Fecund revenge: green Geist screws us all

[excerpt from Combined and Uneven Apocalypse, taking on Swamp Thing, scarcity, and "green politics"]

One of the other strengths of Life After People, beyond the genuine pleasure of its recurrent apocalyptic money shots, is its awareness that the processes which unmake the world after people are already taking place. If it refuses to ask how we disappear or how our disappearance would necessarily shape the world left behind, the series makes clear that it takes a constant work to prevent life after people from commencing while were still around. Cities may be “third nature,” but that doesnt stop “first nature” from waging constant war. The battle for the post-human history of the earth has been going on all along from the moment that human history started.

If not the best known, then certainly one of the most compelling (and internally inconsistent) articulations of this is the long running DC comic book series, Swamp Thing.

The sheer breadth of histories and trajectories involved in its story arc are obviously beyond my reach. Of immediate relevance here are two particular moments within Alan Moores run as author of the series, set against the general backdrop of Swamp Things “evolution.” The story of Swamp Thing, at least in Moores version, is the story of a transition from singularity to universality. It is the transition from a swamp monster (dead scientist recomposed by the nutrient force of the bog) to the fecund Thingliness of all plant life (green elemental force itself, not bound to any particular configuration of matter but rather the abstract Geist of flora). Hence the multiple revelations of the series. He realizes that he isnt Alec Holland with a plant body, or even the Swamp itself with the injection of a consciousness defused into it. He isnt even the Swamp Thing: he is one among a recurrent series. He is the idea of the Green, the collective chlorophyllic intelligence of what lives but is not Meat.

Hes also a total hippie hero, Platonic vegan ideal incarnate, complete with mournful eyes for the blighted earth and psychedelic tuber-tumors for inner light exploding acid-trip sex. His consummation of “relations” with his girlfriend Abigail starts with her eating one such tuber and then spreads over multiple pages of pastel light, chakra symmetry, suddenly understanding time itself, and becoming-Oneness. It well may be the worlds most concentrated distillation of New Age ideology. However, just as the end of the 60s brought out the seedy and sadistic undercurrent of hippie-dom there from the start, it is this consequences of this trippy bedding-down free love and ecstasy beyond the need for fucking itself! which brings his verdant fury to its full antagonistic flowering. It is the moment when care for the earth becomes notably decoupled from care for the human, when protectors of the Green reveal that they are no better at understanding the dialectics of society and nature than the arch-defenders of capitalism.

After a snooping reporter catches their boggy tryst, Abigail is jailed for “unnatural relations” and eventually winds up in the jail of Gotham City, beneath the watchful eye of none other than Batman. Swamp Thing, off dealing with other more literally infernal threats to the earth, learns of this, goes insane, and, manifested in a strip of green cutting across the enclosures and divides of pastures, roads, and buildings, makes a bee-line towards her. The eventual narrative outcome of this he gets her back, he is “killed” and his consciousness escapes across the universe, and he works his way back is not particularly relevant here. The point is what happens before: his revenge is the total halting of capitalism and previous modes of daily life in Gotham. It becomes a veritable Garden of Eden, and the hippie population of Gotham, surprisingly not previously eradicated by the rather straitlaced Batman, sheds their clothes and enclosures and goes back to nature in the heart of the metropolis. 

 Like so much of apocalyptic fiction, the structural is only approached through the personal, and so while Swamp Thing himself folds in plenty of claims about how humans act like they own the earth they mistreat and how he wont take it anymore, the fact remains that this elemental force has known about this general mistreatment for quite some time now. A protector of Gaia, perhaps, but in this case, the rage and puissance boils over because of the mistreatment of a far more particular woman.

This is no accident of bad writing. Moores subtlety, or at least what saves him from total devolution into the mediocrity of animist post-60s thought, is in the recognition of the persistent intersection of the concerns for the personal and the planetary. If anything, the baldness of Swamp Things motivation is refreshing: it makes exceedingly literal and epic the ways in which worries about sustainability and protection of Mother Earth are not infrequently worries about the future possibility of getting laid. Less refreshing and more simply disturbing, in its implications for a type of thinking we recognize far beyond the DC universe, is the concluding gesture at the end of Moores run.

Having returned to earth, dealt necessary revenge to those who booted his consciousness off the planet, and reunited with Abigail, its time for general reflection on his realized position as elemental force. He has discovered, both in his shaping/pseudo-impregnation of entire planets elsewhere and in his Edenic punishment of Gotham, that he has the full capacity to radically alter the material conditions of a landscape. Hence he wonders, given this power, if he should make the world bloom in full, make it a green, lush environment, to end hunger and strife by eliminating scarcity itself? More than that, to reverse the damage of pollution and to “heal the earth”?

He decides otherwise. On one hand, this is entirely understandable, even for a green elemental power (supposedly) concerned with the defense of the planet. If the ravages of capitalism were not a necessary solution of scarce resource management but a contingent situation made into global order of mismanagement, it indeed follows that unbound plenitude will not necessarily result in things getting better. The infinitely adaptable forms of consumer identity prove, if anything, that the distance from our “natural” species-being to “second nature” knows no bounds. As such, from a historical and materialist perspective, it not only makes perfect sense to grasp that while plenitude and equal distribution is a goal of all egalitarian politics, it does not produce such a politics.

However, Swamp Things reasoning is entirely opposed to this, arguing essentially that because humans have always dominated the earth and “taken it for granted,” simply providing the end of scarcity will not cause them to learn their lessons. They will profligately squander the new fruits of excess, reject all sustainable modes, and continue to wound an earth that now can bounce back from anything (like the sadist fantasy of a body that endlessly self-heals). His solution instead? Humans need to learn to take care of the earth themselves. He will not intervene they will have to see how they are destroying their precious resources in order for them to change their ways.The cynical ugliness of such a position is unmistakable and would be laughable if it didnt capture so much of the tone of green movements at their worst. 

 In short, this God-like defender of the earth is dooming it to catastrophic destruction. To sketch it quickly: humans “mistreat” the earth either because they are “just like that” (i.e. transhistorical human nature), or because their historical situation has conditioned such behavior (i.e. historical second nature). Obviously, the flimsier versions of contemporary ecological discourse fall back on the former conception of “civilized man” as the raping and pillaging animal. Even a cursory glance at prior historical modes of the reproduction of life make evident the uselessness, analytically and especially politically, of such an argument.

Taking on the second notion, then, Swamp Thing is caught, thorny brows knotted, between two models of how we learn to act a certain way. Do we act badly because we face fundamental scarcity and have to do whatever it takes to survive in the immediate, sustainability be damned? Or do we act badly because there hasnt been enough scarcity, hardship, or antagonism? Outside of the Swamp Thing world, our answer would be: both/and. Those responsible for the worst treatment of the world and its human occupants continue to do so because we dont make things hard enough for them: a little hardship and directed antagonism toward the rich is long, long overdue. At the same time, though, we know very well why such a mass uprising and tidal shift remains difficult. Those who most feel the brunt of scarcity and immiseration are so busy struggling to survive that the historical capacity to act otherwise either in terms of directing antagonism toward those most responsible or in terms of living more “sustainably” and not participating in the mistreatment of resources remains a dream primarily for those with the leisure time to imagine it.

In terms of the comics narrative, Swamp Thing refuses to recognize either position. Given his peculiar talents, we could easily imagine a mediated form, directing edible flora to areas of the world facing total starvation. But no. He essentially commits to perpetuating a contemporary order in which the problem isnt just that we face ecological catastrophe. The problem is who it will affect first. (Hint: those already living below the poverty line, those packed into cramped and disease-ridden slums, those in areas barely surviving on monocrop production dependent on particular weather conditions, those in shanties that wont stand up to tsunamis, those in zones of the world so ignored that no number of liberal guilt donation boxes in Starbucks will change a thing.)

Again, to draw out a now expected point, Swamp Things refusal to be the apocalyptic force that he has been all along is the total commitment to total catastrophe. If hes worried that making the earth full of food and lush green bedding will allow the thoughtless to litter and chemical plant capitalists to dump their waste in rivers, then punish them. His vegetal powers are not just regenerative but directed: why not be the proper growing eschaton, giving the righteous fruit to eat while lashing the wicked to tree trunks? 

 The only answer can be found in his deep anti-historicism and a fundamental hatred of the human animal conceived as bad, across time. This rears its head continuously in the degradation of “Meat,” of all things red as opposed to green, of anything that consumes something else, not just humans. (See here his entirely unnecessary torturing of an alligator in the final pages, immediately after his meditation on treating the earth better.)

Folded into all this is a valorization of laboring itself, assuming that man will become wicked if he does not have to toil. And in line with this, how exactly does he propose that the human species will deal adequately with its already dire ecological situation? The only situation we see endorsed is Abigails participation in a tiny environmental group, i.e. her transition from literal lover of this defender of the earth to a somewhat hesitant love of earth defense causes. The scope of this group, whose numbers are slim to none, seems closer to letter-writing and pamphleteering. Furthermore, after his decision that the urgent situation of the polluted earth is to be dealt with by this second rate Sierra Club, of which Abigail is one of the only members, he whisks her away via lily pad to their flowering love nest built in the swamp for a couple months of gazing into each others eyes and hippie sex.

Im no great analyst of what should be done with what is indeed a dire situation. But its no great task to recognize that putting the future of the earth in the hands of a couple activists before stealing one of them away for a secession-from-the-world honeymoon is more than just a failure. Its atrocious bad faith in a leafy mask. Its what follows from forging an eternal divide of the green and the red. Its a damnation of us all. And frankly, were screwed.


feliz705 said...

The New Yorker, April 20th 2009
The Natural World
Swamp Things: Florida's uninvited predators

"Just before daybreak, in the eerie hour after Hurricane Andrew struck southern Florida, a zoo worker named Ron Magill went to see what was left of his animals. He'd spent the night in his ranch house in suburban Miami, huddled in the master bedroom with his wife, who was nine months pregnant with their first child. They'd propped a mattress and an armoire against the sliding glass door, but could still feel it flexing beneath the bellowing wind. When the shutters flew the windows, the pressure fell so suddenly that Magill's ears popped, as if he'd fallen from a great height. 'I remember going outside afterward, and it was like The Wizard of Oz in reverse," he says. "I went from the color of my living room to the black-and-white of devastation."

Across the street, a van had been flipped upside down and flung against a house; here and there trees were stuck in rooftops like toothpicks in canapes. Andrew was a Category 5 hurricane, small but tightly focused, with winds of up to a hundred and seventy-five miles an hour. It made landfall near the city of Homestead on August 24, 1992, and cut a swath through some of the state's most populous areas... it was was the costliest natural disaster in American history up to that time.'

feliz705 said...

continued from above

'It was also a brief window on the ecology to come. As Magill was driving to the Miami Metrozoo, where he is the communications director, he passed a troop of rhesus macaques scampering up the road, as if on the plains of Kashmir. Later, the monkeys were spotted wandering through nearby farm fields, gorging themselves on tomatoes. Elsewhere, a small antelope was found wandering through nearby farm fields, gorging themselves on tomatoes. Elsewhere, a small antelope was found wandering the halls of an administration building, a group of juvenile baboons broke into the weight room of a private home, and a python was found dead on the beach in Miami, with two full-grown raccoons in its belly. It was as if all Florida had turned, for a moment, into Disney's Animal Kingdom.
When Magill arrived at the zoo, it was in ruins. The monorail had been wrenched from its steel stanchions, its tracks twisted like a coat hanger. A six--horse trailer had been tossed over a ten-foot fence and into the rhino enclosure, and a new five million dollar aviary had blown away"

feliz705 said...

"It was like God had come through with a twenty-five-mile-wide weed whacker and just leveled the place," he says. Miraculously though, almost all the animals had survived: the zookeepers had herded them into a few bunkerlike buildings. The escapees that Magill had seen were mostly from private collections.

...We are engaged in a giant experiment that no one can control, Snow told me, on my last night in the Everglades."

socialism and/or barbarism said...

Absolutely. With some heavy echoes of Ballard's Unlimited Dream Company, in its bestial floodgates burst. Although in this case, there is no discernible individual erotic-psychological lodestone at the middle of it. Just wind.

Gabriel Idaho said...

Ra's al Ghul has a similar green/sociopathic ethos.