Wednesday, November 24, 2004

On Easter island

I've always been freaked out by images of those large stone idols from Easter Island, and it's not just because the graced the cover of Styx's Pieces of Eight album. They seemed to be mammoth harbingers of doom, built to a scale indifferent to humans and seeming to portend a time when humans would be superfluous. (I feel this way about gigantic sculptures in general; at Storm King, a scultpure park in upstate New York, I had the same creepy feeling that these big monstrosities were out to eradicate society, partly in the way they claim so much of the space around them to themselves and thereby ruin it for anything other than standing there and feeling how insignificant we are as a species. Some people consider this feeling "sublime.")

An article in the November 19 2004 TLS confirmed my suspicions that these were emblems of great evil. As its author points out, the megaliths "defy common sense" and do it on such an extravagant scale that its terrifying. you realize how tenuous common sense is, how easily it can be replaced with something so obviously absurd to outsiders. The article offers a quick rundown of the history of Easter island, of how its society and ecology were utterly ruined by the insane potatch-gone-mad need to build ever larger idols than competing clans. The islanders killed all the trees to make scaffolding for their great idols' erection, and they blithely believed the gods they so honored would bring trees back to the island. They believed these same gods would see that their idols were stood up, when no more trees remained to build the necessary platforms. With no trees, nothing remained to build shelters or boats necessary for their seafood-based diet. The topsoil was carried into the sea by the wind. Warfare became endless, cannibalism rampant. The parallels to the disasterous ecological course we're on as a civilization are obvious -- we are so attached to our fetishes (our consumer goods) that we don't think twice about depleting unrenewable resources, and we won't hesitate to "fell the last tree" if it means another wooden doodad for someone to entertain themselves with. According to the article, anthropologists call this "ideological pathology," a kind of path dependence of the collective imagination that prevents individuals from meaningfully conceiving of alternate modes for society.

Now, social theorists -- the Theory of literary studies -- often are dumped on for the gnomic, inscrutable texts, and their hostile "nihilistic" attitudes toward the status quo. But they can't be accused of ideological pathology, despite claims that schools of thought like Marxism and Freudianism are moribund, disproven. The pathology is not a matter of clinging to a false ideology; it's a matter of refusing to question the prevailing one, and it might just be better to confront the existing hegemony with the blunted tools of discarded thinkers than to refuse to confront it all, or worse, to celebrate it.

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