Days of War, Nights of Love/D
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D is for Death, and for Domestication
- "Because we don't know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. But everything happens only a certain number of times,and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that is so deeply a part of your being that you can't even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more, perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless."
- —Gloria Cubana, The Sheltering Sky
The Concealment Of Death
Here's an exercise to try at home. You will need a working stopwatch, or another timepiece that measures seconds. Before you begin, seat yourself in a comfortable chair and loosen your clothing.
Watch the second hand as it passes around the face of the clock. Picture the moment of your death, perhaps many decades in the future, or perhaps only a few years or months (who can know?). Wait for the second hand to reach the starting point at the top of the clockface, and then watch as it records the passing of one minute of your life. Now imagine the clock counting down the minutes of your life to the moment of your death. Try this exercise picturing this moment a few decades in the future, then repeat it picturing the moment next year. Repeat it picturing the moment of your death next month. Next week. Tonight. After all, you never know.
Now observe the minute and hour hands on the clock. What were you doing at this time twenty four hours ago? Forty eight hours ago? One month ago? What will you be doing at this time in a week?
Imagine that the moment of your death is one month away. Consider--if you knew that this was true, what would you be doing right now? What would you be doing at this time tomorrow? Repeat this step, imagining your death to be one year away. Does this make very much difference in your thoughts about what you would do today and tomorrow if you knew the date of your death?
Compare your activities over the last twenty four hours to the activities you would have chosen if you had known that you would leave this world in one month or one year. Compare your activities over the last month, the last year, the last decade to those you would have chosen if you had known that on this day you would have only thirty days or twelve months left to live. How different would your life have been if you had known the date of your approaching death? Would you be ready to die in a month or a year, having lived the life that you have?
Chances are, at least as far as we all know, that most of the people who read this text and participate in this exercise will live for many more years or even decades afterwards. But still, look at the second hand of the stopwatch, and follow it as it records the passing minutes, counting down the minutes of your life that remain to you as they slip away. Are you living the life that you want to live? Are you living a life that, at any given moment, you could look back upon with satisfaction if you suddenly realized that it was about to end? Are you living the sort of life that you would wish upon a human being, a life that is exciting and full, a life that is well spent, every minute of it? If the answer is no, what can you do in the time that still remains to you--however long or short that may be--to make your life more like the life you would like to live? For we all do have only a limited amount of time granted to us in this world--and so we should use it with this in mind.
If you find, looking back upon your life, that you have spent years living without any consideration of your mortality, this is really not unusual. For our social/cultural environment does not encourage us to think much about the limits that nature places on our lives. Death and aging are denied and hidden away as if they were shameful and embarrassing. The older members of our society are hidden away in "retirement homes" like lepers in leper colonies. The billboards, magazine photos, and television commercials that meet our eyes at every turn show only images of healthy men and women in the prime of their life. Cemeteries, which once memorialized the dead and preserved a place for them in the thoughts of the living, are now forgotten in abandoned neighborhoods and overgrown with weeds. When a man dies, the rituals which once would have celebrated his life and brought the subject of human mortality to the thoughts of those who survived him are now often regarded as mere inconveniences. Death is impolite and embarrassing, it is considered bad etiquette, for there is no place for it in today's busy world of corporate mergers and record-breaking conspicuous consumption. Our busy schedules and glossy magazines neither make allowance for it nor offer any explanation of how it might be relevant to our value system or our lives.
And indeed if we were to stop and ponder the subject, perhaps we would find that when we seriously consider the limits of our time on this planet, keeping up with television comedies and having a good résumé seem less important than they did before. Our cultural silence about human mortality allows us to forget how much weight the individual moments of our lives carry, adding up as they do to our lives themselves. Thus we may squander countless hours watching television or balancing checkbooks--hours that in retrospect we might have done better to have spent walking on the sea shore with our loved ones, cooking gourmet meals for our children or friends, writing fiction, or hitchhiking across South America. The reality of our future death is not easy for any of us to come to terms with, but it is surely better that we consider this now than regret not doing so later when it is too late.
Our denial of death has a deeper significance, beyond its functions as a reaction to our fear of mortality and a selective blindness that helps to preserve the status quo. It is a symptom of our ongoing struggle to escape from the cycles of change in nature and establish an unnatural permanence in the world. Our mortality is frightening evidence that we do not have control over everything, and as such we are quick to ignore it, if we cannot do away with it altogether--a feat towards which our medical researchers are slowly working. It is worth questioning whether this would even be desirable.
Since the dawn of Western civilization, men and women have hungered for domination not only of the world and each other, but also for domination of the seasons, of time itself. We speak of the eternal grandeur of our gods and empires, and we design our cities and corporations to exist into infinity. We build monuments, skyscrapers, which we intend to stand forever as testimony of our victory over the sands of time. But this victory can only come at a price, at this price: that though nothing passes away, nothing comes to be, either--that the world we create is a static, standardized world that can hold no surprises for us any more. We would do well to be wary of fulfilling our own darkest dreams by creating such a dystopia, a frozen world in which no one must fear death any more, for everyone exists forever and no one lives for even an instant.
Alive in the land of the dead. They eat dead food with false teeth. Their buildings have false fronts, their radio and television stations broadcast dead air. They kill time as spectators of false images. Their corporations are guilty of false advertising, and their employment 'opportunities' offer only murderous mistreatment, lethal boredom, and fatal submission; they demand that you meet deadlines, that you pitch tent in the death camps. Does the dead end justify the means? They inhabit dead cities and make false moves, really going nowhere at all, treading day after day the same path of despair. Even their air is conditioned. They ask you to give your lives for their countries, for their religions, for their economies, leaving you with only.... Their system is organized by artificial intelligence and provides only virtual reality. Their culture will pin you down and bore you to death, their lifestyle is lifeless, their existench is a permanent deadlock. Everything about them is dead and false. The only thing that is unbearable is that nothing is unbearable. When will we demand more?
The struggle is for life, for real life. Fight foul, life is real!
- "Arnold Schwarznegger was factory farmed. We're free range."
- —Paul F. Maul Artists' Group worker F. Markatos Dixon, on the subject of an art/terrorism intervention he performed at a bodybuilding gym
The Domestication of Animals . . .
. . . and of Man
Perhaps you wonder sometimes if we're getting carried away with our criticism of modern day life, if all the talk about the evil system and our sick society is just youthful rebelliousness and exaggeration. It certainly is hard to tell from here inside the human race, with all our dissembling and projecting and pretense, whether what we're doing really makes sense or not... so who knows, maybe things aren't so fucked up, right? If you want some perspective on whether the brave new world order really is as bad for us as some people say, just have a look at how it affects the others who must live in it—the animals.
If you're middle class, the animals you know best (besides the ones in animated movies and commercials) are probably the ones who occupy the corresponding tier of the non-human hierarchy: the household pets, the zoo inmates and circus performers, the sports mascots and show horses. Just like the bourgeoisie, they seem to have it easy: sitting around all day, eating and sleeping, playing with their masters— but this is not the life these animals have been prepared for over the last million years of evolution. Dogs have four legs so they can run through fields and canyons and chase down prey, not play frisbee for an hour a week. Parrots have wings so they can fly over jungles and across wild landscapes, not just sit, wings cut away, in little cages, with nothing to do to maintain their spirits but sing to themselves and learn meaningless fragments of less musical languages. Cats have claws so they can fight and hunt and sharpen them anywhere they choose, they have testicles and ovaries so they can mark territory and go into heat and make love and raise kittens; cut all these off and keep them locked inside, and they get grouchy, pathetic, fat for lack of anything to do but eat standard-issue canned food they can't even hunt. Domestic animals are expected to be the court jesters and courtesans of the modern household, to provide entertainment and surrogate community, and their lives and even bodies are adjusted accordingly. Their role is not to be animals, in all the wondrous complexity that entails, but simply to be toys.
A quick look back at the middle class humans reveals how similar our situation is. We too live in isolation from our fellows in small, climate-controlled boxes, little fishtanks complete with simulated foliage, called apartments. We too are fed on standardized, mass-produced food that appears as if out of nowhere, vastly different from the food our ancestors ate. We too have no outlet for our wild, spontaneous urges, sterilized and declawed by the necessities of living in cramped cities and suburbs under cramping legal and social and cultural conventions. We too cannot wander far from our kennels, leashed as we are by 9-to-5 jobs, apartment leases, fences and property lines and national borders. And just like our pets, we learn to behave, to be housebroken and spirit-broken—to adapt ourselves to this nightmare, becoming fat, grouchy, and songless.
Far less fortunate than us castrated prisoners, animals and human alike, are the animals that form the non-human proletariat: the chickens trapped living in their own shit in egg-factories with their beaks removed so they won't peck out each others' eyes, the rabbits that have their eyes systematically burned out to test the safety of shampoo, the veal calves that spend their entire miserable existences in tiny wooden boxes. The roles these animals play correspond to those of factory workers, temporary dishwashers and secretaries, minimum-waged movie theater popcorn servers—and however individual bosses might see things, you can bet the market views them all with the same calculating disinterest. The same profit-hungry heartlessness that makes it possible for the meat industry to regard the yearly holocaust of millions of animals as fine and just keeps them doing their best to fight off demands for better working conditions and higher wages. And just as cows and chickens have been carefully bred, even genetically engineered, to such an extent that they are unable to survive outside their cages, the modern worker no longer has any concept of what life outside the working world of plastic and concrete might be, or how to apply his energies except under a whip. Where would he go, anyway, were he to escape? Are there habitable lands as yet unclaimed, to which he could flee? And wouldn't he destroy these lands, too, bringing to them the values of domination with which he has been poisoned by his bosses? In the end, unless advised by a total rejection of industrial capitalism, his flight would be just another advance in the tide of concrete that is sweeping across the globe.
Finally, there are the wild animals which still survive in environments polluted with oil slicks, discarded plastic soda bottles, and air pollution, to say nothing of highways and hunters. As urbanization and suburbanization march pitilessly forward, destroying the resources of their natural habitats, they learn to live off human waste instead, or perish. Pigeons build nests out of cigarette butts instead of twigs, rats learn to live in sewers and adapt accordingly, cockroaches proliferate as the vultures of the new era. These urban wild animals occupy the same tier of society as the homeless do, scrounging through the refuse for the bare essentials of life, although they certainly fare better than their human counterparts. The suburban ones—the wily raccoons, possums, squirrels who survive in the forgotten corners of conquered lands, living off what's left of the natural, not to mention the extras and excesses of the bourgeoisie—can be compared to squatters, organic farmers, punks, the metropolitan hunter-gatherers of the underground resistance. The remaining species of truly wild animals, like dolphins, caribou, and penguins, are analogous to the very, very few existing indigenous peoples of the world who have not yet lost all their culture or been placed in zoos. For all of them, the future looks bleak, as the iron wind of standardization blows across this planet.
All this is not to say that we've deviated from some great plan set out for us by "Mother Nature," or the measures of happiness and health should be our conformity to the "natural." Whenever human beings try to describe what "Nature" is, they invariably project onto it the laws their own society abides by, or ascribe to it everything they think their civilization lacks; and besides, nature itself is something that changes constantly: at this point, the natural habitat of a poodle really is a leash and kennel. If we have destroyed the natural world with our "civilization," then in the final analysis this must too have been a part of our "natural" destiny (for what is there that does not proceed ultimately from nature? Is humanity somehow blessed or cursed with powers that are... supernatural?). The question is not how to get back into submission to the Natural, but rather how to reintegrate ourselves into the world around us in a way that works. Can we make a world in which humans and animals can live in harmony with each other, with no divisions between them, no distinction between the natural and the civilized, between the familiar and the foreign? Can we escape from the forests of steel into the lush, green ones that linger, atavistic, in our fantasies?
- "You [white folks] have not only altered and malformed your winged and four-legged cousins; you have done it to yourselves. You have changed men into chairmen of boards, into office workers, into time-clock punchers. You have changed your women into housewives, truly fearful creatures. I was once invited to the house of one. 'Watch the ashes, don't smoke, you'll stain the curtains. Watch the goldfish bowl, don't lean your head against the wallpaper; your hair may be greasy. Don't spill liquor on that table: it has a delicate finish. You should have wiped your boots; the floor was just varnished. Don't don't don't' That is crazy. You live in prisons you have built for yourselves, calling them 'homes, offices, factories.'"
—John (Fire) Lame Deer and Richard Erdoes, Lame Deer Seeker of Visions