01 July 2012

Archaeopop in PORK: Occupy the Anthropocene

I've been doing an Archaeopop column for PORK, the Pacific Northwest's magazine of Rock n' Roll, Weirdo Art, and Bad Ideas. Issue #7 is out now, read it online here. This month, a meditation on Occupy, trash, and the anthropocene.

Yes I am jumping on this Occupy bandwagon, because it’s for real. As philosophy, it’s a serious upgrade of the hippy ‘be here now’: because it’s not just being, but OCCUPYING. Don’t be the navel-gazing wallflower, get in the pogo pit. Be French Canadian and go around banging on a pot. Whatever you do, live your life in full view.

Human history is filled with daring occupations, big and small. I was reading in Science magazine today about the first people to occupy the Aleutian Islands off Alaska. They showed up 9,000 years ago, as soon as the glaciers melted – even before plants started growing out there – and made lives for themselves. In fact, humans got everywhere in really ancient times with nothing but stone tools, and knowledge of the stars. Last issue I wrote about how maybe people came to ancient America from the east as well as the west. Even more impressive is the people that made it from Africa to Australia 50,000 years back, or the Polynesians and Melanesians who journeyed to the Pacific islands and even Madagascar. Those people weren’t just sitting around ‘being’, they were occupiers.

Now let me get to the other half of the title. The anthropocene is the geological age we live in right now. It means ‘new human age’. That’s right, we’ve changed the chemistry and geology of the earth enough to have a whole new age named after us. Like it or not, the world we live in is made by our own hands. We’ve been terraforming the planet for at least 50,000 years and even the deserts of Australia and rainforests of Brazil have the stamp of humanity on them. After thousands of years of thinking of nature as either our implacable enemy, or our utopian Eden, we have to come to terms with the fact that nature… is us.

Now a lot of people left and right are seriously invested in pretending that humans are just spectators in this world of ours. The fundies think that climate change can’t happen because it’s not in the magic book. Deep ecologists have the idea that the world is some kind of holy virgin being raped, so everyone should castrate themselves to make it stop. We live in a culture of propaganda and delusion, where driving a Prius saves trees and coal is clean. Occupying the Anthropocene is about cutting through this haze by naming and claiming all that we do as humans. If we think of the world as one big archaeological site – because it IS one – then we can use an archaeologist’s eye to understand what’s really happening. What do you find at a dig? Human acts and the traces they leave. It’s garbage, but it’s also treasure – because it tells us about things that really happened rather than what others want us to believe.

A vignette: Archaeologist Bill Rathje ran an excavation for 20 years in a Tucson landfill. Then he went and talked to the families whose trash they were digging up. Guess what? The truth was in the trash! People recycled less and threw away much more. They ate more junk food, drank more booze, and looked at more porno magazines than they admitted. But they weren’t lying, they just didn’t want to remember the truth. As Rathje said: "That what people have owned -- and thrown away -- can speak more eloquently, informatively, and truthfully about the lives they lead than they themselves ever may." (Rathje died in May at age 66. I think he’s a hero of the Anthropocene.)

You get it, don’t you? You know you’ve felt like garbage for a lot of your life. Maybe they literally threw you in a dumpster at some point. But listen – it’s good to be trash, because trash where the truth is. If you can see the people and things that have been discarded, you can lift the veils of propaganda about ‘how the world really is’. To do that, you need to become an archaeologist and learn to see patterns in a random stream of waste.

Slavoj Zizek, the Slovenian philosopher, once visited a British garbage dump and found the meaning of love. He said, “to recreate, if not beauty, than an aesthetic dimension in things like this – in trash itself – that is the true love of the world. Because what is love? Love is not idealization. Every true lover knows that if you really love a woman or a man you don't idealize him or her. Love means that you accept a person with all its failures, stupidities, ugly points, nonetheless the person is an absolute for you, everything that makes life worth living. You see perfection in imperfection itself. and that's how we should learn to love the world. A true ecologist loves all this.” [Points to huge pile of garbage.]

Our Anthropocene era is a hot mess, a glorious ruin, and it is sometimes dirty and ugly. But turning away in shame is a betrayal. We’re all hideous bags of mucus and blood, bacteria and crap, but we still love and are loved. In that spirit we have to Occupy the Anthropocene, jump in the mosh pit of the world, wade shamelessly into environmental degradation, get a bloody nose from the fumes, and write it a love note anyway. To kick a destructive habit you have to look the problem in the eye, challenge it to a fight, and keep punching until you win. It’s an alchemical process: Occupy, archaeology, and everything else worth doing takes base matter – ancient trash, hippies, whatever – and tries to transmute it something eternal. Lead into gold, garbage into history, and – we can hope – discontent into revolution.

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