The Neuroscience of War

Defining “chemical weapons,” as we talk about red lines and action

That’s an update from Sarah Palin’s Facebook page yesterday. One could find it confusing, as she is quoting herself. The answers to Palin’s questions, respectively, seem to be no and yes. I won’t touch the invocation of Allah.

In the discussion of the significance of chemical warfare and the importance of the U.S. red line, Atlantic National Correspondent James Fallows remains unconvinced that military intervention in Syria is advisable. As does much of the world. Fallows noted today, “The United States has not acted previously as if chemical-weapons use was an end-of-history, line-drawing occasion,” referring to the 1988 use of nerve gas on civilians by Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war. As he put it, “Nerve gas was hideous then. Chemical weapons are hideous now.” 

President Obama called on the U.S. Congress today to authorize a strike against the Assad regime. While as a nation we wait for that, let’s talk about hideousness—what John Kerry yesterday called “moral obscenity.” The United Nations estimates that more than 100,000 people have died in the Syrian civil war. Chemical attacks have been estimated to involve something on the order of 355 to 1400 of those deaths. As Dominic Tierney wrote for The Atlantic in December 2012, “Blowing your people up with high explosives is allowable, as is shooting them, or torturing them. But woe betide the Syrian regime if it even thinks about using chemical weapons! A woman and her child under fire in Aleppo might miss this distinction.” 

In May I wrote about the physiology of nerve gas, which I’ll excerpt in the following paragraphs (like Palin, quoting myself), because it’s worth being on the same page about what “nerve agents” are, as context for why many consider it defensible to land a bullet in someone’s spine or to force-feed detainees, but not to gas. There are a few compounds that are lumped together “nerve agents,” “nerve gas,” or “chemical weapons,” like sarin, soman, and taubun. Based on the symptoms reported in Syria, the leading suspect is sarin. All are banned by a 189-country international convention.

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Inspecting gas masks during manufacture, c1941 (Argus Newspaper Collection, State Library of Victoria)

On April 22, 1915 in Belgium, the German army killed or injured 5,000 Allied soldiers by releasing 150 tons of chlorine gas. That is regarded as the first modern use of large-scale chemical warfare, though the concept goes back to snake-venom-tipped arrows in the Stone Age. By 1937, German chemist Gerhard Schrader had developed an insecticide that the Nazis soon realized was a more toxic agent than chlorine gas: sarin. They did not use it in World War II, though, reportedly because they understood its potential and feared retaliation in kind.

In 1988, around 5,000 Kurds died at Halahbja after Iraq used both sarin and sulfur mustard. Sarin further became a household name after the 1995 Tokyo subway attack in which the religious cult Aum Shinrykio used sarin to kill 12 people and harm thousands more.

So, what does sarin do to our bodies?

SHARK300200.jpgEffect of sarin on the left eye of a rabbit (pupil constriction) [Journal of Medical, Chemical, Biological, and Radiological Defense]

Sarin is unique in potency but not in mechanism. There are other drugs, pesticides, and plants that work the same way. They are called cholinesterase inhibitors.

Our nerves talk to each other by releasing chemicals called neurotransmitters. The amount of a particular neurotransmitter helps determine whether a nerve fires or not. What so-called nerve agents do is alter those neurotransmitters. They kink the signaling between our nerves, telling them to do things they normally do, but with altered frequency.

After a neurotransmitter has done its job, delivered its message, an enzyme usually comes along and demolishes it. But nerve agents block those enzymes. The enzyme can’t break down the neurotransmitter, so the neurotransmitter stays around and keeps giving its message. If that message was, say, to release a little water onto your eye because your eye was dry, now the repeated message becomes “make your eyes water uncontrollably.”

Here is a drawing of that reaction, just like in organic chemistry class (still a requisite for all U.S. doctors). The big block is the enzyme (acetylcholinesterase). In the top image, it’s working normally: breaking down the neurotransmitter (acetylcholine) into smaller parts. In the bottom images you can see how the “nerve agent” (sarin in our case) just kind of hangs out in the “esteric site,” so then the enzyme cannot do its job.

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As acetylcholine builds up in our bodies, we become extremely uncomfortable and die. We are killed by the accumulation of our own normal neurotransmitter telling our own nerves to do the normal things they normally do, just in excess. One could draw an analogy to cancer. In this case, though, neurotransmitters live and die on an order of milliseconds, so it happens in a flash.

Within seconds of exposure to sarin gas (or liquid, which evaporates easily), we start to notice the immediate effects of acetylcholine buildup. First, our smooth muscles and secretions go crazy. The nerves to those areas keep firing, keep telling them to go. The nose runs, the eyes cry, the mouth drools and vomits, and bowels and bladder evacuate themselves. It is not a dignified state.

Since sarin has no smell or taste, the person may very well have no idea what’s going on. Their chest tightens, vision blurs. If the exposure was great enough, that can progress to convulsions, paralysis, and death within one to 10 minutes.

If the exposure was not enough to kill them, though, the person should recover pretty quickly and completely. It is not the sort of agent that leaves people blind and infertile and glowing green. The U.S. military also has a lotion that can be applied immediately after exposure, Reactive Skin Decontamination Lotion, to good effect, among other antidotes. Most people exposed to sarin do not die. A large exposure is not a death sentence.

Richard M. Price, a professor at the University of British Columbia and author of The Chemical Weapons Taboo and spoke with CBS News recently about what he considers the two factors that perpetuate the taboo of nerve agents:

1.   “They were banned before they existed in any serious form, in the 1899 Hague Declaration concerning the prohibition of the use of projectiles with the sole object to spread asphyxiating poisonous gases. That ban, he said, held more weight because the weapon in question was not already in use. (The 1925 Geneva Protocol and a 1997 international treaty also banned the weapons.)”

2. A “tradition of non-use … made their use anomalous, so it’s continued to raise the threshold that you would only use them under really dire circumstances. Even Adolf Hitler declined to use chemical weapons on the battlefield in World War II.” Though he did use gas chambers on civilians.

Beyond the physiology—and debate over whether gruesome death by paralysis and asphyxiation is a greater human rights abuse than, say, gruesome death by being shot in the neck—the questions will come to the use of chemical weapons as a symbol of willful defiance and escalation, as a precedent, and as a threat to the United States’ credibility as a nation that stands by its red lines. Among other contextual theories. Price called it “really puzzling” that Assad would deploy chemical weapons, and that was echoed by Vladimir Putin today, since the Syrian army is not in a desperate position. Putin said he is “convinced that [the chemical attack] is nothing more than a provocation by those who want to drag other countries into the Syrian conflict, and who want to win the support of powerful members of the international arena, especially the United States.”

Finally, another angle on the U.S. moral position to consider is one Tierney described in December: “Washington is sometimes willing to cast a blind eye against the use of chemical weapons, as long as its in our interests [referring to Hussein’s use in 1988]… Baghdad was seen as a secular bulwark against the more threatening Iraniansthe classic lesser of two evils … Strip away the moralistic opposition to chemical weapons and you often find strategic self-interest lying underneath. Powerful countries like the United States cultivate a taboo against using WMD partly because they have a vast advantage in conventional arms. We want to draw stark lines around acceptable and unacceptable kinds of warfare because the terrain that we carve out is strategically favorable.”

Earl of Sandwich’s recipe for Curdled Chocolate Ice

irst Earl of Sandwich’s recipe for iced chocolate

Dr. Kate Loveman, English lecturer at the University of Leicester, has found some early English chocolate recipes in the journal of Edward Mountagu, the first Earl of Sandwich, great-great grandfather of John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich, credited with inventing the fine foodstuff that bears the family title on far thinner evidence than recipes written in his own hand. The most complete recipe is for a frozen chocolate product — a 17th century frappé, if you will — and in an age when freezing was still a subject of extensive scientific study rather than the subject of cookbooks, Sandwich’s frappé may be the earliest English recipe on record for an iced chocolate treat.

Loveman specializes in 17th century English literature, especially the diarists. She was reading the papers of Samuel Pepys who repeatedly mentions drinking chocolate at London coffee houses which served coffee, chocolate and tea, all recent introductions courtesy of the Age of Exploration that were viewed with suspicion for their dubious medical properties/dangers and enthusiasm for their dubious medical properties/tastiness. On April 24th, 1661, the day after the coronation of King Charles II, Pepys writes:

Waked in the morning with my head in a sad taking through the last night’s drink, which I am very sorry for; so rose and went out with Mr. Creed to drink our morning draft, which he did give me in chocolate to settle my stomach.

Chocolate as a hangover cure, sure, why not? This was less than 10 years after chocolate was first brought to England in 1652 and it was already being presented as an aphrodisiac and fertility aid, a link to sensuality that still dominates chocolate advertising to this day. It was also supposed to aid in digestion and to provide healthy nutrients to make “such as drink it often, Fat, and Corpulent, faire and Amiable.” (The fat and corpulent bit was seen as a feature not a bug.)

The Earl of Sandwich was one of Pepys’ patrons. He is often mentioned in the journal, so Loveman decided to follow up by reading the unpublished manuscript of Montagu’s journal. She found a 30-page section dedicated to chocolate written in 1668 after the Earl returned from serving as England’s ambassador to Spain.

Chocolate had been introduced to Europe through Spain when Spanish ships began to transport cacao from Central and South America in the first half of the 16th century. Initially it did not make a great impression. Cocoa is very bitter indeed without sugar, but the addition of spices like cinnamon and later with cane sugar made it palatable enough for the habit to be acquired. By the early 17th century, chocolate was a popular elite beverage in Spain, served at Court along with sweets, pastries and snow. They also drank it in public, a social custom known as a Xocolatada or Chocolatada. (See La Xocolatada, a Catalan ceramic tile piece from 1710 illustrating the Spanish custom of chocolate made and consumed as a communal, but still elite, tradition.)

From Spain, chocolate spread to France where its trade became a state monopoly and only the aristocracy were allowed to indulge. Louis III’s wife Queen Anne of Austria, daughter of King Philip III of Spain, was an avowed chocolate lover. When she married Louis in 1615, she ensconced the fashion for chocolate in the highest echelons of French society.

England came to the chocolate game a few decades later, first through translations of a 1631 book about chocolate written by Spanish doctor Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma which were published in the 1640s and in 1652. The title page of the 1652 translation notes that the chocolate described in the volume could be purchased “at reasonable rates” from bookseller John Dakins in Holborn. Booksellers often sold medicines and nostrums at this time, which is how chocolate got on the menu.

The first free-standing advertisement for chocolate published in The Publick Adviser in June 1657:

In Bishopsgate Street in Queen’s Head Alley, at a Frenchman’s house, is an excellent West Indian drink called chocolate, to be sold, where you may have it ready at any time, and also unmade, at reasonable rates.

The Earl of Sandwich’s 30 pages leans heavily on Spanish expertise. He includes Colmenero de Ledesma’s instructions on how to prepare chocolate, plus 10 pages from a spy in Madrid who reported on the Spanish manufacturing process. First the nuts were dried and ground, then sugar and spices (chile peppers, cinnamon and aniseed were the favorites) were ground separately and then cooked together. This produced a thick paste that would keep for a long time once hardened. The Spanish would add hot water to the paste and whip it, adding more water and sugar to taste. The result was a thick, sludgy beverage that even with the sugar was still bitter (it takes an enormous amount of sugar to de-bitterize chocolate, as anyone who has tried to make hot chocolate straight from cocoa powder has learned the hard way).

Montagu collected all this information with a political aim, not just out of personal interest. Cromwell’s Navy had taken Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655, and there were lots of cacao plantations in Jamaica. As ambassador to Spain, Sandwich had signed a new commercial treaty with Spain cementing the status of Britain’s new West Indian territories. Now England had reliable access to the raw materials of chocolate-making, a rich potential market for the restored Crown. Upon his return to England, Montagu was appointed to the Privy Council’s committee for trade and foreign plantations, so his research was relevant to his job as well.

King Charles II was very much interested personally. He and Sandwich discussed chocolate together and one of the recipes in Montagu’s journal he got directly from the King. From Loveman’s paper, The Introduction of Chocolate into England: Retailers, Researchers, and Consumers, 1640–1730, published in the Journal of Social History:

Sandwich soon obtained a recipe for a chocolate “leaven cake” described as “the Kings receipt for which he gave 200 libre” — that is apparently, if barely credibly, £200. The recipe involved mixing three pounds of cacao nuts with oil of Jamaican pepper, oil of aniseed, oil of cinnamon, cardamom, and Guinea pepper to create tablets that could be stored. “To make the Chacolatte it selfe” then required adding cacao nuts, sugar, and a vanilla pod to “the Leaven.” Perfumed sugar, using musk, ambergris, and civet, could be added to taste

Mmm… Civet musk… That sounds like something out of the Futurist Cookbook. I dearly hope the King didn’t actually pay £200 for that.

The recipe for the frozen chocolate is considerably more appetizing, and it utilizes what was then the cutting edge research of Robert Boyle who had experimented with freezing and published New Experiments and Observations Touching Cold in 1665. It was Boyle who found that adding salt to snow was necessary in order to freeze liquids placed inside a vessel which would be in turn placed inside a container of salted snow.

Here’s the Earl of Sandwich’s recipe for Curdled Chocolate Ice:

Prepare the chocolatti [to make a drink] … and Then Putt the vessell that hath the Chocolatti in it, into a Jaraffa [i.e. a carafe] of snow stirred together with some salt, & shaike the snow together sometyme & it will putt the Chocolatti into tender Curdled Ice & soe eate ^it with spoons.

I’ll take that over the musk chocolate any day. The concept of frozen beverages didn’t catch on in England right away. Ices were popular already in Italy, but in England they were considered dangerous to the health. Sandwich made a point of noting of how to counteract this chilling effect: “one is oblidged for better security to Drinke Hott chocolatti in 1/4 of an houre after.” Then wait another hour before going in the water.

Dr. Loveman made the Curdled Ice herself and she said it was like a very thick frappucino minus the dairy.

The Banality of Empire


Oil, Politics and the Road to Damascus


You have to ask: does Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have a death wish, launching a chemical attack within miles of a U.N. chemical inspection team? He must. Like those cloistered mullahs in Qom, whom Zionist sage Benjamin Netanyahu claims would fire a nuclear warhead at Tel Aviv the moment one fell into their hands, a mere fait accompli. Even though Iran would be instantly vaporized by American WMDs. Even though all those coiling spires would turn to dust. Because, as Bibi makes clear, you have to set aside the survival instinct when you’re dealing with madmen.

Framing the Enemy

Assad, of that nefarious Alawite sect, must have similar dementia, since according to the Obama administration he launched a chemical weapons attack on Syrian “rebels” in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, at perhaps the most ill-advised moment in the two-year conflict. A moment when Assad had just welcomed United Nations chemical weapons inspectors into his country to see whether accusations of a May chemical attack were true. The latest attack has generated a freshet of rhetorical fraud we haven’t seen since the lofty height of the Bush administration, when Dick Cheney was touring the Sunday talk shows waving his imminent-threat manifesto and sneering uncontrollably at spineless pacifists. It’s Iraq all over again. Just like the fabricated charges against a fangless Saddam Hussein, Assad awaits the verdict of history—a false accusation, a war fever in the West, and then the falling skies. There’s no preventing it. Nobody mainstream has bothered to point out that Assad would have to be suicidal to launch an attack with inspectors in-country, and with the use of chemical weapons being President Barack Obama’s vaunted “red line” across which no sovereign Shi’ite government can cross.

Rebels in Desperate Straits

On the other hand, there are plenty of perfectly reasonable pretexts by which the so-called “Free Syrian Army” might have launched a chemical weapons attack, as they likely did in May, according to Carla Del Ponte of the U.N. and the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria. She has now suggested the latest attack may have again been launched by the rebels. Despite the support  of al-Qaeda and their al-Nusra Front affiliates, who each want Assad gone for very different reasons, this mercenary melting pot has been ceding territory to Syrian government forces at an alarming rate in recent months. It would behoove them to stage a chemical attack that the Americans could quickly attribute to the Assad regime, and begin fueling the drones and launching destroyers. Otherwise, the government might subdue all the factions ranged against it, consolidate its power, and be that much more difficult to unseat. Better to conjure a crossed line from the dust of civil, sectarian, and proxy strife. Baseless accusations can then issue from the White House lawn, being loudly seconded in Tel Aviv, where lawmakers have just rubberstamped another bank of illegal settlements for prime West Bank real estate, while Palestinians refugees in Ramallah are shot in murky dust-ups with the IDF. Illegal interventions. Outlawed occupations. Suspect crackdowns. World conflicts in miniature are always afoot in the Knesset.

The Bi-Partisan Blueprint

Regardless of the trigger mechanism, the administration seems intent on pushing through Donald Rumsfeld’s old madcap blueprint for the Middle East, which involved toppling the governments of seven consecutive countries on the way to unchallenged dominion over Arab and Persian fossil fuels. Their eyes are on the prize. The rest is detail. It seems to make little difference to the Americans what becomes of Syria, only that Assad is overthrown, and the warlord that plants his flag atop the wreckage is hostile to Tehran and is willing to viciously put down any foolhardy bids for self-determination that might emerge from the populace. After all, the U.S. has left a trash bin of fallen monuments and blown infrastructures in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. If the entire Arab world is a flaming midden whose only functional entities are oil derricks, what cause for concern is that to our imperial chieftains? Let the Islamists slaughter each other on the peripheries of the bonfire while we vacuum every ounce of natural gas and petroleum from the core of the earth. (One conjures visions of Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood, mocking his young evangelical rival and shouting, “I drink your milkshake!”)

Revving Up the Propaganda Machine

The more controversial actions of state always require a heavy dose of cheerleading from the press, the better to manufacture the consent of the general population, or at least seed enough doubt to prevent a riot. To that end, The New York Times is back in the organ well, lifting its chorus of fearmongering to new heights. The Washington Post is cranking up the shrill calls for intervention. The ‘Situation Room’ is firing on all cylinders. Fox News is delivering thumping polemics on how slow-footed Obama is on foreign policy. Liberals stare blankly from the sidelines while their “lesser evil” does another expert impression of the “greater evil”. Obama channels Clinton. Kerry channels Cheney. But this is par for the course; justification cometh before the sword. It feels like 2003 again. All we need is Judith Miller to surface with a source in the chthonian depths of the Assad administration. Or Colin Powell to crack open PowerPoint and lift a few hollow tube photos from Google. And for someone to climb into the bully pulpit and tell us in mournful tones that yes, yes, we must once again wage war on those nomadic savages pitching their tents above our God-given bounty.

Four Steps to War

What can you expect in the coming days and weeks? Here’s a sneak preview. It’s none too surprising, since the formula has been refined over decades. Its architects have their names inscribed on the walls of the White House, infamy emeritus. The model calls for Obama to undertake a series of anti-democratic and pro-war actions that will be reformulated as pro-democratic and anti-war:

* First, he’ll ignore the people that elected him. He’ll cite some moral platitude from a posture of deep anxiety—the man of peace forced to confront the need for noble violence. His wrinkled brow will slowly morph into the steely eyed gaze of determination—the defender of liberty come to rescue the hapless Syrian proles. He’ll wave a flag of universal human rights, declare that actions have consequences, and point a heavy finger at Bashar al-Assad. Just nine percent of the American population want this. But Obama will be too transfixed by his moral crusade to take notice.

* Next, he’ll ignore Congress. This is the formal equivalent of ignoring the people. But unlike laughing off a Reuters poll, disregarding the entire legislative branch of government will require some nuanced prose from the Department of Justice (DOJ). No problem. For the Libyan war, the DOJ asserted that the provision of guns, drone strikes, missile launchers, and other weaponry didn’t collectively amount to “hostilities.” Hence there was no war. Hence no need to bother with Congressional approvals.

* Feeling more confident by the day, Obama will then ignore the United Nations. He and deputy John Kerry have already said it is too late for U.N. weapons inspectors in Damascus to investigate the new claim of chemical weapons abuse. They offered a smattering of nonsense about “corrupted” evidence, despite the fact that sarin can sit in the soil for months. In any case, the U.N. could normally be relied upon to roll over in the General Assembly and Security Council on war authorization, but for the annoying presence of Russia, finger poised above the veto button, awaiting for the Obama administration to ask the Security Council legitimate its belligerence. Russia, of course, is itself hiding behind a façade of shocked innocence, saying it was fooled by America on Iraq in 2003 and won’t be fooled again. This, too, is sophistry.

* Then he’ll bomb. Missiles will be fired from the safety of the Mediterranean or the comparative calm of high clouds. The missiles will target heavily populated areas in Damascus, much to our great leader’s great regret. Images of wailing Muslims will dot the airwaves. NGOs will assemble lists of the collateral dead. The refugee count—already at one million—will climb toward two. And Syria, part of the cradle of civilization, will begin to resemble Iraq and Afghanistan and Libya in its kaleidoscopic mix of blasted infrastructures, sectarian slaughter, rampant abuse of women, genetic deformities in the birth population, and the steady buzz of Predators and Reapers policing the carnage from the sky.

But, in the end, the oil and gas will be ours, and in Washington, that’s all that matters.

 Jason Hirthler is a veteran of the communications industry. He lives and works in New York City and can be reached at

Sea Level Rise: Time for a Barrage of New Ideas

Sea Level Rise: Time for a Barrage of New Ideas

Sea Level Rise: Time for a Barrage of New Ideas

Everyone recognizes the Golden Gate Bridge. Even if you’ve never visited it in person, you’ve seen it in hundreds of movies and photographs.

But I’ll bet you’ve never heard of the Golden Gate Barrage.

That’s because it doesn’t exist yet. But as the atmosphere warms, ice sheets melt, and the unruly oceans slosh past their historical shores, the barrage may replace the bridge as the most famous engineering marvel spanning the tide-scoured entrance to San Francisco Bay.

“Barrage” is the technical term for a barrier across a waterway. The Golden Gate Barrage, a massive system of dams, locks, and pumps, would be one of the largest and costliest works in the history of civil engineering—but building it may turn out to be the simplest way to save hundreds of square miles of land around San Francisco Bay from certain inundation.

That includes property that’s currently home to Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Oracle, Dell, LinkedIn, Intuit, Cisco, Citrix, Lockheed Martin, NASA, and many of the other organizations that anchor the Silicon Valley technology economy. Much of the bayside land these companies occupy is already below sea level, protected by fragile earthen levees built decades ago. But these barriers are barely high enough to stop storm surges today, let alone the 18-inch rise in sea level expected by mid-century and the three-foot rise now projected by 2100.

All of which makes climate change an unavoidable problem for tech companies, not a distant conundrum for panels of researchers at the United Nations. And I’m not just talking about Silicon Valley companies. Six of the eight regions Xconomy calls home—Boston, New York, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, and Texas (especially the Houston area)—are at risk for huge economic losses as the oceans swell.

While it’s obviously crucial to slow the carbon emissions that are at the root of climate change, climate scientists say some level of anthropogenic warming and sea level rise is now irreversible, and likely to go on for thousands of years. Saving coastal cities and their residents will therefore require major engineering efforts—and coming up with new ways to fix things is supposedly the technology industry’s strong suit.

Already, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has proposed spending $20 billion to build a new system of levees, berms, flood walls, tide gates, breakwaters, and wetlands around the city’s coasts to blunt the effects of the next Sandy-like storm. Writers at Slate and Forbes have gone further, calling on New York to “think big” and investigate large-scale flood control systems like the Maeslantkering storm surge barrier in the Netherlands or the MOSE project to protect Venice and its surrounding lagoon.

In Boston, a commission appointed by Mayor Thomas Menino has recommended that owners of waterfront properties invest in flood walls, buffers, and backup power and water systems to prepare for future storms, the effects of which will be aggravated by sea level rise. The city government hasn’t yet announced a plan for dealing with the problem, but several of the mayoral candidates hoping to replace Menino have—state Representative Marty Walsh, for example, says it’s time to consider “a series of locks and dams ringing the city.” (Boston lucked out during Sandy, by the way—if the storm had hit at high tide rather than low tide, 6 percent of the city would have been underwater, according to the Boston Harbor Association, an environmental group.)

Outside Houston, the island city of Galveston, TX, home to almost 50,000 people, will see 10 percent of its land disappear underwater if sea levels rise by 3 feet, and more than half if sea levels rise by 4 feet, according to ClimateCentral, an organization of scientists and journalists. The city is studying a system of levees and and gates called the “Ike Dike,” a reference to the Hurricane Ike storm surge that devastated Galveston in 2008.

But the most dramatic proposal for saving a coastal region from rising sea levels—and the one that should interest Silicon Valley nabobs—is the Golden Gate Barrage.

The ideal location for the Golden Gate Barrage, according to design projections from the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission

The ideal location for the Golden Gate Barrage, according to design projections from the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission

For engineers and politicians working to mitigate sea level rise, San Francisco Bay presents both a huge challenge and a unique opportunity. Obviously, a huge portion of California’s wealth and economic prowess is concentrated here. In a 2009 study, the Pacific Institute, an environmental think tank in Oakland, estimated that a sea level rise of 1.4 meters would cause $100 billion in property damage along the California coast (in 2000 dollars), with the vast majority of this damage—$62 billion—occurring along the San Francisco Bay coastline. And that’s just the replacement value of privately owned buildings and their contents; it doesn’t include damage to public infrastructure such as the highways, railroads, hospitals, airports, power plants, and wastewater treatment plants that ring the Bay.

But unlike New York Harbor, Boston Harbor, Galveston Bay, Puget Sound, and other urban waterways, San Francisco Bay is a virtual bathtub. There is only one way for ocean water to go in and out, and that’s through the Golden Gate, a 300-foot-deep gap in the Coastal Range that was originally gouged out thousands of years ago by a mighty river.

As a result of this lucky geological accident, it would be possible in theory to control the water level in the Bay—to put a stopper in the bathtub drain—by building a massive tidal gate, more or less in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge. The ideal location, based on tidal velocities and the topography of the Bay bottom, would be about half a mile east of the bridge, as shown in the graphic above.

There has only been one serious study of the idea of a barrage at the Golden Gate, by the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) back in 2007. After weighing the potential benefits and costs, the commission came down pretty squarely against the idea. “Given the enormous cost, limited effectiveness, questionable feasibility, and probable significant adverse economic and ecological impacts of such a project, it does not seem prudent to seriously further consider such a proposal,” the report concluded.

But that was before the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that a three-foot rise in sea levels is almost certain by 2100; before Sandy ravaged the East Coast and a “Pineapple Express” storm dumped an unprecedented 13 feet of snow in the Sierras in December 2010; and before a tsunami devastated the coast of Japan and sent a one-foot surge into San Francisco Bay. In light of our growing understanding of the climate picture, some observers are saying it’s time to take another look at the Golden Gate Barrage. (The project has also been nicknamed “Goldilocks,” since a major system of locks would be needed to accommodate ship traffic.)

In the design considered by BCDC, the barrage would be about two miles long and would rise 500 feet above the bed of the Bay. To maintain the character of the Bay-Delta system as a tidal estuary with a mix of salt and fresh water, and to deal with flood conditions during winter storms, the barrage would need to include pumps to bring a controlled amount of water into the Bay at high tide and send it back out into the ocean at low tide. In the early years, before ocean levels rise too high to permit a natural flow through the barrage, there might also be the opportunity to generate some tidal power using hydro turbines built into the dam. The design would also have to include a wildlife gate to give safe passage to fish, sea lions, and other critters.

The engineering challenges would be mind-boggling. But the attraction of the Golden Gate Barrage idea is that it would offer blanket protection to the entire Bay and Delta, saving numerous local governments and property owners from having to build levees. (The levee solution would almost certainly lead to massive economic injustice, as the Bay Area’s wealthiest communities and property owners rushed to build their levees first, redirecting the rising waters toward less-well-off communities.)

There are, of course, many potential flaws in the Barrage plan, and the political, environmental, and commercial objections would be numerous. For one thing, building the Barrage would create a single point of failure: if it broke, the whole Bay would be flooded. The BCDC also pointed out in its 2007 study that artificially restricting the flow of water through the Golden Gate would likely affect sedimentation patterns, salinity, animal migration, and the health of wetlands along the Bay. Then there’s the stupendous cost. The largest similar structure built to date, the Three Gorges Dam in China, cost $15 billion, and it isn’t nearly as tall as the Golden Gate Barrage would have to be.

But it’s an option we can’t afford to rule out, at least in the eyes of Ezra Rapport, executive director at the Association of Bay Area Governments. “Ultimately, this might be the solution, but I do not think it’s one we are quite ready to adopt today,” Rapport said during a March 2013 panel discussion at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. “We don’t have the engineering studies ready.”

Facebook's campus in Menlo Park is protected from the Bay by an 8-foot levee. Photo: flickr/Jitze Couperus

Facebook’s campus in Menlo Park is protected from the Bay by an 8-foot levee. Photo: flickr/Jitze Couperus

If a single huge dam isn’t to your taste, there’s another intriguing idea on the table, called Folding Waters. Proposed by the San Francisco architecture firm Kuth Ranieri as part of a 2008 competition sponsored by BCDC, it calls for the installation of 15 permeable levees to protect the Bay’s most sensitive inlets. The levee tops would sit at water level, but would have wings that pivot upward with the rising tide, creating long waterfalls, similar to the edge of an infinity pool. The water would cascade into a shallow gutter, where it would be pumped back out into the Bay. More pumps built into the walls would create simulated tides to nourish the protected side of the levees.

No one knows how much Folding Waters, or the Golden Gate Barrage, would ultimately cost. Protecting the Bay with traditional levees, or new wetlands and tidal marshes, or a controlled flooding scheme, might turn out to be cheaper and more environmentally sound. The point is that it’s time to start doing the engineering studies. We need to figure out the likely costs, balance those against the costs of doing nothing (which are also stupendous), and then bring local, state, and federal authorities together to invent financing mechanisms.

One way or another, Silicon Valley corporations are going to get hit with part of the cost, so they might as well grab a seat at the table now. Maybe they can even divert a bit of their fabled brainpower to generating new engineering responses to sea level rise—preferably ideas that spread the costs evenly, promote equitable development, and preserve the Bay Area’s natural beauty.

The only other option is what’s called “managed retreat”—that is, admitting that the rising waters are unstoppable, ceasing all waterfront development, and gradually moving people and infrastructure to higher ground. But at the moment there isn’t anywhere for companies as big as Google, Oracle, or Facebook to go. And I just can’t see municipalities voluntarily abandoning big chunks of their territory—also known as their tax base—to the sea.

But with the right ideas, maybe a rising tide really can lift all boats.

The Autonomous Roots of the Real Democracy Movement

by ROAR Collective on August 30, 2013

Post image for The Autonomous Roots of the Real Democracy Movement

Today’s uprisings may be the harbinger of a new era of radical democratic aspirations in which autonomous movements could come to play a central role.

We Are Everywhere!
The Autonomous Roots of the
Real Democracy Movement

By Jérôme E. Roos and Leonidas Oikonomakis
European University Institute

Paper to be presented at the 7th Annual ECPR General Conference
‘Comparative Perspectives on the New Politics of Dissent’
Sciences Po Bordeaux, September 4-7, 2013



The years since 2011 have witnessed the (re-)birth of a global cycle of struggles around the issue of democracy. With the representative institutions of liberal democracy in crisis, social movements appear to be increasingly moving away from claims-based and state-oriented contention towards a global project of autonomy. In this article, we focus on those movements that have articulated a critique of representation and expressed a desire to radically transform democratic processes from below. Referring to the ensemble of these struggles as the Real Democracy Movement (RDM), we set out to trace its autonomous roots in the Global Justice Movement, the Zapatista uprising and the long-standing traditions of anarchism, autonomism and anti-authoritarianism more generally. We identify five specific elements that characterize the RDM: (1) its autonomy from the state; (2) its commitment to horizontalism and direct democracy; (3) its emphasis on direct action; (4) its method of occupation; and (5) its embrace of prefigurative politics. We conclude that the analytical framework of contentious politics may not be able to fully appreciate the nature and significance of the RDM as an autonomous movement and prefer instead to speak of a politics of resistance and prefiguration. Far from being a mere call for attention, the RDM may be the harbinger of a new era of radical democratic aspirations in which autonomous movements could come to play a central role.



Introduction: It’s About Democracy!

“This is not just about a couple of trees,” a friend in Istanbul wrote to one of us in June 2013, as a local resistance movement against the planned destruction of Gezi Park spiraled into a nationwide uprising against the increasingly authoritarian neoliberalism of Erdogan’s Islamist government: “it’s about democracy.” Just a few weeks later, a surprisingly similar cry resounded from the streets of Athens after conservative Prime Minister Antonis Samaras – in an attempt to placate Greece’s Troika of foreign lenders – brusquely bypassed his coalition partners to shut down the country’s public broadcaster (ERT), triggering mass protests and leading the station’s employees to occupy its headquarters and continue broadcasting under worker self-management. “This is not about our broadcaster,” the influential investigative journalist Kostas Vaxevanis later lamented in an interview: “it’s about our democracy.” Meanwhile, as the streets of Brazil erupted in a blaze of indignation over a raise in public transportation fees, the issue at hand once again seemed to be only the tip of the iceberg. “No, this is not about 20 cents,” a Brazilian activist wrote in a widely disseminated open letter. “If, at the end of these protests, the political class … and its army of capitalist crétins … are removed from power and forced to recognize that an era of real democracy has arrived, then I will be very happy to pay 20 cents more for my bus rides.”

Liberal democracy now finds itself in crisis almost everywhere (Della Porta 2013). From the mass protests in Europe’s heavily indebted periphery to the worldwide Occupy movement and on to the popular uprisings in rapidly emerging countries like Turkey and Brazil, indignant multitudes are spilling over into the streets and squares of the world, contesting the very legitimacy of their elected representatives and expressing a radical desire for real democracy and meaningful self-determination. The new politics of dissent that kicked off with the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions of 2011 mark the resumption of what Hardt & Negri (2011) have identified as an emerging “cycle of struggles”: a budding wave of popular indignation resonating across the globe and unleashing strikingly similar patterns of leaderless democratic revolt in a great variety of contexts. Needless to say, each of these struggles remains particular to its own context – and yet the movements share a number of key elements in common. To the extent that the struggles offer a critique of representation and express a desire to radically transform democratic processes from below, we therefore refer to them as part of the Real Democracy Movement (RDM).

The precipitous rise of the RDM has left many journalists, commentators and academics scratching their heads in confusion. ‘Why are they not making any demands?’ the mainstream media pundits immediately began to wonder when the Occupy movement first hit the headlines in the United States. ‘Has anyone else noticed the relative lack of Che Guevara invocations?’ a puzzled social movement scholar asked during the recent Brazilian protests. ‘Without leadership or a clear program, these movements are doomed to fail!’ the dumbfounded critics on the institutional left continue to agitate. With such a confused discourse permeating the academic and public debate it is perhaps no surprise that a leading scholar like Sydney Tarrow (2011) would end up defining Occupy as little more than a “we are here” movement, clamoring for attention amid an economic system that has lost its way. By making the state central to its analysis and limiting its empirical investigations to the claims that movements make “on public authorities, other holders of power, competitors, enemies, and objects of popular disapproval” (Tilly 2004:ix), the analytical framework of contentious politics seems unable to fully appreciate the nature and significance of the RDM. As a result, many commentators still struggle to identify the reasons why the anti-capitalist left is increasingly moving away from claims-based forms of contention by stressing its radical autonomy from the traditional triad of political representation: party, state, and vanguard.

In this paper, we aim to take away some of this confusion by situating the present cycle of struggles in its proper historical and theoretical context. In doing so, we hope to elucidate the nature of the RDM as an autonomous movement, one that – consciously or unconsciously – draws heavily on its roots in the Global Justice Movement (GJM), the Zapatista uprising, and the long-standing traditions of anarchism, autonomism and anti-authoritarianism more generally. Seen in this light, the wholesale rejection of representation and the refusal to aim for state power or to make specific political demands are not so much a puzzle, but a logical consequence of the RDM’s ideological commitment to a project of autonomy and horizontalism. We develop this argument in two parts. First we trace some of the organizational forms of the RDM back to the direct democratic processes of the GJM and the Zapatistas, while simultaneously noting how the project of autonomy itself is increasingly animating anti-capitalist struggles across Latin America. The aim of this section is not so much to establish a linear relation between these struggles, or to argue that the RDM somehow ‘diffused’ from Seattle, Buenos Aires or the Lacandon Jungle, but rather to uncover the underlying resonances and mutual sources of inspiration between them.

The second part of the paper looks at the philosophical roots of the RDM and seeks to connect its most salient characteristics to a number of concepts developed by autonomist and anarchist thinkers. Specifically, we identify five interconnected and partly overlapping ideas that characterize the RDM: (1) its radical autonomy from the state, which resonates closely with Holloway’s ideas about “changing the world without taking power”; (2) its rejection of representation in favor of assembly-based horizontalism and direct democracy, leading to a networked organizational form that invokes Hardt and Negri’s multitude; (3) its refusal to make demands and its embrace of anarchist-inspired direct action, defined by Graeber as “acting as if one is already free”; (4) its method of the occupation and its creation of what Hakim Bey has called “temporary autonomous zones”, functioning as liberated sites of experimentation with other-doings, or “cracks in capitalism”; and (5) its deliberate conflation of means and ends as a strategy of prefiguration, defined as “building the new world in the shell of the old.” We conclude on the basis of this discussion that the analytical framework of contentious politics may not be able to fully appreciate the nature and significance of the RDM as an autonomous movement and propose instead to speak of a politics of resistance and prefiguration ... Far from being a mere call for attention, the RDM may be the harbinger of a new era of radical democratic aspirations in which autonomous movements could come to play a central role.

Read more…


Jérôme E. Roos is a PhD researcher in International Political Economy at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. His research focuses on the structural power of financial capital in the management of international debt crises and the implications for the quality of democracy (case studies: Mexico, Argentina and Greece). He is the founder and editor of ROAR Magazine.

Leonidas Oikonomakis is a PhD researcher in Social Movement Studies at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. His research focuses on the different political strategies that social movements adopt in their struggle for social change (case studies: the Zapatistas of Mexico and the Cocaleros of Bolivia). He is a contributing editor of ROAR Magazine.

Retromania: Can Fetishizing the Past Ruin the Future?

Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to its Own Past (2011), Simon Reynolds

As a fan of Simon Reynolds’ writing, I was excited enough for his new book,Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past (2011) to order a fairly expensive copy from a couple months before its U.S. release date. I thought I would get a jump on writing about it, but it turns out I needed several months to process the tome.

His basic thesis is that music is running out of new ideas and increasingly recycling old ones to the point where it’s on the verge of creative bankruptcy and cultural irrelevance. The book is written like a 428 page blog freeform think piece. Things get a little confusing when Reynolds discusses some of his favorite artists such as Boards Of Canada, Ariel Pink, Gonjasufi, Panda Bear, Daniel Lopatin, a.k.a Oneohtrix Point Never, Nico Muhly and his beloved hauntology artists while also using them as examples to support his theory. Nevertheless it’s an engaging read, as Reynolds’ writing is as sharp as ever, if not totally persuasive. The best parts are when he examines in detail subjects like Billy Childish, Crypt Records, The Cramps and the Shibuya-kei scene in Japan. The enthusiasm and passion displayed by the people involved with various retro scenes is infectious, while also undercutting Reynolds’ point. His profoundly depressing point. According to Reynolds, great leaps forward in music that occured in the 60s, the 70s and early 80s with post-punk, and to a lesser extent, rave and electronic music in the 90s, are never going to happen again if we continue to cannibalize the ever more increasingly recent past.

I can certainly understand the experience of the shock-of-the-new, what Reynolds calls the “future-rush.” It’s a thrilling experience that is addictive for many. For people of Reynolds’ generation, cultural and technological innovations and new genres seemed to spring up every year, especially in the 18-year period between 1965 and 1983. We know that some sixties music, post-punk and rave gave Reynolds the future-rush, but he neglects to make a case for how exactly that body of music transcends his historical and personal experience of it, what made that music so much more magical and original than other music. In other words, the sensation of future-rush may be in the ear of the beholder.

In his previous book, the brilliant and thorough Rip It Up and Start Again: Post-Punk 1978-1984 (2005), Reynolds makes a convincing case that post-punk was the greatest era of rock music (which I agree with), there he also revealed that this music did not appear out of nowhere. It too had roots in music from the 50s, 60s and 70s, in German space rock, Captain Beefheart, and even prog rock. I was even thanked in the credits for my role in hooking him up with music by the likes of Gong, Gentle Giant and Van Der Graaf Generator, bands revealed in interviews to have been seminal influences for some post-punkers.

All new music has antecedents somewhere. Whether in the marginal areas of its own larger culture, in the fields, churches, forests, colonies, exotic peoples, rising global powers or garages, there’s always some connection with culture’s social and aesthetic past that eventually makes enough sense to enough people to become lastingly meaningful.

I’ll let Reynolds have this one by assuming he’s speaking in terms of relative perception and not absolute terms. But is perceived novelty really the most valuable aspect of music? That type of warp speed development will probably remain unique to that period. Near the end of the 150-year long Baroque period, did audiences think musical innovation was grinding to a halt and despair? The origins of the blues dates back to around 1870; by the time the popularity of that genre was reaching its peak in the 1950s it had already been around for 70 years. Were there people already complaining in the 1920s and 1930s that they were tired and bored of it? Who knows? But I believe the current expectations for innovation in music are connected with the commodification of pop music in late 20th century capitalism. The idea of the need for constant change, novelty, and newness is linked to marketing music as disposable product with an expiration date to be replaced and upgraded. Yet attaching the value of music to novelty alone seems to sell it a bit short. It overlooks the complex and rich human relationship with music that goes back much farther than many presumed.

Paleolithic Pipe, 35,000-45,000 years old

In many ways we’ve barely scratched the surface in understanding music and its effect on us, its relationship to human and social evolution. In This Is Your Brain On Music (2007), Daniel J. Levitan examines evidence that music may have played a key role in the human race evolving the way it did. While it was once believed that a great leap forward in human culture came as a result of modern agriculture, discoveries in Hohle Fels and Vogelherd caves in southern Germany in 2009 confirm otherwise. Bird bone and ivory flutes were discovered that are dated between 35,000 and 45,000 years old, from the Upper Paleolithic Period when modern humans settled in Europe, and integrated with Neanderthals. The best-preserved flute was made from the wing bone of a Griffon vulture. The flutes were discovered laying around with other ivory tools and such suggesting that music was an everyday part of their ancient lives; a group activity that not only promoted group togetherness and synchrony, but actually aided in brain development. In The Power Of Music: Pioneering Discoveries In The New Science Of Song (2011), Elena Mannes reveals that scientists found that music stimulates more parts of the brain than any other human activity. This has been backed up by the stunning results of music therapy in helping people with neurological deficits to overcome loss of verbal functions and memory.

The fact that more parts of the brain are stimulated by music than they are by anything else explains why it taps into our intellect, emotions and memory. The brain’s tendency to prioritize happy memories explains the strong connection between music and nostalgia. However, it usually has little to do with how groundbreaking and innovative the music is, hence our fondness for tunes from the past that don’t always conform to the criteria that one currently, intellectually considers good music. It’s an everyday human trait that I really don’t believe will result in completely halting artistic progress. Just because people continue to enjoy some of the same comfort foods over the course of generations will not arrest the development of the culinary arts. Most of our meals will not revolutionize our tastes, our favorite books usually do not significantly alter the path of the literary arts, and our favorite movies do not often turn the entertainment world upside down, yet we continue to enjoy these things and have meaningful lives.

Music’s proven potency does make the emotional investment that much more intense for many of us. In Simon Reynold’s case, his pleasure is linked strongly to discovery and intellectual engagement; and in one period of his life, somewhat loosening up the intellectualism and giving in to a bit of (possibly drug induced) hedonism, which seems to be the only explanation for his valorization of rave music, which for anyone who wasn’t there and chemically altered in the moment is overwhelmingly and soul crushingly dull. For other people this intense relationship with music is reflected in a lifelong fandom of the band Journey, no matter how few of the original members remain. Teasing about his love of raves aside, Reynolds is right about many things in his book. Since the 1960s, there hasn’t been much in terms of mass movement innovation that has captured the imagination of a global audience aside from hip-hop (though he doesn’t even really make a case for that). Most recently there’s been grime and dubstep, but these styles haven’t really taken off beyond their British subcultures. By the end of the book, he takes small comfort in the likelihood that strong, unique individual artists will continue to emerge despite the lack of innovative mass movements. I have to wonder, how much does a person actually like music if they are bored without a consistent hit of supposedly game-changing styles?

I caught myself in this trap a couple times in my life. The first time, when I was around 19, like many people my age I had impossibly high expectations about everything. I was bitterly disappointed by nearly every album that came out by my favorite artists because they didn’t progress enough (in my teenage estimation) from their previous work. I learned to not to be so hasty in dismissing them when I ended up buying many albums for the second time having hastily sold the CDs the first time around! In the late 1990s, just before filesharing got going, I consumed massive quantities of music and experienced a bit of the ADD behavior Reynolds later attributed to a download-culture wherein people skim and skip tracks to the point where they’re too bored and distracted to listen to more than a few seconds of a song. In searching for the next world-changing album I had to remind myself to relax and simply find what I like and spend quality time enjoying it.

Over the years I found my favorite niches. Lots of 1970s music like soul and funk, German Kosmiche, reggae, and of course punk and post-punk. This past decade, I’ve become a fan of a slew of mostly UK indie and post post-punk bands (seeThee Anglophiliac’s Almanac), a few of whom received some critical respect, but most would be the sort respected critics like Reynolds would offer up as a case-in-point of bands milking a genre way past its prime, and this despite the fact that Reynolds himself rated the first Arctic Monkeys album in his year-end list.

My other obsession was sparked by my frustration in seeing favorite indie bands repeatedly put on uninspiring shows where they were simply too aloof to be bothered to give a convincing performance. A small handful of artists might actually be good enough to be too good for their audience, but most aren’t. Fortunately, most metal and heavy rock bands have a much better fundamental understanding of their roles as entertainers, even the arty ones. I’ve especially focused on the stoner/psych/doom specialists like Melvins, Monster Magnet, Kyuss/QOTSA, Acrimony, Orange Goblin, Electric Wizard, Colour Haze, Isis, Boris, Graveyard, Truckfighters and Ufomammut. Some of the bands could be accused of being revivalists, and while not stunningly original they make some absolutely breathtaking heavy music. Others are quite eclectic and experimental, and as restlessly innovative as any current artist, but may not always be recognized for it. In the end it’s not always originality that keeps me coming back to these bands and listening to them. It’s the pleasure I get from the fuzzy guitar tones and rumbling bass, some occasionally great vocal performances along with clever and amusing lyrics. In a recent blog entry, Reynolds admits to being a fan of Saint Vitus’ 1987 doom revival opus Born Too Late. For much the same reason I just mentioned, their ability to use current (for the time) recording technology to pinpoint what made the bulbous low-end sounds of Black Sabbath and magnify their beauty. He just wasn’t moved to seek out other bands that are doing it just as well or even better. To each their own, but just because these bands aren’t single handedly creating new and trailblazing genres, they do remain vital artists burning bright with creativity in my eyes and in the eyes of their fans.

I do agree somewhat with Reynolds’ critique that having easy access to the entire history of recorded music tempts some artists to pack their music too tightly with so much stuff that it all becomes a grey blur, to some extent. I still think albums by Flying Lotus, Gang Gang Dance, Gary War, and Battles are really good, but they would also benefit from a little simplification. Overall I don’t see any drop in quality or originality in the best individual albums from the past decade; TV On The Radio, White Denim, Opeth, Wild Beasts, Ufomammut, LoneLady, Teeth Of The Sea, These New Puritans, King Midas Sound, Baroness, Matias Aguayo, Fever Ray, Kiila, OOIOO, Richard Youngs and many more have put out exceptionally original albums recently. These are just my own personal favorites. There is a massive amount of original music and a lot of it logically resides in avant-garde territory.

Reynolds has mentioned that he’s had people recommend more adventurous metal releases to him. He’s admitted that there is some impressive stuff that is simply too overwhelming and difficult to get into. Here’s where I think we get to the real issue, it’s not that creativity in music has run dry. It’s just that, like all art forms, completely new ideas can only be balanced with accessibility for so long. As all the possibilities are explored, avant-garde naturally progresses to increased complexity (or inversely, extreme lack of complexity), experiments in rhythm, chords and modes that veer into difficult listening, often abandoning melody and even rhythm altogether. When Charlie Parker, Dizzie Gillespie and Max Roach helped evolve jazz from swing to bebop in the 1940s they lost a good portion of their audience who were used to jazz as dance music. That audience split into even smaller fragments when Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor introduced free jazz. A dedicated audience regarded their work and that of John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders and Peter Brötzmann as the artistic peak of jazz; many others took the free jazz movement as a sign to give up on the genre entirely. Modern/avant-garde classical went through roughly the same thing. In hindsight, a person in 2011, someone like Simon Reynolds who has likely heard over 30,000 albums in his lifetime, is going to be much more difficult to surprise and impress, particularly with anything that has catchy pop elements, than someone who in the 1960s had only heard a miniscule fraction.

I’ve listened to enough metal that I can appreciate at least some of the overwhelming offerings of avant and post-metal, black metal and twenty other variations of doom, noise, sludge, hardcore and grindcore. I touch on just a few releases from the extreme metal genre every year, like Corrupted, Zu, Sunn 0))), Tombs, Cobalt, Shining and Black Breath, but still favor more relatively populist bands that balance some accessibility such as Mastodon and Opeth. Near the end of his book Reynolds also suggests that as the U.S. and Europe’s roles as global superpowers diminish, so do their arts; the slack being picked up by developing nations like China, India and Brazil. But there has ALWAYS been amazing music created throughout the world. There are always great albums coming out of Brazil every year. But as a large Portuguese language nation they can sustain artists with their own economy; Brazil has no need to bend or compromise for North Americans and Europeans and switch to English. I doubt that critics and fans who have been so far unable to appreciate the riches of global music from the past century, due to language barriers and unfamiliar harmonics, will suddenly have their desires fulfilled by non-Western music. Even when an amazing artist such as Fela Kuti reached out to a global audience by singing (roughly) in English, he did not reach mainstream audiences in the U.S. and Europe. However, it’s always possible that this will change if more talented artists consciously attempt to crossover.

By far the weakest of Reynolds’ arguments regards reissues and reunion tours. What kind of killjoy would not enjoy the incredible performances of The Stooges tours over the past few years? The slavering, unhinged Scratch Acid and the brutally terse Big Black at the Touch & Go 25th Anniversary party. A re-energized Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds on their 2008 tour. The Pixies of 2004 that blew away the tired, burned out Pixies I saw in 1991. The Jesus Lizard in 2009, every bit as awe inspiring as they were two decades ago. If I turned my nose up at reunion shows I would have missed the amazing performance of Ronnie James Dio with Heaven & Hell (e.g. Black Sabbath), as always a spritely, evil elf despite already being sick with cancer. I would have passed up seeing The Cramps’ wonderful Halloween show in San Francisco in 2004.

Reynolds critiqued the celebrations of the 20-year anniversary of Nirvana’sNevermind in a recent Slate article. At Britain’s Reading Festival in August, they screened a film of Nirvana’s Reading performance from 1992. Reynolds called it “an anti-event, a black hole in history” —

“One of the primary aims of my book Retromania is to defamiliarize an attitude that has gradually, insidiously installed itself as normal. To do so requires memory exercises and techniques of retro-speculation: in this case, asking yourself whether the promoters of Woodstock, or the first Lollapalooza in 1991, would have lowered a giant screen onstage and projected footage of a gig from two decades earlier? The answer is no: They were too busy confidently making history to bother with referring back to it.”

He mistakenly made it seem like they interrupted a schedule of live music for this, which was not the case. The film was actually shown on an alternative stage that featured other films and comedians. Despite this probably unintentional inaccuracy, I fail to see the difference between giving 18 year-olds an opportunity to see footage of something they were not around for, and watching the Ken Burns PBS documentaries on jazz, the Prohibition, and all sorts of other histories. Or watching a classic movie. And I would bet big money that the promoters of Woodstock WOULD have shown films during certain long stretches between bands to distract them from the misery of the mud and hunger and bad trips. But there just wasn’t much in terms of music-related film footage then. If asked, I bet Perry Farrell would think it a grand idea to show clips of artists who inspired them, like Bad Brains and Bauhaus. The first Lollapalooza lineup looked pretty retro to me. Most of the bands (Jane’s Addiction, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Nine Inch Nails, Living Colour, Ice-T & Body Count, Butthole Surfers, Rollins Band, Violent Femmes, Fishbone, Emergency Broadcast Network) had mostly already peaked in the early to mid 80s, with the exception of Ice-T and Nine Inch Nails in the 90s.

Nirvana - Nevermind Deluxe ReissueDisco Inferno - The 5 EPs
Is this Disco Inferno reissue ruining the future of creative, new music?

I agree with his assessment that commemorating events simply because they’re round numbers (10th, 20th, etc. anniversaries) is rather odd. But while it seems disconnected with any true need or yearning for people to revisit an event, it isn’t just a top-down marketing ploy. People do like to revisit the past. It is pretty much a universal human nature for better and worse. I can think of worse things than a deluxe reissue of Nevermind with B-sides, alternate mixes and live cuts. I’m a fan of deluxe reissues, as long as the mastering is good and they’re not too overpriced. In an era of disposable compressed files, I like to have a nice artifact from all-time favorite albums with extensive liner notes and bonus tracks. Buying reissues does nothing to prevent me from also buying new albums from current artists. I especially like to buy from their merch table when I see them live. I really don’t see the generally small (unless you’re talking about the Beatles) reissues market having any significant impact on new album sales. I’ve been enjoying the Nevermind reissue a lot, ironically much more than I did whenNevermind was first released. Back then I liked how Cobain sounded like The Replacements’ Paul Westerberg in the first verse of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” but overall I didn’t like the production and some of the songs felt incomplete.

People tend to filter out the bad memories and remember the good things. For example, 1991 was a crappy year for me. A relationship crashed and burned and I had the longest dry spell of my life that year. I didn’t get into the grad program I wanted (Santa Cruz’s History Of Consciousness), and I graduated during a recession, got into debt and had to work 70 hour weeks to get out of the hole the rest of the year. But rather than be haunted or obsessed by that supremely shitty year, I fondly remember music and shows from that time. Over the next decade I had a mix tape and CD of my favorite non-Nevermind songs. I got so familiar with them that in this last decade, Nevermind started sounding fresh again, and I liked it better than the first time around! I would be even happier to see deluxe reissues of other favorites like Massive Attack’s Blue Lines, Slint’sSpiderland, Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock and Melvins’ Bullhead. I already own reissues of Swervedriver’s Raise, Monster Magnet’s Spine Of God and The Jesus Lizard’s Goat. My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless is supposedly on the way. Yet this hasn’t stopped me from buying as many new albums as I usually do. I’m sure Reynolds has a good cache of post-punk reissues, and has likely received a copy of Disco Inferno’s The 5 EPs reissue. Is it better because Disco Inferno was a slightly more forward-thinking band? Should it make a difference? Reynolds actually gave Nevermind a pretty positive review at the time. I really don’t see reissues, concert films, documentaries and magazine retrospectives as a problem. I subscribe to Pop Matters on my Kindle and have been impressed by some of the think pieces sparked by the Nirvana reissue.

To his credit, Mr. Reynolds does continue to seek out music, no matter how disappointed he is by much of it, just avoiding curmudgeon status. But I can’t help be disappointed that one of my favorite writers seems to have lost his passion for the majority of music. In the end, I’d still recommend Retromaniaeven if I vehemently disagree with most of it, at least to a certain audience who’s interested in this debate or a fan of Reynolds’ writing. I still hope he’ll respark his enthusiasm next time, and write about grime/dubstep, hauntology or hypnogogia. The future will always be out there no matter whether one gets a rush from it or not.