Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Ben Howard's "The Backward Look": Book Review

For a couple of years, I'd drive on my way to work past a yellow sign hanging from a concrete slab building facing the freeway: "First Time Ever, Last Time Ever." I suppose it referred to some never-ending sale, but I liked to think of it in terms of a daily reminder of impermanence. (Recently, of course, it disappeared.) In poet-critic Ben Howard's successor to his first collection of essays "Entering Zen," (2011; see my reviews on Amazon US and this blog), he advances along the path of awareness of this fundamental Zen truth, addressing in these fifty entries from his columns for "One Time, One Meeting" that titular acknowledgment, of the fleeting encounters we too enter into.

Out of these, Howard creates short essays, grounded in everyday life. The first five exemplify their range. A poem by Billy Collins about shoveling snow with the Buddha, a lament by a Washington Redskins player about injuries, a 1948 Japanese novel about Burma, a slip on the ice tied into the difference between mishap and mistake, and the rest-stroke, free-stroke on guitar (Howard also plays): these demonstrate the characteristic concerns which he channels into his practice for us to see.

I use that verb for we witness Howard in modest, reflective manner, as a presence who steps up and then sidles away, allowing us to glimpse the meaning as he does, but also to sense the mystery. The title of this book comes from a Dogen quote: "Take the backward step and turn the light inward." By doing "just this," that Zen master promises our "original face" will appear; this also reminds me of one of the last remarks attributed to the Buddha urging his followers to "be a lamp unto yourselves." Howard interprets Dogen's stance as a shift away from "ego-centered thinking" to "other-centered awareness." This reorientation directs the practitioner to not a blissed-out state of detachment, but a sense of the balance between conditions of heightened sensitivity and informed action. Such an even-handed approach, as in meditation and thinking, speaking and doing, shows Howard's practice.

He's also practiced at writing, and I recommend his collected essays on Irish literature, "The Pressed Melodeon" as well. He keeps to a steady format, less than ten paragraphs usually. He offers wise tips about writing as a craft, and he applies them in unassuming but diligent fashion. As he cites Hemingway's advice, he prefers brevity and being "positive" in the sense of concentrating the body and the mind upon the moment, whether pleasant or not, to find it "empty of a separate self" in Zen.

Meanwhile, other poets enrich these pages. Seamus Heaney, Jonathan Swift, Dennis O'Driscoll (a less heralded talent worth your seeking out), Louis MacNeice, Patrick Kavanaugh from Ireland enter, but so do Basho, Philip Larkin, and even Bob Marley. From such sages, Howard accumulates their reflections on how to ease up, and to let go. One gain here I sense, teaching myself in an ever-increasing course load with higher enrollments but shorter turnaround times online for grading, emerges from Howard's slower pace. He advises us to limit our consumption of information, to let some comments stand as superfluous rather than as imperative. Never advocating ignorance, he instead encourages us to contemplate the wisdom of "not-knowing." From this humility, a term I reckon we hear much less nowadays, Zen cuts down pride and arrogance.

One of my favorite concepts is dependent origination, and Howard brings this lofty teaching down to his dinner table. There, he points to various loaves of bread from local bakeries, to illustrate this basic Buddhist insistence that "this ceases to be, because that ceases to be." Reading this when I'd received earlier that day bad news, I took heart in the repetition of this most fundamental of life's truths here.

As these essays progress, their tone sustains a firmly held if gently revealed insistence on the necessity of stepping back from our routine. Carrots, Yiddishisms, construction noise: all generate insights into the "imperfect life we are now living." Enhanced by Howard's teaching, his Iowa youth, his Irish stays, whatever he's read, seen, and discussed, his experiences seep into these essays. At his practice group on Sunday's summer evenings, impermanence becomes understood "not as a concept or a Zen tenet but as an experiential fact, as palpably real as the darkness gathering around us." He regards such a moment as welcome and as inevitable as any other in his encounters, shared with us. (Amazon US 4-22-14)

Monday, April 21, 2014

Nikil Saval's "Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace": Book Review

How did Bartleby the Scrivener spawn Dilbert, and why does their "unnatural" office space compel over sixty percent of Americans to labor there, often in tasks divorced from farm or field so much that the work seems invisible, and its productions intangible? One wonders, if in a "cubicle farm", why employees in an electronic era must be corralled in this interior labyrinth. Despite networks and smartphones, many must commute. They may enter open-form layouts, replacing flimsy grey partitions, but raising walls of chat; we see headphones advertised now not for jet flight but during 9-to-5 when one must work next to ten others.

Nikil Saval asks many of the same questions I've had since my workplace--that term itself telling of the collective nature of the setting, separated from factory floor, unions, and solidarity to foster office politics, surveillance, and self-improvement-- "rightsized" a few years ago to half of its former layout. Once I shared an office with a colleague behind a wooden door; now we sit in cubicles. While our supervisors kept their doors, our employer mandates, all the same, an "open door policy". Given such scenarios repeat for hundreds of millions, it sparked my curiosity. The same day I mulled over that policy, I learned about Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, by this Philadelphia-based editor of n+1. The book began as a 2006 article in that publication on the origins of the office. Saval expands this topic by synthesizing sociology, literature, architecture, and cinema.

I remain unconvinced by that come-hither subtitle. This secret history lacks the salacious rumors of Procopius' Byzantine courtiers or the gothic menace of Donna Tartt's novel. Less gripping than efficiently told, as may be expected from its subject matter, Saval's history credits a more stolid literary forebear. For, clerks marked the arrival of a new type of mass-employed common man. Bartleby's odd situation, when offices themselves seemed a novelty in mid-nineteenth-century Manhattan, transformed tedious if cleaner manual labor for clerks, who, at first like Melville's protagonist and his colleagues remained largely male, and often derided for their foppish fashion and snobbery. They fought back against the system once in old Manhattan, so as to purportedly get off at 8 p.m., to attend debating societies or to frequent the lending library before it closed. Saval notes how their status, as salaried, meant that they spent long hours (if often with not much to do) earning their keep, and how this cut them off from the laboring masses, resigned to hourly wages or piecework.

Time management, by the 1920s, had long put paid to the leisurely pace of Bartleby. Adding machines, typewriters, bells, and bosses accelerated the working day. Railroad dispersion necessitated the division of corporations into stratified departments. The "company ladder" loomed. Specialization required that tasks were aided by telecommunication and divided into vast spaces filled with desks, similar to the factory floors, for both demanded "labor-saving" machinery, which led only to more products and then more memos, more invoices, more letters, and more calls for harried salaried staff.

"Taylorism" dominated as rational, "scientific management". Bureaucracy enabled  women, who by 1920 comprised half of the ranks under the hierarchy Taylorism required, to take on the perceived or practical advantages of clerical work. This led to many disadvantages of disparity, as when male bosses took advantage by their own office politics, and the scheming secretary on the rise led to a  provocative archetype promoted in Depression-era stories and films. Predictably, "white-collar" wages stagnated once "unskilled" jobs were associated with "white-blouse" stereotypes. Meanwhile, regimentation for all meant that desks lined up, bosses carried stopwatches, and the sole "restroom" might be a few flights up, near executives who sat in their suites behind doors, glass or wooden. On the open floor, as supervisors scanned the ranked as they filed, "time would not be given, but stolen".

Air conditioning, skyscrapers, file cabinets, Dictaphones, stenography, skylights, adjustable chairs: the innovations applied to this workplace may endure or fade, but as Saval narrates, "what passed for workers' welfare could with a little imagination be seen as social control". The words "system", "order", and "efficiency" proved to managers that the monotony of office work preserved its appeal. The less that salaried staff had to worry about on the job, went the rationale, the less fuss they made.

The "office zombies" of King Vidor's film The Crowd (1928) in its splendid opening scene characterize the postwar predicament for many in New York City or Chicago by then. The camera directs one's gaze up the side of the Art Deco exterior, with column after column of windows. It enters one, hovers above "a waste and empty sea of desks", and then lowers itself among countless clerks all filling in ledgers. Down below, more leave the farms, to join the commuting, urban herd.

Social backlash then, as Saval notes, would return against the "hard-hat" workers in the 1970s. It urged many to deride the white-collar man as a not only a conformist but a racist drone. But in the 1920s as later, unions could not gain traction within most office ranks. Pink or white collar, the salaried employees refused to see their plight as akin to that of their waged, blue-collar neighbors. Distancing by class, if not always economic differences in salaried income, ensured that solidarity did not supplant supposed self-improvement. Saval applies German sociological theory, drawn upon for C. Wright Mills' 1951 study White Collar, to critique what turned out for many leftists a persistent but in Saval's opinion too facile a link between lower-middle-class clerical workers and reactionary politics. The switchboard operators, message boys, and the typing pools became scapegoats for lack of ambition, and their cadre represented to the elite a shorthand for stagnation and subordination.

Could paper pushers or the steno staff revolt? It seemed doubtful, but fearing unions and Marxists, a "pop Freudianism" soothed managers. Their staffs feared not losing their jobs, as blue-collar workers did, but not getting credit for a job well done. "The way to counter the threat, the managers decided, was to design better offices." These "human relations" specialists favored environments conducive to cooperation rather than competition, to advance harmony. This led to more glass, alongside the steel. We see its results in Ayn Rand's Fountainhead and in Mad Men's Sterling Cooper advertising agency.

These postwar paeans to Cold War affluence, however, lord over cities. These towers and the cold, empty (or packed) streets below, for many postwar aspirants discouraged rather than encouraged affection. Suburban office parks answered the need for more space, and more of a lateral rather than vertical presence as corporations led or followed the flight from the skyscraper. AT&T's Bell Labs in New Jersey pioneered the long corridor: this is where, subsequent management gurus suggested, ideas might be generated as colleagues passed each other many times daily. Yet, the totality of the corporate presence, epitomized even in the better-designed structures that sprawled, discouraged others in the 1950s. Lonely Crowds, Power Elites, Hidden Persuaders, and Organization Men in Gray Flannel Suits (to combine a few popular works of that era's social criticism), connoted a "soft totalitarianism" as advertisers and bosses colluded to lock up Americans in conforming cages.

A generation after The Crowd, The Apartment (1960) depicts the power of "gigantism". Consolidation eliminated small business and the individual's ambitions, unless to score a coveted bathroom key. IBM's dress code matched its punch-card mentality, and its uniformity that it trumpeted as the future. Such firms countered with a PR campaign assuring "more opportunities for better work". As always, many welcomed the security of the corporation, the amenities of the office, and the steady salary. Justifying itself to the public, free enterprise generated a bland, safe jargon.

Safety might spawn seduction, if not secure secrets. Helen Gurley Brown's Sex and the Single Girl (1962) and Sex and the Office (1964) beckoned working-class secretaries to snatch small joys during or after work, "through strategies of small subversion". Marriage need not be the goal, and staying single did not condemn a gal from climbing up the ladder at work in her own way, on her own time.

But closed doors and executive suites remained the domain of few in the office space. Jacques Tati's Playtime (1967) portrays in a futuristic but ramshackle Paris the cubes in which many of us now work. In 1958, furniture maker Herman Miller furthered through ergonomics Robert Propst's Action Office, defined as "a mind-oriented living space" functioning as "a place for transacting abstractions".  Theory-Y, advanced by Douglas McKenzie in 1960, pushed the ideal of Abraham Maslow's self-actualization into the realm of desks and chairs: by propelling bodies eager for direction, individual and corporate needs were better met. Peter Drucker appealed as a management guru, reaching out to anxious if compliant "knowledge workers". "For businessmen who read no philosophy, Drucker was their philosopher." Such theorists, for a restless generation of managers seeking to boost productivity while streamlining movement, spurred the open-plan. Workstations fostered innovation, but installation led to cubicles, perpetuating what were invented as temporary partitions. Saval confirms the trade-off: the sounds of typing and phones could never be silenced by carpeting or sound screens. Introspection and concentration capitulated to interactive communication.

Two decades after Propst's proposals, his humanistic vision of a flexible set-up at work had led to its opposite, as Tati had envisioned. By the end of the 1970s, "that beige, dishonest decade", conversion to cubicles and open-space confined as many workers as feasible in as small a blueprint as possible. While not mentioned by Saval, "positive" psychologist Martin Seligman has diagnosed "learned helplessness" as a symptom of this human filing system. Voice mail spews and depression deepens as  "technical support" on hold wears customers down, as corporate environments brutalize. Those staffing such situations suffer too. Diversifying workers did not lead to diversifying workplaces. Office work was rationalized, requiring fewer specialized skills. But higher levels of education were required. Those frustrated as their ambitions met with drudgery blamed themselves (and the system) for their stagnation. They may have escaped the factories and farms, but similar tedium awaited them.

The trend exalting whimsical post-modern rather than glass-and-steel modernism for the skyscrapers of the 1980s mattered little to those who rode the elevators. Corporations increasingly did not need so many cubicles. Worried executives and pressured middle managers made bestsellers out of business books. But Japanese Theory-Z failed. Manufacturing was automated or offshored. White-collar "post-industrial" work, promised as security by Drucker, faltered. Meaner, leaner downsizing followed.

Even the cubicles shrank, between a fourth and half, between the mid-1980s and the 1990s. Some were built by prisoners, who at night might return to their own fabricated stalls. Apple's workers refused them, and they were removed. IBM kept reducing them; employees reasoned this was meant to increase their miserable conditions such that nobody would want to show up anymore, and thus the savings on office space would reward their employer. Saval observes how cubicles make workers close enough to "create serious social annoyances, but dividing them so they didn't actually feel that they were working together". No wonder satire rebounded with Dilbert then and Office Space soon.

Did the PC advance the liberation that the Action Office predicted? Keystrokes monitored, errors subtracted, talking tallied: this depersonalized routine deadened many who sought to save their clerical jobs as automation created fewer positions but more apathy along the digitized assembly-line. Administrative assistants, renamed, arguably enjoyed less status than secretaries, who by their relationships with their bosses might gain some autonomy and respect. By contrast, the predictable data entry into electronic devices allowed supervisors to monitor this labor by a detached process.

9-to-5 (1980), produced by Jane Fonda, took much of its farcical plot from real testimony, although Saval avers it may not have helped advance the battle against sex discrimination. Eight years later, anticipating a move away from the typing pool, Working Girl shows a young woman scheming to replace her female banker-manager, using the "knowledge worker" skills that reward her "gumption".
Neither film revolts against the system. One suggests ending sexism might lead to a happy workplace; the other replaces one ambitious, conniving woman with another in a coveted position.

Before the start-up crash, fantasies continued. The paperless office and the non-territorial workspace emerged as paradigms sought by disgruntled designers. Telecommuting met with skepticism as managers feared losing control over their workers. Silicon Valley, on the other hand, since the 1980s issues "utopian prognostications" about the workplace of the libertarian, decentralized future. Their cubicles, started in the 1960s, stood for a rebellion against hierarchy and an installation of equality. But soon, as IBM epitomized, this structure embedded conformity. Apple and Microsoft turned to more closed offices, as workers opted to stay home to work as the noise interfered in their cubicles.

The mid-1990s embodied the dot.com as counterculture, one praising the company as the place to be, not only to work. The New Economy, as Chiat Day's giddy Frank Gehry-designed but confusingly paperless (for an advertising agency, after all) building boasted, generated for Type-A types a "simultaneously lackadaisical and profoundly intense pace, which kept people essentially confined to one place for hours on end". Mobility or freedom, on the other hand, diminish, despite Aeron chairs. The appeal of an airy domain where one can flee, free of the hubbub, no matter the job or site layout, persists. Lately, I pass on my way home from work a freeway billboard depicting a woman who celebrates her promotion by shopping for a new dress: "I got an office with a door," she exclaims.

Timed for the stock market's fall, 1999's Office Space sends up the dead-end jobs at "a grey tech company". The series The Office and novels by Ed Park (Personal Days) and Joshua Ferris (And Then We Came to the End) sustain this dark vision since that cult film appeared. Saval explains that these targeted "the unholy expectation of the modern workplace, which asked for dedication and commitment, offering none in return". Beyond the cubicle, ubiquitous big-box retailers and chain diners betray the same homogenized failure. For a few, Saval shows, disenchantment with corporate life led to another go around. TBWA/Chiat Day redesigned a bold campus for its staff after 1997. Their virtual office failed. They replaced it, but to Saval that still feels like Disneyland. The "cheerful haphazardness" of Google's headquarters perplexes him, but at least you can take your dog to work.

As the 2012 decision at Yahoo ordering workers to come to the office rather than work at home has demonstrated, the changing technologies that energize Silicon Valleys and Alleys alter the workplace. The "cloud" may puff up the temp economy even more; the Dutch insurance firm Interpolis models a second option, which gives employees more power over whether they want to come to an office to work at a variety of spaces (they only have a locker), or stay at home for part of their workweek. Mobile phones connect employees, no matter where they choose to work. Still, as Saval listens to a Marx-quoting manager, he realizes what one may call "trust" based on "activity-based working" may for workers translate as tacit "consent" to what a boss intends to implement to get all of the jobs done: the way the supervisor wants them to happen, regardless of the preferences of those assigned to tasks.

Saval's skepticism serves his investigation well. He keeps a wary eye on boosters from the business bestseller shelf, and he looks around where he is guided to check out the claims by managers and designers as tested against his own experience. He visits with Professor Richard Greenwald in Brooklyn, who champions the freedom while admitting the worry in contract work by freelancers. Fewer companies take on more workers, but a "frayed safety net" extends where no stability endures.

Open-source firm GitHub claims to be a non-managed, bossless office; like Interpolis, it breaks up its space into many configurations. Yet over seven out of every ten of its employees work at home. Many may come to the place once or twice a month, so the "serendipitous encounters" the designers hope to encourage by its innovative architecture may not happen much at all.  Co-working shared spaces suggest another alternative, not beholden or built for one company, and this may lead, Saval reasons, to more rewarding "creative collisions" with other workers outside one's firm or field.

Autonomy persists as the worker's ideal. Promised by many managers and parroted by many gurus, its actual presence appears to diminish from a typical, however high-tech, work site. Freelancers and contingent laborers, after all, may possess a degree of freedom not given to the salaried permanent staffer, but the uncertainty of living from one elusive paycheck to the next creates its own confines One may long to leave the cubicle as once one escaped the typing pool, but a corner office may not reward today's toiler who wants to make his or her workplace more than a location to log in or sit at.
(In shorter form to Amazon US 3-4-14; 4/8/14 slightly edited form with editor's aside at PopMatters)

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Todd Clear & Natasha Frost's "The Punishment Imperative": Book Review

Over the past forty years, America's incarceration rate soared. Starting in 1972 and only leveling off in 2010, the "relentlessly punitive spirit" of locking up more criminals for longer terms accelerated prison growth. Fueled by mass incarceration as the politically sanctioned method to confined those convicted, the system expanded. What it led to, until very recently, was an insistence that higher crime rates could best be prevented by a policy of warehousing as confinement, rather than rehabilitation or community-based programs. The latter attempts, finally, have begun to supplant the dominance of what was less a system of rehabilitation, far more one bent on meting out punishment.

Criminologists Todd Clear (Rutgers) and Natasha Frost (Northeastern) began this book in 2008, when policies still led to an relentless and unprecedented increase in those put behind bars. Until a few years ago, those entering prison outnumbered those freed. While, they argue, no single rationale articulated the policy leading to "the great punishment experiment", the doubling of crime rates in the late 1960s, the threat of unrest by African American males, despair at urban decay, and pressure for politicians to take a bolder stand contributed to the rise of the massive penal system in place today.

What began in the early 1970s as a get-tough approach appeared benign in retrospect. Clear and Frost compare U.S. penal policies since then to "a drunk whose life descends increasingly into the abyss". Inflexible, even cruel attitudes hardened. "Thresholds of punitiveness people never thought our democracy would ever have to confront became a part of official policy: life without parole and death penalties for young people; lengthy detention before trial; humiliation and long periods of extreme isolation during confinement; decades behind bars for minor thefts and possession of drugs."

The authors title this approach as "the Punishment Imperative". A war on drugs replaced that of the Great Society's war on poverty; as the Vietnam conflict subsided as far as the U.S. was concerned, another series of battles led to a war on crime as a bipartisan priority. Victims' rights movements drew attention to attacks by those who had been released from prison. The media and politicians agreed that this issue captured public attention. A bonus was that working- and middle-class jobs emerged, and in turn, hard-pressed rural communities lobbied for the employment brought by new prisons.

Four points combined to sway the public and those charged with building and sustaining the system. Rehabilitation was seen as a failure. A few habitual, career criminals were assumed to commit most crimes. These "active offenders" often eluded apprehension and conviction. Imprisoning such offenders prevented crime. Keeping more people inside prison, therefore, appeared a logical solution.

Both professors concur that this rationale and the policy of mass incarceration were never presented as a clear solution to the rise in crime during the 1960s, however. Instead, the political establishment and law-and-order advocates combined to deter offenders, and thereby discourage those who might think they could get away with wrongdoing. Deterrence through heightened penalties and swifter justice, into the 1980s, resulted in more people being locked up than before.

By the middle of the Reagan era, the war on drugs took over as the public policy priority. Most of those entering federal prisons then were convicted for drug offenses, and sentences lengthened. By the 1990s until around 2010, requirements that violent offenders serve 85% of their time were common, so sentences for most prisoners likewise lengthened.

This pushed up higher numbers of those imprisoned. By 2002, Americans represented a quarter of the global population behind bars. At that rate, seven percent of all Americans would be incarcerated at some point. By 2006, annual costs for housing, feeding, and guarding inmates averaged nearly $30,000. Ninety percent of "correctional dollars" sustained mass incarceration.

Violent offenses themselves could range widely, from rape, murder, or armed robbery to "intimidation". Property and drug offenses likewise spanned a wide variety of actions. The war on drugs and related crime spurred massive increases in those jailed. Half of those incarcerated were under the age of thirty-five, and ninety percent younger than forty-five. Ninety percent of those imprisoned were male; African Americans comprised nearly half of this cohort. One in eight black men in their late twenties, at these rates last decade, could expect to be behind bars sometime.

As compiled by the authors, these facts add up to a sobering sum. While (a persistent if predictable lack in a book marketed for those who run and challenge the criminal justice industry) the lay reader may wish for more of a personal touch in a serious study full of analysis and data, the usefulness of this treatise for those learning about criminal justice remains evident. Clear and Frost scrutinize the paradigm shifts and get-tough crackdowns coolly, as professors will. This straightforward, reasoned compilation of the many problems and some suggested solutions for the failure of mass incarceration features, as may be wise, a lack of emotion or the human-interest anecdote. Full of lists, charts, and a well-documented text, this does not obscure the authors' sympathy for those who, locked up or on the outside, have suffered during the war on crime and drugs in ways that too few politicians have sought to assuage or alleviate.

These tough-on-crime decisions, as the public gradually learned of their impact on not only prisoners but their families and their communities, led gradually to a backlash against such long terms. For, it appeared that rehabilitation had been eliminated or reduced to nearly nothing, compared to the insistent policy that incarceration and deprivation had to persist as self-evident reasons why prisoners had to serve their time in as inauspicious a setting and mindset as possible. (One factor that does not receive the attention I expected is the behind-the-scenes clout of prison guards and their strong unions, backed by law-and-order politicians with deep coffers for gubernatorial campaigns: these continue to exert strong influence on many elections and many referendums when prison reform issues are set before voters.) Frost and Clear point to the 2000-2010 dramatic drops in crime rates, and the post-2008 recession, as two key factors easing the pressure to confine so many behind bars.

Impacts widen beyond prisons and prisoners. Social networks and personal support can crumble, especially in poor areas. Denial of public housing, food stamps, child custody, and federal financial aid for college to those convicted of drug-related offenses exacerbates the negative impacts on those seeking, as the authors emphasize, "reentry" into society. They note an encouraging shift lately from labeling those coming back from prison as "felons" or "parolees" to those seeking a path to stability.

However, as their conclusion investigates, Clear and Frost caution that even if drug-related offenses are reduced and early-release incentives lessen the "length of stay" prisoners must serve, the replacements for mass incarceration may carry their own troublesome effects. If confinement ebbs, surveillance grows. Social control over parolees by "justice reinvestment strategies" can create its own burdens. Social services may not match the needs of the most deprived communities which have been most weakened by incarceration. Incentives may sound appealing, but managing the programs designed to watch over released offenders carries its own difficulties, especially when straitened budgets and hawkish, wary taxpayers bring their own limits to whatever programs might be mooted.

After all, rehabilitation and recidivism are difficult to predict. "Demonization is even now a constant risk for any public servant who seeks reasonable means to control prison costs." If a few high-profile offenders repeat their crimes once released back on the outside, politicians and policy makers who backed alternatives will likely suffer the consequences from a vindictive public and a frenzied media.

As a final observation, one may wonder how the new technologies, as humble as ankle monitors or as lofty as drones, will shape the future of the law-and-order entities entrusted with supervising those released back into the community. Released prisoners constitute a target group few sympathize with unless they share by blood or friendship their fate and their troubles. While Clear and Frost in this short, efficiently conveyed study cannot delve into all of the ramifications of how to integrate those returning to society, The Punishment Imperative: The Rise and Failure of Mass Incarceration in America attests to the need for a better way to manage the millions that our nation have, for too long, relegated to lock up and conspired to shut off from the scrutiny and the support by the rest of us. (Amazon US 11-19-13 in shorter form; as above to PopMatters 1-1-14)

Thursday, April 17, 2014

George Packer's "The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America": Book Review

Packer explains his title as a chronicle of what happened for those born since 1960: we never knew a country bound by "the coil which held Americans together in its secure and sometimes stifling grip." Gaps opened as factories closed, exurbs boomed and busted, schools sagged, and farms faded. Instead, the "void was filled by the default force in American life, organized money." (3)

As John Dos Passos in his U.S.A. trilogy did in one of my favorite examinations of an earlier cultural and political change after WWI, so Packer tries to compress into a few hundred, fast-paced pages. He combines profiles of protagonists across the ideological and demographic spectrum with timelines and vignettes (Newt's smugness, Oprah's New Age platitudes, Raymond Carver's struggle, Sam Walton's stinginess, Colin Powell's stoicism, Alice Waters' self-absorption, Robert Rubin's schemes, Jay-Z's avarice, Andrew Breitbart's muckraking, and Elizabeth Warren's populism) which illustrate the generations who came to power in the past thirty years as wealth concentrated and the "former middle class" sought, as Packer sums up Warren's judgment, to survive. Meanwhile, jobs migrated, workers wearied, wages stagnated, schools worsened, a few desirable areas with better schools drove prices way up, and families who sought to find a foundation gave in to more debt as "mortgage-based securities" and loans lured millions into risk which, as we know by 2007 and 2008 threatened the financial system.

The choices left to those who had to bail out the bankers, and to watch as some of those who perpetrated what Packer implies was another Ponzi scheme were rewarded with positions in the current administration, remain fewer than bonuses or mansions. Reading this, one realizes how those firmly in place on both sides of the partisan divide bear responsibility. Repealing Glass-Steagall under Clinton, giving Chris Dodd control of the Senate Banking Committee, and courting the rich who "donated" to either party's politicians, those in power connive with those who fund them. Newt's party doesn't come off much worse than that of Clinton and Obama, in this coverage. As Jeff Connaughton finds out early in his career spent largely pursuing a bumptious Joe Biden, it's neither the merits of the candidate nor the positions espoused that matters, it's calling in favors to donors.

When one senator tries to rally a return to the regulation of Glass-Steagall,  Packer dramatizes how the foxes guard the henhouse. "Shortly before the vote, Dianne Feinstein of California, one of the wealthiest members of the Senate, asked Richard Durbin of Illinois, 'What's this amendment about?' 'Breaking up the banks.' Feinstein was taken aback. 'This is still America, isn't it?'" (292)

Alienated from this plutocracy, Dean Price tries to revive an agrarian tradition in the New South, marred by strip malls, fast-food, and uncaring, poorly-fed, complacent consumers as much as anywhere else by now in the U.S. "He was seeing beyond the surfaces of the land to its hidden truths." (176) He attempts to connect biofuel with stations and stores, to loop a self-sustaining local economic model which frees a peak-oil plagued nation from foreign dependence on fuel or goods.

Meanwhile, in Youngstown, Tammy Thomas moves from laid-off factory toiler to community organizer, Peter Thiel rides the waves of money from Wall Street to Silicon Valley, and Kevin Moore reveals the tedium behind the drama of making millions in Manhattan during the greed is good era.

Tampa connects the housing market's flips and falls with the faces of those despairing in hotel rooms, cars, and trailers. Breitbart joins the political-cultural war--if for self-serving purposes: "A barely employed, autodidactic Gen-X convert with an ADD diagnosis and an Internet addiction was uniquely well armed to fight it." (304) While Packer's phrasing of the anger of a Tea Party member seems to mock her rather than convey her disgust, he sympathies with Occupy Wall Street's trio--as Moore watches it and learns. A techie turned homeless man from Seattle and a local NYC leftist activist join those who tried to rouse the underclass to speak out against a political and economic front that, no matter if under Bush or Clinton, Reagan or Obama, continued to side with the wealthy.

In two memorable sections, Packer energizes the emotion felt by many forgotten people. The foreclosure machine that processes, factory-like, thousands of court decisions runs through another story of loss every three minutes, as the bank's attorney calls it in; Tampa's judge may too, by remote. Occupy around pp. 273-274 for a moment, appropriately, brings together those by social networking and by actual meetings in rallies across the nation many who over the course of the book have suffered downsizing and been left to fend on their own. Cops move in to shut down the assemblies. A few who were apolitical, radicalized out of their conservatism by injustice, wonder how to fight on.

The book closes with Thomas continuing to try to assist as scattered jobs start up around the region. She keeps trusting Obama. Connaughton, sick of the Beltway, retires to Savannah. The troubled Hartzell family in Tampa shops at the Wal-Mart they can barely afford and where one of their family works at but despises until, confessing such a hatred, he's fired from it. Thiel's libertarianism and transhumanist passions expand into funding grants for smart drop-outs from Stanford who want to pursue entrepreneurial innovations. Price pursues his vision of canola and reclaimed cooking oils as practical methods to free Americans from fossil fuel dependence and wasteful living. That's about it.

It remains, therefore, in the near-present, suspended. I liked this very much. Did I love it? The pace dragged slightly as the chapters went on; after OWS, one senses a letdown in the energy, however appropriately. As an admirer of Dos Passos, I looked for a similar integration of ideology with commentary. Packer's sympathies clearly align him where Dos Passos at the time of his trilogy had been: with the progressives. I do aver that Packer handles the Tea Party's objections far less deftly than he does Occupy, and trying to find the common objections these populist (at least in theory!) movements had might have generated a more novel analysis, one rarely raised in the mainstream press to what ails our nation. But Packer's objections to the corrupt plutocracy that rules post-Reagan America, and which is upheld by nearly every politician able to attain and secure major office, connect stories of those who, on the inside or ignored by those in power, wonder what went wrong.
(Amazon US 3-21-14)  P.S. The day I wrote this, I found out about the "peaceable right of assembly" and the crackdown on our constitutional right: Cecily McMillan's Occupy trial and Civil Liberties. More context here as a follow-up on her trial.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Fáilte go Nestor

Cheannaigh Léna mo triú bonsai le déanaí. Bhuel, bíonn seo difriúl é go fírinne. Mar sin, tá sé bláthanna agus níl sé buaircíneach beag chomh Bráthair Áitil agus Páidí.

Déanaim mé a cheangail idir Léna agus mé ag dul go Naomh Crios ag fhéiceail ár chairde Bob agus Crios ansuid. Sheolaidh siad Bráthair Áitil chuichi riamh an marbh na mathair na Léna. Thúg muid Páidí nua go Naomh Crios ar leath bealach an bliana seo caite agus go dtí ár bhaile a dhéanamh cara nua chun Bráthair thuas staighre sa ghrian, lenar dhá cait ag coladh.

Ainmithe Léna sé do Nestor. Dúirt sí mé go raibh sé mar gheall go bhfuil sí "empty nester" an bliana seo. Mar sin féin, shíl mé faoi an Íliad...agus "Ulysses" le Seoigh, ar ndóigh, go tapaidh.

Fuair sí é ag an áit céanna, nuair áit a mbíodh Páidí ar feadh Mhárta seo caite. Bíonn seanfhear tSeapáinis faoi chúram na plandaí ag an taobh na bhóthair go Coalinga ann. Measaim faoi sé gach uair a théann mé an comhartha buí B-O-N-S-A-I ann.

Tá suiomh ag fás na crannaí beag ag imeall Bóthar Cúig ag trasna ó Feirm Harris in aice leis an sli amach go Coalinga ann. Tá áit mór leis béilí úr, ach tá eallach chruinniú agus maríodh ansin. Tá trua agam nuair a théann.

Is féidir leat boladh an boladh láidir ó an Bóthar Mór. Bhain mé úsaid as feoil a ithe go leor an chuid is mó de mo shaol.  Anois, is dóigh liom ciontach as ithe iasc! B'fhéidir, is cuimhne liom Nestor agus a chairde ag fás faoi an spiorad na beatha ansin, agus ina bhaile anseo.

Welcome to Nestor.

Layne bought me a third bonsai recently. Well, it's different, really. That is, it's a flowering and not a little coniferous like Brother Juniper and Paddy.

I make a connection between Layne and me going to Santa Cruz to see our friends Bob and Chris up there. They sent Brother Juniper to us after the death of Layne's mother.  We took new Paddy along halfway to Santa Cruz last year and back to our home to make a friend for Brother upstairs in the sun, by our two cats sleeping.

Layne named it for Nestor. She told me that it was because she's an "empty nester" this year. Nevertheless, I thought about the Iliad...and "Ulysses" by Joyce, of course, immediately.

She got it in the same place, where Paddy was from during last March. An old Japanese man takes care of the plants on the side of the highway to Coalinga there. I think of him each time I go past the yellow sign B-O-N-S-A-I there.

It's a site growing the little trees next to Interstate 5 across from Harris Ranch at the Coalinga exit there. It's a big site with fresh meals, but the cattle are raised and killed there. It saddens me when I pass.

You can smell the strong odor from the Interstate. I used to eat lots of meat most of my life. Now, I feel guilty eating fish! Perhaps, Nestor and his friends are a reminder of growing concerning the spirit of life there, and now here at home.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Peter Watson's "The Age of Atheists: Book Review

If neither science nor religion suffices, how do we get past our present impasse? Do we lament our lack of progress, or welcome possibility? Seven years to the day, I finished this after the same author's "Ideas: A History of Thought from Fire to Freud."  Both hefty works share this veteran journalist and now intellectual historian at Cambridge's dogged devotion to rational thinking over supposition, and the view, as his 2006 book concluded, that our human perspective is better suited to watching our world pass by and act out as if we peer at a zoo rather than a monastery. He acknowledges the scientific mission to dissect and pin down all that we observe, yet he nods to the atavistic tendency embedded within many of us to yearn for transcendence. That impulse, his new book agrees, will not fade soon, but the twentieth century charted here (although starting with Nietzsche towards the end of the nineteenth) celebrates the triumph of evolution, the breakthroughs in physics, the insights of psychology, and the wisdom of philosophy, art, literature, and communal engagement which enrich our current times and allow us so much liberty.

"Ideas" took me a month of evenings to study, given its 740 pages and 36 topical chapters, book-ended by a substantial introduction and conclusion, to chart the multi-millennial span of civilized endeavor. By contrast, I fairly raced through about 540 pages of the present book, which I highlighted (on a Kindle advanced copy, which had its flaws in format) in eighty-five instances that show my engagement with its provocative exchanges, cover roughly 125 years; Watson has also written (unread by me) "The Modern Mind" (2001) about the twentieth century, so I wondered how much of that third big book overlapped with "The Age of Atheists."

"Ideas" anticipates many of the newest book's themes. Progress continues despite those who fear it. The brain battles those who fear it. Meaning beckons but floats out of our grasp. Science discovers more only to ponder ultimate questions to pursue. Unsurprisingly, William James' pragmatism and Max Weber's sociology return, prominently among the hundreds of thinkers summarized and paraphrased here. That is both Watson's skill and this book's necessary limitation: he quotes and cites nimbly, making recondite concepts accessible. Yet, this popular touch and the breadth required to survey so much as an historian with his own biases and predilections may leave the specialized reader frustrated that his or her pet theory or favorite thinker suffered by its few pages meted out per topic.

That caveat addressed, an inevitable result of a one-volume book able to be held in two hands, this presentation conveys a firmly Western-centered, by-now familiar point-of-view. Nietzsche remains its driving force, and his fervent denial of a divine presence outside of the alienated, defiant human imagination reverberates through mavericks as diverse as Lenin and Joyce. Watson recognizes that German iconoclast's insanity, even as he roots for this raw challenge to Christian hegemony which encouraged his subjects, American and European rebels who rejected God and welcomed inquiry.

Watson's investigation roams as widely as one expects for an historian tracking modernity's slow march away from credulity and comfort found in the ethereal or emotional, to where more and more of us wind up today, in the post-modern predicament of a worldview where neither cold science nor warm faith eases the loss of grand meaning or ultimate purpose which many contemporaries lament. 
He addresses, as an early example of his wide-ranging bent, Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart's assertion that charts richer nations' secularization offset by declining birthrates, whereas poorer nations' perpetuation of belief-based systems as a solace for suffering and privation leads to a more populated humanity with "existential insecurity" which overall is becoming more, not less, religious.

Secular proponents, therefore, must contend with sociological explanations for belief, as well as psychological ones. Atheism, Watson finds, may be in the ascendent among the cohort he supports, but a growing sense among developed nations and educated societies of pervasive personal and social disenchantment reveals that consumerism cannot assuage the longing for meaning deep within us. William James agreed that religion emanated from what Watson phrases as "born of a core uneasiness within us" and that for many, faith was seen as the solution. Replacing that with the inspiration of music, the escapism of art, the thrill of scientific discovery, the plunge into sex or drugs, drove many in these chapters to attempt to fill up their empty souls with a spirit energized by bold possibilities.

The usefulness of religion, for James, might be succeeded by the vocabulary of reason; others who followed his suggestions looked to fields as different as dance or fashion to apply more daring experiments. Stories we tell ourselves, as Watson portrays Richard Rorty's model, move beyond the transcendental to the empirical and experiential narratives and scenarios which ground themselves in the body. Watson presents the Swiss art colony at Anscona, the critical faculties generating doubt as explored by Stefan George, and the Symbolist poetry of the early century as settings within which ecstasy might sustain itself, as generated within a movement breaking down distinctions between individuals and between concepts so as to release a mystical jolt, or a disorienting confrontation. These encounters, which would engender the cult of the body and the New Age or therapeutic trends which would return with the "religion of no religion" at Big Sur's Esalen in the 1960s, carry a charge that Watson credits by way of many current approaches in which we treat and regard each other.

George Santayana mused: "There is no cure for birth and death save to enjoy the interval by discerning and manifesting the good without attempting to retain it." A common sentiment among those Watson favors, as resignation to mortality and the impossibility of knowing the secrets behind all of creation appears to gain pace as the century's wars and brutalities weaken rational explanations. Impotence to change human nature contends against discontents driven to improve the human condition. Freud represents the latter contingent: Watson credits him for the dominant shift in modern times, "which has seen a theological understanding of humankind replaced by a psychological one".

Watson observes intriguing indicators of this shift, across the creative spectrum. The cover illustration of Georges Seurat's "A Sunday Afternoon at the Island of La Grande Jatte" (1884-1886) depicts people not worshiping, but picnicking and promenading. One couple, dressed in black, appear to be looking on, "from the (moral?) higher ground" at the crowds "enjoying themselves in very secular ways, most with their backs turned". Additionally, this French painting continues a tradition of "public contemplation" as its many figures reveal serious play. This happens despite a breakdown on the canvas of perceived or imposed order into a teasing shimmer of reality manifesting itself more subtly. The satisfaction for the viewer emanates in impressions "as a web of tiny, distinct stillnesses".

Revolutions and conflicts darken chapters; from the Soviet triumph, "one propaganda poster posited 'prayers to the tractor' as alternative ways to produce change and improvement in the community". Watson emphasizes the substitution of idolatry and worship within totalitarian societies and parties. He also notes that religion was not eradicated in many regions of the U.S.S.R. except by elimination of believers during Stalin's purges. An underlying message persists: belief will be a fallback for humans caught in difficulties, and faith may be wired into human nature despite rational powers.

Rilke sought in the foreknowledge of death that which appears to distinguish humans from other mammals: a direction to guide searchers towards a sense that mortality "drives the plot of life". He recognized that consciousness itself, as Watson puts it, may be "a crime against nature". Why evolution may have embedded within humans the powers of song, the aleatory, musical ability, or a sense of beauty, as well as a tendency in many to interpret phenomenon as supernatural, sparks some of the liveliest later chapters. Suffice to say that many arguments arise, and as many suggestions.

Virginia Woolf's often-quoted observation that around "December 1910" a change happened, so that "reality was no longer public", accompanies modernist plunge into the interior response rather than the recording of the focused, outward observation. The loss of confidence in a shared vision and the gain in conviction that a personal reaction conveyed the spiritual experience that whirled within the intimate sphere and not in the emptying cathedral propels the writers and creators Watson introduces. Oscar Wilde sums up the leap forward: "It is enough that our fathers believed. They have exhausted the faith faculty of the species. Their legacy to us is the skepticism of which they were afraid." Kafka throws up "the sediment left by the great monotheisms: that the mind of God can never be known, we shall never solve the mystery of God because God is the name we give to the mystery itself". (Watson astutely footnotes, if half the book away, an apposite aside that St. Augustine had a similar opinion.)

Through Chabad and Beckett, Salman Rushdie and The Doors, Philip Roth and Theodore Roszak, Boris Yeltsin and Timothy Leary, as the second half of the century progresses, Watson explores the impacts after the purported death of God within academia, theological disputes, and popular culture. He delves into less-familiar texts such as the forgotten bestseller Joshua Liebman's "Peace of Mind" (1946) to prove how the post-WWII merger of religion with psychology enticed clergy into roles as counselors, and how this promoted the therapeutic rather than theological cure across America. Such a range of references and examples accounts for much of the bulk of this book, but its contribution towards an accessible account from which a patient, intelligent, and reflective reader will benefit greatly cannot be diminished. Predictably, those immersed in a particular school of thought may cavil at the generalizations and judgments Wilson must convey by such compression given three-dozen chapters. However, the documentation he provides and the stimulation he generates merit respect.

Countercultural chronicler Roszak, to whom Watson gives welcome and lengthy attention, repeated José Ortega y Gasset's reminder: "Life cannot wait until the sciences have explained the universe scientifically. We cannot put off living until we are ready." An urgency boosts these late-century sections. Their pace quickens as Watson weighs dozens of competing or compatible attempts to forge a third way, apart from the calculated certainties of a stolid scientific method or the fervent claims of a fundamentalist religious precept. Roszak, following Roth and Beckett for Watson in mapping a humanist response looking hard at death if perhaps a bit more softly at mortality, laments the "boundless proliferation of knowledge for its own sake" and the exclusion of many seekers who cannot enter this closed system, and who find themselves alienated as democratic culture weakens.

Watson encourages in his closing chapters those who strive to build meaningful structures by which ecological imperatives and economic equality might co-exist. He rejects those who by faith in a better life to come justify the rape of the earth and the pain of its inhabitants. He accepts that science may not provide comfort for those who, however irrationally, search for truth and beauty beyond what can be calculated or purchased. Mark Kingswell's philosophical rejoinder to a capitalist culture "based on envy, and advertising, the main capitalist means of 'selling' consumerism, works by 'creating unhappiness'". Happiness, if God is removed from the window through which we view Watson's earlier model of the zoo vs. the monastery, may emanate from a rejection of what for many people in Western society supplants or supplements fading religious belief: the "pathography" (he credits Joyce Carol Oates for this coinage) of the dysfunctional, confessional, survivor-strutting meta-narrative that has drowned out the traditional monotheistic, and arguably I may add, modernist world-views today.

Ronald Dworkin may speak for many of his colleagues in the seminar or clinic: "Philosophers used to speculate about what they called the meaning of life. (That is now the job of mystics and comedians)." Thomas Mann cautioned that the concept of "one overbearing truth" has been exhausted. Jürgen Habermas directs us to look not above for answers but to listen to each other, for communication may produce critical meaning, and within an informed public sphere, guidance can be generated. Watson finds truth in pragmatism. "We make our lives tiny diamonds in the cosmic sands."

Few will choose this enriching and rewarding removal from reality TV and manufactured distraction, along the course mapped in these heady pages, to a sobering path of self-awareness of our fragile presence surrounded by darkness and mystery. Fewer choose Kafka over Chopra, and fewer may finish this book than the latest novel by even Oates herself. But those who persevere will glimpse in Watson's closing chapters spirited and moving testimony by wise professors and writers exchanging their versions of what Sartre phrased as "lyrical phenomenology": what Watson calls "the sheer multiplicity of experience as the joy of being alive". This quest for meaning may endure, parallel to or divergent from science. This search embraces a persistent appreciation that beyond facts hovers that which may forever suspend itself apart from our perception, no longer named God, still ineffable.  (Edited in RePrint at PopMatters 3-28-14 as "'The Age of Atheists' Considers That Beyond Reason or Science, Our Quest for Meaning Endures" and a second time to Amazon US 2-19-14)

Friday, April 11, 2014

Jeremy Carrette + Richard King's "Selling Spirituality": Book Review

A scholar of Foucault and another of Orientalism combine to expose how deeply the market ideology of the 1980s and 1990s has infiltrated secular and economic contexts. They argue in this clearly conveyed 2004 book a necessary thesis. This "silent takeover of religion," as British critics Jeremy Carrette and Richard King demonstrate, reveals how business repackages religion, cynically or cleverly supporting the selfish motives which underlie unregulated capitalism.

But this corporate capitalist version does not need to dominate the treatment of spirituality. Anti-capitalist or revolutionary, business ethics or reformist, individualist or consumerist, as well as capitalist spirituality, defines this typological range. The nebulous term "spirituality" expresses the privatization of religion by modern secular societies. The commodification by corporate capitalism of what was religion strips that "ailing competitor" of its assets, in a hostile takeover, while rebranding its "aura of authenticity" to convey the "goodwill" of the company, which sells off the religious models of its trappings and teachings at the marketplace. (15-21) God is dead; long live God as Capital.

They cite a 2002 interview with the late Tony Benn to telling effect: 
"Religions have an extraordinary capacity to develop into control mechanisms . . . If I look at the world today it seems to me that the most powerful religion of all-- much more powerful than Christianity, Judaism, Islam and so on-- is the people who worship money. That is really [the] most powerful religion. And the banks are bigger than the cathedrals, the headquarters of the multinational companies are bigger than the mosques or the synagogues. Every hour on the hour we have business news-- every hour-- it's a sort of hymn to capitalism." (23, qtd, from An Audience With Tony Benn audiobook) 

The "religious quality of contemporary capitalism," the authors remind us, now lacks restraints of earlier societies. The market as God, as Harvey Cox herein acknowledges, rules, and seeks monopoly. Killing Joke's song, after Thatcher's fall, looped in my mind as I read: "Money Is Not Our God": "Will you swap your hi-fi for a clear blue sky? Will you cash in all your shares for God's clean air?"

As the authors explain: "The 'spiritual' becomes instrumental to the market rather than oriented towards a wider social and ethical framework, and its primary function becomes the consumerist status quo rather than a critical reflection upon it." Spirituality gets harnessed to "productivity, work-efficiency and the accumulation of profit put forward as the new goals" to supplant "the more traditional emphasis upon self-sacrifice, the disciplining of desire and a recognition of community."

Over fewer than two-hundred pages, Carrette and King elaborate in four chapters the impacts of this takeover. Chapter one surveys spirituality, as it separates from religious contexts and adapts itself to individualism under liberal democracies and then corporations. Chapter two attacks the role played by psychology in "creating a privatised and individualised conception of reality" to align itself with social control and social isolation. (26) Psychology, produced by capitalist intervention, fools people into spirituality as "an apparent cure for the isolation created by a materialistic, competitive and individualised social system." (27) This chapter castigates James, Maslow and Jung for their compliance to cultural, political, and economic norms which fail to liberate those in pain. The sustained and potent argument advanced here indicts New Age practices linked to therapeutic cures. Carrette and King critique this as a trap for sufferers lured in to a desire for elusive remedies. Having been sold escapes from oppression, these intensify rather than ease isolation. Freedom is out of reach.

The link between New Age and esoteric teachings sold to the West and Asian traditions elaborates into chapter three. Hindu, Buddhist, and Taoist versions get sampled. The dissonance between systems advising renunciation and capitalism promoting accumulation provides logical case studies. Some of this coverage examines the careers of Osho/ Bhagwan Rajneesh, Deepak Chopra, and the "Barefoot Doctor" Stephen Russell. Carrette and King suggest the Socially Engaged Buddhism and related movements as alternatives, as well as a study of the teachings of Vimalakirti as correctives (if slight taken in their original contexts where neither "social revolution" nor "mass mobilisation" were realistic possibilities) to the prevalent materialism of the times and places generating those teachings.

The fourth chapter circles back to the opening critique. The authors find a vivid analogy to sharpen or sweeten their analysis of how "rejection of the discourse of professional 'excellence' among employees is often presented by managers as 'resistance to accountability'. What such resistance often represents is not a rejection of accountability as such but rather a rejection of a narrow logic of accountancy with regard to such processes." (137) Similarly, they show how difficult it is amid the cult of devotion instilled in the market-driven workplace to resist "spirituality" or "excellence" as a catch-phrase repeated mantra-like by those who act as missionaries bent on preaching a bottom line.

When spirituality gets used such, it "ends up acting like a food colouring or additive that masks the less savoury ingredients in the product that is being sold to us," they demonstrate convincingly. This content throughout this short treatise remains accessible, as the authors admirably seek "to raise a series of questions in a narrative style that is more open-ended and provocative than traditional academic discourse allows," hearkening to the French "essai" to address "wider political concerns and constituencies than are usually appealed to in scholarly works." (ix-x) The Feast of Knowledge?

This remains to my knowledge a under-investigated area of sociological or cultural criticism, at least in passionate, spirited examples aimed at the masses. Given Occupy a decade after this has appeared, two years after that, Matthew Fox and Adam Bucko's Occupy Spirituality and Nathan Schneider's Thank You, Anarchy (see my reviews here and here) covered congenial themes. LGBT activist and Jewish-Buddhist journalist Jay Michaelson's Evolving Dharma, by comparison, overlapped with Fox and Bucko by praising Lama Surya Das, although Michaelson aims his take on Buddhist Geeks-friendly meditation as "brainhacking" liberating a savvier, hip audience. It's the first book (preceding CT/ST naturally, if by a few months) I found that nodded to the project Speculative Non-Buddhism.

In fairness to Michaelson, while he will not win over any non-buddhists, he mingles caution into his treatment, seasoned by his experiences as one albeit from a privileged cadre, able to amble off to Nepal for months of silent retreats. This implicates him as part of the problem he seeks to solve, to adopt Carrette and King's diagnosis. Michaelson will never assuage those sworn to annihilate x-buddhism, but I mention these mass-market books as complements to the popular front (my terms) which underlies Carrette and King's campaign against capitalist spirituality. I raised related issues (at #2, 6, 11, 21) in response to Glenn Wallis' "A Spectre Is Haunting Buddhism or Give Marx Some Credit" about anarchism and the countercultural roots of certain x-buddhisms. To complete my run-through of responses to inequality and spirituality, I'll draw upon what I read immediately before Selling Spirituality: George Packer's The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, which documented the cause of neo-liberal market ideology and its everyday effects, since Reagan's rise.

In a chapter set at Occupy Wall Street in Fall 2011, Packer filters his narrative through reactions from representative activists. New Yorker Nelini Stamp, from the Working Families Party, sticks it out, but she wonders about OWS efficacy, as disruptions intensify assemblies and thwart their progress.

"Occupy was dominated by the kind of people who ran the Canadian magazine that had gotten the whole thing started. Adbusters--very educated postmodern anarchists. Nelini was self-conscious about never having finished high school--they'd read so many books she'd never heard of--and they also made her feel sometimes that she wasn't radical enough. She was an organizer, and she worried that Occupy was becoming too narrow, and she wanted to figure out how to turn it into a durable movement that could work on achieving practical goals, like getting people to close their accounts at the big banks and moving the homeless into foreclosed houses. She thought at some point Occupy would need to come up with demands. She was even beginning to think it might be better to move on from Zuccotti Park." (375)



How may this intersect with the non-buddhist project?  While many of its proponents marshal difficult language to shake hearers out of their expectations, to undermine trust in timeworn verities, and to force new reactions that shatter complacency, Occupy's predicament demonstrates the limits of "very educated postmodern anarchism" as perceived by Stamp. Now organizing the left in Florida, she writes: "We were trained to talk to all types of people and got a well-rounded perspective on our issues and how to present them in the most effective ways," since "I couldn't afford to go to college."

I note as an aside that Packer (who does not enter this 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning chronicle directly) in the 1980s organized for the Democratic Socialists of America. As I co-founded a chapter of this organization back in my own college stint during Reagan's first term, I presume that Packer's no stranger to registers of rhetoric employed by the Direct Democracy Working Group or those provocateurs or promoters at OWS. Nelini Stamp's testimony reminds us of those on the margins, those who may feel overwhelmed by those who shout down the participants, who listen but who may fidget. They may shrink from engagement, as barriers to learning and communicating in the manner of the elite loom so high. Stamp reminds us, from her canvassing: "The left has broken down into separate interest groups. We have to find ways that we can work across them, ways we can unite."

Matthias Steingass reminds us of the imperative we face, speaking of unity beyond slogans or cant. Red Dust comments, responding to him: "People who are ready and open to your message will get it. My only advice would be keep it simple and talk to people at their level of understanding and don’t take joy in pointing out people’s faulty views. Most folk are like me, not that well educated and get anxious trying to talk to well educated people. The really hard nuts to crack are the well educated."

There's no room for navel-gazing or seminar slouching when "the planetary capitalist hegemony," as Steingass phrases the threat (Carrette and King will label its reification as the Borg) looms. He cites Craig Hickman's "Global Resistance and the Collapse of Civilization: Berardi, Deleuze, and others" and I add a book I'm studying now by anarchist anthropologist David Graeber, Debt: the First 5,000 Years; this exposé may have energized the subsequent OWS movement itself the year it appeared. (When I raised what I contemplated as connections between homelessness, Occupy, and bhikkhus, I found at a sitting that most preferred to keep that dharma-talk focused on the existential self.) Participating in Occupy L.A. in fall 2011, I "meditated" on disparities between those agitators who trafficked in theory and those who attempted praxis--as well as how barter or a cash nexus reified into a novel market, where neither milk nor cereal could be exchanged, but plenty of 40 ouncers and pot. 

I'm reminded of the Marxist pamphlets I saw, scattered underfoot and presumably discarded, when I hauled books to the makeshift library at Occupy L.A. Whether or not those encamped dithered over dialectics spurred me to review Jonathan Sperber's 2012 Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life. After all, Stamp asked for practical applications rather than theoretical discussions, to fight the powers that be. This revisionist study shifts Marx into a backward (to 1789) looking idealist more than an "intransigent revolutionary" idolized posthumously by Engels. Sperber scrutinizes MEGA archives opened after the Cold War. He observes how Marx's concept of an Hegelian proletariat emerges more as Marx's invention to advance the dialectic materialism he concocted rather than a milieu within which he moved at ease. He made enemies, to whom he attributed many of his own discarded ideas. He crammed his journalism so full of erudition that the laborers it meant to direct found it too heady to figure out. As to alienation, his letters display a dominance by ideology, via score-settling.

Here, a connection can be forged with Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion. Packer, by highlighting Stamp's frustration, articulates the need for moral action, and the dangers of bickering or solipsism. Considering this, I drafted this well before catching up with the comments on Patrick Jennings' "Where We Are. Where We Might Go" so it may run at cross purposes rather than merge with psychology not to mention neurobiology; my own orientation centers on literary and cultural critique. (In my defense, I note that while my favorite book is Ulysses, I prefer over the effluvia of the Wake the astringency of Beckett. After all, he chose the sparer vocabulary of French to hone in on.)

In my local if attenuated, unaffiliated sitting group which discusses Buddhist concepts, the day after I finished both Packer's and Carrette and King's books, we shared a section from David Kalupahana's A History of Buddhist Philosophy commenting on the Kaccāyanagotta Sutta. In summing up the Middle Way, he opines: "Thus the difficulty in perceiving and understanding dependence is due not to any mystery regarding the principle itself but to people's love of mystery. The search for mystery, the hidden something (kiñci) is looked upon as a major cause of anxiety and frustration (dukkha)." (59)

I reckon this resists reduction to a Principle of Sufficient Buddhism. This feels our primal plight, our existential yearning, hard-wired despite our denials, as inherent pattern recognition tangled into clan cohesion and personal solace, as scientific writer (non-believer) Nicholas Wade charts as The Faith Instinct. We inherit it: Beckett stared this down, dismissing liberation while exposing our endgames.  Yet, he risked his life to resist hate. When evil arrived, he fought it, until another liberation arrived.

Is religion another evil? Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell for me reiterated the conclusions of Sam Harris' The End of Faith. Harris urged idealistically that if only all parents told their children only the truth, the future could be secured for rationalists. Dennett too places his trust in the secular. That's about it for big answers. These are so simple, yet so elusive: do not many true believers of gods or God or no gods think exactly that? That we no matter what we preach have a handle on the truth, and that we mean best for our progeny as we raise them in the light of our own understanding; all the while, however, unable to step out of our own limited perspective of the universal and the eternal?

While diligent deniers of the transcendental still search for meaning beyond our own ken, as Peter Watson's new The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God confirms, many of us still indulge this persistent itch to scratch, to reflect upon our mysterious kiñci and ponder if it's accidental or intentional. Watson considers the shortcomings of science and religion in soothing our troubled minds. Carrette and King, revolting against the legacy of Thatcher two decades earlier, sustain in their book a like-minded entry into "new configurations of resistance -- in terms that are not blinded by the modernist separation of the religious from the secular." (180) Perhaps this may nudge a few into the wedge where a secular-religious divide since the Enlightenment has widened. This figure may, after capital's global triumph, sharpen and alter itself into an edgier shape.

The authors encourage a Marxian critique, to "go beyond" Marx. They diagnose the damage done by many opiates, peddled by psychiatrists as well as priests. While unfortunately they do not detail a Marxian alternative in what remains a brief survey, they seek to "reclaim the ground of social justice" from fundamentalists (faith-based or free-market), and to seize the debate. Patrick Jennings has provided much on The Non-Buddhist for this reclamation, introducing a human Marx. Carrette and King similarly (but see my endnote citing Ann Gleig's recent riposte at SNB) suspect any nostalgic claim to revert to religious tradition; they remind us that religions in turn have "also moulded our civilisations, our sense of ethics and community and our concern for social justice." (181) As they scan a de-sacralized atmosphere from Northern Europe, they demur from commitment to "a similarly materialistic and economically oriented heresy." If they urge--if as an aside--going beyond Marx, we're left to wonder how their final suggestion of "spiritual atheisms" might spark our future. (182)

This raises the prospects of where secular-minded activists may ally with similarly minded believers. Of course, the separation of church and state, so to speak, endures, but if we contemplate how in our daily lives and work, odds remain some of us mingle and may live with those who do believe, in religious or "spiritual" senses as well as relentlessly rational manifestations. Carrette and King, from their residences in Canterbury and Paris respectively, may relegate to the venerable facades of Christian Europe in these cities the endurance of any medieval sensibility, but even in Western Europe, if my own extended network stands as verification, believers endure alongside us skeptics.

Do, then, those who promulgate a rejection of traditional religious or modern spiritual affirmations deny those who practice them or pledge fealty to forces at which "postmodern anarchists" scoff? How far, if one pursues a rigorously non-theistic or non-spiritual response to faith, does the denier go to cut him or herself off from the rest of the community? As Stamp reflected at OWS, class divisions deepened by the "very educated" may discourage those who seek less lofty and more direct actions.

As professors, Carrette and King offer no remedy to the plight of those who, like Stamp and another man (once a techie, now homeless, he leaves Seattle with a duffel bag to sleep at OWS; after police crack down, he wonders where to go next), may sympathize with secular and radical movements, but who may lack the wherewithal in terms of academic preparation or financial resources to sign on as fellow travelers. As with many such tracts, Selling Spirituality sketches out a faint path to pursue. In closing, it vaguely advises Michel Foucault's strategy to resist: "move strategically and then wait for the next assertion of power," given resistance may be futile to a corporate, shape-shifting Borg. (172)

They advocate anti-capitalist, social justice, and compassion-based movements. They also realize most people who may need such movements to lessen their burdens are not secularized. Therefore, they advise strategic alliances by progressives with principled religious organizations as practical methods of opposition to capitalist spirituality. While they remain committed to study religious and spiritual impacts, and never advocate belief, the authors, rejecting retreat into texts, understand the limits of a lasting, convincing appeal based on only a secular disenchantment of the spirit. Instead, they seek to align radical factions to the faithful majority, who still believe, but who may be open to engagement, in solidarity against what Noam Chomsky calls "the control of the public mind."

(Amazon US 3-24-14, in far shorter and non-non-buddhist form. I learned of this book on a SNB thread "Why Buddhism?" via Ann Gleig: "Historically, I would argue anatta has shown little or no signs of manifesting a politically robust subjectivity reflexive of its own ideological constituents. By the way, Carrette and King made the same argument in Selling Spirituality in 2005 but with an explicit concern of having a stake in protecting traditional Buddhism". After my reading of it, I conclude that the authors wish to advance a engaged, ethical, and subversive Buddhism as committed to radicalism aligned with anti-capitalist global movements; how "traditional" this leaves that system is open to debate. As non-buddhists discuss, such "buddhemes" as traditions may be moot by now.)

[As above to The Non-Buddhist 3-27-14 as 'Money Is Not Our God': Selling Spirituality"' Occupy L.A. photo by Arkasha Richardson at the Bank of America standoff downtown, 11-17-11. Use the Occupy L.A. keyword to search this blog for my own reflections from autumn 2011, and afterwards.] Thanks to Patrick Jennings and Ann Gleig for the incisive comments in response to this at TNB.]

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Joanne Miller's "Buddhist Meditation and the Internet": Book Review

If you enter Second Life with an avatar for meditation in its Buddhist hall, are you meditating at home, too? Can you gain the authenticity of millennia of dharma transmission in Zen if you join Amazenji's online zendo? How can anyone charged with teaching meditation or verifying its success for a student figure this out if separated in time and space from the traditional face-to-face reliance?

Such questions occurred to Joanne Miller, a sociologist (I suspect she's Australian) and a practitioner. Her research, integrated smoothly (footnotes speckle the plain-spoken text, blessedly free of academic jargon), confirms her suspicion. However, she then takes us into an examination, graded from casual to more intense sites, of how the Net has evolved, or not evolved, to handle the demands some expect cyberspace to solve regarding online Buddhist community and the formation of what duplicates or expands what happens in more intimate settings of a zendo or meditation group. The book does tend to focus on Zen--which aligns with Dr. Miller's orientation, it seems--and I wondered how Tibetan or vipassana approaches might compare or especially contrast. That aside, this book succeeds in demonstrating the difficulty of transferring a physical experience.

Unlike other religions, the text or the ritual is not the stress for dharma; it's the embodied presence of the meditator and actor. Understandably, the former category gains more attention than the latter. However, Dr. Miller correctly notes how Western Buddhism pushes meditation as the be-all of Buddhism in some insistent corners, to the detriment of ethical activity, study, and application of what is inculcated on the cushion.

The "main performative action" of sitting, she relates, cannot be reproduced technologically. What a screen may generate as a visualization is not from within the mind, and similarly, what is presented via mediation cannot substitute for what may be produced and shared in intangible but present ways between those in a real-time sit or dokusan. Also, the authority of those in a dokusan cannot be backed up with an online teacher, and many such, she reckons, deny the need for such approval before setting themselves up online or in the world as instructors.

Lots of points raise reflection. Doubt can grow when one's precepts are exposed online, she tells us as an aside. Individualization accelerated by the curious seeker online may increase confusion. One is networked, true, but also adrift and dependent on guides who may not be able to provide the direction of personal ones in one's own life, one-on-one in person. This menju, this one-to-one interaction, Dr. Miller repeats, cannot suffice online. Words, dependent for our transmitting what is going on online (this may change if we can plug in more directly one day...), are also insufficient to give each other the dharma-value that menju does.

Yet, out of this same experimental situation, Buddhism may arguably evolve and test itself in an entirely new venue. Gregory Grieve is quoted as suggesting "a real and authentic 'virtual embodiment' can equate with offline embodiment." He defines this as "a sustained, immersed bodily performance in a virtual space constrained by physical norms." We'll see!

Erika Borsos has preceded me [on Amazon US where this appeared 10-23-12--I too was provided with a review copy] with a fine summation of Dr. Miller's argument. I added to her precis my own reflections. I recommend this study. In my own college course in Comparative Religions, and Technology, Culture and Society, I anticipate passing along insights gleaned within this valuable work. May research and progress continue in this field, as scholars and practitioners both will learn from Dr. Miller's survey-to-date of the past decade or so.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Bruce Wagner's "The Empty Chair": Book Review

These paired novellas explore a triple significance of this titular piece of furniture. They convey, in casual, yet learned while often blunt language, the lessons learned by those who grapple with sudden departures by loved ones. Their despair, mingling with a typically Westernized, upscale variety of spiritual quest, flows through these two monologues from Americans now in their fifties, told to what we assume is a fictionalized Bruce Wagner, who claims to have "redacted" them in "the summer of 2013".

Known for scabrous satire about Hollywood's addled or addicted insiders, Mr Wagner's here explores what may be a natural if less-known milieu for him and his affluent, privileged, and erudite storytellers. His fictional narrators look to "diet Buddhism" and New Age teachings for guidance; the author himself has been a devotee of Carlos Castaneda. Therefore, he knows this type of set and setting well.

Told by a "First Guru", the unnamed narrator of the first entry over a hundred pages relates his identity as a gay man. Molested by priests in his teens, married to Kelly, who does not discriminate between men and women in her own romantic liaisons, he lives now, in a furnished van shelved with his favorite books, in Big Sur. At the time of this story's telling, in 2010, he parks himself at a Catholic hermitage. At nearby Esalen, he meets "Bruce" in a hot tub. There, he commences what will be a back-story including Ryder, the son he and Kelly created.

A self-described "motor-mouth", the narrator worships the Beats and Thomas Merton, as well as medieval mystics Julian of Norwich and Hildegard of Bingen. He shares their search, while divesting himself of Catholicism to pursue Buddhism, along with Kelly. Yet, she surpasses her husband on the road to find, in her borrowed phrase, that "impermanence rocks". For, she markets the dharma to Marin County schoolchildren by her trademarked campaign to rouse "Armies of Awareness".

Mr. Wagner as expected sends up this sort of ambition. Kelly lands a $20,000 advance from Chronicle Books "for a memoir about being a menopausal, bisexual, Berkeley-bodhisattva". The glib catch-phrases she peddles will haunt her; loss forces the couple to confront their own heartache.

"To save herself from the unbearable anguish of the present--present imperfect tense--present impermanent--Kelly had to take up residence in the future--future perfect permanent. The present, once venerated while she was an ecstatic, card-carrying member of the All-We-Have-Is-This-This-Moment! cult, had been stuffed in the recycle bin along with its jealous, immutable, implacable shadow, the past."

The narrator longs for a "teachable moment of" one's "own death: the lesson of impermanence". This may arrive, but may not come until one's last breath. This story segues, after a second introduction by Mr. Wagner, into one told to "Bruce" five years earlier, in the New Mexico desert. There, a similarly affluent and formidably confident narrator, who nicknames herself as Queenie, lives also a nomadic if even more coddled existence. She travels about "in an imposing black bus with a full staff". Sporting kohl-lined eyes, she dons gypsy dresses, "half-Zaha Hadid, half-Stevie Nicks".

Her story stretches back to 1968, when she was sixteen. She, who seems more to boast than regret having "three kinds of VD" by the age of thirteen, grows from "wild child" to "Earth Mother" as a countercultural Eloise, rootless from normal residence, brought up allowed to roam her domain. However, as with "First Guru" as designated by the one who takes down on tape their stories to transcribe, "Second Guru" cannot escape the reminders of transience despite her own charmed life.

"Think of yourself as a spelunker--join me in my nightmare, won't you?" So she invites "Bruce" in, early on, and what follows in an extended cave-diving metaphor takes up five pages. This type of expansion, characterizing both garrulous tellers, may weary those less enchanted. As Mr. Wagner warns at the start: "The 'authors' here are vessels, not virtuosos." That is, they do yammer on and on.

Such verisimilitude--even as the transcriber assures us he has edited and streamlined their revelations--can drag down the pace of both novellas, even if it convinces us that "real" people told them. This type of craft, subtle in its insistence that these stories truly happened, displays the "real" Bruce Wagner's skill in a naggingly truthful manner, masking itself as what we find around us footnoted for our consumption as increasingly "inspired by true events" or "based on a real story".

Queenie possesses awareness of her own "inspired pastiche"; portions of this as tellers fold into each other layer four times over. No wonder she compares herself, on "silly tangents", to Scheherazade. 

One difficulty for believing these stories as genuine emerges in the similar tone of both novellas, and the manner in which long-ago monologues gain precise re-creation by considerably retentive hearers. Ryder's father admits of the aftermath of the discovery he and Kelly must deal with: "O we had mourning sickness (mourning with a 'u') for sure!" Despite the "fact" that narratives by Queenie, Kura (an African-born Francophile), an Indian "Great Guru", his wife, and the Guru's successor, "The American" all elaborate the second installment, these five international and multilingual tellers do manage to sound not much different (despite what we are told is the wife's "comically fractured syntax") in diction or content. For instance, Kura laments of the wife: "O, she cast her meretricious net far and wide, tarnishing all the fishies in the sea!" These tellers regale themselves with like wit.

Mr. Wagner may be indulging in his own reminder of truth-telling and fact-checking, as he too inserts himself into the two sections as listener and editor. However, both tales do, by revealing their protagonists' dogged efforts to break free of surety, manage to sustain interest, for those possessing a compatible interest in spiritual journeys told by affable, if coddled, guides who have been there and done that. Summoned thirty years after their first meeting to reunite with Kura, Queenie's hesitation proves recognizable to any reader. She sums up herself in 1997: "A depressed, childless, perimenopausal woman, unlucky in love, with a shelf life of self-esteem long past its expiration date, I presumed I would throw off a medley of scents: potpourri of moribund pheromones, burnt adrenals and brokenheartedness."

Near the end, the significance of the title Mr. Wagner offers deepens. He began by referring to the gestalt practice where his therapist set up an empty chair for the analysand to talk to, as that space allowed a place for the patient to make more concrete his absent focus, the invisible person from the past whom he or she wanted to confront or appease. Queenie reports, in one layered conversation, how her long-sought holy man asserts "it is only the second guru that allows you to make sense of the first". Another analogy then blends the two stories, and the two gurus, in patterns that reverberate.

Mr. Wagner wisely structures the two stories to draw out the maximum potential of his metaphors. While their pace may slow, for better or worse to make it appear as if we too are listening to hours of one confessing or chortling over past triumphs and present humblings, The Empty Chair succeeds in presenting the often-caricatured or sometimes smug searches undertaken by those able to afford such quests and it convinces the patient reader that revelation may lie within the reach of the lonely pilgrim, in the pages of the devotional text, or in the conversations of the fictional characters he tells us are real. (12-26-13 to New York Journal of Books)