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To Those Born Later

In english, sometimes the poem is called “Posterity” and other times “To Those Who Follow in Our Wake.” But in my edition of Brecht’s poems, it’s called “To Those Born Later.” It was written in 1939 during his exile in Denmark.

The poem is easily found on the web. It’s nothing to copy and paste it into a blog post. These days the poems of Bertolt Brecht, especially those from the late 1930s and 1940s, have a resonance so strong you can feel the vibrations emanating from the bookcase.

Rather than copying and pasting the text, I wanted the feel of the poem as it appeared character by character as I typed it on my keyboard. In these dark times, it’s difficult to talk of trees. Words fall into a riptide that pulls them rapidly out to sea. I imagine even the trees have difficulty talking of trees.

 

To Those Born Later
By Bertolt Brecht
I
Truly, I live in dark times!
The guileless word is folly. A smooth forehead
Suggests insensitivity. The man who laughs
Has simply not yet had
The terrible news.

What kind of times are they, when
A talk about trees is almost a crime
Because it implies silence about so many horrors?
That man there calmly crossing the street
Is already perhaps beyond the reach of his friends
Who are in need?

It is true I still earn my keep
But, believe me, that is only an accident. Nothing
I do gives me the right to eat my fill.
By chance I’ve been spared. (If my luck breaks, I am lost.)

They say to me: Eat and drink! Be glad you have it!
But how can I eat and drink if I snatch what I eat
From the starving, and
My glass of water belongs to one dying of thirst?
And yet I eat and drink.

I would also like to be wise.
In the old books it says what wisdom is:
To shun the strife of the world and to live out
Your brief time without fear
Also to get along without violence
To return good for evil
Not to fulfill your desires but to forget them
Is accounted wise.
All this I cannot do:
Truly, I live in dark times.

II
I came to the cities in a time of disorder
When hunger reigned there.
I came among men in a time of revolt
And I rebelled with them.
So passed my time
Which had been given to me on earth.

My food I ate between battles
To sleep I lay down among murderers
Love I practiced carelessly
And nature I looked at without patience.
So passed my time
Which had been given to me on earth.

All roads led into the mire in my time.
My tongue betrayed me to the butchers.
There was little I could do. But those in power
Sat safer without me: that was my hope
So passed my time
Which had been given to me on earth.

Our forces were slight. Our goal
Lay far in the distance
It was clearly visible, though I myself
Was unlikely to reach it.
So passed my time
Which had been given to me on earth.

III
You who will emerge from the flood
In which we have gone under
Remember.
When you speak of our failings
The dark time too
Which you have escaped.

For we went, change countries oftener than our shoes
Through the wars of the classes, despairing
When there was injustice only, and no rebellion

And yet we know:
Hatred, even of meanness
Contorts the features.
Anger, even against injustice
Makes the voice hoarse. Oh, we
Who wanted to prepare the ground for friendliness
Could not ourselves be friendly.

But you, when the time comes at last
And man is a helper to man
Think of us
With forbearance.

MOTTO
In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About the dark times.

Test Your Strength

test-strength

Sometimes there’s just a little glint of something in the sand. A quotation is brought in to the stream of the conversation and it’s meant to provide support for some point being put across in an answer to an interviewer’s question.

In Tim Bradshaw’s Financial Times interview with Larry Harvey, one of the founders of Burning Man, it’s the moment when he pulls Milton Friedman into the conversation. The question has to do with whether or not ideas from Burning Man have entered the larger culture. Harvey responds:

I’d like to mischievously quote Milton Friedman. He said change only happens in a crisis, and then that actions that are undertaken depend on the ideas that are just lying around.

I don’t know the origin of the quote or whether it’s accurate or not. While I didn’t have much use for the rest of the article, I did find the Friedman quote intriguing. On the one hand we could make the case that the ideas we find lying around are the result of some historical process and therefore predetermined by their predecessors. The other case is that these ideas are lying around for a variety of reasons. Some are bought and paid for, others are the result of conspiracy theories, some are just random trends. Probably the truth lies somewhere between the two. As I look around me at the ideas lying around, that one seems to fit the bill.

When we consider Friedman’s idea about crisis and action and apply it to global warming, we run into a problem of scale. According to Friedman, action occurs when we perceive the crisis. As the crisis reveals itself, we humans look to the ideas lying around and hope to find something that might serve to blunt its force. Global warming is a large wave overwhelming the biosphere. While it may not be possible to pinpoint the exact moment this wave began gathering its force, certainly it’s a trans-generational event. The patenting of the steam engine (1781) serves as a useful marker of global warming’s beginning.

Objects of this size and complexity have been given the name hyperobjects by philosopher Timothy Morton. Even our ability to directly detect the crisis is limited. We require a global network of sensors, computer climate models and a good measure of inference. The size and momentum of the global warming wave begs the question as to whether the ideas we might find lying around could possibly counter something of this size.

We look for an idea to counter strength with strength. We might believe through the use of leverage, physics and ingenuity we can create a force sufficient to provide an answer. Our instinct tells us that size and momentum of global warming must be overmastered.

In addition to the word “hyperobjects” Timothy Morton also has given us an idea of the value of “hypocrisy, weakness and lameness.” When confronted with something as large and powerful as global warming, perhaps we should take a different tack. Dinosaurs were the most powerful animals on earth during another global climate event. Strength didn’t result in survival. Perhaps as we look at the ideas lying around, we shouldn’t assume that it’s strength that will get us out of this crisis. To evade the power of a hyperobject, we may need to reverse our instincts and get small.

McBurney’s Encounter: Real-Time Complicity

simon

You are complicit. Or, you could be. We say this phrase from a stance of pure innocence. You didn’t personally commit an evil act, but some of your actions and attitudes are so resonant with this evil, that you must be complicit. Because I am not complicit, I can say that you are. But complicity is a slippery thing. It jumps the gaps and implicates us when we least expect it.

I like this definition:

Involvement as an accomplice in a questionable act or a crime.

As an “accomplice” your participation may be direct or indirect, but what I particularly like is this idea of a “questionable act.” An act of uncertainty—is it an evil act or not? “The Encounter?” Is it a questionable act?

We all have the opportunity to be complicit, in real time, on Tuesday, March 1, 2016, at 7:30pm GMT (11:30am PT). That’s when Simon McBurney’s extraordinary theater company, “Complicite” will perform “The Encounter” via live stream.

The cutting-edge technology of the virtual reality headset attempts to give you a virtual world in a bottle. But what McBurney and Complicite offer is more than that, they’re playing with the stuff of reality itself. The audience is required to wear a headset, but in this case, it’s a pair of headphones.

“…my hand, groping around the universe, has torn a corner open… why did I tear the corner open, if I’m not prepared for the encounter?”

Twenty years ago Simon McBurney was given a book.

Written by a Romanian who escaped the Ceaușescu regime to reinvent himself as a Los Angeles screenwriter, the book, Amazon Beaming, tells the story of photographer Loren McIntyre, who, in 1969, found himself lost amongst the remote people of the Javari Valley, on the border between Brazil and Peru. It was an encounter that changed his life: bringing the limits of human consciousness into startling focus.

Complicite’s technical team has wired the performance space with 600 pairs of headphones. Simon McBurney performs to a microphone that looks like your head. He whispers in this ear, then he moves around the space, and whispers in the other ear. (If you tune in to the live stream, be sure to wear headphones. That way you can experience “spooky action at a distance.”)

Here is a clip from The Guardian to give you an idea of what it’s like:

Judged purely as a sonic experiment, the show is an astonishing technical feat. Amiably chatting to the audience and asking us to put ourselves in the mind of McIntyre, McBurney asks us to don headphones that relay information from a binaural microphone. This results in a complex aural mix of live and recorded sound. At one point, we hear the whirr of the Cessna aircraft that deposits McIntyre in the jungle. At another, McBurney simulates the sound of walking through the forest by trampling on a mass of recording tape. But the heart of the story concerns McIntyre’s encounter with the nomadic Mayoruna tribe, and his dependence on his close relationship with the head shaman, known as Barnacle, with whom he communicates in a way that transcends language.

This is what real-time technology has the capability to create. But technology only gives what we ask of it. McBurney and the Complicite team ask for the moon, the stars, and the jungle. A work of this magnitude begs the question, who should be asking technology for the next new thing? Should it really be the technologists themselves?

Dead Fox: Breaking Glass

echo-narcissus

We do a lot of our thinking through glass and mirrors. We want our words to properly reflect the world. We insist that as we observe the world, our glasses should be free from any rose-colored tint. And when a glass knowingly distorts the world, we ask that it be properly labeled.

objects-in-mirror

Philosopher, Tim Morton, uses the passenger-side wing mirror of the America car to talk about the rift between an object and its aesthetic appearance. This is how he describes it in the introduction to his book, “Realist Magic: Objects, Ontology, Causality.”

Objects In Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear

An ontological insight is engraved onto the passenger side wing mirrors of every American car: Objects in Mirror are Closer than They Appear. What we take to be the object “behind” its appearance is really a kind of perspective trick caused by habitual normalization of the object in question. It is my habitual casual relation with it that makes it seem to sink into the background. This background is nothing other than an aesthetic effect—it’s produced by the interaction of 1+n objects. The aesthetic dimension implies the existence of at least one withdrawn object.

Another way of talking about this “habitual normalization of the object” is to reverse the surface/depth binary. Traditionally, the real is deep underneath and the surface is the accident of a temporary condition. Objects behave normally when they occupy a clear place in one’s performance of habit. Weird distortions of appearance are surface phenomena that will clear out given enough time. Morton reverses these observations. Objects undergo a distorting normalization in our everyday lives. It’s when objects become unfamiliar and weird that their deeper reality clearly begins to show itself not as deeper, but as closer than their appearance.

clown-mirror

While traveling for his many speaking engagements, Morton finds himself in unfamiliar cities, displaced time zones and strange hotel rooms. The real intrudes, not as a comforting solidity, but rather as a “hallucinatory clown.”

Objects in mirror are closer than they appear. This is the real trouble. The real trouble is that my familiar light switches and plug sockets—or rather my familiar relations to these objects—is only an ontic prejudice, an illusion. The REALITY is what I see as the illusion-like, hallucinatory clowns that lurch towards me, gesturing and beckoning (but what are they saying?).

The incident that brought me back to glass and mirrors was listening to a song by Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett called “Dead Fox.” It has a chorus with the lyrics,

If you can’t see me, I can’t see you.

The lyric refers to the sign you’ll see on commercial trucks warning other drivers in the proximity that if you can’t see the truck driver’s wing mirror, then he can’t see you. And therefore, he will behave as though you don’t exist, after all, you’ve had fair warning.

cant-see-you

We imagine the possibility of a cyborg future and think of some strange grafting of machine to flesh. But perhaps it’s much simpler than that. Our first instantiation as a cyborg was with the broad distribution and ownership of the automobile. We’re never more human than when our access to the world is limited to the view through glass and mirrors. The car gives us all that and the ability to move much faster than an ordinary human.

Courtney Barnett’s “Dead Fox” presents a cartoon of the reality of our cyborg existence. We head down the highway splattering roadkill across the blacktop. Pollen floats into the car causing a sneeze resulting in a dangerous swerve. A truck driver checks his mirrors and then passes on the wrong side without signaling. Because if “you can’t see me, I can’t see you.” Esse est percipi.

Heading down the Highway Hume

Somewhere at the end of June

Taxidermied kangaroos are lifted on the shoulders

A possum Jackson Pollock is painted in the tar

Sometimes I think a single sneeze could be the end of us

My hay-fever is turning up, just swerved into a passing truck

Big business overtaking

Without indicating

He passes on the right, been driving through the night

To bring us the best price

Morton’s passenger wing mirror tells us something about objects outside of our habitual day-to-day life. We normalize objects into a background upon which a weird reality floats. Barnett’s mirror gives us a sense of the absurd tunnel vision we’ve forced upon ourselves—we barely even see the roadkill we’ve “jackson pollocked” across the tar. Big business tells us that unless we can see their mirror, we’re standing in the wrong place. And if we’re standing in the wrong place, we’d better give them a wide berth.

The temptation is to go around breaking glass as though it were to blame for the use we make of it. But Morton and Barnett show us that we only need to let the weirdness of glass come to the surface. Somehow we’ll need to forge a new alliance with glass – perhaps moving beyond perfect transparency and reflection to imperfection and distortion. If we turn this thought and look at it from a slightly different angle, we can talk about developing an appreciation for the beauty of translation.

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