. I felt like a coward and a moral cretin for not saying anything critical that would cause him to not like me, and at the same time I kept trying to convince myself that there were strong pragmatic reasons for maintaining good relations, at least for now, as this would enable me to eventually write more revealingly about him. I knew this was bullshit, however, and that I was really just a grovelling sycophantic underling who craved the approval of people in power. Then we got into a massive traffic jam, and I was so filled with self-hatred and dread that I woke up.
In real life I had shared a taxi from Moscow to Sheremetyevo, earlier that same day, with a kind, gentle, architect from Berlin. By 'architect' I mean one of those people from Berlin who talks about 'space' a lot and who participates in panels with philosophers. He has probably never built any buildings, but nor has he blown any up, which is why I am wondering why he got replaced by Putin in my dream.
We had been, earlier in the day, on a panel in front of a few hundred people and a number of angry journalists. We were a motley crew of philosophers and political activists, and to be perfectly honest my reason for accepting the invitation was somewhat disingenuous: it meant an opportunity to go back to Russia after what seems like a lifetime away.
Anyhow there were seething antagonistic dynamics between different parties in the room that I could not even begin to decipher. There was a guy on the panel who looked like a skateboarder but announced himself as a psychoanalyst. There were plenty of the sort of bearded, long-haired Russian men who could be either dissident leftists or ultranationalist Orthodox spiritualists. Many of the people in the room clearly had cults of personality attached to them, but I did not know who they were or in virtue of what the cults had congealed.
There was much talk, more than any westerner could possibly anticipate, of Ukraine, and of popular will, and revolution.
When it came time for questions a man in the audience stood up and said, "I am a doctor of philosophy. First of all, I would like to begin by asking you all to express solidarity with the protesters in Kiev. Long live the Ukrainian Revolution! Long live Maidan!" He held up his fist and yelled "Long live Maidan!" again, and then I and maybe a dozen other people did the same. (Why not? I thought. I too support Maidan.) Then there was an awkward silence, and the journalists were all glancing around to see who expressed solidarity and who kept silent. Would there be repercussions? I wondered.
And then the 'doctor of philosophy' said (to paraphrase): "All you so-called philosophers ought to be ashamed of yourselves. You haven't even mentioned morality once. And that's what philosophers need to be talking about: morality. Here we are in a world where all sorts of unnatural things are happening: capitalism, genetic engineering, same-sex marriage, drugs, and so on. How are we going to put a stop to these things if we don't start taking morality seriously?"
For some reason they decided to pass the microphone to me. My Russian skills, often inaccessible during this short visit, snapped to attention, and I said: "As far as I am concerned it is the sole duty of a philosopher to compare different systems of morality, to attempt to find their weaknesses and inconsistencies, but by no means to defend the one or the other." There was much muttering and nonplussedness.
What are the lessons I am drawing? For one thing, I return convinced more than ever that Russia is far more foreign than westerners are willing to recognize. On this visit I heard, on multiple occasions and from people of all political orientations, the expression of a contrast between 'us' and 'Europe'. In the Soviet period and much earlier, the eternal question was whether 'we' are European or Asian, whereas now there seems to be a resolute and unconflicted commitment to the role of a tertium quid. At the same time, Moscow is indeed clearly more 'Asiatic' than it was 20 years ago, as a result of migration patterns from Central Asia. Restaurant wait-staff, construction workers, and others closer to the bottom of the social ladder are, it seems, far more likely to be named Chingiz than Sergei. One is reminded of how much of the current territory of Russia --not the former USSR, but Russia-- was once covered by khanates.
But the lessons, the lessons. There is a place in the world where same-sex marriage can be plausibly lumped together with GMO's as a sign of a world gone wrong, and indeed as a sign of excessive American power. One disagrees, but still wishes to rub one's western liberal academic friends' faces in it a bit: try to fit this into your pat schemes, into your Facebook echo chambers of mutually assured agreement.
One of the most intense preoccupations of western social media over the past few months is the question how, in spite of the fact that Russia is so terribly homophobic, nonetheless Russian men, and particularly Putin, look so hopelessly gay. The country's leader goes horseback riding with his shirt off, and does so in defense of a purportedly rigorously heteronormative conception of masculinity. What on earth is going on here? It seems to me that there is something even far deeper than homophobia that marks the distance between Russia and the west in these matters, and that is a different relationship to irony, of which, I take it, the 'camp' so lucidly analyzed by Susan Sontag is but a subspecies. In the west it is impossible to simply be a man in the way Russians such as Putin take for granted, since the gestures or styles in which this would consist are continually being taken up by people who would like to subvert, invert, or at least question the process by which something so minor as gestures or styles could ever constitute something so fundamental as identity.
Putin is purportedly a hardbody (if by now tending toward gynecomastia, and really more thick than hard), but his authoritarianism is soft. For comparison, a fascinating list has been circulating of western bands prohibited by Soviet authorities in 1984. Number 1 is 'German-Polish Aggression', which is almost certainly made up. Number 2 is 'German-American Friendship', by which I assume they mean Deutsch-Amerikanische Freundschaft or DAF, which really existed but had nothing to do with the Marshall Plan or geopolitics. Numbers 3-14 are Soviet 'Red Wave' bands (except for one Czech group), and it's not at all surprising to see them on a government blacklist. Then, suddenly, at 15 we get Blue Öyster Cult followed by a number of well-known western groups. The list is fairly clearly composed by clueless government agents, filled with misspellings and misgroupings, e.g., number 44: 'Blondi and Debbia Kharri'. 'Dzhutas Prist', 'Depesh Med', 'Kalche Klub', 'Tokan Khedz' (i.e., Talking Heads), follow no known transliteration scheme. Julio Iglesias comes in at 45, two spots ahead of Black Sabbath, which strongly suggests the numbers are not ordinal. This list is really a nice measure of how much has changed: 'soft' authoritarianism of the sort Putin has perfected doesn't waste time with stuff like this.
And then comes glasnost: I remember, in 1991, seeing a USSR state-run Melodiya vinyl recording of Pearl Jam, released not under the name Пэрл Джем, but rather Жемчужное Варенье, literally, "Pearl Jam," i.e., fruit spread that is made out of pearls. So even with the official policy of openness the state proved as clueless as ever.
Lenin's name is now fading in the marble atop his mausoleum on Red Square. The opening hours have been reduced to 10h-13h weekdays, and apparently for Russian citizens only [Вход для граждан]. Of all former leaders, Lenin seems the hardest to fit into current narratives of national identity. Stalin fits very well, without having to be mentioned by name. The precise species of dictatorship Putin is crafting is definitely not a revolutionary one, of the proletariat, and it's not an omnipresent heavy-handed one either. The propaganda is unrelenting, but as long as you are a powerless nobody you're free to express dissenting opinions as much as you like. I held my fist up in support of the Maidan protestors, one of whose leaders, evidently, Putin recently caused to be tortured. This happened in front of TV cameras. Why didn't more people hold their fists up? Again, I don't know.
I did get 'controlled' for eating an apple while waiting on the metro platform at Revolution Square (a transgression of which I'm guilty in multiple jurisdictions), but when the police saw my American passport they congratulated me for the glorious victory of the US hockey team earlier that day (which was the first I'd heard of it). Instinctively, though, here more than anywhere else I've been, one perceives the police and other officials warily, sensing that protection and service are the furthest thing from their minds. Life as a visible ethnic or sexual minority here would be a life of constant fear.
Nadia and Masha, formerly of Pussy Riot, are out of their Siberian labor camps now, making the rounds of the Colbert Report, Brooklyn, destinations they are surely being drilled to understand. The Guardian recently published an anonymous missive from remaining members of the Pussy Riot collective, disavowing these two for their association with the establishment, and in particular for speaking out in favor of mainstream prisoners' rights groups. One somewhat hopes to see next a super-hardcore faction denouncing these anonymous posers for publishing in the Guardian. I don't care what anyone says. Nadia Tolokonnikova is our era's Aleksandr Radishchev.
I have no patience for westerners who say it is not our place to criticize the Russian regime. I suppose it depends on what you mean by 'we'. I certainly don't see myself in that deployment of the first-person plural pronoun.
I had a friend who spent much of the 1980s in Soviet jails for the crime of circulating bootleg Beatles tapes. He fell off a building and died, drunk, during the 1991 Generals' Putch. His name was Vitaliy Dergachev. I'm on his side.
Western pseudo-left collusionism reached a fever pitch during the Olympics, which just happened to coincide with my recent return to Russia. The respected Russia scholar Stephen F. Cohen, whom I heard speak in the 1990s and I admired very much, wrote recently in The Nation that we are all, essentially, being duped by a lazy western media that is prepared to say more or less anything to make Putin look bad. But if it is true, as Cohen insists, that coverage of Russia is even less subtle than in the Soviet days, this surely follows from the far more general fact of the media's overall decline in the past quarter century, and not from any deepening of the western media's Cold War parti pris.
Cohen maintains that we are naive for going along with the official western line that the Ukrainians 'yearn to be free' and that this automatically means geopolitical alliance with the EU rather than with Russia. He evokes ancestrality: the bloody argument that Rus' was once Kievan, and --therefore?-- that Kiev must remain, if not Russian, then at least Russia-oriented. But this entirely overlooks the fact that the Maidan protesters do not think of themselves as dupes of the CIA or of western propaganda. They are disgusted by corruption and behind-the-scenes manipulation, mostly guided by Russia, and they want to be free of it. What is even more important, this overlooks the fact that almost all dissident Russian progressives (and not just the category-defying fish-fowl who simultaneously oppose gay marriage and GMO's) are in strong solidarity with the Ukrainian protesters: not because they are западник suckers, not because they are pro-western, but because they want Ukraine to realize its right to autonomy and self-determination. As my friend Kirill Medvedev, a prominent figure in the Russian New Left, writes:
Извините, если что, но я совершенно серьезно думаю, что все прогрессивное человечество должно требовать сейчас двух вещей а)официально двуязычная, двуэтничная, мультикультурная Украина б)полное прекращение вмешательства России в дела этой страны.
Sorry, but I completely seriously think that all progressive humanity should now demand two things: (a) an officially bilingual, bi-ethnic, multicultural Ukraine; (b) the total cessation of interference on the part of Russia in the affairs of that country.
I'm on Kirill's side.
What now about the Olympics? I agree that much of the western snickering and bickering about Sochi has been petty and embarrassing. I have been many places in Eastern Europe where a sign requested that I throw my toilet paper into the waste-paper receptacle, and not, as one might expect, into the toilet. When you travel, you see new things, and you marvel at the variety of the world. When you see them circulating on Tumblr, they're easier to ridicule.
But let us make no mistake: Sochi was an ugly travesty, and it was made possible only by tremendous suffering. Forget about the repression of gays and lesbians, for a moment. In Moscow in the Winter of 2014, two sights are ubiquitous: the Olympic games on giant screens lining public thoroughfares; and migrant laborers from the Caucasus being treated like dirt. A racial hierarchy has emerged over the past two decades in the capital city, where Central Asians are now the tolerated, unthreatening, hard-working minority, while Caucasians occupy the very bottom rung of the social ladder, and are by definition targets of suspicion and exclusion.
Who are the Caucasians, and what is the historical cause of their place in the ethnic hierarchy of Russia? One thing you might notice is that Sochi is located in a region called 'Krasnodar'. It is surrounded by many other administrative divisions that end in -stan, suggesting a Tataro-Turkic influence, and many other divisions that bear some sort of local ethnonym: Ingushetia, Ossetia, etc. Why is Krasnodar not a -stan? Why is Krasnodar not called Adyghia? The answer has in part to do with the fact that it was Russified in the mid-19th century through a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing and genocide. The Circassians were exterminated, or relocated to Turkey. There is still today an active political lobby, based in Turkey, pushing for greater recognition of the Circassian genocide, but its voice is of course muffled by the Olympic juggernaut. In the lead-up to the games, Russian security forces were blowing up family homes around the Krasnodar region, hoping to weed out terrorists who had threatened to make the olympic spectacle their own.
The Americans were worried they'd need to be evacuated in the event of a terrorist attack, but the event of a non-event is, on reflection, no less troubling: a flawless Olympics means, for Putin, the consolidation of symbolic power in a contested part of the Caucasus, power that has seemed perpetually out of reach since at least the early 19th century. The westerners go and have a good time, tell themselves Putin's not so bad after all even if they were made to shit in adjoining toilets at the Black Sea base camp. And brute power wins with the complicity of tacky pageant, and of a grovelling and sycophantic western left, whose best arguments for Putin never amount to anything more than a simple change of subject: Well, they say, it's no worse than what we do.
John McWhorter's recent opinion piece for The New Republic on learning French ("Let's Stop Pretending that French Is an Important Language," February 2) is a thinly veiled parti pris in a battle over the symbolic role of France in American life, in which 'conservatives' ritualistically denounce this country as marginal and passé, and 'liberals' insist on the valuable lessons Americans can learn from its commitment to labor unions and to slow food, and from its reticence at entering into (American-led) military operations.
I do not wish to engage the provincial culture-war dimension of McWhorter's essay here. I would just like to correct two basic errors. One is the author's claim that French began as a 'peasant dialect' of Latin. A professional linguist, whatever his specialized domain of research, should know better. French is a product of the complex and multi-layered encounter between Latin on the one hand and the indigenous Gallic and Frankish languages of the region on the other. Further significant influence came from the Normans, and from other Germanic and Celtic sources. Few of these influences involved people who could be recognized as forming a peasantry.
A second correction has to do with the place of French in the contemporary world. It is true that the French empire has contracted greatly from its maximum extent. So has the Spanish, and in both cases this is surely for the better. But France remains a regional hegemon throughout much of Africa, where the legacy of the former empire can still be seen and felt in that massive cultural-linguistic region known as Françafrique. If you are interested --say, as an aid worker, or as a diplomat, or even, perhaps, as a linguist-- in Mali, Niger, Chad, Congo, the Central African Republic, for better or worse knowledge of French is indispensable.
Does McWhorter not know this? Does he think Africa is not important? Or is it just that for the rhetorical purposes of the inane culture war in the US, in which McWhorter is seeking to play a part, 'French' may be understood as shorthand for the phantasms of his 'liberal' compatriots?
I had intended to steer far clear of the so-called 'Manif pour Tous' (a slick euphemism) today, the big conservative rally against gay marriage that interior minister Manuel Valls recently decribed as a sign of an emerging 'Tea Party à la française'. But it happened to be on my way to the gym and I had no choice but to pierce through it.
I have been told by several sources that, as an American, I'm in no position to interpret political events in France, so I'll try to forego interpretation as best I can and stick to straight description. One thing is clear and not open to interpretation: the French Right prefers really, really shitty pop music: Hall & Oates, the Pointer Sisters, Moby, could be heard from the loudspeakers at Place Denfert-Rochereau for miles around. When the music was finally shut off to give way to speeches, I felt well primed to assent to just about anything.
There was much talk of 'familophobie' and the threat of 'homoparentalité', concepts that have no names in the US but that have become standard in 'Manif pour Tous' parlance. There was a concerted effort to distinguish views that are 'anti-homosexuel', which are unacceptable at least for the mainstream of the 'Manif pour Tous' crowd, from those that are 'anti-LGBT'. Whenever 'LGBT' was uttered, the crowd booed in roaring unison.
At some point there was a speaker who identified himself as 'homosexuel et non-membre de la communauté LGBT', which got huge cheers. He had written a book called Homosexuel, contre le mariage gai, for which he clearly hoped to boost sales today.
The strangest part was when a French-speaking American academic, whose name I didn't catch, gave a fiery speech in which he denounced 'le gender studies' as a dangerous form of ideological brainwashing currently being imported from the United States (!) to indoctrinate primary-school children. There was no mention, or evident awareness, of any deeper French pedigree for this theoretical project. When he was done, the old man who was MC'ing the whole spectacle said, "Vous voyez, il y a aussi de bons américains." Tens of thousands of people were calling for the death of gender studies in the streets of Paris today, in defense of more authentic French values, against the encroachment of American influence.
In fact, the 'Manif pour Tous' website explicitly claims that "La théorie du gender est née aux États-Unis à la fin des années 1980." There is a link provided nearby to an article on Judith Butler, in which it is mentioned that she was influenced by Foucault and Monique Wittig, but you have to be a fairly diligent manifestant to click through and discover the French connection. For the rest of them, it's all just more unwanted McDo.
I emphasize that I was only there long enough to push through the crowd on my way back home from the gym, and even in so doing I was regretting that this would add even one more body to their numbers.
If I recall correctly, Plotinus was said by his disciple Porphyry to have experienced a total of four mystical visions, in which he, it is reported, became one with the One. The great Platonist philosopher could not relate anything of his visions, however, since they had brought him beyond the boundaries of discursive language, into a realm where the 'true' and the 'false' of propositions no longer hold.
Well, I had a mystical vision last night, and I don't know if it's because I did not go quite as far as Plotinus, or rather because my power of language is that much greater, but whatever the case I find I am perfectly able to describe it. Here is what happened.
Ordinarily, I drink 0.187 litres of red wine each evening, not a lot, just enough to take the edge off and to sustain the illusion that my relocation to France has something to do with my commitment to the life of the bon-vivant. But yesterday I had flu symptoms, and I took a major dose --400 mg-- of ibuprofen. This got me all freaked out about my liver and its long-term viability. I decided to forego the wine, but fearing what would happen in the absence of its soporific effect, to which I had perhaps grown too accustomed, I decided to take an herbal sleep-aid instead.
Now ordinarily I'm inclined to think that herbal remedies can't really be efficacious: if they were, someone would have made it hard to get our hands on them by now. So I took more, far more, than the recommended dosage of St John's wort, and I lay me down.
It worked. Well, it did something anyway. It did not put me to sleep in the ordinary sense, but it did displace me into a parallel reality so intense that I would not have been disappointed by these results if I had been seeking an escape through opium. There were the usual flashing geometrical patterns, and the flaming animals' heads. More happened than I could possibly recall. At some point, I was lying on my back, and I felt my face begin to tingle. The tingling spread throughout my head, and inward toward the center. I felt now as if I were rising up off the bed --I was asleep, yet conscious of my surroundings-- and as I rose I felt myself approaching some sort of summit or climax that might be compared to a petite mort, except that it was centered in my head and vastly more powerful. As it rose, I became vastly more aware of my surroundings, and of what I took to be the reality that underlay or grounded the features of my surroundings. I also became aware of my ability to steer my awareness, to invoke the presence to my attention of whatever interested me.
I decided to be bold, and to invoke the very highest of things. I want to see the face of God, I thought, or said, or commanded. And right away a figure began to take shape in my mind's eye. The God of the Old Testament, of whom even Moses was permitted to see only his fleeing posterior? A many-headed Brahma? No, it was some dowdy, rumpled Andy Rooney of class Aves, whom I soon enough recognized to be the protagonist of the old comic strip Shoe.
So there it is, I thought, and strangely I was not disappointed. That'll do, too. Sure, Shoe. A bird-journalist from the Sunday funny-pages of my American childhood. Why not? And I floated back down toward the bed, and I was filled with such an infinite joy that it seems a betrayal to attempt to describe it here.
So, I consumed a special plant with special chemicals in it, and I experienced an unusual brain event. I do not spend my waking life looking at icons, and so, when in my wort-induced rêverie I go in search of 'the face of God', my brain apparently pulls up whatever old stock image it can find in its cluttered files. But the joy was no less real.
If I had been in a 12th-century monastery, the experience would have been complete, and meaningful. I live in an absurd and fragmented age, and even my mystical experience reflects that. But the medieval monk and I have the same brain. And if the joy may be trusted more than the slapdash icon as a reliable indicator of the nature of the experience, then we may also have the same God.
There is, for example, the Rongorongo storyboard of Easter Island, which could very likely have been made up by clever Rapa Nuians in the 19th century in order to flummox the missionaries who had been calling them illiterate. There are the Pictish inscriptions of Scotland, that were only discovered to be writing at all, complete with logograms and syllables and everything, as a result of statistical analysis undertaken by a mere machine. And there are the Tărtăria tablets of Romania, dating to the 6th millennium BCE, which, many argue, is far too early for any writing system and therefore could only have given us representational art so rudimentary and stick-figure-like as to resemble letters as if by chance. The same may be said of the oracle bones of Shang Dynasty China.
But there is another undeciphered script that seldom gets mentioned among these more famous cases: the rumored traces of writing found scattered around the island of Jersey, in the English Channel.
If the Jersey Script is seldom mentioned, this is probably because its existence has not been confirmed by any reputable scholar. In fact, for the past century, the rumors of the script have been dismissed as a complete and total fraud.
As is well known, Jersey is home to under 100,000 inhabitants. They are subjects of the United Kingdom, though the island is historically French. A handful of Jerseyans still speak a variety of Norman French known as Jèrriais, though only metropolitan French is recognized, alongside English, as an official language. Many Jèrriais speakers were once formidable whalers and fishermen, and moved in large numbers to Newfoundland at the beginning of the 17th century. In the 1640s King Charles II granted the Jèrriais bailiff George Carteret a large parcel of land between the Delaware and Hudson Rivers. Over time, the settlers who followed him there came to speak an evolved version of Jèrriais that is sometimes called 'Néo-Jèrriais' or New Jerseyan. Although this state has no official tongue, technically, Néo-Jèrriais was the de facto language for administrative, educational, and journalistic communication in New Jersey until well after the Civil War. To this day, students at Princeton University have the option of submitting their written work in Néo-Jèrriais, and of course we are all familiar with the august tradition, at the annual graduation ceremony, of the discourse in that language, held before proud parents, by the graduating cohort's salutatorian.
It goes without saying that it is Princeton that serves as home to the world's most respected Department of Jerseyan and New Jerseyan Studies, and the rare books and manuscripts room of the university library holds the largest and richest trove of documents in these languages. I myself am an amateur Jerseyist, and have attained a fairly high level of proficiency in Néo-Jèrriais (I'm not too humble to admit). So naturally, during the term I spent at Princeton in 2011, I took advantage of the opportunity to go to the library as often as I was able (given all my other responsibilities), and to search through these materials, hoping to find something that would help me to better understand the French legacy in the New World.
Most of what I was able to turn up was curious, but hardly worth dwelling on. There was a scattering of doctoral dissertations written by quirky students over the past several decades who had decided to avail themselves of the right to submit their work in Néo-Jèrriais. Thus for example I read fragments of Henry Guimauve's 1968 thesis, Lè jèrriais dagns l'mousv'megnt ouvriè àmerikaign d'l'egntr-deû-guerres [Jerseyans in the American Labor Movement of the Inter-War Period]. I read some headlines from the Trenton-based newspaper L'Dgide [The Guide], published in Néo-Jèrriais daily until 1887 (one article that caught my attention, dating from May 2, 1865, spoke of a "Lèttre inecdytte d'Dgonne Ouilquès Bouthe s'là quàstion d'l'indépamdanç dè néo-jèrriais" ["Newly Discovered Letter from John Wilkes Booth on the Question of New Jerseyan Independence"].
But what struck me most among my many disoveries was the cache of letters written by a certain Guy Le Miel between 1903 and 1907. Le Miel, born in Saint Hellier in 1862, maintained an active correspondence with the Princeton linguist and groundbreaking Jerseyist Quincy Gorman, which dealt with many topics, but which often came back to reports of an undeciphered writing system that had turned up in various spots around the island. Gorman remained far more skeptical than Le Miel, yet he was always prepared to at least entertain the Jerseyan's often outlandish speculations. It appears that in April, 1908, the Princeton professor had grown so intrigued that he made a special trip to the English Channel to observe for himself the samples of writing about which Le Miel had written.
Gorman's trip is already well-known, at least in Jerseyist circles, as he published a summary of it in the scholarly journal Romance Philology (vol. 47, no. 3, October, 1911: pp. 332-334). This short piece is responsible for putting an end to serious inquiry into the Jersey script for the past century, since Gorman came back from the island entirely convinced that Le Miel was a fantasist and that he had led his distinguished guest on a wild goose chase. Gorman does not mince his words in the article: "Monsieur Le Miel led me around from one wooded grove to the next, assuring me always, 'We're sure to find what we're looking for here', or 'Just wait 'til we get to the next hillock, where there's always a new trove of writing that turns up each day'. Truly, I have never seen such pointless chicanery in my long life."
Gorman went on to give a summary of the scholarly evidence for the existence of a Jersey script: "We know that before the various waves of Germanic peoples came to these Channel Islands, they were inhabited by short and dusky Kelts. These may be properly called the aborigenes of Europe, and it was surely a foreshadowing of the eventual conquest of the globe by our own proud race that in ancient times our forefathers had already appropriated all of Europe from its primitive inhabitants-- or at least all but the very most distant fringes of Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, and Brittany, where indeed the local people still live out their miserable peat-covered existences just as their ancestors did before them. There is no small debate in the Channel as to how thoroughly those peoples were stamped out by the arrival of the Germanics. On Jersey in particular many residents speak of a small, hairy people --calling them les chevelus--, who live in the most wooded parts of the island, who forage at night, steal chickens from farms, and make fire with sticks. It had been my theory, prior to my visit in 1908, that these people may in fact have thrived until the very latest times, and may have carved stones much in the manner of the Picts. I had earnestly believed that it was to such stones that Le Miel intended to lead me. Nay, indeed, I was sorely mistaken."
Having myself read through Le Miel's letters to Gorman (Gorman's to Le Miel are presumably either somewhere on Jersey, or lost to this world), I now believe that the Princeton professor was fundamentally ignorant of what the Jerseyan amateur scriptologist had written to him. I suspect that Gorman himself was not able to read Jèrriais, though he spent his entire career playing the expert. To put it very simply, Le Miel was not talking about stones.
Consider what he wrote in a letter of April 7, 1904: "Ie suys allez-cherchè d'l'escryturr ç'matijn. Ô qv'beau-jourr p'cherchè d'l'escryturr!" ["I went out looking for writing this morning. O what a beautiful day to go looking for writing!"]. When I first read this, I assumed I was misunderstanding-- Le Miel has a very idiosyncratic system of spelling, one that appears to be mostly of his own invention (though there are some authors with similar quirks from the bailiwick of Minquiers). Fortunately, in his subsequent letter of September 17, he offers a detailed account of what he had meant by 'looking for writing', one that now makes it all make perfect sense to me (I hope you will forgive me for skipping straight to English here; eventually I will publish a critical edition of the Jèrriais, but before I do that I hesitate to make anything available that may contain errors):
I awoke before dawn and headed to the beach. As I descended the path down to the dunes I could still see, flashing before my mind's eye, all the letters that had cluttered my mind the night before. What was it I had been reading? Darwin? Count Tolstoy? The Gita? I couldn't even remember, but whatever it was it had cluttered up my head, prevented me from seeing.
But then, as I approached the water, I saw it: the foam. The infinite bubbles popped in succession, and when I first arrived I could see no pattern. So I sat, and watched, and soon enough Nature's own code came popping through. Unlike Mr. Morse, whose frantic messages are always announced under the haughty name of 'news', she tells me nothing I don't already know, and everything I'll ever need to know.
(There are those who say the ancient Celts had their own system of writing, which they chinked into stones so that the gods would not ignore them, and so that their descendants would venerate them. That may be so. I've seen some stones with such markings myself, but I was unimpressed, and I threw them out into the sea as far as I could.)
The bubbles popped to me, confirmed to me: yes, they said, today is a good day to look for writing. Get thee up to the meadowlands, they said, to the Noir Pré where the orchids bloom. So I ran to the meadowlands with giddy anticipation, and once there I caught my breath and began to search around on the ground, parting the grasses with my hands like they were the hairs of my own head.
And I saw them there. The three-tonged imprint of the Jersey crapaud: an inviting prologue. And a bit further on I saw what I had most hoped to see, and what the bubbles had promised even before I set out, my very favorite of all this island's works: the delicate track-poem [èmpreijnte-poème] of the lesser white-toothed shrew.
There is writing everywhere, Professor Gorman. Please come to visit Jersey, that I might show it to you.
Guy Le Miel