Archive for May, 2013

The Powerful Press

May 26, 2013

This weekend many of you, like me, have received a forwarded email entitled “March Against Monsanto: News Not Reporting, Please Share”. It contains images from the various demonstrations worldwide that occurred on May 25, 2013. Our own neighboring big city, Columbus Ohio, was among them. Scant attention was given this demonstration by the few media outlets covering the Newark area. That night the AP ran a story headlined “Protesters across globe rally against Monsanto: Demonstrators rally against Monsanto in global anti-GMO protest” A couple of quotes from that article are notable to consider:
“Genetically modified plants are grown from seeds that are engineered to resist insecticides and herbicides, add nutritional benefits or otherwise improve crop yields and increase the global food supply.”
“Monsanto Co., based in St. Louis, said that it respects people’s rights to express their opinion on the topic, but maintains that its seeds improve agriculture by helping farmers produce more from their land while conserving resources such as water and energy.”
These quotes need to be considered within the context of:
“The Biotechnology Industry Organization, a lobbying group that represents Monsanto, DuPont & Co. and other makers of genetically modified seeds, has said that it supports voluntary labeling for people who seek out such products. But it says that mandatory labeling would only mislead or confuse consumers into thinking the products aren’t safe, even though the FDA has said there’s no difference between GMO and organic, non-GMO foods.” (same article).
We rely on the press to keep us informed and assume that what is being presented bears on the world we all experience in common (as opposed to the press reporting fantasy, fiction or something contrived ala’ Orson Wells). The first quote given in the AP story is glaringly inaccurate. GM plants may be from seeds that are engineered to resist herbicides, but why insecticides? The description may be inaccurate, or maybe the insecticides applied afterward ARE detrimental to… who (or what)? Within the context of the pronouncement of the lobbying group, Biotechnology Industry Organization, something, for someone, is unsafe here. We’ll return to this later. “Monsanto Co…. maintains that its seeds improve agriculture by helping farmers produce more from their land while conserving resources such as water and energy.” likewise is inaccurate. It is excellent marketing though. Studies in India by various individuals and research centers shows that not only not to be the case, but the exact opposite (see Vandana Shiva’s various extensively referenced recent studies on this matter). Which brings us back to the first quote. “We rely on the press to keep us informed and assume that what is being presented bears on the world we all experience in common (as opposed to the press reporting fantasy, fiction or something contrived).” In this case the press has simply taken marketing PR presented by the industries involved in the story as definitive – and passed it on to the reader. When a pet owner attempts to eliminate fleas, ticks and mosquitoes through the application of magic drops to their pet’s skin, or a pill or injection, this is what is called a systemic insecticide. The organism itself now contains the insecticide utilized to ward off, well, insects. GM plants likewise are engineered to contain systemic insecticides (as well as “resist”?). GM sugar beets (look at the label of where your sugar comes from) as well as soybeans, corn, etc. have these qualities. The European Union found that these plants were threatening wildlife (insects, small animals, etc.) and banned their use. In the context of the lobbying group’s quote, it is perfectly understandable to not want to confuse the consumer with the fact that the ingredients might be deadly to some organisms, but not humans. Back to Monsanto’s quote and why the American Press consuming this PR is so troubling to Newark and its surrounds. Following Monsanto’s recent Supreme Court victory regarding its seeds being considered as intellectual property and thus any second, third, etc. generation seeds utilized as, well, seeds (not as intellectual property) being in violation of US patent law, various articles appeared covering this decision (Bowman vs. Monsanto Co.). “Monsanto demands exclusive right to supply that seed” reports NPR (Supreme Court Rules For Monsanto In Case Against Farmer 5-13-13). Richard Wolf in USA Today “Supreme Court Sides With Monsanto In Major Patent Case (5-13-13) reports that The Center For Food Safety “found that from 1995-2011, the average cost to plant 1 acre of soybeans rose 325%”. This was corroborated by a different AP story (unreferenced) appearing at this time that noted the cost of GM seed to be triple that of retained seed. This is corroborated by yet another story “Trouble on the farm: ‘We face a grim future’” (Mark Koba CNBC 5-20-13). Some notable quotes from that article:
“A Kansas Farm Management Association report says that the number of farmers with a 40 percent debt ratio is higher now than it was in 1979 and that farms with a debt ratio of more than 70 percent are three times as many today.”
“A report released last month by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City warns that if farmers use their accumulated wealth instead of profits to finance their agricultural investments, they could end up in greater debt, risk bankruptcies and potentially face the loss of their farms.”
“The USDA predicts a 25 percent decline in farm profits for 2014, as commodity prices level off and exports are reduced.”
“”Not too long ago it took $400 to grow an acre of corn,” Schriver said. “Now its $1,000 an acre of corn. A bag of seed was around $35-40 an acre. Now it’s $245 or more. It’s getting very expensive to farm.”” [Jim Shriver, OSU grad farms 1,600 acres in Indiana]
No surprise here. GM seed requires various herbicides, insecticides and fertilizers (patented of course) produced and marketed (as completely safe for humans) by the members of The Biotechnology Industry Organization. No surprise either that this same scenario of an agriculture increasingly centered on financial resources, as opposed to those associated with farming, led to the demise of farming, and increase of rural poverty and hunger in India over the last 15 years.
Today I did what I do every spring. I purchased a beautiful ripe melon. It was very tasty. I then planted some of the seeds in my garden so that later this summer I will have some more to eat. Farmers have been doing this for millennia. Now I have to wonder whether I didn’t inadvertently plant intellectual property instead of seed (and subject myself to a potential lawsuit). The power of the press doesn’t only include what is described and reported. It also is found with what is left out and not told.

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Dewey And Da Bees

May 18, 2013

Pragmatism and Diversity: Dewey in the Context of Late Twentieth Century Debates is a collection of 8 essays, an introduction and a concluding conversation amongst the various authors edited by Judith M. Green, Stefan Neubert, and Kersten Reich (2011). The writings and philosophy of American John Dewey are pretty much de rigueur for undergraduates of private liberal arts colleges. Indeed, the entire philosophy of pragmatism is pretty much embodied within many of these institutions. My bookshelf finds no “Dewey” between “Deleuze” and Freire”. This book did much to help me understand the myth-conception I’ve had about graduates of small, private liberal arts colleges being celebrated for landing their first job with the American Lung Association or R.J. Reynolds. It doesn’t matter which, they would be equally competent, committed and enthusiastic at either. But I guess I was wrong. Interesting insights about cosmopolitanism, pragmatism, and how they are viewed through the perspective of democracy (and education) accompany this reading.

But it ain’t all a bed of roses. Dewey seems to leave that small private liberal arts college enthusiasm slathered all over the place, even second hand, on those reading about him though not directly. Two essays addressed this: William J. Gavin’s The Context of Diversity versus the Problem of Diversity and Jim Garrison’s Dewey and Levinas on Pluralism, the Other, and Democracy. Gavin’s essay substantiates the existence of tragedy and Kafkaesque type scenario’s (a variation of which would be Heller’s Catch 22 scenarios). No amount of “problem solving” or reductionism to help address a problem eliminates these because, quite frankly, they just are, and won’t disappear from life as we know it or be lessened no matter how earnestly we apply pragmatic organization (hence the disjunct of the student gushing over their new job representing the American Lung Association, or R.J. Reynolds. It doesn’t matter which, pragmatism prevails). Garrison’s essay was the more vexing. Admirably, he does take the time to associate Levinas with Dewey primarily on their interest and commitment to diversity and pluralism. Though Levinas is presented accurately enough (good enough is an adequate standard in the comparison of ideas, authors and applications for this writer), Garrison fails to reconstruct his outlook as earnestly and conscientiously as he does Dewey’s. Reconstruction is a cornerstone of Dewey’s pragmatism but applying it with such bias undermines any benefits to be had from this aspect of pragmatism and democracy. It has been said that art is impossible after the Holocaust, or poetry for that matter (or God for some), but what about Dewey’s pragmatism? Reconstructing Levinas within the context of the post-holocaust civilized world (the latter part of the “later” Dewey), would have created a better understanding of inadequacies. Which brings us to – the bees.

Levinas centers on the Other which Garrison translates (or expands) to implicate the Same. One description of Dewey’s pragmatism has it stressing democracy as a way of life made operational through continuing education all founded on the fundamentals of nature, possibility, experience and community. These last four are pretty descriptive of the bees and could be considered almost as a template. An important part of contemporary existence is the place and importance of programming, software, in today’s world. These methodologies (outlooks, dispositions, organizations, whatever) function much as templates in that, like our student with her first job, it doesn’t matter what the application (or “context”). Dewey’s pragmatism can also be considered as a template. But the bees find themselves having to fly, be free and “work” the environment of, sometimes, up to three miles from their hive. Unlike livestock, totally managed and determined, for the bees no freedom means no production. Here Levinas’ Other can be reconstructed much more effectively and informatively than Dewey’s problem solving pragmatism. What the bees encounter in their necessity to be bees, is more like the Other of Levinas than some “problem” able to be solved if we just employ reductionist applications. It is planting time hereabouts , and not wishing to dispel wonderful myths of plowing and seeding most of it is done with a giant tanker truck coming in and spraying herbicide (akin to agent orange) on the field. After everything has died (including the dandelions the bees got drenched working while the spray was being applied), another huge, complicated piece of machinery (with attached tanks for liquid application) comes to inject seed and pesticide into the brown dead field. A couple of weeks from now, perfect rows of corn or beans will appear in this by design wasteland. For the bees, this certainly is the Face. This Monsanto-type methodology is a program, a template for how farming is done/to be done today (with all the protections of intellectual property). But what of the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling and now, within our democracy, having to sit down at the table with Lloyd Blankfein? Will he be just an individual or is he, like our student, there as a representative of Goldman Sachs? Dewey is said to be promoting that there are three at the table. Me, Lloyd and our work. But the Supreme Court says there are really now four (or five, depends how you count). There is me, Lloyd, Goldman Sachs and our work. The corporate structure, much as software, functions as a template, insisting on a specific disposition, outlook and precedence. Stressing education of individuals for the sake of a full and healthy democracy begins to unravel when one notices that the little me is outnumbered two (or three) to one: the corporation, its representative (and its representative as an individual standing to gain enormously if he doesn’t vary from the template). Like the bees who must fly out into an environment that is committed to a specific modus operandi (trespassing insects must be eliminated), our individual at the table finds themselves in a situation better addressed by Levinas than Dewey.

Antigone

May 11, 2013

Recent events continuously in the news brought Antigone to mind. “We’re better than that, aren’t we?” The jury is out on that and well it should be for western culture has maintained many of the same funerary dispositions prevalent at the time of Sophocles. Being one of “them” and having threatened “us” justifies Creon’s decree in the hearts of many.

“In a Critical Inquiry essay (The Idle Idol, or Why Abstract Art Ended Up Looking Like A Chinese Room) Robert Morris stumbles along, page after page considering theoretical explanations for the state of abstract art today (Morris has taken to making outdoor labyrinths). The last two pages are memorable. Here he dispenses with theory (though he knows that what he writes is still theory). He describes what he considers to be the current art scene in the NYC area where he resides (the real reason for the state of abstract art today). My own interpretation of his description would be that the scene is a group ethos without the “idol” of authorship. The individuals contribute to what is taking place within the group, with the entire group participating as well as experiencing (celebrating) the outcome ( the outcome being the participation or rather, the act of participating). Morris describes it as singing. Artists sometimes are curators or show organizers, and curators are considered as artists. There is a fluidity, a constant exchange and interaction with an emphasis on the connectivity of networking. It is curiously analogous to the chorus in ancient Greek tragedy (if you can stretch your imagination enough). It “sings” its art, its message, its ideas, etc. But there is no claim to individual ownership or origin. It is in a communal sense (much as the chorus embodies the community within Greek tragedy) with a heavy emphasis on networking and belonging (which can only be done by actively singing; singing along with everyone else, not counter, questioning or critiquing, but going with the flow). To sing with the chorus is to go with the flow, one way only. The chorus is univocal though it may be polyglot.” (this blog’s December 2009 post entitled Making The Signifier)

Antigone does not sing with the chorus.

Creon’s decree also encompasses memory and memorials. Brief and eerie glimpses of our un-advertised, un-celebrated selves tacitly materialize. Charon is to ferry Sandy Hook Elementary to the nether world to join the Kent State shooting site along with oh so many other tragedies by disappearing, “getting paved over” so that life can go on without the memory being indexed to any concrete material. In many parts of the world the tragedy itself is precisely memorialized by the preservation of just such material — the destruction, the trace, the residue of wrong. Here we want it to disappear, for a return to a normalcy that denies aberration, relegates it to a “them, they or those”, putting it outside the distribution of sense (for the abomination was so sense-less). Ai Wei Wei’s 5,000 names of children buried under earthquake rubble or Maya Lin’s list of names only half buried under the earth defy Creon’s convenient and easy bifurcation of what is to remain of Eteocles and Polyneices.

Racism

May 5, 2013

In his complex analysis of Colonialism, Albert Memmi recognizes a final stage of colonialism where the colonized shed the colonizer, primarily categorically through a process of resistance, revolt and reclamation. Although a fundamental establishing principle of colonization, racism inevitably (and inescapably) manifests itself within the colonized themselves at this later stage. As Memmi writes “Considered en bloc as them, they or those, different from every point of view, homogenous in a radical heterogeneity, the colonized reacts by rejecting all the colonizers en bloc.” Ending the paragraph with “If xenophobia and racism consist of accusing an entire human group as a whole, condemning each individual of that group, seeing in him an irremediably noxious nature, then the colonized has, indeed, become a xenophobe and a racist.” Memmi extends his thought with a definition of racism itself: “All racism and all xenophobia consist of delusions about oneself, including absurd and unjust aggressions toward others.” (The colonizer and the colonized, 1957 pg. 130)

Albert Memmi was a philosopher and contemporary of Camus, Sartre, Arendt, etc. Coming from a man who himself was “the colonized”, this is a very curious appraisal of what racism is. During this same time, within the US, racism was primarily defined by the color of skin and the purity of blood. This outlook was based on contemporary “scientism”, reasoning associated with polio vaccines, atomic bombs and evolution theory. Memmi’s definition makes no mention of that. Ranciere’s political interpretation stretches the practice outside the one embraced by scientism (or religion) and establishes it within the distribution of sense — racism being just another of the ways that “the police” maintain this sensibility, part of their arsenal. This “exclusionary” methodology (without being specifically named as such) appears to be pretty much the present day rendition of racism, invoked whenever exclusionary practice is uncovered and highlighted (given a name). But Memmi’s insight is much more active than Ranciere’s passive, after the fact definition. Ranciere’s approach is almost like Aquinas’s definition of evil as the absence of good (where good is what is considered to be real). Ranciere’s political expression of racism would find itself a posteriori the experience of colonialism rather than a priori its establishment. Once “an entire human group” becomes part of the distribution of sense, it would appear that racism is not for Ranciere’s political aesthetic. But Memmi, as a colonized who needed to reconcile himself to a very active and real injustice, resists theory with the realization that humans experience delusions, and act on them, often forcefully. This interpretation opens tangible possibilities for change within the highly polarized politics currently growing evermore so in the US. Descriptions of many of the current polarizations regarding wealth inequality, gun issues, immigration, and health care parallel being “Considered en bloc as them, they or those”. Ranciere’s interpretation leads to the inevitable possibility of wholesale, mass societal delusion; something in itself embodying the definition of racism. Memmi offers a way out by giving us the opportunity to initiate our own complicity (“about oneself”), giving each of us individually the ability to resist, revolt and reclaim a non-delusional engagement.