Back to Zero

My musical, intellectual, and ecocultural interests would not have evolved the way they did without Daevid Allen — beat poet, musical visionary, and psychedelic rocker who died last week at age 77. Here’s a personal account of why.

In the background are the social, material, and ecological connections that I intend to examine more closely in future writing on the ecologies of music: networks of musicians and artists, political events (like May ’68 in France), places and landscapes (Glastonbury, Deia, Canterbury, et al.), objects and techniques (like tape loops, or Allen’s dissemination of the style of guitar playing he called “glissando guitar” and the surgical instrument he used for it), and ideas and images (like the Tantric graphics employed by Allen to convey Asian and occult ideas about subtle bodies, higher harmonies, and other such things). 


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One of my pet musicological theories is that the years 1967-74 were the most creative 7-year period in the history of musical humanity.

Why those years? The social and technological revolutions of the 1960s — civil rights, the women’s movement, the counterculture and anti-Vietnam War movements, the sudden unifying singularity of television and mass (and alternative) media across national boundaries — made possible new convergences across a wide range of cultural spheres, including among musicians coming out of the rock, folk, jazz, blues, classical, and avant-garde traditions, not to mention interlocutors from India, Africa, South America, and elsewhere.

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OAD update

That stands for “Ontology Across the Disciplines,” which is the UVM faculty (and grad student) reading group that I said I’d keep readers updated on. I’ve been a bit remiss with that, as we had a meeting 3 weeks ago and will be meeting again at 4 p.m. today.

Here is a one-page handout (click for PDF) I’ve sent around to participants. It includes a very quick-and-dirty (and extremely cursory) “orienting map” — really just intended to catalyze other participants to map for themselves how ontological questions have come to the fore in their own disciplines — as well as some very brief summary notes of the discussion at the last meeting, which focused on Cultural Anthropology’s “Politics of Ontology” series.

Today’s meeting will focus on two readings by anthropologist Todd Ramón Ochoa: “Versions of the Dead: Kalunga, Cuban-Kongo Materiality, and Ethnography” and “Prendas-Ngangas-Enquisos: Turbulence and the Influence of the Dead in Cuban Kongo Material Culture“.  Both come from a book project that was published as Society of the Dead: Quita Manaquita and Palo Praise in Cuba.

Comments welcome.


My review of Graham Harman’s recent book Bruno Latour: Reassembling the Political, has been published online in the journal Global Discourse. It’s part of a book review symposium, which will be accompanied (in the print issue) by the author’s reply to his interlocutors. The journal has been publishing a lot on Latour’s political theory (see here). I especially recommend Philip Conway’s recent piece “Back down to Earth: Reassembling Latour’s Anthropocenic geopolitics.” (Ask the author for a copy if you cannot access it online.) My piece, entitled “Will the real objects of politics please stand up?“, can be viewed here.

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It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything about music here. But as I’ve gotten thinking and writing about it again, under the “ecomusicology” rubric, expect more of it on this blog. It’s a satisfying return for me (I studied music theory, composition, and performance as an undergrad and continued it semi-professionally for a little while afterward). This post can be considered the first in a series of tastes from work that is slowly churning into progress.

Eco-theorists may recognize the title of this post as a variation on the title of Murray Bookchin’s audacious and deeply influential (for many, including myself) 1982 book The Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy (pdf here).

What’s little known to anyone following recent news about the war in Syria is that an 18,300 sq. km. region in the northwest of the country — the western Kurdish Rojava cantons, which include the ISIS-contested city of Kobane — has been the site of a social experiment grounded in eco-anarchist Bookchin’s ideas of revolutionary “social ecology” and “libertarian municipalism,” which Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan has rebranded “democratic confederalism.”

As Irish anarchist Andrew Flood describes it, the Rojavan revolutionaries aim for nothing less than

“the development of ‘democratic, ecological, gender liberated society’ in the shell of the existing society through co-operation between a political party taking power in elections (the BDP) and a parallel system of neighboorhood councils which would be really making the decisions.  All this as part of an overall body called the Democratic Society Congress bringing together political parties, councils and civil society.”

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I’m participating in a reading group here at the University of Vermont entitled “Ontology Across the Disciplines.” (More than just participating… I’ve been gently arm-twisted by the organizers, anthropologists Parker Van Valkenberg and Ben Eastman, into chairing the discussions. Thanks, guys 😉 )

Since I know there are folks out there who may be interested, I thought I’d invite online readers to read along with us, and to have a parallel conversation here or on other blogs.

We’ve started a wiki of potential readings, but most of these duplicate other lists that are out there, for instance, Somatosphere’s “reader’s guide to the ontological turn” series, which included contributions by Judith Farquhar, Javier Lezaun, Morten Axel Pederesen, and Annemarie Mol.

We are considering beginning with readings of two sets of short contributions by a variety of (primarily) anthropologists, since that is the field that has been most fervently recognizing the “ontological turn” recently (and because the organizers of the reading group are anthropologists): Continue Reading »

Astrophysicist and NPR blogger Adam Frank writes about the “sustainability bottleneck” as the state faced by technological civilizations like ours, which have learned how to “intensively harvest” energy, but not how to sustain themselves through the crisis this harvesting sets off.

It turns out there may be millions of planets that give rise to life in our galaxy alone. Frank asks, “So where is everybody?” and then answers that “Maybe not everyone — maybe no one — makes it to the other side” — which seems to me like the collectivist version of Jim Morrison’s famous quip that “no one here gets out alive.”

Frank and fellow astrobiologist Woodruff Sullivan develop this idea in a fascinating article published in the journal Anthropocene, where they coin the term SWEIT for “Species with Energy-Intensive Technology.” That’s a term I would question, since it’s not so much the species that is the issue here as it’s the techno-ecological system — a mode of production in Marxist parlance, that includes members of one or more species (humanity, in our case), but also various crucial relations with other species, tools, entities, and processes. It’s worth debating alternative terms for this beyond the speciecentric “SWEIT,” just as it’s worth debating the virtues and limitations of the term “Anthropocene.”

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With environmental and eco-political news in the front pages daily, it’s easy to get back into the swing of regular, even daily, posting after the winter holiday lull. Here’s more on the “dating the ecocrisis” theme…

Andy Revkin is reporting that the Anthropocene Working Group has concluded that the middle of the twentieth century makes most sense as a date of the beginning of the Anthropocene.

“In a paper published online this week by the journal Quaternary International, 26 members of the working group point roughly to 1950 as the starting point, indicated by a variety of markers, including the global spread of carbon isotopes from nuclear weapon detonations starting in 1945 and the mass production and disposal of plastics. (About six billion tons have been made, with a billon of those tons dumped and a substantial amount spread around the world’s seas.)”

Given that the term Anthropocene is intended to be descriptive, not analytical, this makes perfect sense to me. The causes of those markers — nuclear fallout, plastics, and so on — can be traced to some combination of other factors, including industrialization, capitalism, the nation-state system, European colonialism, and whatever else. But it’s what’s occurred, not what accounts for it, that is the message here. The rest is that much more difficult to ascertain.

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The journal Science has just released more news of planetary boundary transgression. (This is related to my post from a few days ago.)

Specifically, of nine such boundaries connected to “processes and systems [that] regulate the stability and resilience of the Earth System,” four have been crossed. Two of these, climate change and biosphere integrity, are considered “core boundaries,” which makes them the kind that, if significantly altered, would “drive the Earth System into a new state.”

The research, published by an international team led by Will Steffen, just came out in Science Express (which publishes Science articles in advance of their print publication). It’s summarized here.

Meanwhile, the New York Times’ lead story today is about mass extinction of ocean life — yet another boundary being crossed.

As environmental social scientists know, ecological boundaries are tricky objects to pin down. But one that’s pretty measurable is the boundary at which the crescendoing Greek chorus of scientists passes a certain threshold of audibility. (To those who are listening.)

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