Sunday, January 5, 2014

Hazards and the Work of Culture: New Worlds from Fragments?

Taylor Bridge Fire, 2012, Steve Bisig.
We are delighted at Cascadia Chronicle that our new series “Ring of Fire,” exploring literary and analytic work on natural hazards in Cascadia and the broader Pacific region, is supported by a grant from the newly-established Cascadia Hazards Institute  at Central Washington University.  As a sociocultural anthropologist I’d like to offer a few reflections on the relationship between “hazards” and human culture. This is a puzzle we have been pondering at the Museum of Culture and Environment as we have mounted our current exhibition on wildland fire, organized by my colleague Hope Amason, and as we look forward to developing exhibitions on seismology: if “culture” ordinarily pertains to that which is known, created, and controlled by humans, in what senses may natural hazards, be they forest fires or earthquakes, be said to be cultural phenomena?

It is helpful to begin with etymology. The word “hazard,” dictionaries inform us, comes into English from Old French “hasart,” a game of chance, perhaps derived from an Arabic term for dice.  Only in mid 16th century English did hazards shift from the the sense of chances in gambling (as in “games of hazard”) to broader chances of loss, risk or harm throughout life.  Certainly, the sensibility and aesthetics of gambling and throwing the dice continues to inform much of our rhetoric about geophysical hazards, as we ponder the risk at any given moment of a “five hundred year” earthquake or a “thousand year” tsunami event.  A “hazard” is not quite synonymous with a “danger”; “hazard” implies a particularly intensive zone of possibility, hovering between the determinate and the indeterminate, the knowable and the unknowable.  All gamblers know they are playing the odds, and some are highly skilled at statistical calculations of probability, but committed gamblers usually are drawn to something beyond rationalist assessment, to intuitions, hunches, or enigmatic signifiers from beyond the conventional material world of cause and effect.

Indeed, for millennia diverse human spiritual traditions have emphasized intimate relationships between gambling and divination.  Consider the divinatory practices of Ifá among the Yoruba, bone throwing in southern Africa or the hexagramic I-Ching in China:  to render oneself susceptible to a ‘hazard” in this older sense is to open oneself up to the mysterious forces of the universe, to alternate planes of power and reality that may radically transform consciousness or the life course.   Perhaps the modern word “hazard” still caries a subtle sense of the miraculous, the numinous, of the not quite of this world.  Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, typhoons and conflagrations so often conjure up the language of the sacred and of the awesome (in the classical sense of being filled with awe).  To contemplate these large scale hazards is to stand on a kind of phenomenological precipice, to be made suddenly aware of the infinitely branching possible trajectories that coexist alongside our seemingly stable, predictable everyday lives on what we had thought, erroneously, to be terra firma. 

What might all of this, born of the fact that we reside upon a periodically restless and turbulent earth, have to do with the long evolutionary history of human culture?  Anthropologist Marshall Sahlins famously defines culture as a “meaningful order of persons and things.” Landscape forms are clearly objects of culture: they are things that we render meaningful through narrative, through habitual styles of perception, and through labor.   Mountains, waterfalls, canyons and other landscape features have long functioned as repositories of cultural knowledge, through which philosophies and worldviews have been re-accessed, contemplated and transmitted across the generations. As linguistic anthropologist Keith  Basso was told by his Western Apache consultants, “wisdom sits in places.”  Such is the case as well for the natural products of these generative landscapes: Chinese scholar stones, shaped by eons of geophysical forces, are understood as miniature landscapes compressing the great forces of the cosmos, and have thus been contemplated for philosophical and poetic insight across the millennia.

Yet what kind of wisdom or cultural knowledge is embedded in the tumultuous contortions of these landscape features, in earthquakes, eruptions, tsunami, rockslides, avalanches or wildland fires?  In some instances, conventional cultural models are summoned up to impose a degree of intelligibility upon crises that seem to defy all logic and order. For example, in a forthcoming article in Cascadia Chronicle  Jack Nisbet cites a Spokane Salish woman describing the 1872 earthquake centered near Chelan, Washington as if the earth was boiling and bubbling like “gravy”-- a simile drawn from the conventional practices of food preparation. It is a poignant image: precisely at the moment when all the most fundamental coordinates of conventional experience are disrupted, we turn to the most familiar and domestic of imagery, cooking itself, the archetypal process through which we transform nature into culture, the raw into the cooked.  This is the work of culture in its most fundamental sense, to render the unfamiliar into the familiar, to impose a framework of meaning upon that which manifestly defies our direct control.  Like all gamblers, when playing the game of hazard that is life we seek a reassuring, interpretive trope that is controllable, regular, and knowable.

Yet there is another way of thinking about the relationship between hazards and culture. Culture is not simply the pre-existing lens through which we understand external phenomenon, nor is it solely the matrix that governs our response to disaster. Culture itself is often the long-term product of natural (and social) hazards, repeatedly experienced and contemplated. The first great human cultural achievement,  the mastery and domestication of fire, was presumably brought about through our ancestors’ repeated observation of fires sparked by lightning strikes or volcanic action.  Many Japanese cultural theorists have argued that the Japanese cultural valuation of impermanence and fluidity is a function of the archipelago’s position in the Ring of Fire. Frequent exposure to volcanic eruptions, pyroclastic flows, tsunami, and tremors over the millennia tends, the argument goes, to contribute to a cultural aesthetic centered on mutability. Thus, the central ritual process of Imperial Shinto, the continuous deconstruction and reconstruction of Ise Shrine over a twenty year cycle.  The basic form is maintained in a supreme act of cultural reproduction even as no physical structure lasts longer than a human biological generation.

Mythologies the world over, to be sure, are inspired by seismic events, which are often reckoned in reference to generational relations between divine and human entities. The ancient Greeks understood the continuous rumbling around Mt. Olympus as signifying the mythic clash between generations of divinities: the enraged Titans, confined to subterranean Tarturus by their rebellious Olympian children, shake the walls of the underground prison.  Sigmund Freud, in formulating the modern mythos of the turbulent human psyche, drew inspiration from this ancient greek mytheme when he characterized the human mind as a volatile Mount Olympus: the Unconscious, though repressed by the Ego, reverberates like the enraged Titans with the “Immortal Wishes” born out of our thwarted early childhood desires.  In turn, my wife, anthropologist Ellen Schattschneider, drew upon Freud’s image in her analysis of the sacred Japanese volcano, Akakura, in her appropriately titled book, “Immortal Wishes.”   In the periodic eruptions and tremors of Mount Akakura, she demonstrates, the worshippers who perform ascetic discipline upon its craggy and dangerous slopes find tangible resonances with their own intergenerational struggles and internal psychic challenges.

Closer to our Cascadian home, we might consider what sort of cultural sensibilities have been generated through the region’s volatile landscapes and seascapes. Indigenous creation stories often emphasize the violent agitations of sacred beings, such as Raven, Beaver, or Orca in the making prominent landscape features.  Generative creative destruction is reenacted in ritual and ceremonial cycles that endure through time.  Sacred beings in the form of animals periodically sacrifice their flesh and meat to human hunters, to sustain their mortal cousins, who in turn reproduce and re-animate the domain of the sacred through masked performances of dance and song.  Such a ritual aesthetic may be in part inspired by a landscape shaped by tumultuous geophysical forces.  Here in Central Washington, for example, Yakima elders emphasize that indigenous narratives of inundation resonate with geological evidence of periodic ice age floods.  To tell a sacred story is to bind oneself to vast cycles of destruction and creativity. Indeed, Franz Boas famously detected in Pacific Northwest mythology a particular propensity for creative destruction, endlessly breaking down sacred stories into their constituent parts to be recombined in novel sequences linked together through distant family resemblances: "It would seem that mythological worlds have been built up only to be shattered again, and that new worlds were built from the fragments."   

How, in turn, are we to understand the dynamic relationship between hazards and culture in the context of industrial and post-industrial civilization in Cascadia?  Many geoscientists decry a pervasive “culture of denial” in the region, a seemingly willful ignorance on the part of policymakers of the long term risks of seismic disturbance. They point to the hubristic siting of population centers in the historically tsunami-prone Puget Sound, or the long term storage of radioactive waste in the geological unstable zone of the Hanford Reach. Has the age-old intimate connection between human culture and geophysical hazards, in which human beings were necessarily attuned to a turbulent earth, been ruptured by the illusory security of hyper-urbanity?

Yet, at another level, it is striking that modern urban dwellers, regardless of what faultline or wildfire-prone zone they locate their homes upon, are deeply drawn to mass media apocalyptic extravaganzas, of asteroids, mega-eruptions, and other spectacular hazards, not to mention the hybrid human-natural fantastical hazards of bio-engineered plagues and zombies.  Part of the appeal seems to be the promised resurrection of intimate communal bonds which is promised amidst the horror of the cataclysm---the sociological territory explored by Rebecca Solnit in her book, “A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster.”  (The enigmatic appeal of sporadically emergent community in Zombie Walks is analyzed by my former student Bryce Peake in a recent essay.)  Modern urban and suburban lives, it is often noted, tend to be deracinated and alienated, and thus we strangely long for the intimate bonds of social connectedness and re-emplacement that are promised, paradoxically, by dreadful hazards.   Suggestively, many urban dwellers in Cascadia refer to Nature as their “real home,” as the one place within which they can find restoration and rediscover their true being.  We are drawn to our region’s glorious coastlines, escarpments, basalt columns, peaks and valleys--which offer the romantic sensibility an encounter with the Sublime, a glimpse, however fleeting, of the face of the Eternal. These, are of course, the very landscape features that have been shaped across the age by the most tumultuous of hazards, by earthquakes and tsunami, by eruptions and lava flows, and the relentless action of glaciers, rockslides, and avalanches.

The work of culture, then, is never done, for culture itself is always being generated and transmuted out of tension and contradictions within our experiences as social beings, suspended as we are between the world as we wish it to be and the world that we practically experience. It would appear that even amidst our willful denial of geophysical risks of living atop subduction zones, we are still deeply drawn to the sties forged by the convulsions of the hazards that lurk beneath.  It is the upthrusts and chasms that we sense, if only dimly, connections the very heart of things, that we apprehend a promised return to a deep, abiding sense of awe and to the deeply spiritual sense of human community.  Hence, an enduring paradox that may well bind us to our ancient ancestors;  we ponder the essence of Life most fully, at the moments of hazard, of  intensive chance and fear, the very moments that threaten to dislodge life as we know it.

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