Monday, April 24, 2017

PREVIEW: “Here, kitty, kitty” and the toothy vagina: Ellen Ripley

I'm previewing chapters from the book draft on women in film. Each selection will stay up for a couple of days, and I'm linking it to facebook so my friends can give feedback. There may be a bit ofr background reading missing, because I've left off the Preface and Introduction. The [EXT] brackets are typesetter formatting, indicating a block quote.  Peace.

In 1979, the prolific director-producer Ridley Scott won the Saturn Award for best Director and best Science Fiction drama for his breakthrough movie Alien. Alien was not an homage piece like Star Wars, a PG version of outer space Samurai. Alien was an R-rated space movie that started out with the volume turned way down.
Most of us know the story itself: cargo space freighter diverts to planetoid to check out strange signal; a recon team checks out a strange structure; one member of the team is facially impregnated with an alien being which is brought on board to terrorize the crew; crew fights briefly and ineffectually against killer alien until one crew member—second mate Ellen Ripley becomes the last survivor; Ripley sets the main ship to nuclear self-destruct, boards the “life raft” shuttle; escapes; final plot twist, the alien has slipped on board the “life raft,” and Ripley finally—in a tense scene—has to kill it.
Like I said, the film starts out low key. There is a languid wake-up sequence, followed by a casual breakfast scene, and only then does the orchestra tune up the darkly foreshadowing, melodramatic background music. The landing encounters trouble, and the crew finds itself in a damaged craft on a howling, stormy, dark planet that looks for all the world like a Hieronymus Bosch night scene. Damage to the landing craft (the mother ship, called “Mother” when spoken to via voice-computer, but named Nostromo, after a dark Joseph Conrad novel, is still in orbit) is not catastrophic. They will be stuck on this inhospitable planet for seventeen hours to do repairs.
Meanwhile, let’s go check out this signal. It is not until executive Officer Kane, after the recon party enters the apparently crashed alien craft, has an exoskeletal scorpion-crab-like thing leap up and attach itself to his face, right through his space helmet, that the real action gets kicked up. Thirty-five minutes into the movie, which in movie time is like . . . thirteen years or so. As I said, Scott takes his time in the build-up. From there, of course, it quickly ascends to the violent climax, resolution, and dénouement.
In the film, Warrant Officer Ripley—at first a minor character—begins to emerge, first with a humorous remark to a colleague to “fuck off,” taking her out of Princess Leia territory posthaste, and establishing her as a “modern” (future) woman. The recon team returns with Captain Dallas, Navigator Lambert, and the injured Kane; and Ripley is the senior person on board, coming into her own now as a character by refusing entry to the angry Captain Dallas and Lambert(the film’s other woman character), who have hauled the unconscious and Thing-colonized Kane back to the shuttle. So, yeah, Ripley is capable of making the tough decisions under pressure. This is the point at which many viewers begin to see Ripley as a potential feminist icon.
Though she screams at least three times (I’d scream under the same circumstances, I suppose), she also demonstrates courage in the battle with the alien-monster, decisiveness in developing a tactic to get away (though it fails for all but her), and runs around steely-eyed and sweat-streaked with a flaming gun in her hand.
In the final confrontation, she again gets hold of something like a spear gun (what it is for on a space ship we can’t say), with which she dispatches the monster by (in her androgynous idiom) “blowing it to fuck out into space.” Stern, tough-talking, decisive, willing to kick ass, and carrying phallic weapons. Feminist, right?
Let’s begin with one key fact. Ridley Scott is not now and has never been feminist in any meaningful sense of the term, though he knows how to profitably ride cultural waves. He is a skilled filmmaker, who knows how to build dramatic tension; and in this film, he also knows how to run a kind of psychoanalytic subtext that captures the audience’s sexual subconscious at the same time they are cognitively fixed on the mechanics of the plot. This film is positively brimming with post-Freudian, quasi-Lacanian sexual symbolism that speaks not to women’s emancipation, but to male disorientation in a high period of the feminist movement, with the trope of Monstrous Female alongside a heaping helping of manipulative, intentionally disorienting, sexual confusion.
[EXT]Most critiques, academic and otherwise, ultimately conclude that Alien is a feminist film because of its representation of the workplace as a home to equality and a place where traditional gender roles have been obliterated. But there’s something else lingering under the surface: fear. Not the fear of the devouring Alien, but a fear and anxiety of a future where the equalizing of the sexes might lead to the blending of sexual biology as well. What is ultimately revealed by Alien is the anxiety of men.[1][/EXT]
Even that single-word title, evocative of disorientation: Alien. Let’s go back and watch this movie now from the beginning.
Barbara Creed’s essay, “Horror and the Monstrous Feminine,”[2] begins with a little quote from the classic Hitchcock horror film Psycho: the revealed serial killer, Norman Bates, saying simply, “Mother’s not herself today.” In her book, entitled The Monstrous Feminine,[3] she describes the ways in which men have historically projected their weirdest fears onto women,[4] how this projected fear has been expressed in male myths, and how those male myths, as well as their assimilation by males in societies up to the present, have been reworked as psychoanalytic theory . . . which has also been assimilated and, as an effect of its assimilation, then become self-fulfilling. Man constructs psychoanalysis; (male) psychoanalysis constructs man (and woman).
In short, men have blamed women for everything wrong for quite some time, but this blame has been incorporated into our culturally-constructed symbolic grammar, so to speak, and thereby into our precognitive consciousness.[5] Creed relates her analysis of a goodly number of horror films (Alien included in that genre) to the notion of abjection, developed by Julia Kristeva, a European feminist, psychoanalyst, and philosopher. Abjection, not to wear readers out with the deeper exploration of this subtle and slightly arcane idea, is anything that disturbs our symbolic boundaries, especially the boundaries between subject and object. In Freud and Lacan and other psychoanalysts, the person/patient is the subject and everything outside it, including people, are objects for one thing or another, especially for the satisfaction of often unrecognized desires. Abjection throws us off, disorients us. Poo-poo and corpses and blood and such have this effect.[6]
Women and mothers are ripe for this, especially among squeamish men, because . . . well, (whispers) menstruation. And childbirth. And changing shitty diapers. And the conflicted feelings people all have about Mom, because in six thousand years of male dominated society, every relation to Mom between her and her kids is a set-up for psychological confusion. So we both love and blame Mom, and we have all these conflicted feelings . . . especially boys. Because as soon as possible, we push boys to reject anything girl, and to dis-identify with the one person upon whom we’ve depended in the very first and formative years of our lives. Alien pounced on this male insecurity like a cat on a cockroach.
Birth, as any of us know who have given it or been there while others do, might be surrounded with the shiny white aseptic walls and stainless steel of hospital chic, but the process itself is a wet, grunting, crying, sweaty, squirming, blood-watery mess. Miraculous and awe-inspiringly, breathtakingly humbling, in my view, but not tidy or linear. And yet Alien’s opening scene is a birth scene, an aseptic, bloodless, quiet birth scene. The space ship is named “Mother,” remember?
Seven nearly naked people, wearing only snowy-white diapers, lay in Snow White cells, arranged like flower petals, deep in the “womb” of the ship after we’ve been carried by the steady-cam down a long (fallopian?) tube. A flicker. The lights go on. Psshhhhhh, the glass covers on the cells rise, Kane is the first to awaken, slowly, blinking at the light, rising languidly, feeling his limbs. Mother brings the crew to life (birth!). It’s not just the boundary between male and female that will be abjected in this film. Again and again, it is the boundary between organic and technological.[7]
Suddenly, we are all sitting around a communal breakfast table, in what was for the 1979 audience a company breakroom. People are eating, joking, smoking cigarettes. One of the mechanical crew is lobbying for more money when they deliver their payload of ore. Far enough into the imaginary technological future to fly island-sized crafts through space, but capitalism is still just fine. We even have a minor labor dispute, settled by quoting the contract. Four men, two women, somewhat gender-neutralized by everyone using last names. One of the mechanics tosses a sexual crack about what he “wants to eat” at one of the women, Lambert, who grins demurely, simultaneously embarrassed and amused; but men and women are working together, so there is some kind of equality . . . right?
Creed reminds us of our psychoanalysis. The female body, the mother’s body, is “both life and abyss.”[8] “Mother” has rebirthed the crew, and now issued an order (to go into another abyss, which also turns out to be a giant womb). That’s why suspended animation was suspended eleven months from home. Go to this nearby small planet and check out an unknown signal. When they follow Mother’s order, the shuttle craft is released from the mother ship by an attachment called “the umbilicus.” No kidding. Separation.
When we first land, Ash the Science Officer reads out the atmosphere from his instruments. “Almost primordial,” he says. There is that word, now sent along through the audience’s pre-cognitive pathways, primordial. Mother. Umbilicus. Primordial. And so the members of the reconnaissance team—Captain Dallas, navigator Joan Lambert (who is emerging as having the personality of a cigarette-sucking, surly teen), and Executive Officer Kane—don their protective suits and venture out into a literal howling void. As they approach the source of the mysterious signal (mythical sirens?), we see what appears to be the canted tail of a crashed craft, raised and separated in against the night sky like two opened legs. Before you say I’m reading into it, wait. The recon team approaches, and where do they enter the craft? Precisely at the crotch, and through an opening that appears uncannily like a vaginal orifice. Primordial . . . cue the spooky music.
Inside, there are structures, fractal and strangely indeterminate. Are they machine-like or organic? The space is engulfingly enormous, the Great Consuming Womb, within which our little white-suited space people with large round heads look—from a distance—okay, a lot like spermatozoa. The audience is entranced by the strangeness of it, unaware of how the creators are tapping those little pre-cognitive, mytho-psychoanalytic tuning forks. Our team encounters a vertical surface, just over head high. The climb over, and there it is . . . what is that? Again, a strangely mechanical, strangely organic structure that they somehow determine immediately to be a dead life form. The camera pulls back. Up close, it looked a bit like skeletons copulating in heating ducts; but as we see the whole thing, it is a fifteen-foot phallus, ribbed, erect, and aiming thirty degrees above level. A penis inside a womb? Sexual confusion!
The artwork that inspired the set in Alien was adapted directly from that of H.R Giger, at Scott’s request. Giger specialized in sexually confusing artwork that was an intentional organic-mechanical blend. Screenwriter Dan O’Bannon stated explicitly that Alien was designed to make men in the audience “cross their legs” with sexual insecurity, not in order to promote feminism but to heighten the horror-effect. And he and Scott agreed that Giger’s highly sexualized biomechanical style was perfect for bringing this to life on the big screen.[9]
David Dietle, who researched the making of Alien, wrote, “None of the sexual imagery in Alien is unintentional. For example, in the picture above the human crew members are ‘invading’ the alien ship, so in effect those are man sized sperm crawling through it. From here, John Hurt’s character, Kane, plumbs the depths of the ship’s ‘womb’ to find an endless landscape of eggs.” Yep. Feminist masterpiece. Sorry. The men who made it were trying to reflect male anxiety in the face of an increasingly influential feminist movement. Just two years later, when Scott released Blade Runner, his protagonist Rick, played by Harrison Ford, falls for a hyper-femme female cyborg, who he warms up for sex by slapping her around. And it really turns her on. This is Ridley Scott. And this is why we should not assume that women characters who fight and shoot in films are “feminist.”
Kane is taken back to the shuttle craft, and the egg he has fertilized as a sperm has now become a phallus rammed down his own throat (impregnating him, as it turns out).[10] The shuttle craft returns to the orbiting Mother. The thing appears to die and fall off, but at breakfast again the recovering Kane, in one of the most memorable scenes in the film, gives birth. That is, a little monstrosity that looks like a penis with a fanged vagina at its tip, tears bloodily out of his abdomen, killing him.[11]
During the hunt to kill the alien that has absconded to somewhere within the craft, the thing manages to grow to the size of well-fed polar bear, with a head that looks like a stainless steel inverted penis (pointing rearward) with a wetly dripping fanged vagina on the face, out of which can emerge another phallus with another fanged vagina, also dripping viscous fluids from the tip.
First, Captain Dallas goes looking, then disappears suddenly from their tracking device. Now Ripley is in charge. Now she can become really assertive, which she does. During the continuing search, mechanical engineer Brett goes searching for the ship’s mascot-cat named Jones, calling “Here, kitty kitty.” He is ambushed by the alien, and we get our first close look at that retractable dick with the biting labia on the tip. Holy castration complex, boys! “Alien reveals a frighteningly voracious sexuality,” writes Rebecca Bell-Metereau.[12]
Later, Ripley will likewise be calling for Jones the cat, “Here, kitty kitty,” whereupon she will also be confronted by the monster. Lesson: don’t call cats when there is a monster nearby. They think they are named “kitty-kitty.”
Ripley confronts Ash, the Science Officer, after she tries to override the company command to bring the critter in for “their weapons program.” Ash attacks Ripley with super-human strength, and a suspiciously semen-like sweat begins to ooze from his pores with the effort, telling the audience that he is himself not human (he’s an android). He knocks Ripley out, then—in a weird and completely gratuitous way—instead of throttling her with his super-human strength, or just using any of the nearby blunt instruments to bludgeon her, he decides to kill her by rolling a wank-magazine into a surrogate phallus (in this scene, tellingly, there are nude pin-up girls plastered on the wall in the background) and cramming it down her throat in a kind of forced near-fatal fellatio. Ripley, the tough woman, we can be reminded now, is still a woman, still a sex object, still subject to sexual humiliation (or assassination).
If that’s not enough for us to figure it out, in a scene that is not even in the screenplay, Ripley, as lone survivor, taken off in the shuttle and destroyed Mother (follow that?). She then does a strip show for the boys in the audience, peeling off one after another layer until she is in a flimsy, nipple-accentuating tank top and bikini panties that have sagged enough to reveal the crack between her buttocks. Wait, we’re not done yet. She discovers the alien is on board, apparently sleeping on a shelf (penile-vaginal aliens get sleepy after they eat, too, it seems). The stripped down Ripley—no longer the tough leader, but a female body on display by Scott—backs into a closet with her space suit, and with the camera angled from below to aim directly at her crotch, we get the close-up of her mons, and she slowly raised and opens one leg to give the audience the full view. Ripley is captured in the male gaze. Scott makes sure of it.
Then she dresses in the suit, buckles in with that speargun phallus thing in hand, and when the monster comes, she opens the hatch, whereupon the monster is sucked out the door. Another film trope is the Not Dead Yet trope, when the villain or monster comes back one last time. The alien catches itself in the doorway, holding on with tremendous strength. Ripley has to do something phallic here or die. She aims the speargun at the monster and shoots it in the belly, knocking it out the door, tethered outside now where she can slam the door shut and roast the monster in rocket fuel.
Jones is a cat with every one of those nine lives. For some reason, Jones’s crate does not get sucked out into space, and when the again semi-nude Ripley gets ready for the trip home, the monster finally vanquished, Jones gets his own Snow White cell to be put into hypersleep for the long trip home.[13]
Is Ripley a feminist icon, because she is kick ass? We’ve already seen how Ridley Scott locked onto her with the male gaze near the end. Is Ripley a woman emancipated or is she an Honorary Male/Hot Chick with a Gun?
Here is the surprise ending to this chapter. Ripley was originally written as a male. All Scott did was give the part to a female actor. “We really just had the secretary change ‘he’ to ‘she,’” said Producer David Giler. If this is feminism, if this is emancipation for women, then it simply means women becoming like men (who need not change at all). Honorary. Men.

[1] Haggstrom, “Reassessing Alien,” Reel3, June 8, 2012.
[2] Creed, “Horror and the Monstrous Feminine,” Screen, January-February, 1986.
[3] Creed, The Monstrous Feminine, 2012.
[4] Mothers catch hell in these male-invented schemes.
[5] I hesitate to use the term subconscious, because it may be part of the problem.
[6] The poo-poo was in me, now it’s out of me . . . boundary issues. Blood? Inside-outside. Makes some folks faint. That corpse was alive, now the life passed out of it. Big, scary boundary issues.
[7] Scott would revisit these two themes, sexual confusion between male and female, and confusion (also sexualized) between organism and machine, in GI Jane and Blade Runner, respectively.
[8] Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine, 60.
[9] Dietel, “Alien: a Film Franchise Based Entirely on Rape,” Cracked, January 2, 2011.
[10] Men are often obsessed by the “special horror” of males being raped, ergo the plentitude of squirmingly uncomfortable prison-rape jokes.
[11] The Latin psychoanalytic term for the toothy vagina, a notion that also appears in various myths, is vagina dentata.
[12] Bell-Metereau, Woman: The Other Alien in Alien.” Women Worldwalkers, ed. Weedman, 1985.
[13] Lueptow, “Is ‘Bitch’ an Example of Internalized Sexism?” Everyday Feminism, February 25, 2014.   A quick word about a word: bitch. Ripley, in her frustration with Mother’s refusal to stop the activated auto-destruction sequence, screams at the ship, “You bitch!” This phatic expression is in Ripley’s mouth again more than once in the sequels—which were unplanned, but when Alien cashed out the way it did, Hollywood milked it. As Kelsey Lueptow notes, the very commonly and casually used word bitch, apart from an actual reference to a female canine, has “hibernating connotations that can perpetuate harmful gender stereotypes.” Even when it’s a woman who uses it. A gendered term like bitch resonates with a whole cluster of patriarchal ideas about women-in-general. Some men casually refer to any and all women as bitches. And when used by women, it calls up that old social trope of women seeing the “other woman” as competition (for the approval, attention, or affection of men). The term used proudly by women as a kind of alternative identity? That’s emancipation? Because it means being mean (to others) and proud of it. Does this “identity” come at the expense, moreover, of other women, who are now scaled between sweet-girl and bitch. Bitchplays up sexist stereotypes like menstrual maniacs, hyperemotional incompetence, and female cattiness incurred by cultural messages that bombard media representations of women.” Bitch is specifically used for women, which ought to be problematic enough, but when it is applied to men, it is an insult that is saying, “You are like a woman,” and that is a very bad thing, something to fight about. Again, woman (bitch) is offensive, altogether negative. Any way you look at it, bitch is a lose-lose situation for women, sexist to its very core. Portraying it as realistic speech in films is all fine and well. We portray sexists and women who are broken by internalized oppression in films; but when the strong hero woman uses it, the term is valorized in a special sense. We are taking this excursus on “bitch” because it will come up again in our other analyses.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Malthus, food, privileged cores, and church

Ecologic crisis begins locally, then expands until it achieves certain thresholds, whereupon quantity is transformed into quality, and the crisis generalizes. 

Monday, March 6, 2017

The Four Cheaps

On October 21, 2011, the Guardian published an article by Camilo Ruz entitled "The six natural resources most drained by our 7 billion people." The photograph accompanying the headline was a young, poor Nicaraguan woman hauling water from a public well.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Development - The Big Lie


Woe to those who add house to house and join field to field, until there is no more room, so that you have to live alone in the midst of the land!

-Isaiah 5:8

Production, Consumption, and Space

If you could go back in time to the mid-sixteenth century and land in what is now Eastern Virginia, you would encounter six tribes of indigenous people who collectively belonged to a political and trade network called the Powhaton Confederacy. They used beads and tobacco as forms of currency in some trade, but no one depended upon either for their livelihood. By and large, they lived through a combination of subsistence farming, hunting, and gathering. They also did some very limited mining of copper for bead-making and tools. Subsistence farms grew corn, beans, and squash as staple crops, supplemented by fruits, nuts, fish, and game gathered from the local environment. Houses were generally one room, constructed of saplings, leather, and bark. As with many other subsistence cultures, production and consumption overwhelmingly happened in the same place.
            Compare this to our own lives, where we consume what has been produced from all over the world, where general-purpose money has made this possible, and where our dependence upon money is nearly absolute. One of the mental tricks played by this space-separation between production and consumption is concealment of relations that are out of sight and out of mind.
            Helga Weisz, head of Transdisciplinary Research for the Potsdam Institute of Climate Impact Research and Professor of Ecology at Humboldt University in Berlin, uses the metaphor of metabolism to track flows and nodes. She does so in the context of world systems theory, an acknowledgement that we live in an economy that includes many nation-states, or an interstate economy. In biology, metabolism means “the processes by which a living organism uses food to obtain energy and build tissue and disposes of waste material.”[1] In social studies, metabolism means paying attention to inputs and outputs, or flows and nodes. World systems analysis looks at those flows, those inputs and outputs, across the world. Weisz:

World-systems theory regards the expansion of the industrial capitalist system as intrinsically connected to a spatial separation, on a global scale, between the early and the later stages of the industrial production process, and between production and consumption in general . . . lead[ing] to a globally uneven distribution of the costs and benefits of the use of material and energy . . . I argue that an integration of social metabolism and input-output analyses provides a conceptually sound approach to account for ecologically unequal trade between national economies or world regions.[2]

            Dr. Weisz has just summarized how to explain not only environmental damage but extreme social inequalities, facilitated by money as an ecological phenomenon.
            There is a common argument that neither the world system nor the ecological crisis we are experiencing is “capitalist,” because the Soviet and Chinese economies were/are “communist.” This is actually a deceptive argument, because both these economies, apart from their own rhetoric, employed the same means for development as capitalist economies, and were in fact both deeply dependent upon trade relations with named-capitalist economies. Deng Xiaoping of China is one of the founding fathers of neoliberal capitalism.[3] The world systems perspective looks at the world economy as a whole. And as Jason Moore, Professor of Sociology at Binghamton University points out,

It is difficult for me to read the Soviet project as a fundamental rupture. The great industrialization drive of the 1930s relied massively on the importation of fixed capital, which by 1931 constituted 90 percent of Soviet imports. The Soviets were so desperate to obtain hard currency that “the state was prepared to export anything and everything, from gold, oil and furs to the pictures in the Hermitage Museum”. If the Soviet project resembles other modes of production, it is surely the tributary, not socialist, mode of production, through which the state directly extracts the surplus. Nor did the Soviets turn inwards after 1945. Soviet trade with OECD countries (in constant dollars) increased 8.9 percent annually between 1950 and 1970, rising to 17.9 percent a year in the following decade a trend accompanied by sharply deteriorating terms of trade and rising debt across the Soviet-led zone.[4]

            One of the main errors of Marxism generally, in its criticism of capitalism, was its failure to account for industrial machinery itself as a flow-node that concealed its background realities, what we have repeatedly referred to here as the out of sight and out of mind problem. More importantly still, Marxism failed to account for general-purpose money as an ecological phenomenon that disembeds, or dissolves ecosystems and communities, because it is a sign without a referent to tell it (pun intended), "The buck stops here.." So when we describe the world system as capitalist, we are saying that these anti-capitalist projects failed because of the illusions they shared with capitalism itself. They continued to believe that they could cleanly separate culture from nature. One can very easily argue that today’s China is a capitalist powerhouse, regardless of what they call themselves. It is an authoritarian (capitalist) market economy very much like Pinochet’s Chile.[5]

Centers and Margins

I live in a town of around 24,000 souls, the commercial center for a farming county, which also has a hospital and three colleges. There were once a lot of union-wage factory jobs nearby in Toledo and Detroit that supplemented farm income, and this town then bustled with activity. Factories, however, were shifted into regions around the world where accumulation could be increased through steeper under-compensation, that is, cheaper labor; and this town has many abandoned buildings and closed shopfronts. The farms have mostly been consolidated into giant monocrop operations leased by transnational corporations, and the farmers themselves raise these cash crops by strict rules laid down by those corporations.
            If I go to a real estate site on the web and ask for houses that are priced above $300,000 (very high for this town), all but one the listings show up on a map in the southeastern quadrant of town, with on midway along the east, and close to the Country Club. If you drive through our town from east to west along the main east-west thoroughfare, the houses and neighborhoods become shabbier the further west you travel, and this end of town is also where most of the factories and warehouses, as well as toxic superfund sites are. Money as an entitlement helped to create this map, which we might call a center-margin map. The center is where the good stuff flows into, and the margins are where the bad stuff flows out-to. Those with more money-entitlements live in a kind of center in the west, and those with far fewer money-entitlements live in the east. Those in the west tend to work for those in the east. The east gets clean and pretty, and the west gets dirty and ugly. If you map where you live, you will find something similar; and if you live in a big city, you probably have a third region that is a throwaway region, with “surplus people,” that is, people the economy doesn’t want or need anymore—areas of extremely high unemployment, environmental toxicity, and crime. This latter is the margin of the margin, or the falloff region. In the triad between Miami, Santo Domingo, and Port-au-Prince, the U.S. is the center, the Dominican Republic is the margin, and Haiti is the fall-off zone. Within Miami itself, these three zones also exist.
            Centers exist parasitically on margins, and as margins are debilitated by their parasites, more people become fall-off zones, the center contracts, and those near the center become the new margins, or parasite-hosts.
            Center-margin can be mapped at differing scales. Mississippi is an extremely poor state compared to Connecticut, but inside each there are center-margins by region, by county, by city. Center-margin is not a place, even though we can map it; it is a relationship. Seen metabolically, as form of metabolism, as “the processes by which a living organism uses food to obtain energy and build tissue and disposes of waste material,” the center-margin relationship is the result of the good stuff flowing one way and the bad stuff flowing the other way with the center as the exchange node. The benefits remain at the center and the waste goes to the margin. The mapping of flows  is what Helga Weisz calls “material flow analysis.” What gets imported? What gets exported?

Import Export

Saudi Arabia once supplied the rest of the region with wheat. Yes, wheat. Most people don’t think of Saudi Arabia as a wheat producer, because it is largely desert. But beneath that desert is a massive underground network of aquifers, or underground lakes. While Saudi Arabia has between 5 and 8 billion cubic meters of surface water, it has almost 2.3 trillion cubic meters underground.[6] These supplied the water for wheat production. By 2009, Saudi Arabia began importing more wheat than it grew for itself; and by 2016, it was importing around 99 percent. The saying went, they were “selling hydrocarbons to buy carbohydrates.” This was a huge opportunity for Ag giants like Cargill in the U.S., which could sell U.S. taxpayer-subsidized wheat in ever greater volumes to the Saudis.[7] The largest oil field in the world is Ghawar, in Saudi Arabia, and it produces around 65 percent of all Saudi oil. Ghawar production began to fall in the 1990s, and in 2006 it began falling precipitously. Pool oil wells with “sweet crude”[8] like Ghawar begin production under their own pressure; but over time, as the contents are pumped out, the pressure falls. The Saudi solution to that problem is water injection.[9] They inject large amounts of water, pulled from aquifers, into the margins of the fields in order to bring the pump pressure back up. That water is then irreversibly polluted and lost to other human uses; and it has depleted Saudi aquifers, contributing to the loss of wheat production.
            The largest and richest remaining hereditary monarchy in the world, Saudi Arabia routinely employs violent population control measures to its own people, including public beheadings, to ensure its own stability as an international energy hub. Moreover, it regularly engages in open bribery, and initiates as well as intervenes in conflicts throughout the region to secure that stability.[10]
As this is written the United States imports $53 billion a year in oil from Saudi Arabia, and in return exports $115 billion in weapons to Saudi Arabia, with whom the U.S. is formally and informally allied in multiple military and diplomatic conflicts. A starker example of the regional import of order (negentropy) and the export of disorder (pollution, water depletion, authoritarian corruption, and war) would be hard to find.

The Trees

In February 1996, when Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina was the epicenter of the civil wars resulting from Balkan politico-economic disintegration, the flows of fuels into the city were disrupted by ambushes and snipers along all the routes into the city. The temperatures dropped, the snow accumulated, and within days, people began cutting down the trees in the parks to obtain firewood.[11]
            In the 1990s and 2000s, I spent a good deal of time in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which share the same island, Hispaniola. Haiti had been serially raped since the colonial period, including massive deforestation to harvest precious hardwood and clear land for sugar, coffee, and sisal. The Dominican Republic suffered some of those extractive depredations, but it became a client state of the United States and a tourist destination, while Haiti was exploited and left along the figurative roadside. One of the policies of the Dominican government was to subsidize bottled gas for its citizens to prevent them cutting the forests that attracted tourists. Haiti had no such policy, especially since it was subjected to a series of political coups that disrupted any political continuity. If you look at a satellite photograph of the Haitian-Dominican border, you can actually see the border in the contrast between the forested Dominican Republic and deforested Haiti. In the absence of any fuel supplies or subsidies, Haitians largely rely on charcoal to cook; and cook they must, because their staple grain is rice. Charcoal is produced by cutting woody material, even brush, and subjecting it to a flameless burn underground. The demand for charcoal, and the small amount of money available to charcoal producers—extremely poor, low-status, hardworking people called chabonye—has created a condition wherein the brush and trees are being cut at earlier and earlier stages, accelerating the desertification, or transformation to desert, of Haiti. The relative affluence of Dominicans compared to Haitians has also created a situation in which Dominican sugar and tobacco growers employ Haitian laborers at rock-bottom wages and in slave-like conditions; and Dominicans have been socialized to dislike and disrespect Haitians almost as a lower life form. Ramification.
            Higher rates of deforestation often correspond to lower “levels of development.” This has led many people to assume that the more industrialized and “advanced” nations have superior environmental practices. And it is true that the most stringent and well-enforced environmental protection laws are in the “developed” nations. But we can see that this is a confusion of correlation with causation. Just because two things exist together does not mean that one is the cause of the other.
            In 86 BCE, Rome had a million inhabitants.  By the fourth century CE, it had a million and a half. Wood was used for buildings, heating, cooking, baths, cement, plaster, glass, cart-making, and ship-building. Wood was depleted locally, then the harvesting activities spread, first to 100 kilometers, then 500, and the rivers were then put to use to float timbers from afar. Harvests spread to Sicily, to the Appenines in the north, to Macedonia, to Asia Minor, to Egypt, to Gaul, to the Black Sea, and the Iberian Peninsula. Many of these areas remain deforested to this day. Rome was the center, and the exploitable, extractable margins radiated outward.[12]
            A quarter of Brazil’s Amazonian forests have been lost. In 1970, that number was one percent. Amazonia is now very close to a “point of no return” for ecosystem collapse. The acceleration of deforestation in Brazil’s Amazonia has been caused in large part by timber for export, beef for export, soy beans for export, and sugar for ethanol to offset petroleum shortages.[13] China buys Brazilian timber to make products, using its own cheap labor, to sell in the United States, in order to accumulate U.S. dollars. Brazil exports more beef on international markets than any country in the world.[14] McDonald’s is one of the main beneficiaries of Brazilian soy, which is as Cargill (a U.S. agri-giant) feed for the raise-fast-to-kill chickens used in its chicken nuggets.[15]
            This is the reason we need world system analysis and the tracking of flows and nodes. When a tree falls in the forest, it is heard around the world. Deforestation is nearly always a product of environmental load displacement; and that means the benefit goes one place and the cost goes another. This is never an equal exchange. The average Brazilian earns about a quarter of what an average American does. More than twenty-one percent of Brazilians live on less than two dollars a day.[16]

War on Subsistence

"Development,” which is difference over space (Brazil, 2017; the United States, 2017), is spoken of as a difference over time, or “in stages.” This misrepresentation serves to fix our gaze on one point at a time as a way of making us ignore a larger reality of relationships.

The current fashion . . . is to dissolve any distinction between the modern and the premodern as a modern fabrication . . . The rather remarkable implication is that, in the course of the emergence of urban-industrial civilization, no significant changes have been taking place in terms of social relations, knowledge construction, or human-environmental relations. The closely knit kinship group, locally contextualized ecological knowledge, attachment to place, reciprocity, animism: all of them are suddenly dismissed as myth. With the displacement of the old narrative, represented most forcefully by Karl Polanyi, emerges the new but implicit message that we have always been capitalists.[17]

            The Polanyi who blew up this “implicit message” wrote a book called The Great Transformation, the publication of which was eclipsed by the end of World War II. The narrative of economics, and even the narrative of pop culture, is that everyone has always been essentially the same; and that the emergence of a market-dominated society was the result of removing the dead weight of authority and superstition from the past. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth, as Polanyi showed with his history of the violent and intentional process over decades to impost the so-called “self-regulating market” on the whole of society.
            We have been covering two key Polanyian concepts in this book so far: the multiple forms of exchange (reciprocity, redistribution, householding), and the phenomenon of disembedding, in Polanyi’s case of people being disembedded from non-market relationships like family, home town, etc., and re-embedded in strictly market relationships. Polanyi was a Hungarian intellectual living in Germany, before Hitler’s rise in 1933 convinced him to become a scholar in residence at Bennington College in Vermont. He later taught at Columbia University.
In The Great Transformation, he described the two-pronged process of enclosure and regulation that were employed by modern states to remove people from non-market driven communities and networks, especially those that gave people a degree of independence from the need for money to survive. People did not voluntarily leave their subsistence farms in the countryside to live in the city and work for wages in a factory. In fact, they fought that at every turn. They had to be legally and forcibly removed from the means of subsistence, especially land, in order to force them into emerging labor markets.[18]
            Whereas the "Inclosure Laws" of Great Britain were originally a system of combining many small farms under the control of many families into large holdings by one person (and evicting the rest) in order to support the wool export trade, the term “enclosure” is now used as a catch-all for any legal-policy action that transfers small holdings of public commons into private hands with the result of forcing former inhabitants into dependency on wage labor. Privatization is a form of enclosure. Intellectual property laws are forms of enclosure. Enclosure might be defined for our purposes as any law that intentionally separates people from their means of subsistence to produce greater dependency money through approved market relations. All privatization is enclosure.
            Ecological feminists Maria Mies and Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen called modern development “the war on subsistence.”

In the North and, since 1945, increasingly in the rest of the world, everything that is connected with the immediate creation and maintenance of life, and also everything that is not arranged through the production and consumption of commodities, has been devalued. This includes all activities whose object is self-provisioning, whether in the house, the garden the workshop, on the land or in the stable. What doesn’t cost or doesn’t produce money is worthless. This devaluation of self-provisioning work cannot be understood, if measured only quantitatively. It indicates at the same time the degradation and contempt of the person who does this work . . . This barrier of disgust[19], which today surrounds all unpaid, essential-for-life subsistence activities, has no relation to the content of this work. Such activities are suddenly recognized as decent professions, not only for women but also for men, if they are carried out by industrialized, waged labour . . . high esteem for wage labour obviously rest on the high evaluation of money and on its myth. Not the image of money as a simple medium of exchange or measure of value, but of the money that creates ever more money which then becomes the basis of life, security for life and the hope of progress, emancipation, culture, and the ‘good life’ . . . He/she who does not work for wages cannot live.[20]

Ivan Illich likewise identified “progress” or “development” as a systematic war on subsistence. Illich had a unique way of referring to subsistence activities. He called them “vernacular.” With regard to language, the term vernacular means the way that ordinary people speak which may not conform to more formal grammatical rules. Illich described vernacular community and vernacular practices as those that were rooted in householding forms of economy, in friendships, and in the most common forms of social reciprocity.
What is interesting about Illich is that he again describes the loss of the vernacular to a process of “radical monopolization,” or enclosure—cultural, political, economic, through increasing institutionalization, as the hallmark of modernity; but he again traces its gestation and development back into his own church. Christianity in power, the church as an institution, practiced a form of enclosure of the church as a people of God. Moreover, he directly associates the imposition of “grammatical” language with the emergence of the imperial nation-state which has overseen a 500 year “war on subsistence.”
As the Western Roman Church came to power, and in confronting Western Europe’s unstable feudal political ecology within which to exercise that power, sin came to be treated as a matter of law. It was “criminalized,” in Illich’s words, which gave the Church the aspect of what would eventually come to be that of the modern nation-state. It attempted, as we noted in the first chapter, “to insure, to guarantee, to regulate Revelation,” to enforce by law the radical freedom that was gifted to humanity by the Incarnation. In other words, it “institutionalized” grace, and thereby perverted it.[21]
By 1492, when Isabella of Castile had married Ferdinand II of Aragon and consolidated their rule over present-day Spain in a series of bloody wars and pogroms, Isabella consented to financing an ill-conceived expedition by Cristobal Colon (Christopher Columbus) to open a westward seaway to South Asia. Colon, who had wildly overestimated the distance to the horizon used this miscalculation to determine he would reach India in around 2,400 miles across the Atlantic Ocean. In the same year, she was approached by a scholar named Elio Antonio de Nebrija who had composed a book of Spanish grammar, who suggested to her that the standardization of language within her nation-state and throughout her future empire was as essential as arms. He told her that “language is the consort of empire.” Illich tells these parallel stories, in spite of the fact that Isabella did not comprehend what Nebrija was saying about language, just as Colon never realized that Hispaniola, the island he first landed upon that eventually became Haiti and the Dominican Republic, was not in India. Illich simply uses this story to show two aspects of the modern empires, which would center on nation-states, which indeed did come to work in tandem.
As Christendom gave way to secular modernity, the empires of Europe did indeed require both arms and language to establish their power. Nebrija understood better than Isabella that the “loose and unruly” vernacular speech of the heterogeneous peasantry made them more difficult to rule and bend to the purposes of the state. The authoritarian church, who had called itself the Mother of its members, lost ground to the state, and the state adopted churchy terms to supplant the church. This was where the term “mother tongue” originated, the nation-state as the new Mother, and its language standardized to bleed off the subversive potential of vernacular tongues which contained vernacular values and vernacular relations. In support of the centralization of power, language itself was enclosed, and the first grammar books as well as the first schools were designed to stamp out vernacular languages and with them vernacular allegiances.[22]
            These changes corresponded in time and place to a changing political economy. Subsistence, and what Mies calls “the subsistence perspective,” came to be an obstacle to expansion and commodification as well as a threat to the imperatives of nation-states that increasingly depended upon and became subordinate to those who had most successfully accumulated money. A community that produces all it needs for food, fuel, clothing, and shelter is not populated by people who willingly work in factories or take up arms for the state. Their environments provide them with most of what they need, abundantly in many cases.
            Empires are comprised of consuming centers and exploitable margins, margins that must expand as resources are exhausted. The need for more arms, more ships, etc., leads to the intensification of exploitation, the competitively driven search for greater production and velocity, and thereby for more of that essential accelerating sign: money. The peasants must be removed from the land, the land converted to wealth accumulation, and the subsistence economies broken up to provide labor to the mills. This war on subsistence was vastly accelerated around the world after World War II during something given the Orwellian name "the Green Revolution."


We’ve circled around this; now let’s lay it out. We are nearer to subsistence—understood in a good way—as production and consumption are closer together in space. This is also and ultimately the only way we can dramatically reduce our utter dependency on general-purpose money. Right now, my dependency and yours is based on the threefold reality that (1) all our goods and all our built environment are organized around the need for materials, land, labor, and energy that are often thousands of miles distant, (2) these goods and this built environment, including the technology, cannot extract these materials, land, labor, and energy from their original contexts without the solvent of general-purpose money, and (3) we ourselves, given the specialization of our built environment and our work, no longer have the capacity to survive without money. The simplest thought exercise here is to try an imagine surviving through today without it, through the week, through the month. What was done to those English peasants between the twelfth and twentieth centuries, which eventually wiped them out as a class that practiced subsistence, has been done to all of us. We have been enclosed. Once you are in the position where you must have those dollars to live, you have become dependent upon those who have dollars to spare. Money, which serves them as an entitlement, now entitles them to your time and space and sweat. This immediacy of need, the very fact that we can no longer survive without serving those with more money than we have, forces us into the manifold moral compromises that thoughtful people struggle with every day. I hate automobiles. They are destructive, dirty, dangerous, and expensive. As an American, living in the built environment that I do, I cannot at this point in time afford not to have an automobile. This dependency is what traps us in the many forms of complicity that whisper to me every day, “You are a hypocrite.”
            These forms of dependency are designed as such, not some social evolutionary accident. This precise system is maintained and protected by those in power, because they are fully aware that this is the architecture of their power.
            Dependency is nested, dependencies within dependencies within dependencies. Just as an unhappy wife might be trapped in marriage to an unpleasant husband by her need for protection from other men or her inability to earn enough to survive, the unhappy worker in the miserable factory or hundred degree field is trapped by dependency, the mid-level manager is trapped into being a prick to his subordinates—even when he hates it—by dependency, the post-colonial nation is trapped by the need to get dollars to pay international debts by dependency, and so on.
            This is not saying each person is independent of every other person. We know this is not true. Interdependency is built in to human nature. But we are not speaking of the covenantal relationships, the voluntary cooperation, the necessary divisions of labor arrived at under no duress. Understand that the dominant class is dependent as well. We pointed out earlier that the rich exist parasitically on the poor, and the center nations exist parasitically on the marginal nations. A parasite depends on its host. The key thing to look for is not interdependency, but mutual dependency on an axis of domination and subordination.

[1] Mirriam-Webster
[2] Weisz, “Combining Social Metabolism,” Hornborg, et al, p. 289.
[3] Kwong, “The Chinese Face of Neoliberalism,” Counterpunch, October 7, 2006.
[5] Gilson and Milhaupt, “Economically Benevolent Dictators,” Stanford University, March 4, 2010.
[6] “First National Communication Water Resources,” Jeddah Regional Climate Center, 2017.
[7] Blas, “Saudi Wells Running Dry,” Bloomberg, November 3, 2015.
[8] High-quality, easily accessible, low-sulfur oil.
[9] Press Release, Carbon Capture and Sequestration Technologies, MIT, December 6, 2013.
[10] Wherey, “The Authoritarian Resurgence,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, April 15, 2015.
[11] Guccione, “Life After Death,” Spin, September 11, 2015.
[12] Williams, “The Role of Deforestation,” Rethinking Environmental History, Hornborg, et al, pp. 101-119, 2007.
[13] Levine, “Profit and Poverty fuel Brazil deforestation,” WSWS, January 15, 2005.
[14] Brazilian Beef, 2017.
[15] Vidal, “The 7000km journey that links Amazon destruction to fast food,” Guardian, April 6, 2006.
[16] “Economic Statistics,” Infoplease, from UNDP Development Report, 2007-8.
[17] Hornborg, Power of the Machine, p. 235.
[18] Polanyi, The Great Transformation, Beacon Press, 1944.
[19] Disgust is culturally constructed and serves to emotionally police social boundaries, those boundaries between what is considered clean and unclean. When I was an urban high school student in the sixties, one of the most common insults thrown at people who appeared unsophisticated was to be called “farmer.”
[20] Mies, et al, The Subsistence Perspective, p. 17, Zed Books, 2000.
[21] Illich, Rivers North of the Future, pp. 80-94.
[22] Illich, “Vernacular Values,” April 12, 1981.