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The Deep Freeze and its Coincidental Other

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In case you missed it, the weather has been in the news a good bit this past week. The extreme cold seems to have gotten everyone’s attention and photojournalists everywhere have made a point of putting it on display (e.g., here, here, and here), illustrating both its aesthetic beauty and somewhat apocalyptic overtones: record breaking snowfall in the New England area, subzero temperatures in the southern regions, and as in the photograph above, a burning building encased in ice from the water used to tame the blaze. And yet, for all of these irregularities, my otherwise well educated next door neighbor could say (without a hint of irony): “I guess this gives the lie to global warming.”

My neighbor—as well as so many others—misses the point of global warming, which is not just about lowering the earth’s temperature and the melting of the polar ice caps (though it is very much about that), but also about effecting historically normal weather patterns so as to create radical shifts in the climate such as the irregularly severe cold and excessive moisture we are currently experiencing in large portions of the country. The irony of the above photograph is telling—perhaps even prophetic—in this regard, as it puts one possible future on display: a world where the simultaneous extremes of unregulated heat and cold will make it almost impossible for us to preserve the social and economic structures we rely upon.

But, of course, in other parts of the country the problem is not extreme cold and excessive moisture, but the very earth-cracking, dust bowl style, lack of moisture. The drought in California is ongoing and severe—“exceptional” and “extreme” are the official terms; that is somewhat old news, however,  and the news cycle is nothing if it is not driven by what is both “new” and most dramatically immediate. And so we aren’t seeing too many stories about the draught these days.  And yet, if we look carefully we will see that photographs like the one above are actually inflected by photographs such as this, which appeared in the Sacramento Bee:

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Those boots stand on 125 acres of land in the San Joaquin Valley that have gone fallow due to lack of water. And while some will argue that the drought in California is not directly caused by human induced global warming, there is also little doubt that such global warming exacerbates the effects of an otherwise extraordinary dry spell.

The point is that the deep freezer and the big drought are happening at the same time. One only has to remember to look past the most immediate representations to see it—and to consider the implications of the coincidence.

Credit: Jacqueline Larma/AP; Hector Amezcua/Sacramento Bee

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Nature’s Camera

Blue Green

What struck me most about this photograph upon first seeing it was both its sheer beauty and the invitation to introspection and contemplation.  The contrast of the distant city lights sparkling against the night sky, illuminating the mountains in the background and the bluish cast of (what appears to be) the moon reflected by the water along the foregrounded shore line would seem to be a mediation on the cosmological relationship between nature and technology.  Or perhaps  it is a meditation on the relationship between the far (which is physically nearest to us, i.e., the city) and the near (which is physically the farthest from us, i.e., the moon).  It is both of these things in the abstract, but not for the reasons that might seem to be the most obvious.

What we are actually looking at is a timed exposure of the bioluminescent glow of a green marine dinoflagellate known as Noctiluca scintillans shot with Hong Kong in the background.  Sometimes called “Sea Sparkle,” the foregrounded luminescence is activated by farm pollution that—no surprise here—poses a serious threat to marine life.  The bloom itself does not produce dangerous toxins, but it is something of an index of toxic runoff that endangers the food chain.  In its own way, the bloom is something of a photorealistic representation of the relationship between culture and nature—nature’s camera, as it were—showing all that there is to see.  As with the photograph more generally, the trick is being visually “literate” enough to avoid being enchanted by what we want (or expect) to see and to reflect on the larger significance of what we are actually seeing

Photo Credit: Kin Cheung/AP

 

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The Hills are Alive …

Lava Flow

No, it’s not the sounds of music. But nevertheless the photographs of the creeping lava flow from Hawaii’s Kilauea Volcano are stunning as they illustrate both the inexorable life force of the planet as it pulses and oozes according to its own rhythms and the incredible power that nature exerts over culture and civilization as it creeps ever closer to the small town of Pahoa. It will subsume Pahoa or it won’t, but there is really little that can be done to control the slowly slithering mass of burning, liquid rock which will follow its own path regardless of any manmade roadblocks we put in its way.

The red glow bubbling beneath the grey crust is a reminder that the earth is indeed a life force. Not merely inert material to be used at our will or pleasure, it is driven by an energy  we little understand and there is a dynamism there that seems to communicate something we ignore at our peril. Much is said these days about the catastrophe of global warming that is soon upon us (truth to tell, if science has anything to tell us, the catastrophe is already upon us though we have yet to experience its most tragic after effects) and how it will lead to the death of the planet. And yet photographs like this suggest a different scenario: not the death of the planet, which has the capacity to draw upon a natural energy that follows a pattern of eruption and recovery—leading, as it has for millennia, to survival, albeit in a different form—but perhaps the death of civilization, or worse the extinction of the humanity that relies on the current configuration of the earth.

Hawaii’s Big Island is a very small part of the planet, to be sure, but perhaps the current erruption in its ecology is a reminder that we should not take our relationship with it for granted—particularly in arenas where we might actually have some choice.

Credit: Bruce Omori/EPA

 

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“… ‘Till Death Do Us Part”

 

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The post today can be somewhat brief, not because there isn’t much to say, but rather because, well, we’ve said it several times already (e.g., here and here), most recently two weeks ago (here).  Today’s photograph simply makes the point in dramatic fashion.

Wildfires are overrunning different parts of the world and in ways that are completely out of synch with normal weather patterns … and in ways that really ought to be of some serious concern. They are catastrophic in their effects, both economically and environmentally. But the bigger catastrophe—or perhaps the proper term is “tragedy”—is that we seem to have begun to take them wholly for granted, treating them as the new normal. Or, as in the photograph above, treating it as an interesting backdrop to an otherwise romantic scene of personal avowal and commitment. What better way, after all, to secure one’s wedding vows—“for better or for worse, through sickness and in health”—than to locate the beginning of one’s life long future with another person against the conflagration that apparently promises to be there forever and anon.

It really is hard to know what to make of this photograph. For one thing it has appeared at a number of different “pictures of the week” slide shows for different national news groups, none of which otherwise pointed to or commented on the wildfires burning in the background. And even if there was something “new” to report on this account, its not like one more photograph of the fire is adding probative evidence to make a claim about basic facticity. I mean, does anyone really question whether these wildfires exist (even as I write that I know that there have to be “fire deniers” somewhere in the world, but for the remaining 99.99% of the population, do we really need one more picture of a wildfire to make the case that such fires are and have been raging out of control?). That said, it should also be noted that the photograph is being taken by a photojournalist, not a wedding photographer, and yet it is also something of a mashup of two photographic genres.  So if the photograph is not contributing to the “news” what is it doing?

One answer to this question might be that it is offering evidence of a pervasive attitude—and attitudes, of course, are incipient actions.The caption identifies a couple near Bend, Oregon posing for a wedding portrait.  It is hard to register the photograph as anything other than a publicity stunt, perhaps an advertisement for the next apocalyptic movie to come down the pike.  But, there you have it, its a “real” photograph of a real couple.  Why settle for a lake or a pond or a nestled grove of trees to mark your nuptials for posterity when you can have a raging wildfire in the background! The fire was apparently close enough that the minister performed a “shortened ceremony” so that the wedding party could be safely transported elsewhere for the reception, but then again it was not so close that the couple seems distracted by it from the passionate fires that burn within their own breasts (or so we might assume). The irony is astonishing. Then again, perhaps the irony here cuts in a different direction if we can assume that this woman and this man are actually dedicated environmentalists and that they are using the occasion of their union to call attention cynically to the inanity of such rituals and ceremonies when in fact the world is ablaze—and the fire is getting ever closer. Perhaps in the next moment (or at least after their reception) they peel off their wedding vestments and don the attire of activists concerned to alert the world to the need to address the problem. Maybe. It’s hard to know.  It would certainly make for an interesting movie.

However you read the photograph—whatever attitude you note or potential action you see— there can be little doubt that it pictures a profound problem that surely predicts a troubling future.  Right now it seems to point to a tragic outcome, particularly if we persist in accepting the background in the photograph as just another backdrop for a dramatic wedding portrait. The fire, after all, will only continue to burn brighter and to get closer.  If we continue to ignore that problem, however, or worse, if recast it as something which is altogether normal,  it is  possible that the story which points to a tragedy will end as a farce.

For better or for worse … indeed.

Credit: Josh Newton/AP

 

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“… My Kingdom for a Drink of Water”

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Yes, I know, the quotation from Shakespeare’s Richard III concerns horses and not water, but then there was a time when horses were scarcer than water and at least arguably more important to survival.  Those days are gone. And we didn’t need the most recent report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to make the point or to underscore its importance.  Such reports have been made over and again in recent years indicating that water shortages are accelerating throughout the world as patterns of industrial and agricultural usage are increasingly polluting both ground water and the water table, and consumption is outstripping renewable sources at progressively alarming rates. Nor is the problem one that is only taking place in underdeveloped regions or nations, as those living in California or West Texas can immediately and readily attest.

The photograph above is not from California or West Texas, but shows those living on the southern bank of the Yangon River in Myanmar using paint cans to collect drinking water during the annual dry season in which water shortages have led to the drying up of the reservoirs, forcing local elders to create rationing systems.  And yet, while it is not California or West Texas it is not all that difficult to imagine how it could be in the altogether near future—or perhaps one of the other 34 states that the GAO anticipates will face water shortages in the near term.  To get the point one needs to avoid focusing on the bare feet and rusted out paint cans that have been repurposed as water containers, let alone the brown skin, all of which underscore something other than a first world experience, and concentrate instead on how the photograph directs attention to the way(s) in which the need for water dominates everyday life in an otherwise visually indistinct location.  There was a time when we would look at photographs of exotic locations and imagine that “their present is our past”; what we see here, however, is the way in which water is the great leveler that perhaps predicts that their present is our future.

The photograph did not receive much attention in the national media.  I found it in a “pictures of the day” slide show at the Seattle Times nestled between images of a moving sculpture at a music festival in California and men warming themselves at a fire near the barricades at a Ukrainian security office proximate to the Russian border.  As one more sluice of life incidentally contrasting the hardships of life “there” to the fun and festivities of life “here,” it would be altogether easy to miss, or merely to glance past without paying too much attention to it. Indeed, there was a time, not so long ago, when photographs of this sort would show up in places like National Geographic where readers would be encouraged to view the “present” of indigenous people in such exotic locations as “our past,” the assumption being that one day they too can experience the progress that modernity promises; here, however, it would seem that their present is cast as “our future.”  Or more to the point, it is a future that is already present without our clear recognition of it.

What makes the photograph all the more poignant is not just the way in which it serves as a kind of foreboding prophecy, but more, as it functions as something of an allegory for how to imagine the very problem of water shortage itself.  Note how the scene underscores the necessity of performing a careful balancing act, both socially and environmentally, to make the system of water recovery work. More to the point, note in particular not just how feet and hands strain so as to maintain equipoise on the balancing beam, but also how both participants need to coordinate with the other so as to avoid disrupting the overall ecology in which each operates. Whether or not we can actually adjust our contemporary patterns of resource usage and consumption so as to effect a sustainable world is open to question. But it will take effort and strain, and surely the appeal to “balance” that makes this system appear to work is more than worth the effort; indeed, it seems altogether necessary.

The bigger point, of course, is that solutions to such problems are right before us if we are willing to see them.  And photographs such as this, however subtle or otherwise hidden within the visual landscape, can serve as a powerful optic to help us do just that.  Look.  See. Engage.

Credit:  Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP

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Aesthetics, Morality, Politics, and Disaster

Perhaps not every drought is beautiful, but this one is.

Yangtze dried-up riverbed

The dried riverbed of the Yangtze looks like gracefully aged wood.  The undulating landforms perfectly match the sinuous water.  The great river must be powerful, yet here it suggests a quiet serenity, as if the basins were holding a gently receding snowfall.  Water and earth lie woven together; as they extend to the horizon, one can easily sense how the scene is the result of vast natural forces seamlessly, namelessly unified.  In the words of Wallace Stevens, “the swarthy water/That flows round the earth and through the skies,/Twisting among the universal spaces, //Is not Swatara.  It is being.”

Against such a backdrop, the human figures in the foreground appear small, tentative, and very temporary.  The motor is out of the water, already becoming useless as the waters disappear in yet another year of drought on a steadily warming planet.  This species may poke around for awhile longer, but once they’ve burnt enough of their ecosystem that will be that.  And the forces that made the river will flow on without a ripple registering our moment of disruption.

So how on earth can we say that the drought is beautiful?  Nor can you evade the issue by saying, oh, it’s just the photograph that is beautiful, not the drought itself.  Yes, there is artistry involved in making the photo, but the aesthetic reaction is to the material forms themselves.  Few would be dead to this tableau if standing there, but then light up with delight when looking through the viewfinder.  Indeed, no one would think to take the photograph at all, if not already marveling at the scene itself.  It’s not the art or culture alone, but a human capability for seeing the world, a capability that then leads to arts and other products of the human imagination.  So this drought can be beautiful, as are firestorms, floods, and melting glaciers.

And that’s a problem, right?  When the waters dry up, people suffer, and as heat waves spread people are suffering around the globe.  To then take a picture and admire the view would seem to be obscene.  Aesthetics and morality must be two very different modalities, and if the former can interfere with the latter, shouldn’t we be wary of that risk?

And we’ve even been here before.  Recognition that these two powerful dimensions of human being are in fact not seamlessly coordinated was one of the traumatic experiences of the twentieth century.  Nazis listened to classical music while overseeing genocide, and so Adorno drew the terrible conclusion that “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.”  (Go here for a good brief explication of the quote.)  If art could be used so easily alongside of evil, and worse yet to aid its operation, surely the only ethical option was a severe renunciation of aesthetic pleasure.

With the passage of time, it has become easier to reconsider the problem.  Perhaps the separation was artificial, a crucial construction for a particular phase of modernity, but one that is becoming increasingly untenable.  The two modalities are still not coordinated explicitly–as if, for example, bad would be ugly and good delightful–but there may be an ecology to human consciousness that we are just beginning to understand.

Instead of being wary of our aesthetic responses, perhaps they could contain hidden resources for solving the very problems they seem to deny.  Perhaps aesthetic and moral responses can work together like water and riverbed.

To see that, we would have to shake off the old suspicions that come from the prior distribution of our aesthetic and moral senses.  Unfortunately, those suspicions are still the dominant habits in most of the humanities and qualitative social sciences.  Not everyone, of course, and that list includes scholars working in political theory and in visual culture: for example, Jacques Ranciere, Frank Ankersmit, Roland Bleiker, Davide Panagia, Crispin Sartwell, Mark Reinhardt, Holly Edwards, David Levi Strauss, Ariella Azoulay, and others (including moi).

Wallace Stevens knew as much.  In the same poem he says, “And these images/these reverberations,/And others, make certain how being/Includes death and the imagination.”  Disaster and imagination here are continuous, both part of that great stream, and perhaps each able to say something about the other.

So, perhaps the time has come to admit to how beauty is part of both the best and the worst that can happen, and perhaps particularly so when facing environmental catastrophe.  The effort involves nothing less that trying to bring all human capacities to bear on the most pressing problems of our time.  That can’t be such a bad thing.

It’s just a pity that it took so long, as time may be running out.

Photograph by a stringer for Reuters.  The poem by Wallace Stevens is “Metaphor as Degeneration,” and can be found in Wallace Stevens, The Palm at the End of the Mind, edited by Holly Stevens.  You can read an earlier post on the topic here.

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The Winters of Our Discontent

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I wish I could claim sole authorship of the title for this commentary, but in fact it is an adaptation of a recent article in Scientific American (which adapted it from the title of John Steinbeck’s last novel who in turn borrowed it from Shakespeare’s malevolent characterization of Richard III).  But for all of that it is no less a compelling characterization of our current state of climactic affairs as we find ourselves confronting the acceleration of what has become known as “slow violence.”

Slow violence refers to environmental disasters that occur so gradually that we barely see them, but which reap long-term, catastrophic outcomes.  Recent global warming trends top the list and what makes such phenomena all the more problematic is how they can often appear to be incredibly, breath takingly beautiful, approaching what we might even call the sublime—representations that in some measure transcend reality, transporting us to a place that defies the very capacity for representation itself.  The photograph above is perhaps such an image where sky and water bifurcate the horizon of here and there as variations in lightness and darkness mark the temporal distance between now and then (or perhaps past and future).  The orange and magenta tones of the sky cast a calming shadow upon the sea which masks the mysteries of who knows what within its otherwise murky depths.   And overall the image invites both our approach and avoidance as if a heavenly and sanctified location.  It is hard to not look it and to be in awe.  Only the protuberances that emerge from the bottom of the frame call attention to the fact that this is a photograph and not a scene that fully transcends human occupation.

What we are actually looking at is “haboob,” a white shelf cloud of dirt that has been stirred up by a ferocious dust storm in the Indian Ocean off of the coast of Western Australia.  This dust storm, one of many that has caused brush fires over nearly one million acres is the result of uncharacteristically hot temperatures peaking at more than 119 degrees Fahrenheit in some parts of Australia.  The result of those brush fires invites consideration of sublimity’s counterpart, the grotesque, as a second photograph from New South Wales pictures the carcasses of sheep incapable of breaking free of a fence that contained them while a wildfire consumed the earth on which they stood.

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The bodies are not human, and so the tragedy is not as pronounced as it might be—not that we should scant the lives of sheep or other living beings—but it is not hard to imagine that they could be human bodies.  The image is hard to look at, but that would seem to be the point, as it works as a powerful, visual counterpoint to the awe-inspiring beauty that all too often and all too easily diverts our attention and placates (gratifyingly so) our acceptance of slow violence in the first place.

This is the third winter in a row that we have faced extreme weather patterns throughout the world.  These are the winters of our discontent. How much longer will they go on before we respond responsibly as global citizens is the real question we need to be asking.

Photo Credit: Brett Martin/Reuters/fishwrecked.com; Greg Wood/AFP/Getty Images

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The Invisibility of Slow Violence

With global demand on oil at an all time high and with the current volatility in the Middle East it is not hard to understand why oil is understood as the natural resource most likely to lead to increasingly pronounced international instabilities, including war and terrorist activities, in the coming years. And yet there is an equal if not more serious global scarcity facing us: a shortage of fresh water. The problem seems to exist primarily outside of the U.S., as indicated in the photograph of a cow carcas from Mexico which is suffering its worst drought in 70 years, though the Drought Mitigation Center reports that 12% of the U.S. experienced “exceptional drought conditions” in the summer of 2011 and more than 40% of all states faced abnormal dryness or drought.

Photographs of carcasses are something of a visual trope for drought conditions, and images like the one above are numerous.  Collectively, they function as a spectacle that directs attention to the sense that drought is the major problem that faces us with respect to water shortages, and given the effects of recent global warming patterns it is not an altogether unreasonable concern.  But equally problematic—and maybe more so—is the more invisible, and thus less spectacular, “slow violence” produced by usage patterns that place stress upon both ecosystems and socio-economic relations.  It is notable, for example, that the average U.S. citizen is responsible for the consumption of 2,000 gallons of water a day, twice the amount of most citizens in other parts of the world, and that a pound of beef—a staple of U.S. diets—requires close to 1,800 gallons of water, while a pound of chicken requires approximately 460 gallons of water to produce and a pound of soy beans requires only 216 gallons of water.  The effects of such dietary choices on both the ecosystem and worldwide social economies are notable, but of course they defy easy visual representation let alone the spectacle of dead carcasses and dried up and cracked river beds.

Of equal concern are the pollution effects produced by neoliberal economies.  Hydraulic fracking is a process used to extract natural gas from reservoir rock formations and shale.  It is an effective method for tapping deep natural gas reserves, but it comes at the cost of injecting millions of gallons of chemical-laced water under high pressure into the earth. Notwithstanding the pressure that this places on demand, there is the question of polluting the aquifer and in particular of contaminating private wells and reservoirs with high levels of benzene, a known carcinogen.  The issue is currently being contested by the natural gas industry and the EPA but clearly part of the problem is how does one know the problem when one sees it?

Perhaps the answer is to just look!  Take for example the photograph above of a woman in western Pennsylvania who fears that her water has been contaminated by a nearby natural gas drilling operation.  State officials report that tests show the water to be safe, and the local gas company which had been delivering drinking water to local households has indicated that they will no longer be making such deliveries.  And perhaps they are right, though judging from what we can see coming out of the tap I’d be inclined to invite them over one afternoon for a tall cool drink of tap water to discuss it.  The resulting photo op might not prove to be spectacular in the manner of a dead carcass, but it might nevertheless make the point.

Photo Credit:  Stringer/Reuters; Keith Srakocic/AP

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Flying Too Close to the Sun

The Costa Concordia is a floating resort. Larger than the Titanic by nearly seventy feet, it boasts 1,500 cabins, one third of which have private balconies, the world’s largest fitness center at sea (65,000 square feet), five restaurants (two of which require reservations), thirteen bars (in addition to cigar and cognac bars), a three level theater, a casino, a discotheque, a Grand Prix race simulator, an internet café, and much, much more.  It houses 4,300 passengers and an additional 1,100 crew members—that’s one crew member for every four passengers—on seventeen decks.  It is valued at just less than $600 million dollars.  And while we would probably not consider it a technological marvel in the late modern world, as we would have considered the Titanic or the Hindenburg in an earlier era, it is nevertheless something of a marvel, its sheer magnitude making it larger than life.

Of course, the photograph above doesn’t quite do it justice. Foundered on a rock off of the coast of Tuscany near the island of Giglio that left a 160 foot gash in its hull and listing to the starboard side, the marvel and magnitude of the Costa Concordia are somewhat diminished. The actual cause of the grounding has yet to be finally decided, though there is no evidence of bad weather or other emergency conditions that would have required bringing the ship this close to the coast line.

It is both a catastrophe and a tragedy. As of this writing the death toll rests at eleven with twenty or so others still unaccounted for.  And as with the mythological Icarus, the disaster is a result of sheer hubris.  In the days ahead the focus will no doubt be on the captain’s unauthorized deviation from the planned course and his lack of good sense animated by assumptions of unfounded pride in either his skills as a sailor or in the capacity of the ship. Or perhaps we will learn that he was intoxicated or otherwise distracted.  We are already hearing that much of the problem was due to the fact that passengers failed to participate in muster drills, as if the disaster was their fault.  In any case, “human error” will no doubt bear the weight of the burden.  And to be fair, a good measure of this may well be warranted.   But of course the hubris here extends beyond the human failings of the captain or the passengers and extends to a society that places its unfettered faith in its technological ability to master nature.

Elsewhere we refer to this faith as “modernity’s gamble”—the wager that the potential for catastrophic risks assumed by a technology-intensive society will be avoided by continuing progress.  Modernity’s gamble is most apparent in the building of airplanes and rockets designed to conquer the skies, or in nuclear power plants intended to free us from our reliance on fossil fuels, but it is no less relevant to things such as online banking and commerce, where the risk to economic catastrophe is no less disastrous—or likely.  It may be that we are passed the point that we can refuse modernity’s gamble, but surely we need to learn to respect it and to avoid challenging the odds for frivolous purposes. That here the wager was lost in a disaster involving a technologically advanced and sophisticated playground for the upper classes only underscores the hubris of a society that cares little for how it employs its resources and even less for how it respects its environment.

 The photograph above is telling in this regard, as it contrasts the  failure of an overextended and idealized technological mastery of nature (for fun and profit!) with the sustainable houses and buildings that occupy the coastline.  A storm could come along that wipes out the village, no doubt, but it wasn’t an unpredictable weather event that led to the disaster here.  It was the failure to respect modernity’s gamble.  And while those who built the village appear to have respected the natural crag of the outcropping, preserving it as a defense against the sea and the wind, but not trying to overcome it, those sailing the Concordia did not respect it, running aground in the process.  As Don Quixote’s sidekick Pancho reminds him, “whether the stone hits the bottle or the bottle hits the stone … its always bad for the bottle.” And so here, the ship once visually magnificent, is humbled; indeed, in its own way it appears to have settled into a fetal position of total resignation.  It is perhaps a subtle irony that the ship’s name—referring to the state or condition of agreement or harmony—is betrayed by the scene depicted in the photograph in which harmony rests with the village and not with the trappings of an unbounded hubris.

Photo Credit: Remo Casilli/Reuters.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.

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A Second Look: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Fence


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When I first wrote about this photograph two years ago I marveled at the utter insanity of thinking that we could actually establish a 700 hundred mile wall fence across an otherwise barren dessert that would secure the 2,000 mile border that separates the US from Mexico.  And, of course, I was right as there is no evidence that the wall fence has done anything to slow down illegal immigration (in fact there is some evidence to suggest that the number of people sneaking past the borders has increased), though there is strong evidence to suggest that it has resulted in “borderland frgmantation” leading to serious destruction of the border ecosystem.  Notwithstanding the continuing need for serious immigration reform, then, the idea that we can maintain an impermeable barrier to secure us from “undesirable” outsiders is a preposterous fiction that only the likes of Stephen King can really pull off.  And, of course, the above photograph underscores the futility of thinking that this can actually work.

I was reminded of this photograph earlier this evening when I read a report that President Obama has ordered 1,200 National Guardsmen to the borders in order to “provide support to law enforcement officers by helping observe and monitor traffic between official border crossings” and to “help analyze trafficking patterns in the hope of intercepting illegal drug shipments.”  But for all that, “they will not make arrests … something they are not trained to do.” As with the photograph, the absurdity of the situation is pronounced, no matter which way we think of it.  If the troops are going to be used for interdiction, it makes no more sense to think that we can secure a 2,000 mile border with 1,200 troops (that’s one soldier for every 1.6 miles—and it assumes that each soldier is working 24/7/365) than that we can do it by building a wall fence.  And yet, if their primary purpose is not active interdiction, but to “help analyzing trafficking patterns,” one can only wonder why so many are needed on site to accomplish that task.

The bigger point to be made, however, is that we are not going to be effective in addressing the problem of our borders by resorting to simplistic and piecemeal military solutions.  I’m quite sure that President Obama knows and believes this, and were he to allow himself to be guided by the “better angels of his nature” he would move in a different direction towards more progressive immigration reform.  What is troubling is that he is doing it anyway, and for what are no doubt pragmatic political reasons that sadly (and ironically) belie an increasingly militaristic society.

Photo Credit: Don Bartletti/LA Times

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