“It would be irresponsible not to speculate.” — Peggy Noonan
No doubt there were more important things to be learned; but here are four things that I learned. Maybe one thing I’ll learn this coming week is not to play the magpie and collect bright shiny objects; or perhaps I’ll learn that the feuilleton is not a form with which people choose to engage. Bold, persistent experimentation!
Phenology is cool. Late last week, “the most incredible spring heat wave in U.S. and Canadian recorded history” drew to a close. And for the ten days prior, up here in the great state of Maine, I was watching lilacs and forsythia bud absurdly early, hearing from friends in upstate NY that they had mosquitoes, from friends in PA of honey bees and flowering cherry and peach trees, from friends in LA of actual (granted, small) peaches, and from friends in GA of peaches and pears flowering a month early. Daffodils up and gone in Chicago. Butterflies in Madison, WI.
All these field observations are examples of phenology: “The study of periodic plant and animal life cycle events and how these are influenced by seasonal and interannual variations in climate.” (Similar definitions here and here.) Phenology is interesting because its records serve as useful proxies: “Dates of grape harvesting in Western Europe, starting in 1484, allow a concise assessment of growing season temperature.” (Of course, you’ve got to pick your proxies!) Citizen scientists network to practice phenology rather like birders network; here’s a national networ; here’s one for OH. Phenology was founded in the UK in 1736, but only began to be practiced in the United States in the 1950s, funded by the USDA. There’s an interdisciplinary conference in phenology up in Milwaukee in September of this year; but a Google search on “phenology conference” yields only two hits from 1990 to 2004; a budding organizational phenologist might imagine that phenology, as a self-identified discipline as opposed to an institutional or hobbyist practice, is new to the United States. Readers, correct me on all this!
Now, phenology interests me not only as a gardener, but also as a citizen. We live in an age when all the official statistics are untrustworthy (unemployment figures; housing figures). On unemployment… Well, I was at a meeting the other day, and I looked around the table, and of five men, all highly educated and competent in their one-time fields, two had “normal” jobs, two had none, and one was scratching. I’d never experienced such a thing before 2008. It’s as incredible as flowering peach trees in March! Although not quite: We’ve got a field observation without a timestamp, because we don’t know exactly these people were disemployed. But here’s a housing event with a timestamp: Shoddy stucco facades causing moisture damage. In 2002. Taking shoddy construction as a proxy for financialization, I’m guessing the speculative rot in housing construction set in a good deal earlier than we imagine from the official statistics.
I guess I’m saying that in a world where the 1% jiggers all the numbers, we might think about developing a phenology for political economy, where field observations serve as proxies for what the numbers used to tell us. An interesting use case for twitter. But, again, you’ve got to pick your proxies….
Rents and rentiers, as a meme, has finally, successfully, propagated. Mark Ames’s headline says it all: The One-Percent’s Doctrine For The Rest Of Us: We Are Not Human Beings, But Livestock Whose Meat They Extract As “Rent” (eXiled; NC. See also ‘Economics and society: Barrier to a breakthrough‘ FT 2012-02-22 (hat tip reader Eddie Torres). In the vulgate, rent is the money people with power over you squeeze out “because they can.” The classical example is the robber baron who puts a chain across a river. You row your boat up, pay the fee, the baron lifts the chain, and off you go. What value did the baron add? None. Examples are legion: Absurdly high ATM fees. The entire health insurance industry. And on and on and on. Readers will doubtless correct my oversimplifications!)
The nice thing here is that people from “all walks of life” can hit the rentiers — who, after all, run the country — where it really hurts them: Take away their rents. Don’t give Big Food the rents on its trademarks or its patented gene modifications: Buy local. Garden. Don’t give Big Media the rents for its rotten entertainment: Turn off your teebee and get rid of cable. Give Big Money as little as possible: move your money. But don’t just “move your money.” Move everything. As Bill Black says elsewhere today, “The only winning move is not to play.”
The Dead were at all times about improvisation: Jamming, and taking one song and, through subtle and dynamic changes, transforming it into another song. And then perhaps into another. More, because they played together for hours, they possessed near telepathic skills; a friend tells a story of being close to the stage when Garcia was in the middle of a solo, and some lunatic leaped on the stage and unplugged his guitar. Weir, with a single glance and without missing a beat, picked up the solo and carried on. The Dead, beyond their astonishing musical skills, were about small group process: And that had to be so, because although the improvisations integrated structures, they were not themselves structured, but worked through on the fly: The interplay of glances and fingering — the communication through a single note or timbre — was always something to see at a Dead concert. From that day, a Dead performance has always been my ideal for group creation (and I never wanted to be Jerry Garcia; I always wanted to be Phil Lesh). Finally, Dead were also, of course, if not rent-free, at least rent-minimizing: Their very successful business was based on giving away intellectual property (the tapes).
I’ve been trying to think through the (to me, challenging) anarchist notion of autonomy; and since my waking mind is beginning to fray, I’ll say only what I’ve grasped from the threads: That autonomy seems very much concerned to make a firm distinction between a decision-making self and “outside forces.” “Don’t tell me what to do.” Are Garcia, Lesh, Weir, Kreutzman, Hart, autonomous, at least on stage? Certainly they seem to love what they do. Is that autonomous? If not autonomous, is it enough? The gift economy of “tapers” is surely prefigurative; was it achieved through autonomy, or some other value?
I grope toward the notion that a firm distinction between the self and “outside forces” isn’t especially useful descriptively or fruitful normatively. Where is autonomy when a group constructs a work of art, together, in real time? Where is autonomy when the music itself is a player?
[I posted an earlier version of this, with a different focus, at Corrente.]
And the fourth thing I learned is that it, well, it’s 4. :00AM. This feuilleton form is harder than I thought! So I’ll leave you some morning music. Heck, it’s only an hour long, so why not listen to this instead of poisoning your mind with NPR?