Tuesday, May 19, 2015

a sense of complicity - scratchpad

This is a theme that crops up a lot in the vicinity of Andrea Brady's poetry. Commentators mention it. The poetry mentions it. ("Winter Quarters", "Friendship 2") - the poetry, everywhere, is alert to it. You might almost say, lives and dies by it.

In our world it's hard to escape.

So thanks, Obama administration.

I am not very happy, right now, with the activities of Royal Dutch Shell, as they crow over their arctic adventure go-ahead.

Yet I drive, eat, heat and earn. (It's been estimated that 20% of pension funds are invested in fossil fuel companies.)

(I think we should now routinely call them fossil fuel companies. "Energy companies" is an attempt to occupy the centre ground that is now totally inappropriate.)

In fact you could say that a general unease and disapproval of fossil fuel industries goes back with me to teenage years. That was 40 years ago, and I don't think I'd heard of global warming, but it seemed vaguely wrong to me (and of course many others) that we were "using up the planet's resources". We were very protective of the planet, this big bouncing baby that was suddenly wriggling in the arms of my generation after all those millennia of being far too big for human beings to conceive let alone affect.

This was how I felt when university pals went off to earn big bucks with Schlumberger.

It was in the late 80s when we began to think that "the greenhouse effect" presented a more immediate danger than exhausting the planet. Svante Arrhenius had floated the concept in 1896, but no-one had thought it was really happening. Then the papers told us that the poles were melting. Cows and termites might have something to do with it, but it was mainly all about fossil fuels. 1998 was the hottest year on record.

Meanwhile Schlumberger's site characterizes the present time thus: "In this new decade, Schlumberger products and services are more relevant than ever, as E&P moves into more complex and environmentally extreme areas – especially offshore and in deepwater – and the search for unconventional oil and gas intensifies."


 E&P means Exploration and Production.


One of the many interesting things about the above publication is that it contains a story by Tim O'Connor of the Environmental Defense Fund. As its motto indicates ("Finding the ways that work"), the EDF is known for building bridges with industry and working closely on practical solutions. They are not intrinsically anti gas, indeed they see the real priority right now as replacing dirty coal with cleaner gas. I think that might be right.

A sense of complicity may lead to pursuing a greater understanding of what we deplore yet comply with. That is an intrinsically open research. It risks, and may interfere with, the political beliefs you began from. I don't claim that this happened for Andrea Brady when she sought to understand WP. But she knew she had to understand why we people ourselves, not excluding my and her complicit selves, desire light and fire and violence and energy so much. What drives this? She had to risk celebrating it.

A sense of complicity has deep connections with suspicion of judgment and a sense of moral relativism, even though they are in obvious ways opposed. (The sense of complicity does plant a moral flag.)


Complicity has, as it were, two frameworks. One of them is material: it traces, with more or less credibility, the way in which our personal economy is implicated in larger evils. I cook a meal; the gas I burn comes from Russia, the profit goes to BP and Rosneft. Igor Sechin.

The second framework, not always clearly distinguished, is spiritual - a sense of global community. A sense that what is enacted by Monsanto execs or ISIS pan-national wreckers is done by all of us, and by myself, because I am a sinful human being too. Though I may not be able to make the direct connection in the way that I can connect the economics of Siberian gas to my tin of ravioli, yet I believe we're linked. Purity I don't accept. And since purity means polarization means the end of dialogue, maybe there's something to be said for this.

Yet the material framework is the more moral one. The spiritual framework is rhetorical: one beats one's breast for the actions of our fellow-sinners, but this avowal of community involves no real personal responsibility for the consequences of those actions. The material framework, on the other hand, convicts us, personally, of sharing in the responsibility. We may or may not allow ourselves to feel guilty (that depends on our mood and our character and our skill in concealment and denial), but we know we are responsible.


Schlumberger makes no political contributions, directly or indirectly, and only funds Trade and Industry Associations which do not make political contributions themselves.

A glance at the American Petroleum Institute website suffices to show it as a very political animal indeed, vigorously struggling against the chains of regulation. The very slender threads of regulation, as arctic Alaska is finding. One of the more disturbing statements in API's account of its struggle with the Obama administration is the claim that it represents not only 625 oil and gas companies but "They provide most of the nation’s energy and are backed by a growing grassroots movement of more than 25 million Americans".

What does this mean?

Since when do we "back" corporates?

No wonder they don't need to give contributions to anyone else. This IS a political party.

Or rather, it's a gang.

In a time when polarization of beliefs threatens to break down the social consensus that allows democracy in the US, I'm concerned about the implications of this remark. It hints at a return to dark-age tribalism, in which people survive by aligning themselves to a chief who rewards you with loot. The chiefs, in this case, being bosses.

A search on the Schlumberger site (with sparse results) for "environmental impact" or "global warming" is an enlightening indication of how the industry thinks, and what it never thinks.

Here there is not much sense, yet, of perceiving oneself as in the same boat as the tobacco industry and makers of white phosphorus: still legal, but unfit to be seen.

Yet slowly this perception is coming to be. The Guardian's divestment from fossil fuels is a tiny but significant measure of the direction we are going in. It's beyond time.

In the mean while, on with the species extinctions.

Consciousness of complicity is mostly just background radiation but sometimes it grows to be like a wave of nausea. It is a tweak, it says, you either find a way of tranquilising yourself or you'll have to do something you don't want to do.

After all, in reading about Shell or Schlumberger I'm reading about myself. Didn't I fly to Australia this year? We are oil-persons.

Consciousness of complicity is a middle-class guilt thing. Poor people don't have consciousness of complicity. Complicity indeed requires power; but then everyone has some power. It doesn't make the garden of complicity necessarily a bad place to cultivate. Though bad things grow there easily enough.

 ... * I've just discovered that the Guardian published a profile of Schlumberger today. Nice coincidence.



The focus of Brady's Wildfire (2010) is incendiaries (from the shirt of Nessus to Greek Fire to the white phosphorus used by US troops in Falujah). But when the focus is this intense it starts to suggest wider concerns.

One of those is fossil fuels, as is apparent from the epigraph and from the chapter entitled "Crude".

Another is the psychological or spiritual drive that produces the unbridled capitalism, exploitation, violence and self-harm of our species. A drive that is also the need to give and receive love.

(That's why petrochemicals are so hard to give up. And it's what permits the "enablement" argument.)

Maybe we can add Rabindranath Tagore in 1914: "Gradually we came to see that outside of the nations Europeans considered their own, the torch of European civilization wasn't used to illuminate but to start fires. That's why they rained cannon-shells and lumps of opium, both at once, into the heart of China..."  (Kalantar, 1914)


There can't be any more poetic forms now; at least, no interesting ones. The only new forms are those that break poetry.

The subtitle casts doubt on whether Wildfire should be thought of as a poem. It was published both as a book and on the internet. (http://www.krupskayabooks.com/wildfire/poem.html). The latter format is in fact essential, because it contains the hyperlinks that take us to all Brady's source-texts. Reading those source-texts is a study in itself and an essential part of the Wildfire experience. This is truly an essay in that it has a clear topic and is intimately linked with other writing on that topic, to the extent that its presence as a poem can end up being forgotten. (As Brady herself commented in the interview with Andrew Duncan.)

Bring milk and fire, and my blood I bring him again; tear me in pieces, give me the sword with a ball of wildfire upon it.

(Tamburlaine, Part I, V.1.310-11)

Zabina's speech (just before she smashes her brains out) stands out from the remorseless pentameters elsewhere, both because it's in prose and because articulation breaks up into fragments. Some of the arsenal of rhetoric is at last laid aside; the fragments that are left exposed, like this ball of wildfire, attain a clarity not found elsewhere.

This is "wildfire" in the same sense that Brady's poem uses it: an inflammable, phosphorus-based material used as a weapon. It's fire that can be directed and that sticks. It is the "Greek Fire" of medieval warfare (though the exact composition of Greek Fire is a matter of dispute, but phosphorus must have been a large part of it).

As white phosphorus (WP, Willie Pete) it is still used in modern warfare. US troops used it in Fallujah. It probably should be banned as a chemical weapon, but its use is often excused as merely providing illumination, or to flush out enemies that can then be attacked by other means. Even though WP itself is deadly. This all comes from the informative links mentioned earlier. If Wildfire existed only to connect those links, it would still be a formidable essay.

Illumination, from the fire. Obscurity, from the dense smoke. WP produces both: it could be an image of poetry, specifically the kind of poetry that Brady writes. Or, it could be a commentary on the Tagore passage quoted earlier.

It exists, certainly, to link Part 7 of Ancrene Wisse, G.H. von Schubert's remarkable Der Geschichte der Seele, Browning's "Karshish", the siege of Acre, and so on - too much!

"The poem began as an attempt to bypass the vulnerability of writing to occasion. I'd got tired of susceptibility, ground in airy feeling. I wanted to write a forensic poem, one whose structure could accommodate an excess of social  information. ... I was tired of trying to position "us" on the ground... " (from Brady's end-note to Wildfire).

I interpret this "susceptibility" as principally moral susceptibility, and I interpret this "trying to position" as a weighing of complicity. In short, Wildfire is an attempt to move outside of the logic of complicity - which has its preciosity, as well as pitilessness. (Mutability can be seen as driven by a similar determination, though employing totally different means.)

Yet, a page or two further on, Brady says: "I don't want to fabricate a critique which spares me, in whose light I glow with ethical priority". Nor of course does she want to spare the reader, with her closing salvo of "What would make you throw yourself out".  The answer to that question, however, is probably not "A sense of complicity".



The sale of oil has been and probably will be the most effective source of funding for ISIS.

(G.W. Bowersock in the NYRB, speculating on what might happen to Palmyra)

Nor, of course, is the economy of ISIS unusual in that region. The semi-autonomous Kurdish state is founded on oil. One can't have a simple view of the consequences of "enablement".

The "Enablement" argument has become popular among fossil fuel companies as a justification for their line of business.

For instance, Peabody used "enablement" to justify coal extraction; they said it brought heat (and therefore hope and a decent life) to poor villagers in China.

The Chinese woman who presented this heart-warming video was, however, not a poor villager. She was shortly afterwards identified as a Monsanto executive. (Peabody and Monsanto are both based in St Louis.)

The enablement argument is what lies behind Tony Abbot's self-serving claim that coal is "good for humanity".

Today it's Commonwealth countries who are most aggressively exploiting the dirtiest fuel sources. Canada's tar sands, and the massive coal deposits in Australia's Galilee Basin.

I feel a sort of transferred shame about those profiteering ventures, just as I do about Norway's insensible explorations. But in one sense this is a mistake; it is too preoccupied with nations. This is an international matter.

A sense of complicity is an ethics for a globalized outlook. It states simply that "we" (whichever group or nations we identify with) - we can't be clean until the whole earth is clean. That religious belief has turned out to be true, after all: because the common atmosphere is the measure of all our burnings.

Another form of the enablement argument is the claim that burning fossil fuels buys us time. Time for prosperity. Prosperity in turn brings scientific research and social progress. That, eventually, is what will solve the global warming issue, and it will solve it while we live in comfort. In fact, while we live our times. For doesn't someone who turns their back on fossil fuels step out of our time altogether, go back to the dark ages, become an irrelevance? Indeed, aren't energy efficiency and clean energy in conscience-stricken Europe and America themselves an irrelevance? They aren't the growth market for fossil fuels. The enablement argument is pitched at developing nations like China and India. Consumption in developed nations is static.

But these rhetorical questions need to be answered with "No". What happens in Europe does matter. Fuel-efficient technologies and economically-persuasive clean energies need a proving ground.

I'm reminded of university days again. By the end, some of the post-grads had cars. As we popped across to Seaham to see the Bloody Cranesbills wavering on the coal-strewn shore. in the freshness of the experience, in arriving at Castle Eden Dene to see  at first hand what I'd previously only read about, we discussed the enormous enlargement of possibility that the car was giving to us. We contrasted this wild accessibility with the logistical nightmares we had previously negotiated in reaching the lake district or Osmotherley by public transport.

Though we didn't know it then, we were using the enablement argument.

But, so far as I myself was concerned, it never did enable anything. I never wrote that history of the North York Moors. I've driven up and down a lot of motorways, made hasty flying visits in which too much experience was and wasn't crammed, mostly to no good purpose.  I time-sliced my life with fleeting glimpses of lives I'd never lead. I was addicted to getting there. I ticked boxes instead of living.

That's what having a car enabled.


In the history of the notion of complicity, one of the most critical documents is Ivan's deunciation in The Brothers Karamazov. Here he recounts a number of piteous accounts of children being sadistically tortured and killed. The Kingdom of Heaven, he says, is eternally tainted by these histories. God was complicit. And Ivan, though only a weak ordinary human being, is more moral than God, because his soul rejects a system that is complicit in torture.

Ivan's intention is to indict God. God, after all, is supposed to be perfect.

No-one claims the same of humanity and its civilizations. Yet to be accountable is to be measured by a standard of perfection. And besides, terrible histories such as those told by Ivan place self-defence itself under a moral cloud. In the face of such evils the only decent thing, it seems, is to humbly confess to a universal complicity.  (Agamemnon "made politic respects to heaven" in Chapman's Homer).

I wanted to remark that no-one has ever made a convincing defence of God against Ivan's argument. But in a way that's not true: complicity is a weak accusation. The argument forces us to make a distinction between the insanely sadistic general and the intensely moral forces of heaven. The latter can be tainted, but all the shock-value of the taint lies in the disparity. In the same way, identifying the complicity of educated domesticity with mortar-bombing of Fallujah depends for its force on a recognition of disparity. And in that way, the complicit (whether it's us or God) begins to wriggle off the hook. The weakness of the complicity argument is that it's insufficiently "forensic" (quoting Brady's end-note again).


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