When the (Recorded) Music’s Over

Note: this was first published in Black and Green Review #5

Image result for record album

Tech enthusiast Kevin Kelly has often repeated a glib definition of technology as “anything invented after you were born.”i The flippant definition resonates because it is very close to how the word is used in casual conversation and in popular media. The iPhone is generally perceived as technology but a manual can opener is not. The tech section of a newspaper will readily feature an article on drones but not necessarily on dovetail joints. Moving back and forth between a casual definition and a more precise definition can yield a rhetorical advantage for technophiles like Kelly. If a new technology seems threatening, disruptive, or otherwise problematic it can be compared to an older technology which may seem safe and familiar. The new technology then becomes safe by association because it is alleged that to condemn one is to condemn the other (and who is going to blame the ills of the world or the corruption of youth on the can opener in their kitchen drawer?).

This strategy exploits the fact that anti-tech critics have a reputation for being a bit curmudgeonly; their arguments are often dismissed as nothing but a collection of these kids today!-type complaints. Their position is treated as an outgrowth of their own confusion and technical ineptitude: we are to believe that they are all old people who can’t manage to program their VCRs and drone on about “the good ol’ days.”

Given this caricature, it is important for serious critics of technology to dig deeper and make clear the problems with technologies that were invented long before they were born; to critique the technologies that are so commonplace that they often fail to even register as technologies. The point must be made that it is not simply that the new and the novel are threatening or confusing due to their unfamiliarity, but rather that even those technologies that are entirely familiar, wholly ubiquitous, and seemingly quite banal have often been, in many ways, quite detrimental to our overall well-being.

To overlook the damage done by technologies prior to our birth, those that are now ubiquitous, is akin to ignoring the damage to the environment carried out in earlier ages. It is a common mistake to treat the state of the natural world during one’s childhood as a sort of baseline from which to measure the damage done. But that baseline recedes with every generation; everyone alive today was born into an already devastated world. Likewise, we are all constrained, controlled, injured, and mutilated by the technologies that were introduced long ago.

Consider, for example, recorded music. This purported luxury that is so highly valued by so many of us has, in many ways, contributed to the widely felt emptiness of the modern experience. It is an inadequate substitute for something greater of which we have been robbed.

Recording Music

“Small-time musicians have become as obsolete as the Indian.”
-The Nation (1942)

For quite some time now, to make a record has been to make it as a musician. In the dominant culture, a recording contract imbues legitimacy and is a clear marker of success. Countless musicians have relayed the giddy experience of hearing themselves on the radio for the first time or of watching their record climb the pop music charts.

In his recent autobiography, Bruce Springsteen described the incredible feeling of being signed by Columbia Records: “I felt my heart rise up inside me, mysterious particles dancing underneath my skin and faraway stars lighting up my nerve endings.” Indeed, there is a significant difference in the status of one who is labeled a mere musician and that of a “recording artist”. Springsteen was a musician long before auditioning for Columbia Records but only became a recording artist when offered his first contract. His status changed and he marveled about his good fortune saying: “we’d climbed to the heavens and spoken to the gods who told us we were spitting thunder and throwing lightning bolts.”ii

It may therefore seem quite odd to learn that in 1942 the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) imposed a ban on recording music which was sustained until November 1944. The ban received widespread support within the labor movement. It was formally endorsed by the American Federation of Labor. International support came from the Musicians’ Union of Great Britain which supported the ban by refusing to export records to the United States and Canada.

Image result for james petrillo

The AFM and its members perceived recorded music as a threat to the livelihood of musicians who at the time relied primarily on live performances rather than making records. There was little or no profit to be made from records or radio play. Yet, as the sound quality of phonographs gradually improved, radio stations were dumping live acts and jukeboxes were displacing musicians in hotels, bars, and restaurants. From our present point of view, jukeboxes may seem fairly inconsequential, but in 1938 there were already half a million in use in the United States accounting for forty percent of record production.iii By 1950, “jukeboxes were everywhere” and in all manner of businesses and community spaces.iv By the time of the ban, theaters had already largely stopped employing orchestras as silent films were replaced with sound films. Prior to sound films, theaters employed a large portion of AFM members as pit musicians. As recorded music was embraced opportunities for working musicians seemed to be shrinking.

James Petrillo was president of the AFM at the time of the recording ban and explained:

“Nowhere else in this mechanical age does the workman create the machine which destroys him, but that’s what happens to the musician when he plays for a recording. The iceman didn’t invent the refrigerator, the coachman didn’t invent the automobile. But the musician plays his music into a recorder and a short time later the radio station manager…says…we don’t need you anymore.”v

Petrillo was a high-powered labor leader who proved himself in union battles as president of AFM Local 10 in Chicago during the 1920s and 30s. His first major accomplishment in Chicago was forcing radio stations to actually pay musicians. Note that this was not paying musicians for use of recordings but paying musicians for performing live on the radio from the station. Radio stations had always argued that publicity alone was sufficient compensation for such performances. Two years later, possibly as a response, Petrillo’s home was bombed. He would eventually begin traveling in a bullet-proof car equipped with bullet-proof windows.vi

Punching up or punching down, Petrillo was known for an aggressive style that frequently got results. When an Italian jubilee was set to use nonunion musicians in Chicago he sent a cable of complaint directly to Mussolini. Likewise, when a high school band was set to perform at the mayor’s inauguration, Petrillo threatened the radio station that was going to broadcast it with a strike and consequently the high schoolers were replaced with union musicians.vii

By the time he became president of the national AFM, he already had his sights set on tackling the threat represented by recorded music—or as he frequently called it, “canned music” or even “dehumanized music.” He became president in 1940 and the ban was put into effect in 1942.

The principal concession won by the AFM via their recording ban was the creation of the Recording and Transcription Fund which directed a royalty from the sale and manufacture of recordings and transcriptions directly to the union for use in creating work for unemployed musicians and offering free concerts to the public. Prone to hyperbole, Petrillo declared it “the greatest victory ever achieved by a labor organization.” In any event, it was a short-lived victory as the Fund was dissolved in 1947 with passage of the Taft-Hartley Act.

This prompted a second recording ban in 1948. The Recording and Transcription Fund was soon replaced with a fund that served a similar function. This new fund was not under the exclusive control of the union and was thereby within the bounds of the new law.

The touted victory underscores the point that the AFM was never explicitly against recorded music as such despite some of Petrillo’s heated rhetoric. “For the union, its primary objections were not about the record but about the unlicensed duplication of artistic labors.”viii Consequently, what they sought was not the abolition of any particular technology, but rather a mechanism for musicians to be compensated for their work and share in the profits made from such recordings.

But the impact of recorded music extended far beyond the immediate financial concerns of working musicians who struggled to cope with shifting technology. The act of recording music changed how music is made, how it’s performed, how it’s consumed, and how it is sold.

Producing and Consuming Music

“Music is what people do on their own.” -Tom Vanderbilt (2016)

Once music is recorded, reproducible, and effectively commodified it creates a situation where “[m]usic escapes from musicians.”ix The role of the musician isn’t simply financially uncompensated as was the chief concern of the AFM, but music itself is diminished in significant ways for both the musician and the audience.

First, the ability to repeat a song at will (and often ad nauseam) alters how it is experienced and what gets produced. In Innovation and its Enemies, Calestous Juma effectively makes this point:

“Recorded music introduced [an] element that didn’t exist with live performance. Recorded music could be played repeatedly at will…The ability to repeat elevated the role of the sound technician and made the musician subservient to technology and, by extension, to those who controlled the sound production…”x

On the surface level, this mirrors a concern expressed by Petrillo and the AFM. They saw and were concerned that disc jockeys, broadcasters, and other non-musicians were ascending in influence at the expense of their membership. Non-musicians stood to profit to a much greater extent than the musician who actually performs on the record. Musicians were paid once for a performance that was recorded whereas non-musicians profited each time the recording was played.

On a deeper level it also mirrors a concern put forward by many critics of technology. Records are presented as a means of making music more accessible and giving the listener greater control—greater control is effectively what all technology promises. But what is given with one hand is surreptitiously taken, with considerable interest, by the other. Listeners can repeat a song if they wish, but the fact that music that is increasingly controlled by corporate executives, experts, and technicians shrinks the role of the musician and limits what gets produced and distributed. The distance between musician and audience is magnified as the listening experience is increasingly mediated. The musician’s overall contribution to the final product shrinks as an increasingly intense division of labor is imposed via the recording process.

Digital technology exacerbates this situation—despite promising even greater control of one’s experience—as the repeat function relies on just the push of a button. I have encountered numerous people who profess a great love for music, maintain a large digital collection, and yet are seemingly unable to listen to a song in its entirety. Their listening experience seems to consist largely of playing a song for perhaps a minute or so and then anxiously clicking to find a different one. For example, someone recently wanted to share what they described as their “favorite song” with me, but we only listened to about twenty seconds; in response to my confusion, I was told that that was “the good part” of the song. Even one’s favorite song isn’t worth listening to in full. It is perhaps related to the phenomena of people watching television shows on fast-forward to get through more shows in less time. Even one’s recreation must be rationalized and made efficient.

Second, while live performances obviously haven’t disappeared, recordings have altered their meaning and content. Juma again explains:

“As time progressed, live performances were judged on how they compared with the recorded versions. This was often detrimental to musicians as fewer people attended live shows. Musicians often felt pressure to record a perfect version of a song because they knew it would be mass-produced and repeatedly played.”xi

George Harrison made a similar point in 1965:

“[The Beatles] used to improve at a much faster rate before we ever made records. You’ve got to reproduce as near as you can, the records, so you don’t really get a chance to improvise or improve your style.”xii

Upon first reading, this seems an odd statement coming from someone like George Harrison given that the Beatles’ most artistically significant work came only after they stopped touring and entered the recording studio full time. But the point is that they only circumvented the trap of mimicking their records by giving up on live performances altogether. In their case, the need to make records didn’t simply alter their performances but put a stop to them. The biggest musical act in the world effectively conceded that recordings were now primary and performances derivative and dispensable. But this strategy only worked for so long as eventually “they felt like prisoners of the studio” according to producer George Martin.xiii Their famous rooftop concert was a prison break, as was the ultimate dissolution of the band.

Closer to the present—half a century after the 1948 recording ban—the fiercely independent Ani DiFranco included these lyrics in her song “Fuel”:

“People used to make records /
As in a record of an event /
The event of people playing music in a room”

If this was ever how and why “people used to make records”, it was for a very short window of time. As explained above, recordings are rarely simply records of “people playing music in a room”; far more often people in a room are trying to mimic what they heard on a record (even if they are the ones that made the record in the first place they are then compelled to mimic themselves).

Writing a full fifteen years before DiFranco’s song, Brian Eno explained how thoroughly disconnected records had become from performance:

“There’s been a break between the traditional idea of music…and what we now do on records…It’s now possible to make records that have music that was never performed or never could be performed and in fact doesn’t exist outside the record.”xiv

The record became primary, thus making both the musician and the performance derivative. The situation has been paradoxically summarized: “a disc recording is generally considered to be a live performance, while a live performance attempts to reproduce the recording.”xv Music critic David Hadju shares what I suspect is a widespread intuition:

“When I thought of pop songs as a young music fan…I thought of records. The music seemed inextricable from and even in some ways subordinate to the thing that contained it. A song I didn’t know of as a record—a chant from the kids on the playground, a tune my mother hummed while she cut pie pieces—seemed as if it were not really a real song.”xvi

While music has largely been an ephemeral experience, recording technology has provided the means to capture it and fix it in place. Yet, the fact that live performances remain extremely popular suggests that people still value the ephemeral experience and perhaps even the lack of control that necessarily comes with it. Indeed, there are whole genres and musical subcultures that have actively resisted the trend of pop music by maintaining the primacy of performance and shown little interest in recording and packaging their music.

Third, the very notion that music was even the kind of thing that could be consumed was itself a radical conceptual shift which brought significant consequences. The song that David Hadju’s mother would hum while slicing pie didn’t count as fully real, in part, because it existed outside of a commercial space. “It wasn’t touchable, holdable—possessable,” nor was it “sellable, buyable—consumable.”xvii

Prior to the widespread availability of high-quality (technically, not necessarily artistically) recorded music, people primarily experienced music rather than bought music. In fact, people were initially more apt to buy sheet music to facilitate their own amateur performance rather than recordings from professionals.

But music scholar Tim Anderson reports that by the time of the second AFM recording ban in 1948, sales of sheet music were plummeting and sales of records were soaring. People were transitioning from actively making their own music to purchasing recordings:

“listening habits surrounding popular music were changing from live amateur and professional performances to electronically rendered recordings of compositions which were typically allied with ‘name talent’”xviii

The calculated move toward “name talent” should not be overlooked. It is the bolstering of celebrity culture where a small number of musicians are zealously promoted and extravagantly rewarded while the vast majority are ignored and impoverished. That small number of musicians could then be within the control of an even smaller number of record companies. Four companies controlled 75 percent of the record sales market in 1948 and “name talent” was essential to their economic dominance.xix

This is not incidental but almost necessarily the case when music is distributed via a mass media.

“The increasing differentiation between performers and receptors can be understood as a mark of a high musical culture: thus the irrevocable gulf without the least possibility of mutual contact between performers and receptors is a consequence of presentation through the mass media”xx

The dominance of celebrity culture undercuts the frequently made point that recorded music allows for access and appreciation of a much wider variety of music than would otherwise be possible. The point is true as far as it goes, but as it turns out, it doesn’t go that far. Almost all of recorded music is now simply a click away, but studies have found that when presented with such expansive access people’s listening actually becomes narrower and less diverse.xxi In 2013, the top one percent of musicians earned 77 percent of all recorded music income; digital services exacerbated this disparity rather than helped level it. This is partially explained by “consumers being overwhelmed by a Tyranny of Choice in which excessive choice actually hinders discovery.”xxii

This is a particular example of a much broader phenomenon documented by Barry Schwartz in The Paradox of Choice—regarding how people respond when presented with an exceedingly large number of choices or options. In many cases it proves debilitating, people will often refuse to make any choice or accept whatever happens to be the default option even if it is not in their interests. Having more choice isn’t necessarily empowering and isn’t always better.

David Sax, author of The Revenge of Analog, relays his own first-hand, experience of the paralysis resulting from the burden of too many musical choices in the now digital age:

“I frequently found myself opening the app, only to become paralyzed with indecision. My options were infinite, literally every single album and song ever recorded…It was as though the ease and convenience of digital music had sucked the very fun out of listening to it. The entire world of music was just a click away, but I couldn’t even be bothered to do that.”xxiii

It is the same institutions that make services such as Spotify, Rdio, and iTunes possible that foster celebrity culture; this means that while listening to a wide range of music is technically possible people are still being pushed toward “name talent.” The technology was alleged to have a democratizing or leveling effect, but almost everyone is still listening to Taylor Swift and Beyonce. Again, there are, of course, those who have recognized the artistic cost of relying on distribution via the mass media and have essentially refused to participate. This is most evident in anti-establishment, anti-mass society music scenes such as anarchist punk rock.

Fourth, prior to recorded music, music happened largely in public spaces and was enjoyed in the company of others. It was almost inherently social. In contrast, the contemporary consumption of music is described by Tom Vanderbilt in his 2016 book You May Also Like. Vanderbilt writes: “Music is what people do on their own: in the car, with their headphones, via their playlists and customized stations.”xxiv

Music, arguably from its origin, has been capable of fostering community and even mending social relations, but is now, to a large extent, used to facilitate and maintain one’s isolation. Making music together is a cooperative activity that has been used to resist social stratification. It was something that people did together and is now something to be consumed alone. We may all be listening to Taylor Swift and Beyonce, but we are largely doing so alone. Raising one’s headphones is now a widely recognized symbol for cutting off a conversation. Where the technology has been successfully resisted, such as in many indigenous contexts and communities, music remains a bonding rather than an isolating force.

Image result for john blacking

Finally, Petrillo often referred to recorded music as “dehumanized music”, but it would be equally accurate to call it “disembodied music.” Musicologist John Blacking has said “music begins…as a stirring of the human body,” but when music was severed from performance it was also severed from the human body.xxv Music now seems to emerge from machines and devices rather than from people. Even when attributed to people it is often from celebrity figures who exist across an “irrevocable gulf without the least possibility of mutual contact.”

Perhaps more importantly, music has almost always been associated with dancing. But as music becomes something that is increasingly being consumed alone this changes. Just as people don’t often laugh out loud when alone, people don’t often dance when alone.

Mass Culture Requires Mass Media

“Recording has always been a means of social control” -Jacques Attali

The AFM was a powerful union by the time of the 1940s recording bans. They had weathered the Depression years and even Prohibition which was a particular threat for a musicians’ union. The recording bans were an ambitious and controversial tactic but were carried out in the service of fairly modest goals and reforms. This is evident in some of the compromises that were offered by the union prior to the recording bans.

The union proposed that phonographs be produced for private, home use only and not available for use on radio. They proposed that if phonographs were to be used on radio that there be a limit to how many times a particular recording could be played before being discarded or otherwise destroyed. Despite legal challenges, they engaged in a practice known as “featherbedding” whereby an employer would be required to hire union musicians as standbys whenever non-union musicians were used or a recording was used. The union wanted its members to be given jobs as “platter turners”; that is, they wanted their members to be the ones to put the records on the turntables at the radio stations and receive pay in accordance with union wage scales; after all Petrillo explained: “we feel that if there is music on the record, that the man who puts the record on the machine should be a member of the musicians’ union.”xxvi

The goals were more employment opportunities and greater compensation; the same goals as almost any other mainstream labor union. Despite the modesty of these goals. The bans were certainly perceived as a serious threat. Indeed, as a threat to national security.

The AFM recording ban was seen to be of such national significance that President Franklin Roosevelt attempted to intervene and broker an end to it albeit without success. Roosevelt considered the lack of recorded music a threat to national morale during World War II.

The Justice Department offered an even more extreme statement: “We regard a handicap on industrial progress by preventing the use of improved mechanical equipment in an industry as an attack upon industrial production.”xxvii

An attack upon on industrial production! There’s something worth paying one’s union dues for if only it was the case. The hostile reaction was at least in part explained by the fact that media was in the process of becoming mass media and the recording bans were not conducive to that transition.

Private enterprise was hostile to the recording bans not only because using recordings was obviously far less expensive than continually hiring musicians but also because recordings allowed for greater flexibility when scheduling and distributing programming. With recordings came “the ability to propagate and move significant amounts of information across large portions of geography, both national and international, in smaller and smaller amounts of time.”xxviii In other words, they made mass media possible and practical.

The U.S. government was hostile to the recording bans in part because it was depending on the existence of mass media to effectively shape public opinion regarding the ongoing war:

“given that most American broadcasters needed musical recordings to retain their audiences and profit, a void of new musical recordings would endanger the ability of the Office of War Information to communicate to the nation about wartime goings-on.”xxix

The stated virtues of recorded music—the promises of the technology—are the very values of modern, mass society.

“for the first time, music did not depend on the physical presence of performers in specific settings, or the simultaneous presence of an audience. Music was freed, so to speak, from the social context of its production.”xxx

“Just as spatial restraints have been removed, so have temporal ones”xxxi

Music is freed. Restraints are removed. This is the rhetoric and these are the promises that mask the harm of the technology.

Compare this with sociologist Wilhelm Weber’s definition of mass musical culture:

“This is not just a matter of brute numbers of people buying music or going to concerts. What has characterized mass musical culture primarily has been the impersonality of relationships between listeners and performers and the active exploitation of a broad public by the music business.”xxxii

Mass society frees us from the inefficiency of personal relationships and of feeling connected to particular people and particular places. Mass musical culture frees music from constraints of time and place making everything available but nothing worth any effort. We used to dance and now we might tap our toes. Fringe and countercultural music scenes persist, in part, because they embrace rather than discard personal relationships. They eschew and deflate the purported virtues that the technology offers.

Conclusion: Music Without Recording

“[M]any industrial societies have taken away from people much of the
practice and pleasure of music making.” -John Blacking (1973)

Recorded music is now ubiquitous and so it is quite difficult to imagine life without it. For consistent critics of technology to suggest that recorded music is less than a godsend—that it comes with a steep cost—may seem as strange as musicians refusing to make records. Even the phrase “recorded music” is somewhat awkward as it borders on redundancy for many of us; it calls attention to something so obvious that it very often escapes serious scrutiny. Recorded music? Is there any other kind?

But music predates the recording industry and will outlast the recording industry. Within the self-absorbed cocoon of civilization, such plain statements of fact often need to be said out loud. It is a banality that cannot be argued but nonetheless seems to possess a radical edge. Music has not always been a commodity, it’s not always been recorded, and participation hasn’t always been restricted to a narrow, special class of persons.

When the recording industry presents itself as the very source of where music itself originates it promulgates a dangerous and self-serving lie that diminishes our humanity for it tells us that we are less than what we are. In truth, “men [and women] are more remarkable than most societies ever allow them to be.”xxxiii

Again, music predates the recording industry and not to insignificant extent. The earliest known instruments date back 36,000 years. These were flutes found in a cave in southern Germany; they were crafted from the hollow wing bones of large birds. In the Pyrenees, pipes crafted from bird bones have been found that are nearly just as old. These would have relied on the insertion of a reed and were carefully crafted with finger holes placed in depressions to ensure a full seal when fingers were applied to the instrument. Furthermore, it is widely assumed—and stands to reason—that music made with the human body and found objects significantly predates the deliberate creation of actual instruments such as bone flutes and pipes.xxxiv

“So whereas we now visit painted caves in a hushed reverence, they probably once reverberated with the sounds of pipes, stalagmite xylophones, singing and dancing.”xxxv

In communities that existed prior to or apart from recording technologies, attitudes toward music were often drastically different from our own.

Steven Mithen writes:

“The appreciation of music is a universal feature of humankind; music-making is found in all societies and it is normal for everyone to participate in some manner; the modern-day West is quite unusual in having significant numbers of people who do not actively participate and may even claim to be unmusical.”xxxvi

In contrast, John Blacking reports that the Venda people believe “all normal human beings are capable of musical performance.”xxxvii It’s a sentiment that would likely be echoed by many punk rock musicians and folk singers who can still see music and something larger and more fundamental than what appears in pop music charts.

The consequences of recorded music go beyond the ability to amass a highly-tailored and extensive playlist or maintain a vast record collection. In evaluating the technology, one must consider music as an industry and not merely an art form, the development and propagation of celebrity culture, mass media and mass communication writ large, and the passive role that most of us were assigned when music became a commodity.

Recorded music is a palliative for one of the many mutilations inflicted on us by civilization. Like any palliative, the fact that we make use of it shouldn’t blind us to the original injury that has made it necessary. Soon, we’ll need to kick the habit.


i Kevin Kelly, What Technology Wants (New York: Viking, 2010), p. 235.

ii Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016), p. 172.

iii Peter J. Martin, Sounds and Society: Themes in the Sociology of Music (New York: Manchster University Press, 1996), p. 239.

iv Ed Ward, The History of Rock and Roll, Volume One: 1920-1963 (New York: Flatiron Books, 2016), p. 43.

v Harvey Mars, “The Silence Was Deafening,”(July 2016) http://www.local802afm.org/2016/07/the-silence-was-deafening

vi Robert Leiter, The Musicians and Petrillo (New York: Bookman Associates, 1953), p. 43.

vii Ibid., p. 46.

viii Tim Anderson, “’Buried under the fecundity of his own creations’: Reconsidering the recording bans of the American Federation of Musicians, 1942-1944 and 1948,” American Music 22.2 (Summer 2004, 239-269) p. 247.

ix Jacques Attali, Noise: The Political Economiy of Music (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985) p. 115.

x Calestous Juma, Innovation and its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), p. 210.

xi Ibid., p. 210.

xii Quoted in Steve Turner, Beatles ’66: The Revolutionary Year (New York: HarperLuxe, 2016), p. 11.

xiii Quoted in David Hadju, Love for Sale: Pop Music in America (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2016), p. 44.

xiv Martin, p. 257.

xv Quoted in Ivo Supicic, Music in Society: A Guide to the Sociology of Music (Stuyvesant, NY: Pendragon Press, 1987), p. 187

xvi Hadju, p. 13.

xvii Ibid, p. 13.

xviii Anderson, p. 253.

xix Martin, p. 248.

xx Quoted in Supicic, p. 182-183.

xxi Tom Vanderbit, You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016), p. 92.

xxii Mark Mulligan, “The Death of the Long Tail,” Music Industry Blog (March 4, 2014) https://musicindustryblog.wordpress.com/2014/03/04/the-death-of-the-long-tail

xxiii David Sax, The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter (New York: Public Affairs, 2016), p. x.

xxiv Vanderbilt, p. 92.

xxv John Blacking, How Musical is Man? (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1973) p. 111.

xxvi Marina Peterson, “Sound Work: Music as labor and the 1940s recording bans of the American Federation of Musicians,” Anthropological Quarterly 86.3 (Summer 2013, 791-824), p. 795.

xxvii Anderson, p. 239.

xxviii Ibid., p. 249.

xxix Ibid., p. 238.

xxx Martin, p. 20.

xxxi Ibid., p. 20-21.

xxxii Quoted in Supicic, p. 155.

xxxiii Blacking, p. 7.

xxxiv Steven Mithen, The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), p. 269.

xxxv Ibid., p. 270.

xxxvi Ibid., p. 1.

xxxvii Blacking, p. 34.

Letter to the Editor re abuse allegations

Date submitted: 22 November 2017
News outlet: Eugene Weekly
In a society characterized by elaborate power structures and widespread alienation it should come as no surprise that abuse and harassment are rampant. Proposed solutions such as more frequent workplace training, tougher laws, and more aggressive criminal investigations aim only to further regulate personal behavior and more precisely delineate how one must act in any given situation. The implicit assumption is that only strict instruction, codified behavior, and the threat of swift punishment can prevent abusive relations; as if, the degree to which we are free is the degree to which we harm others. It is a lie at the heart of mass society.
No matter the problem, mass society’s solution is always greater control; the utopian vision being pursued requires robot-like behavior governed by finely-tuned algorithms that deny our autonomy. It is a vision that is hostile to human well-being. It is a breeding ground for abuse and harassment.

The Potholes in Portland

Anarchists in Portland are taking to the streets! But it seems that these particular anarchists are not feeling that old “urge to destroy”. Portland Anarchist Road Care (PARC) is instead filling in potholes; assisting in the maintainence of the city infrastructure. They allege that “state neglect has caused the streets to fall into disrepair” and are consequently taking direct action.

On February 28th, they boasted of a “successful preliminary action” via Facebook; they “patched 5 potholes on SE Salmon between 37th and 39th”.

This Portlandia-style praxis along with daring photos of anarchists in balaclavas behind construction cones has succeeded in generating a lot of press with news reports appearing both in print and online. A small sampling includes: The Portland Mercury, The Oregonian, The Register Guard, US News & World Report, CityLab, AutoBlog, Zerohedge, Reason, and The Stranger.

It’s weird but it’s not parody. Oddly enough, PARC is sincere in their efforts and their stated defenses of the “action” seem to only make things worse:

“Be creating structures to serve the same purpose as state structures, such as our organization, we have the ability to show that government is not necessary for society to function, that we can have a truly free and liberated society.”

I am not sure why anarchists would want to “create structures to serve the same purpose as state structures”. If the State didn’t exist would we really want to invent it?

This is what the Left does and it’s not an attempt to abolish the State but rather to become the State; to take on State functions requires State power. The anarchist critique of the State has to go deeper than demonstrating that the State is failing to maintain city infrastructure to an adequate degree; after all, it’s not anarchists who promise to make the trains run on time.

Remember, the infrastructure does not exist for our benefit even as we are coerced into making extensive use of it. This is akin to prisoners repairing the bars on their cells; blaming the guards for allowing things to fall into disrepair.

But if you really want roads—at least in their modern form—you need something like the State. Consider the fact that PARC’s “successful preliminary action” amounted to patching five potholes which they say they are now monitoring to see how they hold up. The monitoring is necessary because PARC’s cold patching process is technically inferior to the job that would be done by city workers using heated asphalt. There is an issue of scale here that can’t be ignored: the city reports fixing 8,000 potholes every year. Anarchy doesn’t scale up very well.

Nonetheless, PARC doesn’t seem deterred by these numbers. According to The Oregonian, “The group said it’s now exploring alternatives to patching holes, including mobilizing people to fix roads in their own neighborhoods”. To fix 8,000 holes requires more than direct action; it requires mobilizing people in significant numbers but again anarchy doesn’t scale up very well.

It should be further added that filling potholes must be one of the least challenging tasks necessary to maintain a network of roads sufficient for a city the size of Portland. Should we expect PARC to eventually be building new roads from the ground up, adding lanes to existing roads, re-routing traffic with detours, monitoring air quality, and perhaps installing roundabouts at dangerous intersections? And, if they do, will they still be anarchists? To put it mildly: I am skeptical.

On a final note, a spokesperson from the Portland Bureau of Transportation said “We’d like to repair more potholes more quickly, but our efforts have been thwarted by Mother Nature.” With PARC promising more actions, that fight against Mother Nature has gained an ally.

Letter to the Editor re Zerzan’s Warning

Date submitted: February 7, 2017
News outlet: Register-Guard

silicaJohn Zerzan’s recent letter [“Peaceful protest changes nothing,” Feb. 6] had the feel of an obligatory public service announcement or perhaps one of those overly cautious product warning labels. Like those quirky product warnings it compels one to think about the terribly, difficult life of those who genuinely require such elementary advice: the person who hadn’t realize he shouldn’t use his electric iron while under water, eat the silica packet that comes in a pair of new shoes, or place a baby into a washing machine. The warnings strike most of as silly and perhaps even insulting but for a small part of the population those warnings are presumably quite important.

Zerzan’s warning is addressed to those confused folks who are under the delusion that by simply marching a sufficient distance or as part of a big group they will thereby magically bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice and throw off the yoke of oppression. While the number of people attempting to use their toaster as a flotation device is probably fairly small, those who mistake good manners, well-planned marches, luncheons with cops, and letters to politicians for real resistance is embarrassingly large. It’s pathetic that we even need the reminder that Zerzan offers us: peaceful protest changes nothing.


The Landscape of My Childhood


It is probably a truism that the world of a child is smaller than that of an adult. But, paradoxically, the opposite of a truism is often also a truism: the world of a child can be vast and without the limits that regularly constrain adults.

Perhaps it’s my age, a few years shy of forty, or perhaps it’s something else of which I’m unaware but I have been reflecting on my childhood and piecing together memories; attempting to discern the active ingredients from the sum total of those days—to single out those experiences which still resonate, ripple, and influence my adult life.

The first place that I can remember living was William Street in western New York. I can still remember the full address and phone number. I had to learn those things in kindergarten along with how to tie my shoes. The house was pale green when my family moved in and we would later paint it a burnt red color; I was allowed to climb a ladder to apply some paint. Climbing the ladder while holding the paintbrush proved slightly challenging as I inadvertently painted the lenses of my glasses before reaching the upper rungs. There was a well behind the house that probably didn’t work given that I can’t remember ever seeing an adult make use of it—it was only kids who ever pumped the handle or poured water down the spout.

But my memories of William Street are not really of the house. With some effort, I can dredge up some mundane details of the interior of the house. But it takes no effort at all to remember the backyard and behind that the woods. It proved to be the landscape of my childhood.

I remember the morning when me, my younger brother, and the kids who lived next door discovered that tent caterpillars had suddenly invaded the apple tree in our yard. The apple tree was a critical landmark and reference point for us. The apple tree effectively marked the start of the transition from backyard to woods. It was a meet up spot and was perfectly shaped for a child to climb. I spent time reclining in the upper branches. It was one of several fruit trees but it was the one everyone had the most affection for—regardless of the fact that the apples weren’t really edible. The invasion of the tent caterpillars had to be resisted. All other thoughts and plans vanished; the day was dedicated to tearing through their silky sticky tents, evicting and eviscerating the trespassers.

I remember the board that laid in the tall grass of the neighbor’s yard. We would sometimes lift the board to check for snakes. If a snake was seen, whoever had lifted the board would immediately drop it and we would all run for our lives before stopping to compare notes about what, if anything, we had just witnessed.

I remember the bridge that crossed the creek. Two utility poles spanned the gap; boards had been nailed between the poles to form a bridge. For all we knew, the bridge had always been there; it was almost a feature of the landscape. Our childhood minds could have more easily imagined a time when the bridge was first discovered rather than imagining it ever having been built. The bridge was aged and in a state of disrepair that made it fascinating and perhaps even slightly dangerous. The boards were not very secure, some merely setting in place with nails that had long since worn loose. Stepping to the edge of the boards rather than walking down the center could—and did—result in a fall into the creek. The board you fell off of might then fall on you but fortunately the water was never very deep.

We established landmarks and named unique spaces as we saw fit and there was no known edge to the terrain we wandered. There were presumably property lines but we were oblivious to them; we cut through neighbor’s yards with a presumed right of way. We could—and often did—spontaneously decide to go somewhere we hadn’t been before. And it would probably be a place our parents had never been before either. Off the map!

I remember we decided to follow the creek to parts unknown wherever it might lead. We set out with a sense of purpose taking long strides through familiar scenery and eyeing the horizon for something new. We got to the bridge and jumped off. At one point the mud got so thick it was pulling our boots off and sock feet were landing in mud. If it were a movie, it would be at this point that someone would plead “go on without me!”

The landscape and one’s sense of the world can potentially expand with adulthood but often it doesn’t. Adults tend to have longer, stronger legs able to span greater distances and the ability to pull their boots free from the mud. But for many, it seems, the world contracts, getting smaller and less interesting. The multitude of landmarks and reference points discovered in childhood all get reduced to “the backyard”. Adults never spent time in the upper branches of the apple tree and they were totally unaware of the tent caterpillars; adults didn’t discover what we called Vine Village where vines were as big around as our arms and could support our weight; adults never fell off the bridge or gathered up their courage to look under the snake board. Adults generally have their decisions made for them by other adults and their days are scheduled well in advance.

If my parents had been asked where my brother and I were during the day they could only have said “in the backyard” or perhaps “in the woods”. They didn’t know what direction we set out in and couldn’t easily find us. The only expectation was that we return home by dinner time or at least by dark. We never left word where we were going because we never really knew. Plans were apt to change and discoveries couldn’t be predicted.

It has been over a quarter of a century since those halcyon days and I am now relying wholly on my memory to reconstruct the past. If I returned to that same expanse today, it’s unclear how or if my memory would align with the facts on the ground. Perhaps the backyard wouldn’t seem quite so vast and maybe the woods wouldn’t feel as though they were a yet-to-be discovered continent. My horizons have expanded with time, experience, and travel but I have also succumbed to many of the trappings of adulthood. I would be hard pressed to say which is greater: that which I have learned or that which I have forgotten since wandering those woods. I am working on remembering.

Why We Shouldn’t Vote…as Explained by Barack Obama


Anarchism is one thing and democracy is another. The two are not synonyms; indeed, they are not even compatible. If one exists, then the other does not. Consequently, anarchists should be not be expected to promote, strengthen, or applaud democratic institutions. Democracy is one tactic or organizing principle that a state may use to secure its power and neutralize resistance.

Anarcho-primitivists are often at great pains to point out that “civilization” has a substantive meaning and is not simply an honorific; it does not denote considerate behavior, good manners, or artistic accomplishment. Likewise, the term “democracy” has a substantive meaning and should not be mindlessly applied to all political arrangements that strike one as generally fair or seemingly just. For one thing, democracy generally involves voting which is the turning over of power to someone else who may or may not adequately represent your interests (assuming such representation is even possible). Voting is one means that the state can use to transform dissidents into defenders of state power.

In wake of the recent election and the somewhat surprising result, there is incredible acrimony over who voted and who didn’t, why and how come. If you’re keeping score, Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore voted for Clinton; Hulk Hogan and Tom Brady voted for Trump; Colin Kaepernick and Kanye West didn’t vote (although Kanye has suggested he would have voted for Trump had he voted). Partisans on all sides are rushing to either take credit or assign blame for the results.

And amongst anarchists, there is of course endless discussion about the appropriateness of voting at all.

At this point, I will turn to an unlikely source for an anarchist to rely on: President of the United States Barack Obama. Grant me this liberty as sometimes the words of those in power can be revealing in ways that they do not necessarily intend.

Yesterday in Berlin, at a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Barack Obama inadvertently provided solid grounds for anarchists and others who abstain from voting. The italicized lines from this point onward are all from Barack Obama:

do not take for granted our systems of government and our way of life”

Despite historically unprecedented unfavorable ratings, the two major party candidates still managed to win upwards of 90 percent of votes cast. This means that a very large number of people voted for a candidate that did not appeal to them. And at least from my own observation it seems that even votes for third party candidates were often not enthusiastically cast but rather were default options taken by those who for whatever reason felt compelled to vote for someone.

To actively vote for someone who you actually disapprove of must require a severe cynicism, an awfully bleak outlook, or at least a lack of imagination. The bars on one’s cage must seem unshakable; our systems of government and way of life completely unalterable. It is these voters who “take for granted our systems of government and our way of life.” It is their continued oppression that they are taking for granted. “Given that I have no real power, I will vote for _______.”

In the United States, if 43 percent of eligible voters do not vote, then democracy is weakened.”

Obviously not intended as such, the above statement from Barack Obama provides strong grounds for not voting if one is an anarchist. Low voter turnout is appropriately interpreted as a lack of faith in the institution. Low voter turnout weakens the claims of elected officials to be governing with the consent of the governed. Low voter turnout can pierce the “We the People..” propaganda that is so important to this empire. The People, in large measure, did not vote or did so only grudgingly.

In a society in which institutions exist to perpetuate and further our domestication and servitude, anything that weakens those institutions—including democratic institutions—is a good thing. Weakening people’s faith in the legitimacy and the perceived invulnerability of such institutions is of vital importance.

If people…are unwilling to compromise and engage in the democratic process…then democracy will break down.”

This is simply another way of saying that state power is likely to break down. Obama naturally considers such a possibility to be a disaster; it is why he is now all but campaigning for the president-elect despite having described him as “uniquely unfit” for the presidency only a little more than a week ago. Those in political power require, if not the consent, the tacit cooperation of those being governed.

If democracy exists, then anarchism does not. Anarchists are right to do what they can to attack and weaken democratic institutions such as elections.

Offshore Wind: The Biggest Thing That Man Has Ever Done?


Factories that work for Old Uncle Sam /
Run on the power of the Grand Coulee Dam”
-Woody Guthrie, “Song of the Grand Coulee Dam”

Seventy-five years ago, folk singer Woody Guthrie signed a contract to write songs for the federal government. The recently created Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) needed to generate enthusiasm and support for massive hydroelectric dams on the Columbia River most notably for the Grand Coulee Dam. The Roosevelt administration envisioned the dams providing cheap electricity and irrigating farm land—creating “green pastures of plenty from dry desert ground” as Guthrie would put it.

To complete this assignment, Guthrie traveled through the Pacific Northwest along the Columbia River Gorge and wrote 26 songs in a month’s time. Some of the songs were destined to be amongst his most well known such as “Pastures of Plenty,” “Biggest Thing That Man Has Ever Done,” and “Roll On, Columbia”; these are songs that would enter the folk music canon and the American psyche.

With the benefit of hindsight, Guthrie’s zealous support for the Grand Coulee Dam project has been the subject of some debate and much scrutiny: defended by some and condemned by others. In his recently released book 26 Songs in 30 Days, Greg Vandy writes:

“By today’s thinking, it can be difficult to understand why a folksinger like Woody Guthrie, who proved willing to walk away from good money based on principles before, so vociferously endorsed a project like the Grand Coulee Dam. It killed salmon, took away tribal land, and powered war industries—all factors well understood by Guthrie at the time.” (74)

But the explanation for Guthrie’s support is quite simple. The project aligned incredibly well with his leftist politics. As Vandy explains, from Guthrie’s perspective “the dams were the answer to the ills of his time and the path forward for his people” (76). In short, “the dam project was [Guthrie’s] idea of democratic socialism realized” (89). It was capital-p Progress.

We never arrived at Guthrie’s intended destination. Indeed, in A River Lost: The Life and Death of the Columbia River, Blaine Harden writes:

“The river was killed…and was reborn as plumbing. The place where this fateful murder and curious resurrection took place was up the Columbia at the Grand Coulee Dam.” (75)

Flash forward to the present.

Last August, a private company, Deepwater Wind (not to be confused with Deepwater Horizon), completed construction of the nation’s first offshore wind farm—the Block Island Wind Farm—off the coast of Rhode Island. It’s scheduled to begin operating before the end of the year. The news was received with great enthusiasm amongst many environmentalists, liberals, and leftists.

Like the Grand Coulee Dam, it’s a massive project. The surface area of each individual blade is roughly equivalent to the surface area of a football field and the turbines themselves penetrate 200 feet into the sea floor. The turbines are nearly four miles offshore and stand 260 feet tall. There are only five turbines but this is widely considered a test run for much bigger operations.

Writing about wind power generally 350.org founder Bill McKibben has said: “We need a new aesthetic for the 21st century—one that looks at a turbine blade spinning as a sign that we’re finally getting our act together. I can’t think of anything lovelier than the breeze made visible.”

Regarding Block Island Wind Farm specifically, the Sierra Club enthusiastically explained: “Block Island isn’t just an offshore wind farm, it’s also a starting gun…the success at Block Island proves that investment in offshore wind is viable.”

A column in Grist states: “The potential for offshore wind power is enormous. The Department of Energy thinks offshore wind could one day deliver twice as much electricity as Americans used to keep the grid stable last year.”

The New York Times editorial board published an op-ed titled “The Unlimited Power of Ocean Winds

Unlimited power! To listen to the hype, it seems offshore wind could be the biggest thing man has ever done.

While not as lyrical as Guthrie, the Department of Energy explains that “offshore wind technologies…can capture wind resources”. The technology is introduced and sold as a way to combat global climate change and quickly becomes about “unlimited power” and capturing resources. It’s the very same process that transformed the Columbia River from a wild, living river into mere plumbing. Instead of commanding humanity’s respect it now takes humanity’s commands. It became something to be harnessed just as there is now talk of harnessing the wind.

Guthrie’s song “Grand Coulee Dam” makes the point explicit:

Roll along Columbia, you can ramble to the sea /
But river while you’re rambling, you can do some work for me.”


Review: A Beautiful Resistance

beautifulfirefrontcoverA Beautiful Resistance #2: The Fire is Here
ed. Lorna Smithers
Gods & Radicals, 2016, 120pp., $15.00

From the outset the title—A Beautiful Resistance—intrigued and excited me. The mere combination of beautiful with resistance raised my expectations to perhaps an unrealistic height. The short phrase defied a commonly imposed binary between so-called serious political work and supposedly indulgent savoring of what there is to savor in a world that despite such deep wounds remains beautiful. In my mind, A Beautiful Resistance promised to be neither self-abnegating nor passive and quietistic. The former attitude is often a trademark of the self-consciously heroic political Left; the Left that speaks of people as masses longing to be put to work. The latter is a commonplace of a lot of organized religion and New Age spittle.

The foreword written by Emma Restall Orr quickly lowered my, admittedly high, expectations. I am somewhat familiar with Orr having read her excellent book The Wakeful World: Animism, Mind, and the Self in Nature. Orr’s book was significant in opening my mind to the possibility of an intellectually defensible spirituality and I feel somewhat indebted to it and to her. Indeed, I have come to the position that a spiritual understanding is perhaps requisite to any meaningful resistance and any viable anarcho-primitivism. So the fact that Orr is the first voice one encounters was initially encouraging but the content of her foreword was fairly underwhelming.

Orr writes that “civilization, colonialism, consumerism, conservatism – are all led by capitalism.” (1) This strikes me as being precisely backwards. Civilization preceded capitalism and may very well exist long after capitalism vanishes or fizzles out all while being no less onerous, oppressive, and life-denying. Capitalism is but the current skin; it wasn’t always there and it could be easily shed.

Orr says that it was the prominence of the term “anti-capitalism” that resonated with her and motivated her to quickly agree to write the foreword (1). I have found that an exaggerated focus on capitalism specifically can often serve as a red flag.

But with additional reflection I realized that I might be being less than charitable in this initial, surface level interpretation. After all, to criticize a book because it doesn’t address a problem in one’s preferred set of terms is, at best, short-sighted and unproductive. And I am regularly frustrated by what often seems like a deliberate refusal in the anarchist milieu to read texts charitably.

One must be particularly vigilant in this respect when one is outside the presumed target audience. This book is a project of Gods & Radicals and is aimed largely at pagans and polytheists and so I am outside looking in.

On further consideration, I suspect that in many instances in this book the term “capitalism” could easily be replaced with “civilization” without altering the intended meaning; among this collection of passionate anti-capitalists is likely to be found many (although certainly not all) who would readily identify as being anti-civilization. That is to say that the term “capitalism” may have been chosen simply because it is the the current, dominant form of civilization. The person who complains about the boot on their throat isn’t necessarily unaware or unconcerned about the foot within that is applying the pressure.

Far worse than this semantic concern, Orr seems to have a muted idea of resistance betraying the very title of the book she is kicking off. She writes that “it is easy to dummy-spit with outrage” and explains “that listening-learning-talking-sharing is the greatest weapon against capitalism” as if the ongoing horrors were all a a big misunderstanding that might best be settled over tea (2). It seems absurd but it’s a common mistake. For example, Black Lives Matter organizers in Wichita, Kansas recently held a cookout with the local cops. BLM activist A.J. Bohannon said the purpose was to “get on the same page”.

Fortunately, I don’t believe this watered-down notion of resistance is representative of A Beautiful Resistance as a whole.

Despite these criticisms, the book contains many great pieces. In “We Are the Rude,” Rhyd Wildermuth starts with the commonplace experience of being uncomfortably crowded on a public bus or commercial flight and derives conclusions about the process of transforming peasant farmers into factory workers, the consequences of an artificially imposed morality, and widespread alienation from our bodies. He writes: “we have become like caged and severely disciplined animals punishing each other for taking up too much space in an increasingly Enclosed world.” (59) Wildermuth’s ability to identify and articulate the political dimension in commonplace experiences is an incredibly valuable skill for reaching an audience that might not already share his point of view.

Likewise, Alley Valkyrie starts with a widely circulated misconception regarding hay-fever allergies and pollen counts in the Willamette Valley. According to the myth, this has always been a problem to such an extent that the Kalapuya people referred to the Willamette Valley as the “valley of sickness”. Valkyrie exposes how this seemingly benign misinformation has served to cover over the genocide of the Kalapuya people and how smallpox (not pollen levels) decimated the population. Valkyrie writes that “in the midst of debunking the myth, I often sense something in the wind. I take it was a reminder that the land is always listening.” (18)

Sean Donahue’s contribution “Plant Magic” is explicitly aimed at “magical practitioners” but like many of the contributions in A Beautiful Resistance it is relevant to a far wider audience than it purports. Donahue criticizes the tendency to view plants as “inert objects” and condemns our culture for its “denial of the living intelligences of the other than human world.” (66)

There are too many valuable contributions to A Beautiful Resistance to single them all out but it would be an unforgivable omission not to mention at least one poem in a volume that contains several. Nimue Brown’s “Song of Swollen Cells” grapples with the impossible dilemma of how we viscerally engage a world that is already poisoned; considers how to love when the world is both life-giving and increasingly toxic. “How can I be Pagan and not / Raise the tainted cup to my lips” (24). Indeed, how can one be human?

If one is not a Pagan or a polytheist it might seem easy to dismiss this project as irrelevant. That would be a mistake.


The Sacred Sunrise

Note: this was first published in Black and Green Review #3

stained glass

“It’s easy to see without looking too far / That not much is really sacred”
Bob Dylan

Not much is really sacred. There is not much that causes us to pause or that we are willing to slow down for. There is not much that we stop to acknowledge, that we are willing to structure our lives around, or make sacrifices for. On top of that, there is little that won’t be tolerated; we live in an age without any visible limits and foolishly mistake it for freedom.

I. The Sunrise

Walking to the bus stop in the predawn hours, the sunrise is only minutes from bursting with hints of pink and orange already appearing on the horizon but the pace of my walking is uninterrupted for I have to catch a bus and get to work. The sunrise is not sacred as evident by the fact that I appreciate it only when it’s convenient and sometimes not even then. I don’t often make an effort to be present for it. In fact, to claim that part of the day for oneself would be widely perceived as unreasonable.

Instead of portioning our time and attention in accordance with what is important to us and the values we have arrived at through our own reflection and contemplation we are compelled or even coerced to portion our time according to economic demands and the capricious preferences of others; others who, as a rule, do not have our best interests in mind. Indeed, it is difficult enough to find time to even consider the question of what is important to us; it is a subversive and reckless thought.

But I wonder what it might be like to assert and make real the sacredness of the sunrise by structuring my day around it and avoiding commitments that would interfere, to stake a claim to that part of the day. Would life change after, say, a month’s time or a year’s time? Like anything, it would no doubt change in ways both better and worse. Not knowing where the preponderance of consequences fall is, at least partially, what paralyzes. Domesticated and docile creatures don’t readily tread into unpredictable places; we like to have things already mapped out for us. And so I get on the bus; I know where it goes and what to expect.

There is reason to believe that punishment for such an eccentric experiment would be severe whereas the anticipated rewards are vague and can be difficult to imagine. Tolstoy warned: “Try the experiment of ceasing to compromise conscience in order to retain your position [one’s job or social status], and you will lose it at once.”[1] But perhaps the loss of one’s position is precisely the unanticipated benefit that one is liable to discover through such an experiment. For it is our position in the queue that keeps us walking in lockstep; our fear of falling behind that keeps our eyes from looking up from our feet to the horizon.

What if this experiment were done not as an isolated individual but rather as a small community of people regularly gathering together and sharing the experience of the sunrise. I am tempted to speculate that the benefits would be multiplied and the harms greatly mitigated. Indeed, is this not why people have long gathered together in the presence of the sacred?

And yet, the sunrise is sacred signaling, as John Muir wrote that “the world, though made, is yet being made. That this is still the morning of creation.” [2] It is not only an iterated event that marks the beginning of each new day but from a different perspective it is an uninterrupted event that long preceded our individual existence and will continue long after our individual death. David Abram describes the sunrise as a wave endlessly circling the earth. Abram points out that “the leading edge of the dark [into which the sunrise advances] is indeed an audible as well as a visible line”[3] this is because the sunrise contains a chorus of birdsong. It is amongst the elements that make life on Earth possible. It makes our life possible even as we ignore it.

The sunrise is sacred. It is just that our actions and inattention profane it. What’s more is that our actions and our inattention insult our own convictions and make a farce of our claims to integrity.

II. Monasticism

There could be no more question of living just like everybody else in the world. There could be no more compromises with the life that tried, at every turn, to feed me poison.” -Thomas Merton [4]

I am not a Christian but despite the radically different worldview espoused by Christian monastics I find much to be gleaned from their lived example. Monastics have often very carefully considered how they will engage the world and many have seemingly found a way to do so, more or less, on their own terms and to their own satisfaction. Paradoxically they have done this by submitting to a rule. The Rule of St. Benedict (RB) has been the most widely used guide structuring western monastic life since it was written in the sixth century.

Few people I have met have seriously considered this question of how to engage the world so as to preserve and prioritize what is of value to themselves and virtually no one I know has even experimented with any potential solution or strategy. We consistently refuse to consider the question so as to foreclose the possibility of finding an answer and thereby avoid having to take any dramatic action.

The monastery may seem irrelevant or even escapist to those who are decidedly not only in the world be vehemently of the world as well. Addressing this point, Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun, writes:

Monasteries hardly seem like places from which to analyze the world. To go to the monastery, popular mythology has it, is to leave the world, not to get even more deeply involved with it. But it may be only from a distance that we see best.” [5]

There is no such thing as seeing the sunrise up close; it is the distance that makes the view possible. Only a fool runs toward the horizon in hopes of improving her vantage point or holding it in her hands. The most important thing to do is to stop and let the light come to you. But we are never given the opportunity to stop and reflect; civilization is simultaneously sedentary and frenetic.

The life of Trappist monk Thomas Merton lends support to Chittiser’s claim. Merton became both politically engaged and appreciative of the natural world only after entering the monastery. In a journal entry dated May 31, 1961, Merton writes:

The great work of sunrise again today. The awful solemnity of it. The sacredness…unbearable if you really put everything else aside and see what is happening! Many, no doubt, are vaguely aware that it is dawn: but they are protected from the solemnity of it by the neutralizing worship of their own society, their own world, in which the sun no longer rises and sets.” [6]

The world of modernity is a world where the sun no longer rises and sets. Electric lighting floods streets, homes, and workplaces during all hours. The blue glow of screen distorts and disrupts our sleep patterns. The time of day is now irrelevant and the demands on an individual no longer set with the sun. The phone can ring, or perhaps vibrate, at any hour. The internet is always there, always on. There is no chance to pause and consider “the awful solemnity” of “what is happening!”. Anyone who slows their pace will miss their bus and be left behind.

The life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer was in many ways radically different than that of Thomas Merton. Bonhoeffer did not live in a monastery; as a Protestant he belonged to a tradition that has largely been suspect of monasticism. He was not distant from the world in any way but rather was so immersed in its political machinations as to be a part of the Resistance in Nazi Germany and a co-conspirator in multiple plots to kill Adolf Hitler. His thinking about the Sermon on the Mount and the commandment “thou shall not kill” was not formed and evaluated in the abstract but in the most worldly and urgent context of the Holocaust.

Nonetheless, he founded a seminary in Finkenwalde that incorporated many monastic-like elements and has been quoted as saying that the “restoration of the church will surely come from a sort of new monasticism.” [7]

In Life Together, Bonhoeffer outlined a form of communal living that was experimented with at Finkenwalde. It included a regimented schedule allotting time for both community and solitude and prescribing practices such as singing, service to others, manual labor, and confession. “Bonhoeffer’s vision of life together for Christians was monastic in its inspiration and in its structure. Though Bonhoeffer’s life was cut shorty by the Nazis, it is likely he desired to set up a proper monastic community” [8]

It should be not perplexing that Bonhoeffer and like-minded colleagues posed a lethal threat to Hitler. It is often only after serious contemplation of one’s values and mindfully structuring one’s life accordingly that one is able to pose a serious threat to the evil in the world. It is one reason we are told to keep moving, keep clicking, keep scrolling, keep working; it is so we ourselves may never pose such a threat.

And despite being thoroughly immersed in worldly affairs and living in a time of genocide, Bonhoeffer remained open to the beauty available to him. Writing to his parents from a Nazi prison Bonhoeffer: “Here in the prison yard a song thrush sings wonderfully in the morning…one becomes grateful for small things.” [9]. In a time of ecocide and collapse, we might do well to heed the example.

III. Contemplating Wildness

To understand contemplation correctly, we need to go back to its original meaning. Step out into the dark night, raise your eyes to the starry sky, and you will experience what contemplation was before it had a name.” -David Steindl-Rast [10]

Turning away from Christianity to perhaps what might be more familiar terrain. In The Abstract Wild, Jack Turner writes: “I am concerned with preserving the authority of wild nature, or, more precisely, the authority of its presence in our experience and, hence, the structure of our lives.” [11]

Turner is a Buddhist and not an anarchist, and so may not squirm at the use of the word “authority”. Indeed, the term may be off putting not just to anarchists but to anyone with a passing familiarity of the authoritarian regimes of the twentieth century. Despite the semantic similarity, “the authority of wild nature” is not the authority that anarchists are committed to resist, dismantle, and destroy. It is no more oppressive than gravity.

To yield to the authority of wild nature could easily be construed as a central tenet of anarcho-primitivism. Unlike almost every other political ideology, anarcho-primitivism aims to give up power rather than seize it; to lessen the power of human beings over nature, to make human beings more rather than less vulnerable to nature; to both lose and find ourselves in the wider world.

Merton explained that in the monastery it was the flawed who stood out while the excellent disappeared into anonymity.

Excellence, here, was in proportion to obscurity: the one who was best was the one who was least observed, least distinguished. Only faults and mistakes drew attention to the individual…the complete opposite to the logic of the world.” [12]

In this passage, Merton could just as easily be describing how it is the sickly or injured animal that often nourishes the predator thereby enhancing the overall fitness of the herd. There is an advantage to being the “least observed”.

In the wild, we would likely also disappear into anonymity known only to our friends, family, and small community. There could be no aspiration to celebrity, fame, or even historical significance; there would be respect and influence but not the systematic domination that characterizes contemporary society.

Where the modern world seeks to solve every problem it has created by extending its control, anarcho-primitivists seek to loosen the grip; to move from a human-dominated world to a world where humans are but one thread in a greater whole. The only power human beings could rightfully aspire to would be as participants in wild nature rather than over wild nature. But it should not be overlooked that to loosen one’s grip is an act of faith and an exercise in vulnerability.

There are what could be construed as assurances from anthropologists, ecologists, and other experts whose testimony could serve to give us confidence that in letting go we will be safe. But there is no certainty to be had.

In more concrete language, it is for this reason that anarcho-primitivists are, for example, generally not overly excited about the prospect of solar power or other technological solutions to ecological catastrophe or what we might view as the desecration of the earth. I for one do not want to harness the sun or hoard its daily offering. I do not have to believe in a Creator-god or a deity of any sort to approve of the idea that the sun shines and the rain falls “on the just and the unjust” alike (Matthew 5:45) rather than being paid for and parceled out. Every time we apply the harness to extend our domination and power, something or somebody dies and the world is diminished. The world must be understood as our larger body and consequently we are diminished.

We don’t need to own the sun to enjoy it. Co-author of Bendict’s Way Lonni Collins Pratt writes:

Owning sets us up for a fall because it imparts a false sense of security. After all, ownership is not the same as ultimate control. Our white-knuckled grip on possessions won’t keep away wind, fire, and economic disaster. Uninvited birds will land in the tree we own as if the thing belongs to them.” [13]

Deeper into The Abstract Wild, Turner laments “our tendency to tolerate everything”. Making his point he writes:

We accept living with nuclear weapons, toxic wastes, oil spills, rape, murder, starvation, smog, racism, teenage suicide, torture, mountains of garbage, genocide, dams, dead lakes, and the daily loss of species. Most of the time we don’t even think about it.” [14]

If we don’t think about the sacred it is no wonder that we don’t think about what desecrates it. We don’t think about what is important to us and we portion our time and energy according to the whims of others. Merton wrote that most are only “vaguely aware that it is dawn” and Bonhoeffer asked: “What do we, who no longer have any fear or awe of the darkness or night, know about the great joy that our forebears…felt every morning at the return of the light?” [15]

Tolstoy wrote that “We can live for a hundred years without noticing that we have long been dead and have rotted away.” [16] We are dead to the world when we fail to notice the brilliance of something as readily and regularly available to us as the sunrise. We are dead to ourselves when we fail to allocate any time or effort on considering our own desires and interests and then zealously pursuing them. It is not necessary to swallow the whole of Christian doctrine or to enter a monastery in order to gain from their example. But we must recognize that we are alive before we start to rot.


[1] Leo Tolstoy, Leo Tolstoy: Spiritual Writings Charles Moore (ed.) (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2006), p. 23.

[2] John Muir, Travels in Alaska (1915) Chapter 5 <http://vault.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/writings/travels_in_alaska/chapter_5.aspx>

[3] David Abram, Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology (New York: Pantheon Books, 2010), p. 183.

[4] Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain (New York: Harcourt, 1948), p. 300

[5] Joan Chittister, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2009), p.7.

[6] Thomas Merton, Turning Toward the World: The Pivotal Years (The Journals of Thomas Merton, Volume 4: 1960-1963) (San Francisco: HarperOne, 1997), p. 123.

[7] Quoted in Greg Peters, The Story of Monasticism: Retrieving an Ancient Tradition for Contemporary Spirituality (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015), p. 232.

[8] Id., p. 233

[9] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 8), (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), p. 57.

[10] David Steindl-Rast. Afterword. Benedict’s Dharma: Buddhists Reflect on the Rule of St. Benedict By Patrick Henry (New York: Riverhead Books, 2002), p. 126.

[11] Jack Turner, The Abstract Wild (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1996), p. xiii.

[12] Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain (New York: Harcourt, 1948), p. 330

[13] Lonni Collins Pratt & Daniel Homan, Benedict’s Way: An Ancient Monk’s Insights for a Balanced Life (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2001), p.101

[14] Jack Turner, The Abstract Wild (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1996), p. 19-20.

[15] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 5) (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), p. 49.

[16] Leo Tolstoy, Leo Tolstoy: Spiritual Writings Charles Moore (ed.) (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2006), p. 177.

Birds and Pedestrians

David Allen Sibley begins the third chapter of his book Sibley’s Birding Basics by quoting the inimitable Yogi Berra: “You can observe a lot by just watching” (21). The focus of this portion of Sibley’s book is evident in the chapter title, “The Challenges to Bird Identification.” Sibley addresses the significance of field marks, relative versus proportional differences between species, the overall gestalt of a bird, and more. He repeatedly stresses the fact that there is no substitute for experience in the field.

By the end of the chapter, he writes “the expert may seem to have a mystical ability to discern detail and make an identification when you can see only a blur…[but] we all perform equivalent feats every day” (37) [italics added]. By equivalent feats, Sibley is referring to how, for example, we can recognize a friend in an instant and can do so even if our view is largely obscured. Sometimes a unique mannerism or a distinctive gait is sufficient to reveal a close acquaintance’s identity even from a significant distance. This commonplace skill is well within most people’s grasp but can seem, as he says, almost mystical when it is consciously honed and directed toward an unfamiliar subject such as birds.

Most people do not spend a significant amount of time outdoors—time “in the field” as Sibley writes—and so as ubiquitous as birds are they remain unfamiliar. Indeed, it was recently reported that “[t]hree-quarters of UK children spend less time outside than prison inmates.” This was partly attributed to “lack of green spaces and the lure of digital technology.” I recently gained some insight into this fact when leading a group of children on a nature walk through a local park. One of the kids told me how very much he was looking forward to seeing the Angry Birds movie later that afternoon. It’s unclear how many birds he noticed while walking through the park.

For the civilized, the natural world itself is largely unfamiliar and can often appear simply as an undifferentiated green mass of vegetation. The ability to identify birds is often limited to identifying a flying animal as a bird and no more. It can therefore be understood as an act of resistance to look closer and attempt to discern what is going on; to see both the forest and the trees, the species and the individual. Even modest progress in this regard is incredibly rewarding as it has the potential to make our shrinking world big again and to reveal the diversity still present in an increasingly homogenized world.

Like other domesticated animals, our senses have severely atrophied and abilities that were once widespread can now seem almost unimaginable.

Sibley writes:

The beginner [birder] might see just a flock of ducks. By identifying the species of ducks you will come to appreciate the fact that each one is not “just another duck.” By looking still more closely, you will appreciate that individuals of each species, such as the Mallard, are not “just Mallards”…a world of information is opened up.” (21)

Compare this with philosopher Iris Murdoch’s assertion that:

love is the perception of individuals. Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.”

It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to love an undifferentiated mass of green. And when all birds are simply birds, there will be little recognition of how many are struggling to survive or even on the verge of extinction.

As it happens, our failure and/or inability to look, notice, and discern is not just a threat to other animals; it is increasingly a threat to ourselves.

The corollary to Yogi Berra’s insight is that one can miss a lot by not watching and not looking. It is one thing to miss the subtle field marks of a particular bird but in a growing number of cases people who have succumbed to the “lure of digital technology” are failing to note not-so-subtle oncoming cars, buses, and even trains. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons recently commissioned a study on “distracted walking” and has sponsored television and radio PSAs titled “Digital Deadwalkers”. A study from Ohio State reported that in 2010 over 1,500 pedestrians required emergency room treatment for injuries attributable to distracted walking. The total number of injuries is thought to be many, many times higher than that figure. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration estimates that in 2010 distracted pedestrians may have contributed to 4,200 pedestrian deaths and 70,000 traffic injuries.

The situation has gotten so bad, the number of inattentive people being killed by stepping in front of oncoming traffic has become so great, that a train station in Germany is experimenting with a potential design solution.

Recognizing that “the gaze of pedestrians has steadily moved downward as they stare at their phones”, the streetcar stations in Augsburg, Germany are installing flashing red lights on floor of the stations. Posted signs are no longer in many people’s shrinking field of view and so it is hoped that lights of the floor might alert smartphone users before they are about to be hit by a streetcar.

In 1958, Laurens van der Post said that the San/Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert had a connection to nature that “could almost be described as mystical” (quoted in John Zerzan’s Future Primitive Revisited, p. 14) In a civilized context, merely distinguishing one bird from another strikes most people as mystical. Soon it seems, the ability to peer beyond the screen of one’s phone to avoid an oncoming train might seem mystical.

Truly there is no substitute—digital or otherwise—for time “in the field”.