Following the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, political pundits and politicians are busy rallying their respective bases about the importance of the next Supreme Court appointment and, more specifically, about who is going to get to make that appointment: the current president or a future president. Everyone, of course, wants someone from their own side to make the decision. Democrats want it to be Obama while Republicans hope to delay the process until they might secure the presidency for themselves.
In an article at The Huffington Post, law professor Adam Sulkowski lists a myriad of issues that are apt to be affected by a future Supreme Court and, driving the point home, writes that “The new SCOTUS justice will help decide the safety of the air we breathe”. It is no doubt true and it is no doubt absurd.
Sulkowski’s point is that it’s vitally important who holds this position; at least for those of us who “want to breathe” or “drink water”.
It’s vitally important who holds this position! That’s the message we hear whether we are talking about the Supreme Court, the presidency, the local sheriff, or the high school hall monitor. We need good people, or more accurately our people, in positions of power. There is some truth to it but the most effective propaganda generally contains some truth. If, as Picasso reportedly said, “art is a lie that tells the truth”; propaganda is very often truth in the service of a lie.
This is the shell game of mass society; the names are always changing and it’s important for you to take a side.
But if you’re fully invested in fighting over who gets to decide how safe it will be to breathe the air; you will likely overlook the absurdity of a system in which one person—or possibly a very small group of people—has such power. There was a time when humans beings didn’t have such power and didn’t make such decisions; it coincided with a time when we could take a deep breath without fear and without poison.
There are seven types of shit. I mean that literally. There are seven types of human feces. Researchers have established a schema for sorting stools into seven distinctive types. The Bristol Stool Chart was developed in 1997 assigns a number one through seven to bowel movements. The numbers span a spectrum from watery, diarrhea on one end to hard, constipated stools on the other end. For those keeping score, numbers four and five and considered healthy stools.
The Bristol Stool Chart has trickled down from researchers to medical professionals to caretakers and even to a small number of overly-fastidious laypeople. In fact, I had considered a joke about a future Bristol Stool Chart phone app but then soon discovered that it already exists. Those interested in the app may be disappointed to learn that it is really just the chart made available on your phone (“Brings the famous Bristol Stool Scale to your fingertips!” – hopefully you’re wearing gloves) coupled with a place to document (archive?) your movements and perhaps boast of your regularity. In the future one would hope that you might have the ability take a picture of your stool and have it categorized for you in the same way that someone can point their phone at a constellation in the sky and be told its name. This would go a long way toward minimizing the amount of subjectivity that still remains in using the scale.
More seriously though, the developers of the Bristol Stool Chart originally believed that the classification would correspond with the transit time of fecal material through the bowels. This claim has been called into question but the chart remains as a way for professionals and others to talk more precisely about the bowel movements of their patients and those in their care.
In the 2014 film The Giver starring Jeff Bridges (based on the 1993 book by Lois Lowry), one of the founding principles of the dystopian future society depicted in the film was “precision of language”. Mass society requires precise language in order to function. Indeed, complex phenomena may even need to be simplified for the purpose of capturing it with precise language. In the film, the protagonist uses the word “love” and is quickly reprimanded for deviating from the principle of precise language. To offer a real world example, in 1950 Alan Turing wrote that:
I believe that at the end of the century the use of words and general educated opinion will have altered so much that one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted.
John Zerzan has often pointed out that this passage from Turing does not speak to the ability of machines to think rather Turing’s prediction concerns how people will have changed so as to more closely resemble machines. If machines cannot be made into brains, it may be far easier to make brains resemble machines.
The Bristol Stool Chart provides the precise language necessary for a society where many people are going to be discussing and in some way vested in your bowel movements and/or where you may need to report the nature, frequency, time, and size of your bowel movements to professionals of various sorts. It is easier to report having a “medium sized, type 4” than to get to vivid (the phone app claims to “make it easy to discuss your bowel movements with your doctor”). Furthermore, “medium sized, type 4” is something that can be (and will be) quickly entered into a form or computer program because not only does information have to be relayed from person to person, specialist to specialist, but it needs to be stored and tracked over time. Precise language allows things to be more readily quantified.
“The processing of large quantities of information is an essential aspect of complex societies, and indeed the need for this processing is probably one of the reasons that such societies came into existence.” (Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies, p. 99).
In this way, this silly chart that compares shit to sausages and snakes, can be understood as a technology that makes mass society possible. In smaller scale societies, people obviously know that diarrhea and constipation are undesirable and that it may be indicative of overall gastrointestinal health and yet they are somehow able to make do without articulating seven categories of shit.
Confined in crowded conditions chickens will violently peck one another due to the stress. Pigs will bite each other’s ears and tails. The animal agriculture industry’s answer to such problems is to simply cut off the tails and blunt the teeth of piglets prior to confinement so as to minimize so-called “carcass damage” which translates into profit loss. Chickens have the ends of their beaks seared off with a hot blade in a process known as debeaking or sometimes, euphemistically, as beak trimming. The animals are mutilated so as to better fit the industrialized food system while creating minimal friction (i.e. profit loss).
The article accompanying Wolf’s photos explains:
“In the United States, we’re spoiled with space. Even in New York City, where it can sometimes feel as though you’re walking on top of the person in front of you, we have the luxury of expansive parks and comparatively well-sized apartments. To live in Hong Kong is truly to live in a mega-city, where your apartment building can have a population greater than entire towns in Nebraska.”
Like the creation of large scale factory farms, the creation of Hong Kong’s massive high rises is a strategy to maximize profit with attention to the biological needs of the captives being limited to what does and doesn’t interefere with the pursuit of profit:
“The driving force behind Hong Kong’s expansive high-rise culture is purely economic. To maximize revenue, the government needs to keep the land expensive, which means they need to keep it rare. Contractors will bid on a small plot of land, driving the price up, and whoever wins has the choice: Do you build high or low?”
All the economic incentives are in favor of density: packing people into high rises, packing chickens into battery cages. It’s amazing we humans aren’t pecking each other to death…but then again maybe we are.
The consequences of living in such dense spaces and at such vast scales is difficult to determine. Not surprisingly, crude experiments have been carried out on other animals but these have not proven to be conclusive. Most notable are the experiments of John B. Calhoun.
In 1962, Calhoun published “Population Density and Social Pathology” in Scientific American. Calhoun created self contained “rodent universes” (his term) that initially provided for the basic needs of the confined animals but simultaneously set the stage for rapid population growth and severe overcrowding. The results included sexual deviancy, aggression, mothers neglecting or even attacking their pups—in Calhoun’s words “going berserk”. Infant mortality reached levels as high as 96 percent in some groups.
“Like Pavlov’s dogs or Skinner’s pigeons, Calhoun’s rats came to assume a near-iconic status as emblematic animals, exemplary of the ways in which behavioral experimentation at once marks and violates the human-animal distinction.” (source)
Calhoun was criticized—by J.Z. Young, amongst others—for carelessly extrapolating results from his highly controlled rodent experiments to human society.
Experiments with human subjects carried out by psychologist Jonathan Freedman in 1975 reportedly did not find similarly negative results. Additional studies since that time have seized on numerous variables as to why different people either succeed or fail to cope with dense living environments. In short, the same density does not affect every person in the same way or to the same extent (in fact, not every rat was affected in the same way or to the same extent in Calhoun’s experiments). Much of the stress that is reported is attributed to an excessive amount of unwanted social interaction; some people are better able to manage social interaction and can create their own sense of personal space despite being in a high density population. (source)
But to adequately consider the question of density, it is important not to overlook what might be considered to be the indirect harms of density such as noise and other forms of pollution. These things do negatively affect dense populations even if the subjective experience reported by some individuals being in a densely populated space remains positive. A recent study conducted by NASA scientists and published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology established a link between population density (as opposed to simple population size) and air pollution. And an editorial in The New York Times recently cited a study of people living near airports which found that even those who reported sleeping soundly and being undisturbed by airplane noise exhibited “blood pressure spikes, increased pulse rates, and set off vasoconstriction and the release of stress hormones”.
So in the absence of definitive answers, we are left to ponder the photography of Michael Wolf. Wolf, in fact, does not view the density of the high rises as dystopian. He currently lives in a 21 story building and describes the experience of “look[ing] out on a sea of 5000 apartments” as “fascinating”. While I think his photos are indeed fascinating, I see them as fascinating in the same way that turning over a rock and seeing countless crawling creatures quickly scatter is fascinating.
I can’t help but think that only badly mutilated or severely stunted animals—human or nonhuman–could live in such spaces; that we are being mutilated for the sake of a larger system and that such density limits our potential. Like battery chickens, we spend our whole life without the freedom to spread our wings.
Note: John B. Calhoun began his career at Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine. Jackson Laboratory was the subject of a previous post..
Medical Historian Examines NIMH Experiments in Crowding
Escaping the Laboratory: The Rodent Experiments of John B. Calhoun and Their Cultural Influence
The Urban Animal: Population Density and Social Pathology in Rodents and Humans
Psychological Musings: The Effects of Population Density and Noise