1. People don’t actually own anything.
2. Ownership of land may seem obvious to us, but it wasn’t to American Indians. They thought they were selling usufruct rights. And given that one can own surface rights without owning subsurface rights, possession of land can become effectively mooted by the conversion of soil into “overburden” to be scraped away and dumped elsewhere.
3. Possession is inherently ephemeral – and again, the law reflects this. Eminent domain provides for the use of property for the “public good,” though that concept can mutate almost beyond recognition. Most new highways, for example, will not do the land or the public any long-term good. And in some parts of the country, it’s becoming an accepted practice for local governments to condemn private property and turn it over to real estate speculators – with the justification that, for example, private residences do not constitute the “highest and best use” of land in cases where retail or industry might be more profitable and would return higher tax revenues. In times of war, virtually any private property may be seized for any reason. Finally, the existence of inheritance and estate taxes (an indirect subsidy of real estate speculators and private contractors) suggests that the privacy of property is little more than a useful fiction; everything ultimately belongs to Uncle Sam.
4. Do we own ourselves? Clearly not. There is no constitutionally recognized right to privacy. The government can institute a draft at any time, which means it retains the ultimate power of life or death over its citizens, despite what the Bill of Rights may say. Even more tellingly, it’s a crime to kill yourself, and a crime to kill others unless you are in uniform and following orders from the government. (Very few murders by police are ever prosecuted. And the U.S. government goes to great lengths to ensure that its soldiers may not be prosecuted by any international court for crimes committed while in uniform.) We do not own our own freedom: we cannot engage in so-called victimless crimes, such as ingesting certain banned substances. Given that the main reason for banning these substances appears to be societal discomfort with the alteration of the consciousness, we must conclude that our minds are not free, either. And individual liberty of movement – what imprisonment robs ones of – seems intrinsic to self-ownership. (If imprisonment were recognized as a form of slavery, the United States would probably be the world’s second-largest slaveholding society, right after China.)
5. Are there any limits to possession? How you answer this question depends on whether you believe anything can truly be known. If even an idea can be copyrighted or trademarked, nothing is safe. Consider that access to drinking water is being privatized around the globe. In Texas, an entire underground aquifer is owned outright. And life forms can now be patented – a blasphemous notion if there ever was one! Probably only the fear of adverse publicity prevents someone like Monsanto or Microsoft from patenting the human genome.
6. Are there any historical precedents for reversing categories of ownership once they have been admitted? Yes. At one time, it was assumed that owners of land had full rights to everything on it. Then market hunters wiped out wildlife populations in large sections of the East. Now, game species are recognized as being held in common, by the citizens at large. Endangered species and migratory birds are subject to national and international regulation respectively. Under the Clean Water Act, the regulation of wetlands belongs to the federal government. The animal rights movement seeks to extend legal recognition to nonhuman species; the wildlands movement advocates recognition of the self-willed (“wild”) and self-owned qualities of the land itself.
7. What does it mean to own something? If legal titles can be revoked – or voided by the overthrow of governments – then surely we must look beyond the law. “Possession is nine tenths of the law.” This implies that if/when the concept of possession is universally recognized as illusory and absurd, the practice of law will wither. What will remain? Without ownership – which is to say, without unique and unequal privileges to the earth’s bounty and to products of human labor – what promises would still be so critical that people might need special protection against their violation? Murder, incest and rape would not stop being wrong; what would likely fade is the societal appetite for retributive justice, once these types of crimes were no longer seen as crimes against a form of property.
8. What does it mean to be possessed? I venture to suggest that possession inevitably entails abuse, to owner as well as to the thing owned. There may well have been one or two benevolent slaveholders in the Old South, but human nature being what it is, I doubt there were many more than that. Because, in the first place, what is possession? I maintain that, at one level, Possession is the power to do with another anything we wish. This definition strikes me as perhaps little more than one half of a tautology, however, because power and possession do seem to be two sides of the same coin. Can we understand possession apart from power, or power apart from possession? Only if the self/other distinction can be dissolved through various forms of ecstasy (including death).
9. Wouldn’t complete self-sufficiency also render the need for power over others obsolete? The need, perhaps, but not the reality. The reality is that we are all completely interdependent. This points to a second, more basic definition of possession: it is a human, cultural abstraction of bodily consumption. The violent assimilation of foreign matter into one’s own body for conversion into energy and waste products is unavoidable. As we consume, so shall we be consumed. In this light, Death appears as the ultimate owner. But paradoxically, in death we also sense the potential for self-transcendence. In rebelling against the authority of death, we determine to live in truth – whatever that means. Every culture, every language grapples with this problem a little differently. In the West, we have traditionally talked about grace and about love. Both concepts partake of the aura of the gift.
10. This, I would argue, is what lies at the root of human experience: the intuition of mortal being/becoming as a gift. Power and possession, I suggest, are much more recent abstractions. To become fully aware is to recognize one’s own incommensurability with that portion of life and time one has been granted. Without such an awareness, the relationship between self and Self will begin to resemble the relationship between two parties in an economic transaction. Priests assert ownership over gods, gods assert ownership (“possession”) over priests. This may be inevitable. But it is a mask; and behind that mask lies the leering death’s head. The unadorned truth seems to be that from the beginning everything shines with its own light. Beauty, like truth, is intrinsic – which is another way of saying that things or beings ultimately resist all forms of calculation or manipulation. Consumption in the beginning is an innocent act; only when we cling to forms – when we try to possess things – does life appear tragic.
The sleep of the just is just as we’ve always been told. Picture with me, if you will, the bathroom slippers arranged neatly by the bedside, the dog in his customary spot curled up, as dogs will do, with his nose a few inches from his anus. Equally at bay are the sour smells of anxiety and the endless odor-free winter of despair.
The sleep of the just is peaceful as a cemetery, calm as the aftermath of a therapeutic airstrike necessary to conquer terror and quell unrest. The downed wires, the cratered streets permit no troublesome motors to mar this earful of silence. From time to time a cellphone might trill from somewhere under the rubble, a tasteful snatch of classical music as pleasing as a cricket on the hearth.
The sleep of the just is uncommonly deep. Deep as the color of the sky above Fat Poplar, New Mexico. Deep as the voice of the taiko drum at Itsukushima-Jinja, carried out on the tide through the iconographic red torii that stands across the inlet from Hiroshima.
The sleep of the just, we are meant to suppose, is profoundly settling: we sink incrementally into the bed of that sunless river. Like a well-built house that can withstand the removal of a thick seam of coal several hundred feet down. Some mornings, one might find a new crack or two in the windows, doors that need a bit of extra planing before they’ll shut. Right angles gradually go more and more off true.
Ah, for such a rest of the over-stimulated senses! To forget everything, including our own names! Folded away between fresh sheets, breaths still tasting of after-dinner mints, one heartbeat away from the spent flesh of all our fondest desiring . . .
Still undergoing revision as of Tuesday morning.
The inadequacy or inappropriateness of qualifiers need not imply the absence of attributes.
I’ve been thinking a little more about how the “bounds of acceptable discourse” are perpetuated. By now I’m sure you’ve heard about the flap over the decision of the Sinclair-owned ABC stations not to air the “Nightline” segment in which the names of American soldiers killed in Iraq were solemnly intoned. (If you missed the story, this AP article contains just about everything you need to know.)
This interests me not simply because of what it suggests about the corrosive influence of media conglomeration and political corruption on the free flow of information in a democratic society. Appalling as that is, it is also utterly predictable.
To me, what this story really highlights is the untenability of our popular construct of the impartial journalist. The truth is, at one level the cynical, Bush-whacked Sinclair was correct: the decision to read those names on the air was a political decision. Every decision about what to air on a news show is guided by politics, however much the producers might like to believe that they are above the fray.
And I would go one step further and suggest that the failure to acknowledge this simple, fairly obvious fact might actually result in a more dangerous slant than if the bias were fully conscious and freely acknowledged from the start. There’s no bias like an unconscious bias.
For example, the unexamined assumption shared by maybe 95 percent of working U.S. journalists, and 100 percent of mainstream political commentators, that our government is basically well intentioned in the conduct of its foreign affairs has the effect of burying a great number of important stories. For example, how much do you remember hearing or reading about the extraordinary pressure brought to bear on the citizens of El Salvador to vote as our government wanted them to in the buildup to their “democratic” national election last month? I’m guessing that you, like me, remained blissfully unaware of it (as we do about so much that our government does, every day, to ensure its unquestioned hegemony throughout the hemisphere). Why didn’t it get more play? This story would seem to have been highly relevant to other stories that are considered worthy of coverage (“sovereignty” in Iraq; the ability/willingness of partisans to use foul means to decide elections in the U.S.). Widespread concerns about the continuing flow of immigrants into the United States and the decline in wages, etc., as well as the fairly extensive constituency that opposed the U.S. backing of El Salvador’s bloody civil war in the 1980s, would seem to have ensured a receptive audience for coverage of the Salvadoran election.
So why didn’t we hear all about it? Again, the concentration of media ownership has a huge influence, without a doubt. But you can read the headlines in any newspaper from three decades ago and you won’t see much more openness to these kinds of stories than you see now. (Indeed, the age of the Internet has initiated a new level of ready access to information scarcely conceivable only ten years ago. Anyone can go to the public library, log on to a computer and find the very blueprints for U.S. global imperialism with a few clicks of the mouse.)
Laziness and inattention are huge factors in determining coverage. For decades, the vast majority of newspapers in the United States have relied upon the New York Times to decide what the headlines for the following day should be. But does that mean that if we simply did away with the New York Times, everything would be hunky-dory? The problem is, it’s impossible to cover stories like the Salvadorean elections without challenging the bedrock assumption about American virtue I mentioned above.
It seems almost laughable that our major news organs consider it too controversial to refer to U.S. troops in Iraq as occupation forces, preferring instead the clearly pro-Bush term “coalition forces.” But thirty years after the end of our Indochina adventure, it remains impossible to refer to U.S. entrance into Vietnam as an invasion, or to “model villages” as concentration camps. Just the other day, my father mentioned his anger at a statement in Newsweek that the Vietnam War “cost 50,000 lives.” It is still difficult, if not impossible, for respectable commentators to accept the fact that we invaded another country, set up a puppet regime, and did unspeakable things to its inhabitants. (Around 1,600,000 people died on all sides in that conflict, including an estimated 340,000 civilians and 56,000 U.S. soldiers.)
I think of my recently deceased maternal grandfather, and how good he was at not seeing things that would have made him uncomfortable. Pop-pop was a strict Methodist who never had a drop of alcohol in his life, and he believed that all of his offspring and their children were just as uniquely blessed with good sense as he was. Pop-pop was a patriarch in the best sense of the word: he was extremely proud of all of us, and I remember how he sat grinning from ear to ear throughout the fairly riotous reception for my cousin Heidi’s wedding a few years back. All around him, his children and grandchildren drank wine from wineglasses and beer from the bottle. He saw – I’m convinced – nothing, other than some rather exotic forms of soda pop and iced tea!
On the other side of the coin, in every area where the conventional assumptions of mainstream commentators can be contested, the bounds of acceptable discourse inevitably expand to accommodate a more diverse selection of possible story lines. Take stories concerned with the relationship of government toward its own citizens. Imagine if we didn’t have a long tradition of suspicion toward, and agitation against, governmental authority. Would we even see stories like the AP article linked to above, freely quoting the left-liberal media reform group Free Press as an expert witness on the cozy relationship between Sinclair and the Bush regime? Would environmental and social change movements ever have gotten off the ground without this widespread presumption of an agonistic relationship between citizens and their elected representatives?
That’s not to say that this belief is unproblematic. For quite a few years now, commentators from various positions on the political spectrum have urged more harmonious, communitarian conceptions of government. I’ve been known to advocate such things myself: if we truly believed that we were the government, imagine how things might change! But I have to admit that it is at least as likely that such communitarianism would be hijacked by impulses toward conformity – another, very strong political tradition. If you think we’d be better off without conflict between grassroots pressure groups and government, take a look at Japan. The pressure to “go along to get along” in Japan is so overwhelming that almost every effort to found an independent union or an adversarial environmental group ends quickly in co-option. The one major exception to this rule, the national teacher’s union, has managed to maintain its independence over the years only through steadfast adherence to a rigid, Marxist ideology. And that’s why, every couple of years when the Ministry of Education issues new textbooks, the ever-simmering controversy about whether (for instance) Japan merely “expanded” into Manchuria, or whether it invaded it, gets a full airing in the Japanese media.
We in the U.S. are far from immune from similar pressures to muzzle dissent and “work within the system.” In our ever-more-partisan political climate, bipartisanship tends to be seen as a virtue. But all too often, a lack of serious controversy in the corridors of power simply means that the moneyed classes are united in their opposition to the popular will and/or in their determination to mold that will into a more favorable shape. We saw this especially clearly a year and a half ago, with the closing of ranks behind the “President” in his determination to invade Iraq. Bipartisanship in that case threatened the very foundation of our republic – Congress actually relinquished its own authority to declare war, quite possibly violating the Constitution in the process.
But pay close attention to the words: they want us to think that bipartisanship is identical to nonpartisanship, which it manifestly is not. Bipartisanship means that the two major parties collude, consciously or otherwise, to restrict the bounds of acceptable discourse to such an extent as to exclude the concerns of vast segments of the voting public. Single-payer health care? An end to commercial extraction on public lands? A radical downsizing of the military budget? More taxes to pay for programs that nearly everybody supports? All off the table.
The most obvious mechanism for achieving this form of bipartisanship is redistricting, as Molly Ivins pointed out in a talk at Altoona College the week before last. She noted that in Iowa, where political districts are drawn by a non-partisan panel of experts, 80 percent of all districts are competitive. That’s the exception. In every other state, nearly all districts have long ceased to be competitive. Republicans and Democrats are equally to blame for this nearly universal gerrymandering; the current ascendancy of the less-popular GOP simply testifies to its superior mastery of the process.
The result? “Representatives” elected by non-competitive districts feel themselves under little obligation to represent anyone other than the vocal minorities that elected them – much less to try and appeal to their ideological opponents, as was once the case. A shifting number of polarizing issues (flag burning, prayer in schools, abortion) become ever more prominent as the parties seek to build and mobilize ever more rabid constituencies. The impeachment of President Clinton was a watershed event in this polarizing process. And look how well it worked: Nader’s claim that the two parties had become indistinguishable was viewed by most mainstream journalists and commentators as arrant and possibly dangerous nonsense. (In addition, of course, he suffered from the decision to replace the previously nonpartisan sponsorship of televised debates – by the League of Women Voters – with a bipartisan commission.)
But the actual results of the 2000 presidential election – the one race not directly influenced by gerrymandering – bore out Nader’s claim to an extraordinary degree. Yes, Gore won the popular vote (and probably the election, had the Florida voter registration records not been purged), but by a statistically insignificant margin. Now, you can believe in the tooth fairy and Santa Claus if you want to, but it really stretches credulity to imagine that the electorate is precisely evenly divided in its party preferences. As Noam Chomsky pointed out, the only logical way to explain such an unlikely result is to assume that people voted almost entirely at random. The huge numbers of undecided voters reported by pollsters in advance of the election help bolster this hypothesis.
In other words, bipartisanship works in large part because the majority of voters don’t care about either party. Large differences in substance would threaten the real business of America – business. Let’s remember that, while the corruption and criminality of the Bush regime exceed Clinton’s by at least a factor of ten, the Clinton administration did pave the way with unprecedented levels of access and influence for business interests over policies both foreign and domestic. It’s a vicious circle. As more and more people become alienated from politics and fewer and fewer bother to vote, the influence of a few, wealthy backers becomes ever more prominent. In this way, apparently bitter, competitive partisanship becomes a mask for bipartisan collusion. The likely end of such collusion is complete rule by corporations – we’re nearly there already.
Most corporations are themsleves supremely bipartisan. They bet on all horses that can win. (Dissidents, like Diebold or the Sinclair Group, who are too flagrant in their bias toward one party, risk being outed and denounced in the mainstream media. Some have suggested that Microsoft’s original sin had been not to bribe either party. Given the effectiveness of the protection money doled out to the GOP in 2000, we can expect Microsoft to remain an enthusiastic team player from now on.) I’m willing to bet, however, that just like their counterparts in the news media, the corporate board members who engage in such legalized bribery would lay claim to objective neutrality. Because, of course, they are afflicted with the biggest blind spot of all: they are all partisans of money and power.
Power itself, in all its expressions – authority, hierarchy, monopoly, exploitation, constructs of self/other, us/them and purity/pollution – looms invisibly behind all the other misprisions and delusions that keep our imaginations in thrall. Challenging its hegemony, plowing under the “monocultures of the mind,” in Vandana Shiva’s resonant phrase, may constitute the most crucial of all the political acts we can engage in.
Afterthought: In light of the pervasive self-censorship of the U.S. news media, free Arabic-language media organs such as al-Jazeera play an increasing role in shaping coverage of the Iraq war. Unless and until al-Jazeera can be bought off or shut down, the occupying powers will be forced to take the “Arab street” into consideration. The airing stateside of such hugely damaging stories as the Iraqi prisoner scandal also reflects deep divisions over the occupation among U.S. elites themselves – a division which is both substantive and nonpartisan. In fact, some of the most outspoken opponents of the invasion and occupation have been conservative Republicans. But tellingly, on this most crucial of issues, the two major-party presidential candidates are nearly united, differing only in minor nuances of packaging and expedience.
LOVE IS ALL.
Diogenes needs your help! It’s not easy getting the attention of the fast-walking inhabitants of Madhatter with just a few words on a large piece of cardboard. The wording of today’s sign was suggested by Via Negativa reader the Sylph. If you have any ideas, e-mail ’em to me, bontasaurus (at) yahoo (dot) com. Not every sign need refer to panhandling; liberal political statements (as on yesterday’s sign) can sometimes be a big hit with New Jerkers. Whatever the topic, it should make people think, and give them a bit of a chuckle.
Then again, you could always just send money.
Last night I went for a walk around 10:00, and kept pausing to notice how the branches of various trees seemed to stretch caressing or imploring arms toward the second-quarter moon. A very thin cloud cover meant that the moon was virtually alone in the sky – Venus was just setting behind the ridge – and there were no shadows. I stood on the little wooden bridge down at the forks and listened to the stream for a few minutes, enjoying as always the braiding together of so many watery voices.
When I got back to the house, emerging from the trees I saw for the first time the dark hoop of the moon’s halo. It was difficult to escape the impression of a monstrous celestial eye. The pupil was small and bleary-yellow; it was almost unsettling. I found myself unconsciously reaching for my fly. What do I do with this? Oh, right – time for another leak.
Female readers might find this a little hard to understand, but most of us men have a deeply instinctual response to the threatening, the awe-inspiring or the liminal: we mark territory. (Ideally while whistling, or pondering baseball statistics.) I suppose I could have mooned the moon, but that would’ve made me feel utterly ridiculous. Well, I was ridiculous, of course – but that’s simply an existential condition. I pee, therefore I am. Or am I?
MAN DOESN’T EXIST
translation of “No existe el hombre,” by Vicente Aleixandre
Only the moon guesses the truth.
And it’s that man doesn’t exist.
The moon gropes its way across the plains, fords the rivers,
penetrates the woods.
It fleshes out the still warm mountains,
runs into the heat from erect cities.
It forges a shadow, slays a dark corner,
drowns in shimmering roses
the mystery of caves where no scent can be found.
The moon keeps moving, seeing, singing, going on and on without a pause.
A sea is not a mattress where the body of a man can stretch out all by itself.
A sea isn’t a shroud for an otherwise shining death.
The moon keeps going; it soaks, sinks into, gullies out the beaches.
It sets the calm green murmurs to rocking crazily.
The standing carcass of a man sways for a moment, wavers,
lurches forward – green – stays put – stiff.
The moon takes note of its broken-down arms,
its disapproving glare at a couple of cuddling fish.
The moon sets fire to sunken cities where one can still hear
(how enchanting!) the clear bells,
where the last echoes of the surf still ripple over sexless breasts,
over soft breasts some octopus has worshipped.
But the moon stays forever pure and dry.
It comes from a sea that remains forever a box,
a block whose limits no one, no one can measure,
a sea that isn’t a hunk of rock glowing on top of a mountain.
The moon comes out and chases what once had been a skeleton,
what once had been the blood vessels of a human being,
once had been its resonant blood, its tuneful jail,
its distinct waist that splits life in two,
or its light head bobbing on the breeze, facing east.
But man doesn’t exist.
Never has existed, never.
But man doesn’t live, just as the day doesn’t live.
But the moon makes up his furious metals.
I have always loved this poem, one of several by Aleixandre that I’ve almost memorized despite my very imperfect Spanish. However, I have always relied on the crutch of Lewis Hyde’s translation (in the bilingual A Longing for the Light: Selected Poems of Vicente Aleixandre, Harper & Row, 1979). Only this morning, when I decided to try and come up with my own version, pondering every word with the help of my trusty Spanish-English dictionary, did I discover just how inadequate Hyde’s translation really is. What seems to have happened is that Hyde assumes more randomness in choice of words and images than the poem in fact possesses – an understandable error for a translator of a surrealist poet, to be sure, but I have always felt Aleixandre to be among the most logical of surrealists. For example, Hyde’s version doesn’t really bring out what seemed to me to be fairly obvious sexual imagery in the second stanza. At one level, this is a song of sex and death, like so many poems from that brilliant generation that came of age around the time of the Spanish Civil War; the moon is like a witness or an accessory to a crime whose face we scrutinize for signs about what really happened.
There were some delightful surprises: “stiff,” which translates “inmóvil,” also of course means “corpse” or “person” (as in “working stiff”) – precisely the right nuance for an English version, I thought. The image of a block of immeasurable dimensions evokes, intentionally or not, the Daoist image of the uncarved block that symbolizes original purity. I also wonder why Hyde chose to translate “mar” as “ocean” throughout, considering that the moon has so-called seas, but not oceans.
I welcome corrections and suggestions for improvement. I’ve no great ego wrapped up in this. You can find the original Spanish on the web. Click on “escuchar la poema” to listen to a recording of Aleixandre himself reading the poem. (His reading doesn’t get very animated until the next-to-last stanza.)
I don’t want to analyze this poem any more than I’ve done already, but it does occur to me all of a sudden that my mission here at Via Negativa is to make unknowability as comprehensible as possible. Does that make any sense? I ask you!
Oops, gotta go take a leak . . .