There is No Alternative, or Paul Shepard for the Twenty-First Century

If you would like some music with this post,  I recommend Isakov’s 3 a.m., from which comes the following lyrics:

give me darkness when i’m dreaming, give me moonlight when i’m leaving
give me mustang horse and muscle, cuz i wont be goin gentle
give me slant-eye looks when i’m lying, give me fingers when i’m crying
and i aint out there to cheat you, see i killed that damn coyote in me…

.

One of the first papers I wrote for the professor of Kantian philosophy for whom I would eventually try to write a doctoral dissertation involved an attempt to give “the given” a place in Kant’s idealism. He discouraged me from pursuing this. For Kant the given is always already “the raw sensible manifold of intuitions,” always already in the framework of human perception. Ontology can only be epistemology. That’s all there is to it.

I wish I had found Paul Shepard‘s books then. Maybe I would have gone on to question Kant on this matter or to drop him as a subject of study altogether, instead of plodding on for years of growing discouragement and self-doubt eventually to let it chase me out of academics. But I doubt it. This road along which I found Shepard has been long and hard-won. And even if I had had the maturity to recognize what he was talking about back then, I doubt I would have accepted the consequence, that I would have had to ditch the entire paradigm in which I was studying and staying in this country. I would have had to take a stand, instead of studying others’ stands like a good student of the history of philosophy.

But, though I am increasingly of a mind that Always-Already is really Too-Late, in this case it was not too late to come to Shepard’s iconoclasm, to get a second chance at turning the tables and having a turn at dancing on the board.

***

The given is for Shepard the antidote to the cult of relativism – “the incipient abandonment of positions” – that has thrown a pall over science, education, history, and art alike and landed us in this mess. We view ourselves as a special case: biological evolution has ended for/with us and “cultural evolution” is now calling the shots. Therefore, man is free to make a world according to his desires. He need not be troubled by the long past, his animal self, or any rules that seem given rather than made. Man makes himself, and nothing is given that cannot be remade to his liking. 

If nothing of consequence is given, or prior, then there is no absolute. Without such a foundation, all ways of life, all views, all manner of using nature are legitimate in a democratic society. Hence, writes Shepard, the incapacity of the modern mind to find permanent environmental attachments, the alienation, the destruction.

It is clear what we have to do. We have to accept that

the wild, taken to mean the whole community of species, is the prior question. In fact, it is not a question at all. For there is no alternative to living with wild things… In some part of our skulls there is a wilderness. We call it the unconscious because we cannot cultivate it the way we do a field of grain or a field of thought. In it forces as enduring as climate and bedrock maintain our uniqueness in spite of the works of progress. (Encounters with Nature, 168)

What is given – our ontogeny, to put it simply – is absolute, deterministic. No relativism or Kantian idealism can touch it, not in the sense that it is elsewhere, on some other side of us (and therefore we can still be free of it), but, on the contrary, in the sense that it bears down on us, body and soul/mind, with millions of years of evolution, and weaves us into the shaggy web of all life.

Some say to be

Is to be perceived

I hope that means

that

Nothing is alone.

(poem 1 in 350 Poems)

But that’s like being flies in a nasty spider web, so we thrash about. For centuries we succeeded in rending the fabric that holds us. Our machinery, our efficiencies, our psychologies and ideologies have reduced it all to resources. Bumping up against limits, we idolize the ever faster change for its own sake (novelties, fashion, restructuring, “New features are coming!” ), progress for progress’ sake.  It can’t last long. Shepard, writing for the most part in the seventies, was innocent of the realization of climate change, but when he writes that “there is no alternative to living with wild things,” his words ring with an untimely echo.

We are at that time, an end-time either way you look at it.

***

Shepard knows full well what we’re up against: “This philosophical antinaturalism now conditions most of modern life–so diffused into the tissues of society as to become a mode of perception.”  Shepard’s most outspoken essay, “Ugly is Better” (1977, you can read the short essay here) is well worth a full and close reading.

The disease has burrowed so deeply that it affects our language and, even worse, our actions. Environmentalism, conservation, recycling, “Keep America Clean,” John Muir and the Audubon Society – all for naught. Worse yet, they have made things worse, “a worse disaster for the American environment than an oil spill.”

Anti-little campaigns and freeway plantings are Airwick and deodorant soap–sensory crutches protecting our own perceptions from unwelcome data… It looks at first like counterculture, and it may have been for some. Mostly it was the system taking over the old landscape aesthetic, one with which it could live, and making illusory options–like the modern soap company that in reality owns its own competition… recycling is the ecological slave in the front office. We seem determined to engage in the most frenetic charades and games to avoid reducing consumption and human numbers. (“Ugly is Better” Encounters with Nature, 177-9)

He wrote that in 1977. Look around you. I think it is fair to say he was right.

***

Then what can we do or think or say?

We cannot formulate a new relationship [with nature] out of air… We cannot achieve a fundamentally different worldview by an act of will alone–some individuals can, perhaps, but not societies.

For the present it is just as well. We have only begun to recognize [the problem].

This is not a cop-out. It is not the curiosity of the inventor and capability of the engineer that have been at fault–but rather the zeal to employ every technological innovation for change and newness as ends in themselves. Changing culture is open to the same mistake.

True, but we are almost forty years later now. That is nothing, from the viewpoint of ontogeny, but it may be everything from the viewpoint of our ontogeny. That is why people like Derrick Jensen and now also the mild David Holmgren are calling for an active overthrow of our culture. Those who are not ready to consider Holmgren’s “Crash on Demand” should read Shepard anno 1977.

***

Of late I have seen a lot of quarreling and downright nasty behavior toward one another among activists/environmentalists. People switch “camps,” carve out new camps, defend and attack (Dave Pollards “New Political Map” is a pretty good approximation) all the time, and that is all fine, but the  personal attacking makes me wonder.

So I was  happy to read Dave’s latest blog post, which directed me to Eric Lindberg’s essay “Agency on Demand”. Dave holds with Eric that

our agency is limited, and that our propensity for beating each other up for our different ideas and proposals for coping with emerging system crises and collapses, stems from an exaggerated sense of our own agency.

Eric urges in his conclusion “Let us be patient and tolerant with ourselves and each other.” That’s hard to do as we grow more and more alarmed about out future and our apparent inability not only to control it, but even to agree on what tactics and strategies are most appropriate to cope with what is coming.

So we thrash and with each kick and shove we are reminded that the dominant culture, the “cultural evolution” that is supposed to make us free, may be a tighter straitjacket than our ontogeny ever was.

Do I have any agency left to get out of that straitjacket? Can I change my culture, find a new language, find my way back into the landscape? Can I take a stand?

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