Ongoing and Occasional 2021/002
Dear Fourth Door mailing list folks
Here’s the third of these Fourth Door Ongoing & Occasional broadcasts with a roll-call of micro-stories, musings and murmurations. Spring is here in these South English parts, maybe it is with you too. Whilst this edition doesn’t alight that much on Covid stories, its shadow, despite the warmth of the spring sun, feels only too present. The new abnormal, same as the old abnormal. Let us know your thoughts (if you like.)
All kindnesses – Oliver Lowenstein
Stunner scare stats – some way into her review of The Contamination of the Earth: A History of Pollutions in the Industrial Age in a February NYRoB’s – that’s the New York Review of Book’s for the uninitiated, Elizabeth Kolbert alights on one of those mind-bending stats that leaves you wondering, ‘how did they get to that?’, before all sorts of secondary questions begin kicking in. According to the authors – François Jarrige and Thomas Le Roux, the ‘impact of artillery fire in World War I on the French landscape…“corresponded to 40,000 years of natural erosion.”’
Presumably, among a set of tabulated categories somewhere, someone has archived the extent of natural erosion brought on by the list of sum total of conflicts over the last…what, let’s say 50, 100, 250 years? And presumably, that’s only the beginning. There are surely material audits and accountings for wars: how many uniforms produced, how much paint used for camouflage, or tonnes of energy, fossil fuelled and eco-friendly, which have gone moving this or that division to one or other theatre of operation? Or someone, somewhere must have calculated estimates of the amounts of metals, rare or otherwise, used through similar time-periods, and the carbon emissions of the Battle of the Somme, D-Day, Vietnam, Iraq 1.0 and 2.0. A cheery subject I know, but as you may have suspected, this line of enquiry is leads up to the question… if there had been no war in the last xxx – let’s say 150 – years, would the world still be battling climate change?
…and scary time - to carry on as I began, if you’re up for a genuinely scary climate ride, the chirpily titled The Terrifying Warning Lurking in the Earth’s Ancient Rock Record, will likely do the trick. In a recent Atlantic feature, author Peter Brennen takes the reader on a wild ride through increasingly deeper past geological era’s, until, after six great leaps backwards, he finally arrives at 56-50 million years ago. En route, there are visions of a verdant Sahara while huge sand dunes blanket Wisconsin; and giant camels roam the polar regions. This present moment – the last few thousand years of the most recent interglacial spring is, it turns out, the tail end of the planet’s most stable geological period, an eyeblink of 650,000 years. And it is drawing to a close. The planet is the hottest it has been for 3 million years, but Brennan’s message is that the future looks closer and much hotter to ancient pasts. Zero Carbon doesn’t really do it, as it’s going to take centuries, if not millennia, for the planet to re-right itself. Yet, the vast majority of climate prognostications neither model nor discuss scenarios beyond this century’s end. And despite climate crisis declarations, such longer term understanding of climate change through the lens of geological time, doesn’t really make it into the research, the media conversation or, for that matter, public discussion. As I say, upbeat stuff.
The Good Captain – Those chemical futures spurred thoughts of Langdon Winner, and Autonomous Technology, his book length elaboration on technologies ‘out of control’ and ‘runaway’ conditions. The relevance continues. If you’re interested why, here’s an interview with Winner and the work forty years on. Not quite as recently, in this FDR 6 feature, a case was made that he was a (and may be the only) Beefheartian philosopher of technology; prior to academia Winner was a respected music writer for Rolling Stone, amongst others. There is a lovely Rolling Stone Winner interview with Captain Beefheart including the story that while making his classic Trout Mask Replica, the Captain billed his record company Strait for tree therapy services. This because he’d become concerned that the tree’s adjacent to the recording studio might become frightened by the sounds filling the air and fall over. Medical care was his way, wrote Winner, of “thanking them for not falling down.”
And the Biological Philosopher – Runaway technology also reminded me of the biological philosopher, Gregory Bateson. Bateson explored runaway cultural dynamics across an ecology of wholly different yet related contexts; from ‘out of control’ nuclear arms race to out of control family relationships and individual behaviour. Bateson isn’t well known these days, but was a heady influence in the nineteen seventies and eighties. His best-known book Steps To An Ecology Of Mind is a window into his work. Traces of Bateson return repeatedly in the dancing loops I’ve choreographed over the years, in Fourth Door Review. From Paul Ryan’s Video Mind book in FDR1, to the Morris Berman Consciousness trilogy in FDR5.
Prehistoric Futures – elsewhere, a research paper in Science Advances confirms that music making has been around for a while, at least 17,000 years. The paper details the discovery of a 17,000 year old Marsoulas conch shell horn, taking us back to music from the upper Palaeolithic. An atmospheric re-creation can be found on SoundCloud here. It took me back to perennial origin mystery type nerd questions we’re supposed to grow out of. Two particular personal chestnuts: so how much music has been made over the aeons? And does the music made before the arrival of the recording angel watershed, outweigh all the music making that’s been offered up since? Answers on a postcard please.
Talking of where music comes from – the North Carolina musician Rhiannon Giddens releases a new album They’re Calling Me Home, in early April. After 2019’s There is no Other, which saw Giddens chasing the West African origins of her chosen instrument, the banjo, and connecting it to partner, Sicilian Francesco Turrisi’s accordion tradition. The collaboration sketched all sorts of routes (as much as roots); musical migrations connecting Europe, Africa and the Americas. As with other projects, Giddens shone a light on the Afro-American and slave trade origins of what until recently has often been understood as white rural folk music.
Domiciled in Ireland and forced off the road by Coronavirus, this time around Giddens has turned her attention to a set of keening loss-tinged laments. This Celtic fringe reminded me of an early FDR fascination that turned into features; Highlands & Islands Mouth Music, or Puirt à beul, explored with singer Talitha Mackenzie and, yes, the band Mouth Music. Those pieces were also about routes and roots. It turns out Giddens too has learnt and sung Mouth Music. If you know Giddens, you’ll be aware of her versatility, her glorious voice, and her mission to reintroduce us to black roots music. I’ve been late to the show, but what’s clear listening to Giddens is that we’re is in the presence of a prodigious and multiply talented artist, who, I can’t help but sense, is only beginning. There are any number of you-tube videos, and for those those who like to dig deeper into the why, and where Giddens is coming from, you could do worse than check this nice New Yorker profile.