Dispatches Tagline
Friday, December 30th, 2011

Dangerous Knowledge Part 1: Tired of Searching

Wednesday, December 7th, 2011: Problems & Solutions, Society.

An older artist friend recently told me, “You’re a searcher. You’ll always be searching.” That made me want to cry. I’m really, really tired of searching. I want to find what I’m looking for and be content.

I was planning to start this blog by telling the story of my intellectual journey, as a way of explaining my radical philosophy and scandalous opinions. But after a few episodes I realized the story just couldn’t be told in anything shorter than a book. And in fact, the story was not over.

More to the point, my philosophy doesn’t seem to be doing me much good. My life is still conflicted and contradictory. Maybe that mess is the real story I should be telling, in case other people are facing similar dilemmas.

Like many of my colleagues, I was a beneficiary of the dotcom boom and a victim of the dotcom bust. In 2002 I found myself out of work, broke, and in debt. Yes, everyone said the boom would come back, but I wasn’t holding my breath, and in any event, I had never intended this to be my life’s work.

Overwhelmed by life’s challenges, seeking guidance and social support, some of my friends had latched onto gurus or joined cults. But I thought I had already learned a lot of life lessons that might be useful. I decided to apply my skills and experience as an artist, scientist, philosopher and information architect to the questions that kept bugging me: What was the meaning of all these powerful, mystical dreams and visions I’d had? How could I sum up everything that I had learned in culture, society, and the natural world, and how did it all fit together? Had I accumulated any wisdom that might be useful to others? What should I do with the rest of my life, for my community and habitat as well as for my own benefit?

My youthful studies in philosophy, and many subsequent arguments with very smart people, had shown that verbal communication is fraught with difficulties; words are slippery and emotionally charged. But in early childhood, even before I learned to read and write, I’d begun to explore and make sense of my world by making pictures of it. Maturing in the bohemian milieu of San Francisco, I used art to investigate the human wreckage festering all around me. And as I fell in love with the deserts of the Southwest and studied Native American pictographs and petroglyphs, my art morphed into mysterious symbolic narratives evoking mystical dreams and visions. Finally, during the dotcom boom, I used storyboard drawings and diagrams to communicate effectively with entrepreneurs, corporate executives, writers, designers, and engineers. My inquiry would combine all of this into a new kind of art project: research through art, art as a way of investigating, perhaps even comprehending, human experience in a way that science and academia could scarcely attempt, because of their deep investment in conventional paradigms.

So – I spent much of the next five years on a project which became known as Pictures of Knowledge: a visual philosophy based primarily on direct observation and shareable experience. I summarized and organized everything I’d ever observed and learned firsthand. I delved deeper into science for points of reference. I developed a symbol lexicon and a series of fundamental pictures or models, in the timeless tradition of Tibetan mandalas or Navajo sand paintings. I talked to everyone I knew and shared my work with people in different places.

To sustain this project I had to evoke my roots in the old “counterculture” – I had to question everything, taking nothing for granted, accepting none of the assumptions which are at the root of our dominant social and cultural paradigms. If you’re not prepared to go this far, you’re probably not going to like my observations. I had to ask questions that undermine most people’s identities and ways of life, their sense of self-worth, their value systems and worldviews.

The next post will summarize what I learned!

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Dangerous Knowledge Part 2: Wealth and Power vs. The Good Life

Thursday, December 8th, 2011: Problems & Solutions, Society.

Some of the dangerous insights of Pictures of Knowledge:

1. Humans are animals, and we’re not qualitatively different from other animals. Ants build huge agricultural societies with effective division of labor; birds make and use tools. We have no idea what other animals are thinking, but we’re equally ignorant of most of what goes on in our own brains. It’s okay, get over it!

2. Like certain other animals, humans habitually strive to dominate whatever ecosystem they inhabit. We develop technologies which extend our powers, ultimately leading to habitat destruction and population collapse. Since, like other animals, we’re mostly unaware of what we’re doing, these outcomes always take most of us by surprise. Jared Diamond collected tons of data on these phenomena, but as a scientist, he’s too deeply invested in a linear perception of time to recognize the cyclical pattern, and as a successful pundit, he’s too deeply invested in our large-scale institutions to admit their bankruptcy.

3. Humans are no more able to manage or shape their own evolution than other animals. Sorry, new agers – we’re not on the brink of a quantum leap in consciousness. It’s more like the other way around. The only way for us to avoid our habitual destructive tendencies is to adopt strict social controls on our behavior, so our neighbors can help keep us in line. And even then, there are no guarantees that we’ll succeed.

4. Humans are social animals, unable to thrive without community support and cooperation. Hence the health of the community is more important than the welfare of the individual. Sorry, libertarians – you should have paid more attention in biology class. A healthy community will produce healthy individuals – not vice versa.

5. As animals, we get all of our basic physical needs from ecosystems. The complete workings of these systems are beyond our comprehension, but we can observe that the health of our habitat – its ability to provide for our needs – is dependent on the work of the uncountable other entities – from insects and birds to clouds and geological processes – which all work together with us in the cycles of productivity. The best we can do is strive to understand our part and do it well, and allow them to do their parts without trying to control or manage the ecosystem. Thus we need to tend our own small piece of land and leave the bulk of the habitat unmanaged or “wild.”

6. As with other animal communities, the highest priorities for a human community should be to provide a steady supply of healthy food and raise healthy children. The majority of active adults in a healthy community will be food providers. Such a community is led by the people who have direct experience and wisdom in these fundamental roles, not by a specialized “leader” class or by people in parasitic “meta-roles” like lawyers, warriors, merchants or technologists. In a healthy community, these roles wouldn’t even exist!

7. Only small-scale communities can be accountable, hence effective in these basic activities of life, and only rural communities, embedded in productive habitat and surrounded by wild, unmanaged habitat, can sustainably provide for their needs. Yes, I know, big cities are stimulating, with all the bright lights and colorful immigrants forced into exile by economic imperialism! But cities exist primarily to concentrate labor and facilitate the transformation of rural resources into wealth, all for the benefit of elites. And nations do that on an even bigger scale. Just say no to large-scale societies!

8. It seems that the most successful way for a community to ensure the good behavior of its members is not through a secular legal apparatus, but through what we typically call a religion: the adoption of a set of rules which acknowledges an overarching, unknowable mystery, encourages compassion, and restrains hubris, greed, and aggression. Sorry, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens – you shouldn’t have skipped that sociology class. It’s not about reason vs. superstition, it’s about humility and caring for each other.

9. Human experience is cyclical, not progressive. What we think of as progress is simply the mis-apprehended up slope of a long cycle ending in collapse.

  1. The short cycles, like day/night and the seasons, drive the normal productivity of the habitat, and the best thing we can do is achieve stability in those cycles, sustaining, doing as good from year to year, not trying to improve (“progress”) through technological innovation or the accumulation of wealth and power.
  2. The generational cycles literally renew the community. I can only wish that my parents lived as good a life as I live, and that my children will live as good a life as I live. If generations continually strive to improve on each other, it’s a sign that the community is in deep trouble.
  3. The long cycles, defined by events like large-scale drought, fire, epidemic, invasion & conquest, both destroy and renew habitats or communities, and the healthy response is to learn and adapt or migrate, rather than trying to fight or control the environment. The lessons and adaptations of long cycles represent an accumulating trove of wisdom to be passed from generation to generation.

10. Our destructive proclivities inevitably lead the majority of humans into large-scale, hierarchical societies. Small, healthy communities are typically in the minority, but they represent the best hope of our species. As individuals and families, the best we can do is strive to be part of these minority communities, or more realistically, leave them alone. On their part, the best they can do is strive to adapt to the majority societies and find a state of grace within or without them, retaining as much of their autonomy as possible. The Old Order Amish are a good example of this. They vote and pay taxes, but they won’t fight in our wars, and if we start interfering too much in their affairs, they’ll move somewhere else.

11. Money and a consumer market economy are fundamentally destructive because they create a parasitic class of consumers, alienated from producers, and facilitate an elite class which controls resources without accountability. No community should ever allow its members to accumulate wealth that gives them power over others or enables them to avoid the work of basic sustenance. Even the poorest among us can be charitable; philanthropy is no justification of wealth.

Had enough? But wait, there’s more!

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Dangerous Knowledge Part 3: Nurturing Roots

Friday, December 9th, 2011: Problems & Solutions, Society.

The insights of Pictures of Knowledge accumulated with the force of a powerful revelation. But what could I do with them? I was living in a vast metropolitan area where food-producing habitat had long been replaced by buildings and streets and parking lots, and society had been segregated into slums, working-class ghettos, middle-class suburbs, yuppie neighborhoods, and affluent enclaves. It was clear that I couldn’t just go out and create the kind of community I’ve just described, and I didn’t know anyone else who was either interested or prepared to try. Was it possible to find a subsistence community of people who took good care of each other, and somehow join it?

Joining a traditional culture like the Amish or the Hopi was clearly not an option for a mature, overeducated white man. I spent some time looking into “intentional communities,” but the few that seemed attractive were still young and unstable, dependent on the consumer economy, lacking institutions that would continue nourishing them through the cycle of the generations.

I searched for years, and eventually found this compromise: a rural county with abundant natural resources and a long prehistoric heritage of both farming and sophisticated art, a place with small family farms and ranches and idealistic young people going into farming while they try to raise kids outside the mainstream culture. A remote Western town that surprises urbanites with its openness, tolerance, and community activism. A place with a small, historic downtown where country folks mix with townies and gather frequently for festivals and celebrations. A working town that’s not pretty, not restored or gentrified, but affordable and egalitarian, with dark skies, no traffic jams, and a vast mountain wilderness at our doorstep.

Working with new friends, I started a harvest festival to celebrate local agriculture. I dreamed of starting my own farm and raising livestock, but instead, I ended up in town. Now, for the first time since childhood, I live in a place where literally all of life’s basic resources – from food to health care to building materials – are available within walking distance, from people I know personally and see regularly.

Poor Max, never satisfied! As good as it is, it’s still not my dream village. It’s still an American town, too big for everyone to know everyone else and make decisions by consensus. Although it’s socially unstratified and far less segregated than any community I knew in California, it’s still divided into Anglo and Latino, liberal and conservative. I’m also 1500 miles from my family and my childhood roots, and my heart is torn.

Moving here enabled me to rediscover myself as an artist, but that was both a blessing and a curse, because although I reserve my highest respect for traditional cultures, my own work connects more with what’s going on in the cities, and I feel culturally isolated. There’s a lesson there, but it’s a hard one.

I started out as a child in a rural environment, with a loving family, eating local food, surrounded by remnants and fragments of a healthy, sustainable way of life, but since I was a talented child of talented, educated parents, the damage was already done. The seductive glamour of the arts, sciences and technology, loved by my parents and promoted by the media and the educational system, drove me relentlessly toward the big city and the great university and the cutting edge of art and science and a habitual craving for intellectual challenges and urban sophistication. An exciting but fundamentally destructive culture has uprooted me and shaped me into a misfit, a mass of contradictions.

As reluctant products of a dysfunctional society, what can we do to live a more meaningful life?

At the most fundamental level, we can stop thinking of ourselves as part of a global population, a nation, or any society that’s so big that the members can’t know each other personally and be accountable to each other. Caring, cooperation, and consensus only work face to face, and that’s where we should be focusing, close to home.

We can certainly avoid the national media – that’s a no-brainer – and, instead of taking inspiration from celebrities and media pundits, work to build the kind of local community that will nurture and sustain inspiring people. Getting out of the imperial city – whether it’s rooftop-garden Brooklyn or the Ninth Ward of New Orleans – will dramatically reduce the pressure to consume. Avoid affluence and social stratification and get close to food, family farms, places where young people are getting into farming instead of technology.

Our kids are a tougher question. But it might help to stop thinking of them as individuals with unlimited potential for advancement, and more as an integral part of our immediate community, a new generation to carry on the roles of the aging generation, caring for our habitat and caring for their neighbors. Give them an inspiring community to belong to, instead of sending them off to college and saddling them with huge loans in hopes of a “promising career” where they actually have to start over in a distant place, losing the context and support systems of their family and neighborhood, losing their roots. That’s one way the destructive market economy thrives: luring us away from our roots, our families, our social support, isolating us so we’re forced to pay for everything we need.

The mobility of our society is really a killer, from the consumption of non-renewable resources to pollution and climate change, from the rapid spread of disease and invasive species to the more gradual breakdown of families and communities. So many of my urban friends are currently just “parking” in a job-related location until such time as they can retire to the small community of their dreams. Then, like me, their children won’t even have a childhood home and neighborhood to go back to, and this will become accepted as normal. Roots are worth nurturing, for a lot of vital reasons.


Lost on the Winter Solstice

Thursday, December 22nd, 2011: 2011 Trips, Road Trips.

More than twenty years ago, after losing my home in the Loma Prieta earthquake, I began regularly observing the winter and summer solstices, as my personal, private holidays.

The solstices were important events for some, but not all, traditional societies. Highly organized agricultural societies seem to have based their planting schedules on observations of the solar cycle, but nomadic hunters and foragers may have had less need for such predictive measurements. And of course, in equatorial regions the solar cycles have very different significance.

Almost all of my solstice observations have been dedicated retreats in a special, remote place, usually in the mountains where I can observe the sunrise and sunset from a high place. From experience, I learned that the character of the summer and winter solstices is very different. The summer solstice is a time of thanks for abundance, whereas the winter solstice is the very cusp of the seasonal cycle, a critical time when we want and need the days to change from shorter to longer, to re-start the cycle of food production in our habitat. The longest night is an opportunity to share in this great change, an opportunity for a difficult but rewarding vigil. But in addition, both solstices provide formal punctuations for my year, regular times when I can ritually sum up and review the year’s experiences and get a sense of where I’m at in my life.

Most of my winter solstice experiences have included such a vigil, in seclusion, but a few have been thwarted due to pressing circumstances. This year, financial constraints and family obligations forced me to attempt a solstice observation while visiting family in the Midwest. There are no mountains here, most winter days are overcast, and there’s virtually no public land outside the cities.

Unable to come up with a better plan, I borrowed a car and drove from the city to the small town where I grew up. I knew from other recent visits that there wasn’t anything left there for me, but I couldn’t think of anywhere else to go.

I drove through the gutted downtown, where historic buildings had collapsed or been demolished and replaced with vacant lots. I turned onto Main Street, where ancient shade trees had recently been cut down so the street could be widened, facilitating through traffic. Now you can see from one end to the other, and the town might as well not be there.

I made my way out into the countryside, toward the farms which my Carson ancestors had settled more than 130 years ago. The sky was a uniform mass of clouds; you couldn’t even tell in which direction the sun might’ve risen. Along the highway, old farmhouses had been replaced by new trophy homes surrounded by landscaped grounds and artificial lakes. I came to a tree-lined bend in the river and found that it had been short-cut by a flood-control channel where muddy water rushed between stark banks.

In fact, a few years ago I had visited the mastermind behind the flood-control project, my high school biology teacher. I listened in bewilderment and later witnessed the terrible devastation where giant machines had cleansed 15 miles of river of its shoals and fallen trees, degrading it from natural habitat to man-made drain.

It’s common in the midwest for riparian corridors to retain the last of the ancient forest that covered this land before the European invasion. The trees prevent streambank erosion, and riverside bottomlands flood regularly and often escaped clearing for farmland.

After my senior year of high school, I had lived on the farm beside the river, and my friends and I had discovered a tiny island in the river, hidden back in the woods, which we had claimed as our own, crossing over the shallow channel on a fallen log, building a lean-to and stocking it with canned food. Later, on visits home from college, I would go back there to see how the island was doing. Sometimes the river was in full flood, the forest was deep in muddy water and the island gone from sight.

I stopped the car on the shoulder of the gravel road and made my way through the mud of the recently flooded woods, avoiding thorn scrub and vines and stepping over logs and around standing water until I came to the poor damaged river. It was still running high and muddy. I smelled rotting wood and saw piles of logs left by the cutting and dredging machines. I felt myself drawn further into the dark woods, and then I saw flashes of emerald green. The smell of rotting wood was also the smell of life starting over.

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George Gershwin Part 1: Laundromat

Wednesday, December 28th, 2011: Characters, Stories.

“You a musician?”

I looked up. I’d been drumming on the table, in time with the churning washing machines, as I read yesterday’s paper. Across from me I saw an older man, slim and rugged in a denim shirt and faded jeans.

“Yeah, I guess. Among other things.”

“Look at these hands.” The man spoke quickly in a gruff urban accent. His eyes were large and bright, his features chiseled. I saw that his hands were huge. “An octave and a half. I play piano. Live right up the hill. What about you?”

“I write mostly, play whatever. Sing. I guess guitar’s my main thing.”

“Play by ear, huh? We’re the lucky ones. First thing I teach is to listen. That’s what Duchamp taught me. Marcel? My name’s Gershwin. George.”

I shook his hand, took him in. Big nose, big ears. Looked early-to-mid fifties.

“No way. Gershwin’s dead.”

George smiled. “Fact is, he came to me in a dream. Ten years ago. Said I should take up the name. A vocation. Before that I was CIA. Strictly underground. You wouldn’t believe it, but to this day I pass them on the street all the time, here in the city. KGB, British Intelligence, hand signals, winks, just like gradeschool.”

I felt stumped. My dryerload had stopped and I began to fold.

“How old do you think I am?”

“Fifty,” I said.

“Sixty-eight. My wife’s twenty-four. Met her at a march in LA. You should meet her some time. Sings those old labor songs.”

Gershwin heard his own dryer stop and went to empty it into a patched canvas bag. The other denizens of the laundromat, Latino women and their daughters, looked up shyly from the benches along the window. George passed me on his way to the door. “Here’s my card. Call me.” And he was gone.

I stood puzzling over a neat, elegantly embossed business card bearing the name John Christy, Piano: Concerts & Lessons.

From Loft of Dreams: True Stories by Max Carmichael


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