A Cnut of the Apocalypse

Draft of 2012.09.28 ☛ 2015.03.16

It’s been a few years now that Barbara and I have been listening to books on CD as we fall asleep. Usually a chapter at a time, unless we, umm… you know, retire early. We’re lucky to have a well-stocked public library, with a lot of works by excellent and engaging lecturers who aren’t too whiny or hesitant. And (thank goodness) not all of them are about Greece and Rome.

I mean we haven’t avoided Greece and Rome; nobody can. We’ve had our share of Great Men, Great Philosophers, Emperors, Tyrants, the world according to Thucydides and Plutarch. Even the “peripheral” [flag that word for a moment, please] histories we listen to—the Celts, Asia Minor, Persia—and the off-brand facets histories like the Arabic Scientists and the Enlightenment and stuff always touch on Greece and Rome, democracy and empire. Wind, fire, all that kind of thing.

Maybe it’s osmosis, or maybe it’s something more akin to repeated slaps on the forehead with a rolled-up scroll while broadly mouthing “LOOK AT THIS AGAIN”, but I’m starting to notice something I never saw before. Like any nerd, I grew up learning about Greece from brightly colored mythology books, and Rome out of Spartacus and such. Our Social Studies classes were all about 1970s Patriotism tinged by that 1950s Dewey-would-lose-against-Marx Cold War citizenship stew and pedagogical style our teachers were raised up in. The Founding Fathers read about Greece and Rome, inspired by the democracies of Athens and the republic of Rome, blah blah. So maybe one needs to have been slapped on the forehead a few dozen times with the actual history before that patina of received wisdom starts to crack.

Viz: it wasn’t that simple.

Now any actual historian will probably be making the Wry Smile Eye-rolling Face now. But of course most of us well-educated liberal-thinking technical folks don’t bother too much, no matter how earnestly and efficiently we pursue knowledge, to dive down the rat-hole of Narrative Construction.

It all starts with Egypt, of course. I remember as a Junior High student I would get up at 6am (for some reason) and watch a television class about Egyptian art on some broadcast Cleveland TV station. And you know they mention this Ptolemy dude, either the Emperor (wait, Egypt didn’t have Emperors, it had Pharaohs) or the Astronomer Who Was Very Wrong (wait, were there Astronomers or just Astrologers before Copernicus?), and it gradually sinks in and it’s only decades later that some other tidbit or two falls into place and Whoa whoa hang on, that was Greek no I mean Macedonian I mean Hellenistic stuff, and Egypt was the southwestern Alexandrine empire, and—hang on—so the Romans were dealing with the remnants of Alexander’s empire?! and so on. Strands congeal, like DNA precipitating in an Eppendorf tube (hey, that’s my heritage).

And then Whoa, hang on again—so all those letters from Bible dudes and Greek Philosophers and Geometers were from Turkey?! and then But but the “democratic” Athenians were total assholes and thank goodness Alexander came along and… well, and so on. Call it “provincialism giving way slightly to paying attention”, or maybe “narrative reconfiguration”, depending on your background.

Clearly it isn’t that history is written by the winners, but rather that they write and distribute the Cliff’s Notes.

OK. That’s the setup. Here’s one point: Seems as though the writers’ guidelines for Cliff’s Notes demand Clear Separating Boundaries. Starts and Endings. First there was Egypt where they had mummies, then there was Greece where people were Democratic, then there was Rome with fuzzy helmets and brass skirts, then there was (in advanced classes) Byzantium [sic] which was pretty foreign and dissipated like Paris or something, then after a bit over there you get your King Arthur, and then after a while somebody turns on the lights and we get telescopes and gunpowder, and here we are. Nice clean starts and finishes, all along the way, like dinosaurs being wiped out so little furry mammals can turn into Baluchitherium [sic] and stuff.

Surely there’s a name for this fallacy. “Consecutivism” maybe? “Discretism”? It is a fallacy, clearly; I’ve been hanging around a half-hour a day with actual historians, the sort who sound as if they fling their arms around as they read, and they’ve managed to get chocolate in my peanut butter all over the place: Greeks in my Egypt, and [Greek!] Asia Minor in my Rome, and Celts in the Bible, and Persians in my Sparta, and cats and dogs living together.

And thence: Self-definition is all about the boundaries. Insert a cunningly-crafted keen insight about boundaries here, one that touches on all the expected things about brainwashing, self-definition, provincialism, cultural pride, homogeneity and diversity, ingroups and outgroups, wind, fire, all that kind of thing. Shorter version: “Hey, you know those are just Cliff’s Notes you’re reading, right?”

All this? All this was crystallized into an anastamosing tissue of rant because I just read Alexis Madrigal talking about the awful awful things that have happened in our American culture and the growing dichotomy and the worries everybody in public policy expresses all the time about jobs and decline and inequality.

It makes me sad, every time I see this sort of thing. Sad because of the box it grows within. It’s the provincial Startups Will Restore Us box, the Economic Development box, the one decorated with fine print that counts how many jobs (asses in office chairs!) and Press Releases From Tech Spinoffs (young people are the only ones who ever do anything interesting!) and with a star-shaped brass sticker that reads “Now with 25% more EARNEST HOPE!”

This box is a special kind of conservatism. Burke would recognize it, because it’s all about not breaking things. Fundamentally it’s a ubiquitous habit of wanting to restore—and more insidiously, to expect change to happen the same way it happened last time—and it relies on the Cliff’s Notes version of economics and history. As though the only people in an economy were a few charismatic megafauna, a corps of earnest and essentially non-profit bureaucrats, and the undifferentiated Classes: upper, middle, poor, from which those others arise now and then by spontaneous generation. All tidily projected into the future by extrapolation: The big charismatic megafauna of the future must be like the ones of the past, technical not artistic, leading not integrating, rebuilding not repurposing. The institutions of the future will be like our recently lost ones (companies, states, all that), the best Mankind has found in the March Forward. And the Classes, well, they are out of balance.

Now see in your Dark Age, which after all is merely a lacuna between a couple of those ex post facto discrete volumes of Cliff’s Notes, change happens. The diversity of what happens, the details of who’s doing what for whom and under what name, that carries on as before. Perhaps moreso. Whenever Empire stumbles, novelty seems more promising out at the unremarked periphery, in the lost provinces and the places where exotic weirdos start trying new stuff out. Not in the core.

Some day, hopefully in a few decades, somebody will realize sustainability is a thing that happens only in places where central planners look away. I wonder whether we ought to stage a “Dark Age” of our own, rather than waiting for all these rebuilding reworking rebooting economic “development” efforts to fail in turn.

Development is exploitation, in Holland’s sense. Let us explore for a while. It’s not merely that the keys aren’t under that light pole, it’s that there are no doors out here in the lovely dark. Let us be better now to one another, and not worry so much about honoring the beloved dead: the factories, the jobs, the state lines, and the habits of empire.

This is not about “revolution”, by the way. This is simply a request. Let us please have a King Cnut of Economic Development: Richard Florida might do fine, if only he was paying attention, because he has conquered our mindset for sure. Let him set himself up on a throne at the shores of our “economic collapse”, and make whatever gestures are called for by his audience to stem the tide of fundamental transformative change, and let him then turn wisely to the fans and lackeys and point out the moral of this lesson: that Emergence is not what you expect and foster.

Sorry. I couldn’t help but laugh out loud there. Richard Florida would never say anything of the sort.

Nonetheless, let us emerge into the darkness, in other words. Everything that has happened here under the lamp has already come and gone. We should totally leave this lone light here, burning, if nothing else to draw the moths and bats it’s always drawn and act out its role as symbol of many sorts. Me, I’m headed over there towards those noises….