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Monday, April 26, 2010

Words from Derrick Jensen

About this time last year, give or take, I was in a used book store either in San Francisco or Boston (I'm pretty sure it was Boston), probably about the 20th book store I had stopped at on my trip from LA back to Yorktown. I was doing my usual used book store thing, looking for authors of books I had recently read (the book in in this was case Soul Mountain, which I posted a little about here.) I happened to come upon another book by Gao Xinjiang, and, thinking it quite a fortuitous find, decided to go ahead with the purchase. In keeping with Gao's Taoist teachings, this may not have been such a boon, but rather a miniature tragedy, since my lack of bag space (6 months with a 35 liter pack!) prevented me from buying two other books.

Actually, they were two volumes of one book. Mostly a sepia-style color scheme; Volume One has a leafless tree in the background and a small, wrecked, wooden boat in front. The image of failing tree and the decrepit craft for which one of its brethren must have provided the raw materials left me with a haunting sort of feeling, desolate but not melodramatic. The title of the series was Endgame, and Volume One was called The Problem of Civilization. Quite a confrontational title. Normally I'd be skeptical about such a grand statement, but the juxtaposition of the confrontational claim with the plainness of the language (no capital letters in the author's name or the title of the series; no colons, no subtitles, no jargon, no flair) and of the scene relaxed my guard.



Volume Two, entitled Resistance, bears the same striking color scheme but a very different picture. This time, the same tree, in the same place, but covered with leaves, with an almost holographic image of its roots spreading out underground, all the way to the base of the book. The symbolism is clear: "civilization" is broken and is destroying the land and resources that sustain it, and only by some sort of re-evaluation of our priorities can we restore the world (and, by extension, ourselves) to its (our) natural, flourishing state.



Of course, I don't expect anyone to be convinced of this so quickly. In fact, I think all the aforementioned details of the covers only registered subconsciously, and mostly I just thought the book would be spiffy. So I wrote down the title on a little slip of paper and somehow filed it away in my brain for a year. Then after I got to Korea, I started thinking about things I wanted from home - my leatherman, my 10 year old slippers with a big hole at the right front toe, some chili powder, some basil seeds, some thoreau - and decided I needed to order a few more books to round out the package. Without doing any further research into the book, I ordered both volumes (used) and had my mom send them out to me.

I can say nothing except that everything I've read of Jensen's so far is pure gold. The first 150 pages or so of Endgame are so good that when I visited my friend at Seoul National University (reputed to be the best in the country), I stopped at the library and had him take out two other Jensen books for me, both of which I started to read immediately. I remember mentioning before the feeling of reading Soul Mountain: it was so incredible, so wise, that I didn't want to finish it, so I read other, "lesser" books in order to draw it out. Jensen's work is the same and yet completely the opposite; it's so good that I want to devour it all at once. I feel like I can't afford to put off reading "Walking on Water - Reading, Writing, and Revolution" or "A Language Older than Words" until I've finished endgame. It's this feeling like there's something in the book, crucial to me at this very moment, and I need to find it before something in my mind changes, before something in my consciousness shifts, before I lose the ability to recognize what it is that's driving my addiction.

So, I interrupted Endgame to read Walking on Water, which is full of autobiographical tidbits concerning his experience teaching creative writing at a college in Eastern Washington University and Pelican Bay State Prison, as well as observations on and condemnations of civilization (particularly industrial) and of modern, standardized education (though his criticisms apply to pats forms of education as well.) [Plus, a lot of good tips on creative writing.] These issues are all becoming increasingly important to me as I consider my role as a citizen, a consumer, and an educator, and as I try to figure out how I can perform each of them without giving up on peace, fairness, honesty, or sustainability.

I have already quarreled a little bit with my school over my appearance (both of the natural and artificial sort); I was indirectly, subtly, underhandedly asked to shave my beard (which I did), cut off my ponytail (which I considered but didn't do), and buy new shoes (which I definitely refused/will continue to refuse to do). This gave me occasion to think about the way that conformity, and particularly consumptive conformity, is all around us, even at educational institutions. (My school uses its campus-wide PA system to play not only the school anthem, which is forgiveable, but also the same pop music that one finds on the radio, on TV, in cell phone shops, in shoe shops, in donut shops, in coffee shops, in cosmetic shops, etc.) How the pressure to fit in, to look, to impress, to buy, to consume, to eat, to accept, to stifle one's reservations and complaints is all around us, with no real clear logic or source at the ground level.

Plus, I came out of my CELTA course having learned the lesson that teaching isn't about showing other people how much you know and hoping they absorb it by sheer force of will, but rather about looking at a lesson from the student's perspective, and finding ways for him or her to discover and use the knowledge on his or her own. Not to mention the lovely (if controversial) idea I encountered in Sadhana of "Unschooling," which is the refusal not only to send your children to public school, but even to force them to learn (or do) almost anything. They are allowed to blossom, to follow their own instincts, desires, and curiosities, hopefully with the result of producing a happier, more free, more creative individual. All of this in addition to the whole vegetarianism/veganism thing, at the root of which is my desire not to contribute to any harm, whether physical or psychological, to other sentient beings.

That is to say, I'm sensitive these days to these topics. How can I live sustainably in the midst of an unsustainable culture? Is there anything I can do that doesn't, in some way or another, serve to perpetuate the unsustainability that I scuttle around in daily? How can I help my students to learn rather than force them to complete work? Can I lead a class that's based on voluntary education, not on fear, grades, and compulsion? Would the administrators permit it? In any case, are the students ready?

The point of all of this is that I wanted to share a quotation from Jensen's book, and I wanted to give its some context. Actually, I wanted to share about a million quotations. Walking on Water is one of those books where you could quote just about any sentence, paragraph, or chapter. Where you're tempted to quote the whole book, because everything inside it is just that good. Raw. Honest. Relentless. Open. Selfless. Moving. Full of rage. Full of doubt.

I guess I'm done beating around the bush. Maybe I've talked the book up to much, though I'm not sure that's possible. Here. Happy reading:

"Here is what I do know: I hate industrial civilization, for what it does to the planet, for what it does to communities, for what it does to individual nonhumans (both wild and domesticated), for what it does to individual humans (both wild and domesticated). I hate the wage economy, because it causes - forces is probably more accurate - people to sell their lives doing things they do not love, and because it rewards people for harming each other and destroying their landbases. I hate industrial schooling because it commits one of the only unforgivable sins there is: It leads people away from themselves, training them to be workers and convincing them it's in their best interest to be ever more loyal slaves, rowing the galley that is industrial civilization ever more fervently - enthusiastically, orgiastically - to hell, compelling them to take everything and everyone they encounter down with them. And I participate in this process. I help make school a little more palatable, a little more fun, as students are trained to do their part in the ongoing destruction of the planet, as they enter the final phases of trading away their birthright as the free and happy humans they were born to be for their roles as cogs in the giant industrial machine, or worse, as overseers of the giant factory/enslavement camp we once recognized as a living earth. doesn't that make me, in essence, a collaborator? Hell, drop the in essence."

He goes on...

"I must recognize my culpability not only for participating in the larger processes that destroy or deform the humanity of students (it's as though I'm putting soft cushions on the benches of the galley so the slave don't hurt their poor bums) but also for participating in the larger processes that train the overseers: As much as I may with to pretend I'm helping to take down civilization, when I teach at a university I'm actively training the future technocrats who will prop up civilization and who, by simply doing their jobs as well and perhaps as good-heartedly as I do mine, will commit genocide the world over and eviscerate what still remains of the natural world."

Yeah, it's dark. [And I imagine that it's easy, especially out of context like this, to feel that Jensen is being bombastic and hyperbolic, though I'm coming to believe that he's painting a pretty fair picture of things.] But what a great feeling it is to know that someone else is as (or more) fed up, frustrated, lost, stifled, confused, and desperate as (than) I am to fix or at least cease some of the mess we've thrown ourselves into. And also that he's been at it for years (in another book, he writes that he's learned to carry the daily weight of despair), spreading his hopes and fears and pleas and plans.

I don't know what else to say, how to wrap it up. Erh...please consider the above?

4 comments:

AZ said...

(some thoughts on unschooling from my favorite blogger: http://sharonastyk.com/2010/04/26/unschooled-future/) (and, although I'm not sure I need any more dark, depressing thoughts, I'm adding Derrick Jensen to my reading list--which book should I start with?)(happy birthday! I still haven't gotten to listen to it, but J tells me you left a lovely voicemail. Sorry to've missed you)

Jeff Stepp said...

AZ, that blog post you mentioned is quite good. Although I am bothered how she intertwines traditional education with faith education. They couldn't be farther apart. But I digress...

My basic opinion on unschooling/homeschooling is this: you (as a parent) are free to school your child as you/they wish. However, you have no room to complain when they fail at things later in life. "Oh, but if only the system were different and more accepting, my child would have succeeded." Well, the system isn't different, and you knew that, and made your choice anyway.

And that blogger is right - some kids really do need prodding to go in directions they might not initially want. The first few years of piano lessons I often wanted to quit, but my mom made me keep practicing. Now, having played for 17 years, it is the great love of my life.

Mike, you'll likely guess that Derrick Jensen will never appear on my reading list. From your quotes, which are obviously a fraction of his opinion, I'm much more a fan of your writing and observations. You are able to make such deep and cutting observations about society, but I never feel like you drown in them, which is how I felt reading those Jensen quotes.

I feel sorry for him, really. To be so unhappy is a shame.

Mike said...

Despite the selection I just posted, I wouldn't characterize Jensen as dark and depressing. He often takes as his topics all the brutal, nasty, cruel things that we do to each other, to other animals, to other forms of life, and to the land, but he just as often writes uplifting passages about the beauty of other non-destructive, non-consumptive, non-"civilized" alternatives, and about rewarding experiences he has had trying to convey this to people. As someone who is trying to come to terms with the amount of destruction, deprivation, and immieseration of others that my lifestyle requires, very few things are more pleasing than reading someone who is writing frankly about the situation and trying to encourage others to own up, too.

It's so difficult to internalize and deal with the fact that almost everything we value, enjoy, and take for granted is built upon the oppression of others, the degradation of the environment, and the repression of some of our own most basic instincts; that we live in a society that is superficially more or less beautiful and functioning, but that is fundamentally at odds with compassion and a concern for the well-being of others. Perhaps Jensen is in some ways "unahppy," as he has chosen for himself the task of constantly butting up against this fact. Even ignoring, though, all the instances of the happiness he derives from his interactions with the natural world, his friends, his students, etc, isn't there something to be said for facing the truth rather than insisting on one's own happiness as the first priority? And, in any case, once you've accepted the fact that, due to forces beyond your control, almost all the things that you do and enjoy every day actually reduce the happiness of others, your own happiness becomes a little bit suspect.

Regarding homeschooling, I don't have a very well-formed opinion. I encountered it in the context of a community which wasn't concerned with equipping its children with the skills necessary to participate in the 21st century economy. Whether this will make them "failures" later on, or whether the failures are those who been schooled well enough that they manage to find employment and (unknowingly, unadmittedly, unfortunately) contribute to an unsustainable, unjust society society is a question we could probably have a long back-and-forth about.

You're definitely right that parental prodding can be a boon, and, looking back at what I wrote, the rhetoric does seem a little overblown. But there's a big difference between parents, who know and love you, trying to help you to develop your own talents (this is the basis of unschooling), and teachers, who usually don't, trying to get you to comply with odd standards, develop a sense of worth related to how much stuff you remember or how well you can solve problems, and (though they may not be aware of it) acculturate you into a deeply destructive society.

나일 said...

So when can I borrow that book man? It's something I want to read for sure.
Yes, im using your computer to read and comment on your blog. i could've just told you! Hehe.