Thursday, May 20, 2010

Marijuana prohibition isn’t just stupid. It’s deadly.

1973_Colt_AR15_SP1 President Calderón of Mexico is visiting the United States this week, speaking with President Obama about a range of issues including the controversial new Arizona anti-immigration law, the North American economy, border violence and even climate change.  But there’s something that the two statesmen are unlikely to discuss (via Drug
President Obama calls Calderon Mexico’s Elliott Ness…but Elliott Ness never stopped illegal liquor. The lifting of Prohibition did. Similarly, the only solution to the drug trafficking and violence on both sides of the border is to legalize drugs. (Edward Schumacher-Matos, The Washington Post, 5/19/2010)

I have been meaning to author a drug war-related post for a while now, and the occasion of Calderón’s visit seems as good a time as any.  I don’t think I have anything to add to the discussion that hasn’t been explored in much greater depth at Drug, a site which I regularly monitor and highly recommend.  So I guess mainly I’d just like this post to direct traffic there.

Because I don’t think that President Obama is an idiot, I find it hard to imagine that he could identify Calderón as a “Mexican Eliot Ness” without also thinking through the historical parallels that would lead him to conclude that the real problem is not some harmlessly euphoric plant but Prohibition itself and the entrenched paramilitary and propaganda institutions that owe their existences to it.

Obama, at least, spouts relatively less drug-war nonsense than previous presidents, and I’m actually hopeful that if he wins a second term he might opt for spouting sense.  After all, even as thousands have died and are dying needlessly and uselessly in Mexico since Calderón ordered the first 6,500 federal troops into Michoacán in 2006, there have also been positive changes both in law and in attitude in the US.  A bill that could allow seriously ill patients to benefit from medical marijuana (a good start, though full legalization and regulation is really the only sensible policy) has even been introduced in my home state of Pennsylvania (HB 1393).

Nevertheless, it seems that even among my primarily liberal and informed friends, when I occasionally note in conversation that some medical marijuana law has been introduced, or when I point out some politician’s support for either legal reform or the drug war as a point for or against them, there is this smirking sense that ending prohibition isn’t really a serious cause, or rather, that what motivates and organizes my thinking is merely a personal, even selfish, desire for legal weed.  As though the only people victimized by marijuana policy are a bunch of funny, college-age stoners having to watch their cartoons and eat their sugary cereals in secret.

Many of the privileged, middle-class, members of my generation, who grew up during the Reagan administration and graduated in elementary school from laughable D.A.R.E programs will allow that marijuana might make you lazy but is mostly harmless.  According to the 2008 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 41% of Americans over 12 years of age have at least tried it, and I doubt that many of them would conclude from the experience that the outright lies constituting anti-drug fear campaigns are justified.  best-magazine-covers07But surprisingly few will associate marijuana prohibition with the cartel war in Mexico because their perspective as end-users obscures the illegal market dynamics that connects their enjoyment of Pink Floyd and soft-serve both to a prison/enforcement-industrial complex and professionally trained cartel security forces armed with AK-47s and R-15s. 

Hmm.  It sounds a little like I’m blaming the user here, and that’s not at all my intention.  I just watched a commenter on CNN do just that.  He invited any drug users who were watching to “just stop and think” about the “real” costs of your “ounce for Saturday night…as harmless as you think it may be.”  This reminds me of that National Lampoon magazine cover that threatened to shoot the dog if you didn’t buy the issue.  The illegal market dynamic that connects drug use to drug violence is no more natural or necessary than the dynamic that might associate magazine sales with canine stays of execution.  Prohibition policy is what transforms American drug demand into something from which both the DEA and the Sinaloa cartel can benefit.  So it is the legislators and enforcement agencies that should “just stop and think” about the “real” costs of their preoccupation with how people spend their leisure time. 

On the other hand, what I do want to impress upon recreational drug users as well as non-users is that until these drug policies are reformed, we are all complicit in drug war violence.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Cyborg Aesthetics

sheep Writing is technology, and the reader is a cyborg.  Through (or with?) the text one establishes zones of contact (thought tendrils) between two systems (at least two, why couldn’t it be more?), one strange…alien…and initially outside, and the other familiar, adapting the familiar to fit the strange (which is also changed by the operation).

The cyborg reader is a decentered subject.  It does its thinking in different places.  In the brain but also out of the brain.  In the eyes, the hands, and the skin, but also in the ink, the paper, and the screen.  Cyborg thought has no absolute outside.  This makes an aesthetics built around the sovereign judgment of an autonomous cogito impossible.  The aesthetics of the cyborg are instead a function of estrangement and utility.  Its art is mutation and disruption; its sublime is ugliness; its harmony is efficiency.

It isn’t always useful to see the particular substance of objects or to be deliberate about every activity.  Sometimes it is better to see empty forms.  Sometimes it’s better to shuffle along like zombies.  But not always, and art snaps you out of your sleepwalk and renders difference visible. 

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Elephant-men of Avatar 2

Here were trunks, spines, tusks, fangs, claws, tails, paws.  Here was fur, and here was smooth hide.  Here was flesh flowing at will and seeking new shapes.  Here were dark chambers, lit only by flickering fungoid-glow, in which no firm distinction of species existed (Downward to the Earth 165).

Downward-to-the-EarthWord on the street is that James Cameron won’t make a sequel to the award-winning 3D spectacular, Avatar, unless “he feels strongly that the script is excellent enough.”  Sufficient excellence is a funny sort of concept, and I’m not exactly sure what it means, but he could do a lot worse than to adapt Robert Silverberg’s Downward to the Earth (1969). 

I had pretty serious reservations about Avatar before watching it.  I'd read that it was racist, that it staged the conquest of fantasy over sci-fi, that it worshipped a death-god (Douthat, you're awful, but sometimes hilariously so), and that like Titanic it will be unwatchable in 10 years

The consensus among friends of mine whose opinions I respected was that it was visually awesome.  Not worth thinking about, but worth watching.  Initially I resolved not to watch it at all.  Movies can be good and have awesome computer effects, I said to myself, so I’ll wait for them… 

But then I was kidnapped! by this team of insane scientists who were researching methods of coercion and torture.  Seriously!  It was frightening.  They took me to a secret underground laboratory and told me that they would electrocute one kitten for every hour that I resisted watching Avatar.  Innocent, defenseless kittens!  Now, I am a man of strong principles and iron will, but I am not a monster.  So reluctantly I agreed to watch it.  Tell me you wouldn’t have done the same.   This really happened.  I wouldn’t have watched it otherwise.  My time is far too valuable.  Honest.

Well, turns out it sucked.  It totally sucked.  I wasn’t offended by the politics or anything.  The nature-worship was sort of cheesy, but the idea of a sentient biosphere was cool, and I’m positive that Cameron meant well.  But it was still 10 lbs of CGI in a 5 lbs bag.

However, Cameron could totally redeem himself in my eyes if he took a serious, long look at Downward to the Earth as possible source material for the sequel. 

Why, you ask? 

Downward to the Earth, as it happens, is a novel about redemption.  In the far future, Earth has established a far-reaching colonial empire spanning inhabited alien worlds.  Holman’s World (or Belzagor, as the natives call it) is one such planet.  But liberal activists on Earth stir up enough anti-colonial sentiment to successfully lobby for the relinquishment of all colonized planets hosting sentient life back into the possession of their indigenous populations.  The plot of the novel follows Edmund Gundersen, a former sector administrator of Belzagor, who returns once more to his outpost eight years after Relinquishment to atone for his past sins.

Strangely, there are not one but two sentient races on Belzagor, the Nildoror and the Sulidoror.  The Nildoror are massive, elephantlike beings, herbivorous and passive, whom the earthlings exploited as beasts of burden.  The omnivorous Sulidoror, on the other hand, are large, furry bipeds, about one and a half times the size of a man.  Throughout the many years of colonial occupation, the Sulidoror mainly kept to themselves in the mysterious forests of the northern mist country, but Gunderson is surprised, on his return, to find the Sulidoror living alongside of the Nildoror, even in the tropics where he had been stationed.

The Nildoror have this thing, like a religious rite, called Rebirth, that Gunderson has heard only whispers about.  They pilgrimage to the mountain of Rebirth, deep inside the mist country, to undergo it, and Gunderson, racked with guilt, has become obsessed with the idea of participating himself.  But on the way to the mountain, Gunderson comes in contact with one of his former colonist friends, a “dark and chilling saint” named Kurtz (an explicit reference to Heart of Darkness) who has already attempted Rebirth and came out of it writhing in pain, his body a deformed mess of alien biology equipped only for suffering.  “River…death…lost…horror…river…cave…warm…lost…warm…smash…black…go…god...horror…born…lost…born…” he feverishly repeats (116). 

Will Gunderson continue on his pilgrimage or turn in horror from this fleshy manifestation of the deep, twisted darkness he fears he and his kind have imposed upon the planet?  You’ll get no more spoilers from me, but at its core, Downward to the Earth is about the cruelty of Western civilization, the arrogance of the human race, the possibility of redemption and the virtue of estrangement (and maybe also the therapeutic potential of psychedelic drugs).  These themes match well the message of Avatar, but with an important difference: the natives of Belzagor have no use for human saviors. 

Cameron really wouldn’t have to change much.  Swap out the Sulidoror for the Na’vi and maybe instead of elephant-like aliens, he could have some Pandoran equivalent of the blue whale play the role of the planet’s secondary sentient race.  

Friday, May 7, 2010

Laughter and Reason: Quote of the Week

“It [the belly laugh] does not just escape analysis by refusing to be an object for an analysis: in so doing, it deprives analysis of its rational subject.” -Michael Holland, “Belly Laughs,” Anatomy of Laughter, 42.

Thoughts on Lexx, Part 3

earthdestroyedI have finished up with all four seasons of Lexx now, and this post is going to contain some spoilers.

In (what has turned out to be) this short three-part series on Lexx, I have been attempting to think through my sense that by offering up a parody of Star Trek:TNG, Lexx inadvertently distills a humorous, posthumanist antidote to the humanist poison of that much more well-known series.  I wanted to write of Lexx what Sørina Higgins has written of Cary Wolfe’s What is Posthumanism? (2010) in her recent review of the book, “Posthumanism: A Christian Response”:

it seeks to problematize humanity’s unique existence; it calls into question universal ethics; it interrogates our assumptions about rationality; and it destabilized distinctions that are essential to religion, such as nature/culture, presence/absence, and human/nonhuman.

Now, I haven’t said anything about Lexx’s treatment of religion, of course, and there’s probably something to be said about it.  TNG, while secular, at least tended towards a multicultural tolerance of diverse faiths, I think, whereas Lexx was quite a bit more antagonistic, particularly in the first season, in which the primary villain was His Divine Shadow, the tyrant ruler (actually an insect-spirit in disguise as a anthropomorphic god) of the so-called “Light Universe” (there are two universes in Lexx until the one is destroyed) and in the third season in which the Lexx spends 12 episodes orbiting two planets that turn out to be forms of heaven and hell existing without apparent purpose.

But I’m less interested in what satirical barbs Lexx may or may not direct at religion than I am in the ways it makes the human body mutable, the individual divisible, the human spirit both complex and indistinct from its machine, animal, and alien environments.

However, like the crew of the Lexx, who might occasionally swap genders, re-grow limbs and other organs, or die and be reborn,  the series undergoes sometimes drastic transformations from one season to the next.  Unfortunately, not every evolutionary adaptation proves viable, and, regretfully (to me), it seems the writers opted in the end to contrive the triumphant return of the human.  Alas.   Each of those characteristics that I initially found so interesting…so “problematiz[ing],” to use Higgins’ phrase, “of humanity’s unique existence”  is ultimately undone in the final episode. 

The fighting spirit and contempt for the non-human that comes just so naturally to our species finally overwhelms Stanley’s hitherto un-

Kirk-like cowardice.  The undead Kai, whose catch phrase had once been some variant of “The Dead do not feel,” is restored to life so that he may lay down his life for his friends.  The profundity of longing professed by the robot head, 790, is belied by the coldness with which he calculates how to destroy the earth and kill all living humans.  Only Xev, in the end, comfortably in her lizard-skin outfit, still acknowledges her hybridity.  But one wonders, any more, whether her Cluster-Lizard DNA could still manage to unbalance her, as it once had led her to kill and eat a series of human mates, or had she learned finally to master it, to colonize her reptilian self, to make it subservient to her human control-center? 

I fear that, passing through the crucible of post-humanity, the crew of the Lexx emerge not reconfigured but purified, and I’m left feeling gratified but no stranger.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Thoughts on Lexx, Part 2

next_generation_crew04 lexxcrew-1024x768

In part 1, with some help from Elaine Graham, I argued that Star Trek:TNG mounts a defense of “human distinctiveness, premised upon clearly demarcated boundaries between humans and others” (Graham 148), that Lexx undermines.  I have also previously discussed the ways that robots and zombies often serve as a means to manufacture the characteristics we like to think of as uniquely human (by embodying the negatives of those characteristics).  In TNG being “human” means being rational (Picard), being compassionate (Troi), and having independent judgment (Riker)1…characteristics that representations of robots and zombies often lack. But consider the crew of the Lexx:

  • Stanley H. Tweedle, occasional Captain (by virtue of the fact that the “key” of the Lexx, an “energy being” capable of inhabiting living bodies, found him in the right place at the right time): a selfish, unattractive coward motivated most often by fear or lust; a kind of anti-Kirk who once refused to steer the Lexx out of a potentially dire situation because he was busy throwing a tantrum over his missing hat.
  • Zev/Xev Bellringer: raised in a box by holographic tutors on the planet B3K to be a perfect wife and run halfway through a machine designed to convert her into a love-slave (a cluster-lizard attack interrupted the process and got caught in the machine, the result being that her body was modified and her libido enhanced according to plan but also that she was able to escape the mental conditioning component of the love-slave program and her DNA became mixed with cluster-lizard DNA).
  • Kai: last of a race of stoic warriors; killed by the half-human/half-insect tyrant he was destined to destroy but then modified by the tyrant’s “bio-vizier” to run on “proto-blood” and made to function as a highly-skilled assassin for two-thousand years before shaking loose from his programming and joining the crew of the Lexx; the least desiring of the cast, Kai’s catch-phrase is that “The Dead do not…[want, love, dream, sleep, eat, etc.]”.
  • 790: the disembodied robot head who received the mental conditioning component of the love-slave program meant for Zev and so spends most of the series writing lewd love poems to Zev (and later to Kai) or else scheming how to get rid of the rest of the crew so that s/he can be alone with his/her beloved.

From these descriptions one can plainly see how the series seems to delight in subverting the familiar dichotomies between human and other presumed and reinforced by TNG.  Those clear lines that TNG draws between reason and instinct, learning and programming, organic and mechanic, operator and apparatus, etc., Lexx happily inverts or irremediably blurs.  In Lexx, zombies deliberate instead of hunger while robots jealously scheme instead of coldly calculate.

(to be continued)

1This list of characteristics is not meant to be exhaustive, merely exemplary.