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Symbolic culture clash at the end of empire


Pieter Bruegel, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, 1558 Musees royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels

“Bruegel’s paintings of the Seasons and his Fall of Icarus celebrate peasant life for an industrious harmony with nature. This view of peasants is particularly clear in the Icarus where the sweeping panorama is anchored around the heroic figure of the plowman. . . . The husbandman was a familiar paragon of industry, moderation, and moral integrity, both in classical and early Christian writings. . . . Virgil’s account offers intriguing parallels to Bruegel with its extensive description of the peaceful, moderate plowman ignorant of the bellicose, avaricious ambitions of city dwellers seeking “kingdoms doomed to fall.” Horace, Columella, and Pliny also contrasted a past, moral country life to the present immorality of cities. In the golden age, even urban life was guided by the virtues of rural existence. Thus Pliny wrote of Republican Rome. “The agricultural class produces the bravest men, the most gallant soldiers, and the citizens least given to evil designs.” . . . The introduction of a setting sun may also suggest the timeless cycles of a golden age and a natural order indifferent to folly. See thus, the whole picture emerges as a cosmological panorama which goes on with its elemental rhythms, its husbandry and commerce, its life and death, its labor and folly, until the final day when those who have “plowed diligently” enter the harbor of God’s kingdom. With its elemental contrasts, the picture would have also suggested to its educated viewers one of the central questions of Renaissance humanism: what was human nature and how did it relate to nature’s wider orders.” (Baldwin, 1986, p. 101).

Thanks to Gail at Wit’s End for the Baldwin/Bruegel links above. The painting represents the tensions between agrarian and urban society that has occurred over and over in civilizations throughout history, as we pulse up into civilizations that later fail. Bruegel’s good plowman, sensible sailors, shepherd, and fishermen in the painting above are symbolic of a culture that harnesses earth, wind, and sun to live within the restraints of nature, in contrast to foolish, ambitious Icarus. Early scholars associated Icarus with urban technologies of “kingdoms doomed to fall.” What symbolic culture will represent us as empire wanes?

First, we need to define empire and symbolic culture. An empire organizes diverse materials and people into spatial centers that concentrate resources through domination and innovation. The Roman empire is often used as an isolated example of centralized power built solely on solar energy, through innovations in organization, and military and government service. American imperialism is a unique modern example, as America dominated the high empower industrial revolution, creating an early advantage. The US remained as the only superpower after the Cold War, allowing for further global colonization through military-industrial and corporate reach. American imperialism has evolved over time through stages of industrial revolution and population explosion to the current stage of global information storm and peak empower as seen in the progression in the figure above (Odum & Odum, 2001, p. 120).

And what is culture? What are symbols? Cultural knowledge, beliefs, art, law, moral and customs help humans adapt to and maintain their ecosystems in different physical environments. The environment determines many cultural traits. Economic and political institutions can be adaptive or maladaptive, and if the ecosystem changes, cultures may change, diffuse, or clash with other cultures, resulting in acculturation or assimilation. Geertz viewed culture as “an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and their attitudes toward life” (Geertz 1973, p. 89).

Religion was historically a means of conveying culture. While culture and religion have separated in the last 200 years, political, economic and religious symbols are beginning to merge again. Religious symbols are even being commodified. As the social system changes, religious and political symbols will need to change to represent “stability over growth, organization over competition, diversity over uniformity, system over self, and survival process over individual peace” (Odum, 1971).

Perhaps the most prevalent modern symbol of empire is the corporate suit and tie. This uniform represents the profit-making values of the growth economy. Clothing is a powerful cultural identifier, and as attitudes about power and the pursuit of wealth shift, we will need new symbols of relocalization with ethnic dress. In Alaska, those symbols might be Carhartts and ball caps, or kuspuks, for instance, depending on cultural preference, emergy basis, and availability of materials as fossil-fuel based cloth becomes rarer. The Occupy counterculture favors t-shirts and hoodies, while women’s skirts are longer again, reflecting economic slowdown.


Clay in Carhartts

Food is another common cultural symbol. The foods of empire are exotic, imported foods prepared without regard to the season. Organized sports competitions such as football and basketball are also symbols of competition and power for empire. Faceless terrorists are distant symbols of threats to our empire that unite us. The threat of loss of control of nature in the form of climate change also looms on the comfortably distant horizon of the future. In descent, symbols of threats will probably be more pragmatic, imminent, and closer to home.


Powerful Symbols-Adbusters Occupy Wall Street poster

There was a reason the Occupy movement began with the symbol of Wall Street and the Wall Street bull. The Corporation and the stock market have become the best symbol of America’s ever-growing financial health, inextricably intertwined with a financial empire around the globe. Fiat currencies are other powerful symbols of empire with great emotional value, that are largely fictional. Thomas Jefferson said that “money, not morality, is the principle commerce of civilized nations.”Our representations of money are not even physical anymore. Money consists of digits on a screen, plastic cards, or derivative paper being traded for more paper in distant urban centers. As we print money and the supply grows, its connection to real assets is disappearing as the counter-current

of exchange with real assets strips its gears and starts to spin, creating a separate surreal super-circulation where the monetary information is no longer connected to the underlying reality of real production and consumption. This slippage is now occurring, even to the point of causing monetary unions to fracture off and devolve away from traditional political and economic states. When confidence fails, the money stop being used. All fiat currencies eventually fail. When the economy collapses, the shock may cause us to replace the pursuit of money in our value system. The sense of being cheated at a very fundamental level may become the cultural tipping point for descent. What trustworthy symbols will replace destroyed currencies? New, transient, digital forms of money may also fail as confidence in representative moneys fails. And what connotation does unforgivable debt have? We are at the point where “student loans have basically ruined my life”and student loans may


Adbusters spoof ad reminding us that we are, after all, part of Nature

prevent or delay students from marrying or having families. Suddenly the corporation is intruding into our most basic social decisions of who to marry and when to procreate. Obligations to corporations and to a culture that insists that growth will continue clash with our most basic needs. What will the new local financial values and symbols be? Old religious ideas that disfavored debt and moneylenders will probably resurface, and simple barter may aid the transition as we attempt to reboot. We must “judge value by the energies spent, the energies stored, and the energy flow which is possible, turning not to the incomplete measure of money” (Odum, 1971, p. 244).

Academia is yielding to the enticements of technology and corporate culture, too. Perhaps the biggest symbol of the corporatization of learning is the ubiquitous use of Microsoft’s business tool, Powerpoint (PPT), in lectures. Students in my courses are surprised to see chairs arranged in a talking circle on the first day of class, as opposed to the usual arrangement oriented towards the projector screen for the PPT sage. PPT creates distance and dehumanizes teaching, and “disrupts, dominates, and trivializes content” (Tufte, 2003). Additional complexity and tasks come between message and students. Click on the 6-slide PPT presentation above for a demonstration of how technology is changing our methods of teaching. Symbols of science and the consumer culture are also merging, in this cringe-worthy video from the European Commission.

Status symbols reflect hierarchy of social elevation in different cultures. Symbols of cultural status and power in empire include large, fast, expensive cars, big houses, skyscrapers, new technology, and other symbols of affluence such as jewelry, clothing, and other costly items. I ask my freshmen students what they want out of life, and they say that they want to be rich. Recent interviews of sinking middle class Americans revealed shifting views of status and priorities. Debtors weren’t paying their home mortgages but they were continuing to pay their car notes. Fame and money are typically the source of power in this culture. Perhaps the more mobile car represents the last hope of upward mobility for the middle class? We will always have hierarchy and status symbols, but traditional cultures were more stratified through roles, with less mobility. Will successful farmers be the new source of power in a hungry world? If so, is land ownership the rising status symbol? I just know that I will be happy when the SUV departs as status symbol.

Polarized politics is the final resting place of hope that some charismatic leader will save the world, so that we don’t have to change. Political symbols include maps, flags, and symbols such as the donkey, the elephant, the hammer and sickle. But transformational leadership is difficult in a gridlocked, teetering economic system that has ground to a halt. Disengaging from politics allows us to free our activist space for something different to rise up out of the ashes. As we relocalize, symbols of polarization will still exist, but the clashes may fall back into patterns similar to those found in the American Revolution where the resource competition occurs between failing urban empower centers and rising rural agricultural zones. The Hunger Games (again!) reflects that theme in the homespun sacrifice of children symbolized in the reaping ceremony in District 12. Revolution begins with inequities and maladaptive cultural institutions that no longer work.

“Organizations at great distance from their source of control develop tensions if the reinforcement loop between the people and distant governance fails. For example, in the early American colonies, self-organization on the frontier reinforced local needs, whereas the English crown tried to sustain the inequitable exchange of empower favoring British needs in its trade with the colonies. Thus two feedback loops were competing for control, one for local benefit and one by and for the governing parent. Protests such as the Boston tea party started the American Revolution. In the subsequent empower testing of war, there was enough empower in the 13 colonies, supplemented with empower aid from the French, to overcome the empower that Britain could transfer easily across the ocean” (Odum, 2007, p. 304).

How will the empower balance between rural agrarian society and urban empire shift during transition? As we descend the energy hierarchy over time, will Odum’s zonal distribution shift back towards an agrarian economy slowly in stages or will it crash? Are there other lessons we can take from Icarus’ fall of the mighty? And if we merge our social, political, economic, and religious symbols into the multinational Corporation, and the corporation fails, what will we be left with? And are our cultural values for sale? Recognizing symbols of empire helps us to clarify and shift our world views. Are you ready to give up skyscrapers and business suits for Bo Falk’s peasant imagery of the good plowman? What are your symbols of Empire, and are your ready to find some new symbols for descent?

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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