David Kordahl

Archive for the ‘Ethics’ Category

Skin in the Game: Two Versions of Cheap Meat

In books, Ethics, Food on 2014/10/06 at 2:35 pm

In Meat We Trust:
An Unexpected History of Carnivore America
by Maureen Ogle
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013, 384 pp.

The Meat Racket:
The Secret Takeover of America’s Food Business
by Christopher Leonard
Simon & Schuster, 2014, 370 pp.

We’re all adults, here: We know where meat comes from. Seriously, we all do. There’s no shortage of books to shade in the details, with Fast Food Nation over a decade old and The Omnivore’s Dilemma ubiquitous enough, by now, that it would require real effort to stay ignorant of its main thrust. The genre’s vegetarian branch has ripened into a certain decadence, with consumer choices for every aesthetic stripe (Animal Liberation for the brainy clinician, Eating Animals for the hip postmodernist, Elizabeth Costello for that rare reader of literary fiction), and although I’m not one of them, pro-meat readers, too, can fill up on titles like The Shameless Carnivore and Meat: A Love Story. All these books take different stances toward industrial farming, but they agree that it’s an issue people can affect via their individual dietary choices. So it’s something of a surprise to find two new books, both popular histories, with a decidedly less cheerful slant. Both argue for the system’s incontrovertibility, even as they’re both written to decry this deadlock’s late state.

There might be something perverse in my claim that both titles under review argue that things can’t be changed, since Maureen Ogle, in her introduction to In Meat We Trust: An Unexpected History of Carnivore America, says exactly the opposite. “My hope is that that this book will help all of us understand how we got to where we are so that, if we are willing, we can imagine a different future and write a new history of meat in America.” But if this is a hope, it’s decidedly not the main focus of the text. Instead, as she bluntly writes in an early endnote, “Readers should note that my general argument in this book is a rejection, overt or otherwise, of the Marxists’ critique of ‘capital.’ I am aware of that argument … I don’t agree with it and find it singularly useless for making substantive change.”

Ogle’s project is to dampen the “sense of entitlement” that has grown from the misconception that some “Elysian idyll” ended “when corporations barged in and converted rural America into an industrial handmaiden of agribusiness.” But if she merely aims to correct misinformation, it’s often difficult to distinguish her strenuous articulation of the logic of business from an approval of this way of thinking. You can only portray so many agriculturalists as heroes and reformers as schmucks (Upton Sinclair is characterized as an “impetuous, publicity-starved writer” and a “fair-weather socialist”; Ralph Nader gets off merely as “eccentric” and “[d]riven by zealousness that bordered on fanaticism”) before your sympathies become impossible to ignore.

Here’s a quote to give some idea of Ogle’s style, with its contradictory urges to reveal that things once were even worse and to document that the present is not so unlike the past, after all. It comes midway through the second chapter, “We Are Here to Make Money,” which concerns the switch from live shipments to dead ones, “dressed,” since chilled carcasses are easier to move uninjured than warm animals. Specifically, the sentence is from a section detailing the “visual and aural feast” that attended urban butcheries, with their consequent flows of blood and urine in the streets. Ogle writes, “Throngs of children hung about to watch with fascinated delight, hanging on every word of the ‘not very elegant language’ of the butchers’ world, becoming, critics complained, ‘habituated to scenes of blood and violence,’ a gory and three-dimensional nineteenth-century version of the computer games that adults fret about today.”

This leads into a pagelong description of the viscera heaps that would be found in every 19th-century city, a description that, with any other framing, would read as an indictment of the savagery of butchery itself. It functions instead, though, as a lead-in to justify why it was reasonable for city dwellers to force these butchers to operate in centralized slaughterhouses, one among the book’s many examples of the “conflict between public good and private interest.”

In Meat We Trust is valuable as a compressed narrative of the last two centuries of the animals in agriculture, but the danger of this compression is to make its events seem inevitable. The early rise of the Beef Trust, with its colluding megapackers, is shown to be a result of the thin margins resulting from Western overgrazing and cattle overproduction in the late 1900s. Factory farming of chickens, then pigs, is said to have been inspired by nothing more than “a desire to keep food costs for consumers low and a need to ensure that farmers enjoyed an adequate standard of living.” Boxed beef, antibiotics, tenant farming, union busting: though each has its individual nuances, the overall story is always the same, one of a difficult business world wherein farmers must respond to a carnivorous public that demands enormous quantities of flesh, at a high quality and a low price.

Ogle gives the last two chapters of her book (“The Doubters’ Crusade” and “Utopian Visions, Red Tape Reality”) to the rise of alternative ag and its inevitable discontents. She’s generally skeptical of such trends—the old saw about how grass-fed beef couldn’t feed the entire country is approvingly quoted—but nevertheless sighs that “alternative is the new normal,” a phrase which she deploys ironically to critique alternative agriculture as just another in the long line of specious ways to sate our simultaneous American longings “for convenience, for cachet, for doing good.”

Christopher Leonard’s The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of America’s Food Business also hinges on a vision of the new normal, but “niche localvore farmers” aren’t mentioned until the very last page of the book, and then it’s only to note that most “middle- to low-income Americans” won’t buy their stuff. Nothing in The Meat Racket, aside from an ambiguous note in the acknowledgments that Don Tyson is a “genius,” is overly hot on industrial meat, but after 300+ pages of demonstrating the relentless gains of Tyson et al., Leonard concludes, “It’s unclear if anything will change this pattern.”
Where Ogle is wry, Leonard is glum. The biggest difference between these books is that while Ogle, by profiling the major important historical trends, covers mainly winners, while Leonard goes in tit for tat, winners with their losers alongside.

By focusing on one company, Tyson Foods, and its interactions with one town, Waldron, Arkansas, Leonard gives us an industrial cross section based on interviews with participants ranging from Don Tyson to the farmers his business model has bankrupted. The Meat Racket is a triumph of specificity, giving names and dates in place of half-formed generalities.

This makes the book hard to dismiss, even if one starts out skeptical. The first chapter, “How Jerry Yandell Lost the Farm,” is the narrative of a Waldron farmer whose successive losses are deployed to show how Tyson has outsourced most of its risk to the farmers who do its work. The company hatches the chicks, produces their feed, delivers them to farmers, picks them up, slaughters them, and sells their meat to the grocers and restaurant chains. And while this vertical integration, on one hand, allows Tyson to cut down on many of the equipment doublings that could lead to higher prices, it also gives them a tyrannical power. Farmers have to use whatever chicks they are given, whatever feed they are given, and their pay depends on how well they do with these raw materials. In fact, there’s another draconian caveat: the farmers’ efficiency is fastidiously ranked, and those farmers whose output is least efficient are docked in the price they are paid per pound, a further penalty for failure.

Given that the farmers have to pay for their own equipment and may have to work with less-than-perfect chicks (the Jerry Yandell arc levies the possibility that he was delivered weak animals that, in the past, would have been culled), it’s not surprising that few farmers make it in the long term. One might ask why potential farmers wouldn’t simply work with different companies, but Leonard takes pains to answer this question. With so much of the market structured via similar contracts, the free market for meat, in many industrial sectors, has all but disappeared.

The first part of The Meat Racket documents how this happened. John Tyson’s original competitive advantage was simply to exploit price differences—buy rural, sell urban. His son, Don Tyson, was the one to introduce the tenant farming paradigm. Though Don “experimented with the model of owning farms outright,” he soon ran into the central difficulty of this aspect of vertical integration:

It was hard to motivate hired hands to do the work, which involved hauling loads of dead chickens out of a barn where the ammonia fumes were so strong they burned the eyes. Hired hands didn’t raise the best birds, no matter how much you paid them or what kind of incentives you provided. They didn’t have skin in the game.

Don crossed the country signing letters of intent so his contract farmers could get loans from the Farm Credit Administration, thereby offloading a significant portion of his venture’s loss to the US Government. The next half-century for Tyson Foods is a story of rise and rise, from changes in the animals (1955: 73 days to raise a 3.1 pound bird; 1982: 52 days for a 4 pounder) to trends in consumption (see: Don Tyson’s courting of Wal-Mart, McDonald’s).

But if the story of Tyson starts as one that’s specifically about poultry, The Meat Racket‘s second section, “The Great Chickenization,” tells how the Tyson model of concentrated agriculture—along with tenant farming—eventually overtook cow and pig production, too. There were plenty of technical challenges to raising pigs in this way (“the biological equivalent of putting hundreds of large people in a barn with no toilets or running water”), but the business benefits of controlling the productive means, or, rather, the benefits of controlling the most profitable sectors of those means, was enticing enough to lure Don into the experiment. And once Tyson had cracked the basic method, competitors like Smithfield Foods adopted and extended it with a vengeance.

This sort of control wasn’t quite possible for cattle, whose unique stomachs require them to feed on milk and grass for nearly a year before they can enter the feedlot. But when Johnny Tyson, Don’s son and short-lived CEO of the company, bought IBP, the same boxed-beef purveyors who got a whole chapter of In Meat We Trust, the beef industry began to look the same as all the rest. After telling us how 85% of all cows are bought by just four companies (Tyson, Cargill, JBS Swift, National Beef), Leonard makes a heavy allegation: “There is ample evidence that the big four meatpackers have chosen to divvy up the market, picking territories where they can buy all the cattle from the feedlot without facing a competing bid.”

As for the evidence he gives of this, I could imagine Ogle shaking her head. “No one,” Leonard admits, “seems to think the meatpackers are dumb enough to have an actual sit-down meeting to divvy up territories where they won’t compete against each other. But then again, they don’t have to.” The numbers Leonard has on this—individual feedlots consistently selling to just one of the four big guys—are on the level of the century old Beef Trust accusations, which Ogle’s narrative included to show the naïveté of American consumers, always looking to blame someone besides themselves.

The last section of The Meat Racket concerns the Obama administration’s unsuccessful efforts to break these de facto monopolies, but the ending is more downbeat than necessary. We’re walked through beginning intentions vs. ending disappointments, from the original reform draft with its provisions to forbid contracts with added penalties, to allow farmers to press lawsuits for individual harm, to ban packers from owning livestock—all reforms aimed to shift power toward small producers—and on to the final, gutted version, which, in any case, was defunded by the House of Representatives. The book’s closing pages are given over to statistics of continued growth. “Tyson’s results reflected that even in hard times, people need to eat. And when people eat, Tyson’s products were all but unavoidable.”

We’re all adults here: We know that reforms don’t come easy. “The only way to avoid [Tyson],” Leonard concludes, “was to become a vegetarian.” This comment seems intended as a hopeless shrug, but to at least one reader, it sounds like a solution, a way to cut that old Gordian Knot. Of course, I’ve had this conversation enough times to know that most readers won’t agree. In both The Meat Racket and In Meat We Trust, the main sufferers are those people who wade through shit and slice through guts, not those animals whose shit they’re wading through whose guts they’re about to slice. But, again, we’re all aware of the equation’s other side, and we’re all aware that this means that many staples of the American diet, from corn dogs to chicken wings, have costs not on the balance sheet. These foods’ facade of comfort and normalcy—and, fine, sure, their basic overall taste—conspire to keep most of us as satisfied consumers. The contribution of these two books is to illuminate the human costs of this consumption, alongside he costs we already know about but choose to accept.

Sleeping at Arcosanti

In Ethics, Politics, Travel on 2014/05/10 at 10:42 pm

Arcosanti, a bell-casting community, doubled as an experiment in constructing the city of the future … the sort of city, for better or worse, that never came to be. Is its guiding vision still possible?

Paolo Soleri hated cars. I knew this coming in, but it wasn’t until I was bumping at 5 m.p.h. along the trail of rocks leading to Arcosanti that the extent of this hatred became quite clear. After all, every prior encounter I’d had with Soleri’s work had come with the utmost automotive convenience. The Soleri Bridge and Plaza had been viewed only when I was on the way to the fancy mall in Scottsdale, and the big bell assemblage of his in the Neiman Marcus there was viewed only after a trip to the parking garage. “Stop, Holly,” I told my wife, who was driving. “I need a picture of this.”

Good neighbors to the past future, just off the "road" to Arcosanti

Good neighbors to the past future, just off the “road” to Arcosanti

“Jeeeez,” said Holly. Normally, this sort of abuse to the Toyota might merit some complaint, but no way, buddy: this one is all her fault. One night earlier, her co-worker Steve had told us about this crazy place seventy miles outside Phoenix where he might like to use as a concert venue, and since both of us were off work for the week, we decided to pack for an overnighter. We drove past a red helical sculpture and, upon reaching the visitor’s parking lot, got out and walked down the hill.

Please note the eroteme ending the subtitle, "An Urban Laboratory?"

Please note the eroteme ending the subtitle, “An Urban Laboratory?”

Looking into it afterward, I haven’t been able to find a source that directly states the meaning of “Arcosanti,” but here’s my best shot. Paolo Soleri, the site’s late visionary, was an eccentric who, in his writing, heavily favored the neologism and portmanteau. To appreciate the meaning of Arcosanti, then, we need to dig into a few of his other linguistic creations—starting with the two most famous ones. Soleri wanted to pair architecture and ecology, so ARCitecture + ecoLOGY = ARCOLOGY. In a sentence: “Arcosanti is an attempted arcology.” Try another. Arcosanti is overseen by the Cosanti Foundation, the non-profit established by Soleri. So, again, to break it down, COSANTI = COSA (It., “thing”) + ANTI (“against” or “before”). The foundation website encourages both interpretations, “against things,” with its anti-materialist vibe, and “before things,” which emphasizes the primary importance of architecture to society.

This etymological backdrop tells us the meaning of Arcosanti, then. ARCOSANTI = ARCOlogy + coSANTI. In other words, it’s an “urban laboratory,” built to test certain ideas about the ways that architecture, if put in direct contact with nature, can affect the society it holds.

The treacherous road to the guest rooms, as seen from Craft III, Arcosanti's gallery/bakery/restaurant.

The treacherous road to the guest rooms, as seen from Craft III, Arcosanti’s gallery/bakery/restaurant.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. When Holly and I arrived, we hadn’t made reservations, and on the way up the stairs of Craft III, we walked by a series of historical photos, a timeline of the site’s history since its beginning in 1970. At the top, there was a gift shop where a man told us that, yes, sure, we could get the last room available for $50, a room with three single beds. After signing, I took the key and said we’d return in a few minutes for the 4 PM tour.

He’d told us to pull our car around to the back, but as we rounded the hill on a single-lane thread of gravel, I kept flashing back to a passage in Blood Meridian where the poor donkey skitters off a cliff (“it fell from sight into a sink of cold blue space that absolved it forever in the mind of any living thing that was”), and Holly said, “If we ever come here again, let’s just leave the car in the front.”

Guest room, interior view. AC is not included, though a space heater and an excellent view of prickly pear cacti come gratis

Guest room, interior view. AC is not included, though a space heater and an excellent view of prickly pear cacti come gratis

It was hard to disagree. I now understood the complaints I’d skimmed on TripAdvisor before leaving the city—understood that these complaints, for the most part, were the result of an incorrect idea of what an Arcosanti stay might mean. If I’d arrived expecting a resort (during summer months, there is a swimming pool), the concrete floors and open windows might’ve seemed a touch too ascetic for comfort. But considered instead as a camping experience, the accommodations, roads excepted, are about as lush as one could want.

6.1 Walk Up

There's a lot of climbing on the way up, but check out that vista from the top.

There’s a lot of climbing on the way up, but check out that vista from the top.

After winding our way back up to Craft III, we met the tour guide in the gallery. “Sorry about my appearance,” he apologized, “I just came from work.” He was a little muddy (his background, he noted, was “in construction”), but this didn’t matter—we were the only ones here for the last afternoon tour, and he took us aside to watch a short film, a doc that was half Koyaanisqatsi, half Soleri primer. “Do you recognize the narrator?” Holly whispered. “It’s Gates McFadden! Dr. Beverly Crusher!”

OK, fine, I like Dr. Bev as well as the next guy, but what’s Soleri’s story, huh? Paolo Soleri, the narrator said, came to Arizona from Italy on account of Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture hub-cum-training camp. Soleri, however, was a generally sort of a badass who got on Wright’s nerves, and he was asked to leave after a year [1], whereupon he went out and camped under the stars on Camelback Mountain in Phoenix for a while before his architecture business took off.

To say that Soleri had an atypical career is to risk understatement. He wasn’t unprolific, exactly, but most of his architectural work was in theory—the planning of cities, of space colonies, of societies, not of individual buildings. To this day, not counting Arcosanti, the number of buildings he designed that have been constructed can be counted on two hands. Most of the hard money he made was from decorative bells, which was a sort of accidental project he lucked into upon returning from Italy, hot off a ceramics factory commission, after a gift shop in Santa Fe told him that the war vet who’d been making their “Korean bells” had passed and they could use some bells in that style, which began the one solid moneymaker that would fund his extracurriculars for a lifetime.

Soleri Bells in the gallery. Prices vary: in the gallery, there was a range of $31 for the cheapest ceramic bell, to $1540 for the priciest bronze one.

Soleri Bells in the gallery. Prices vary: in the gallery, there was a range of $31 for the cheapest ceramic bell, to $1540 for the priciest bronze one.

The film adeptly covered the key points regarding where Arcosanti fit into all this. It showed Soleri propounding his “CMD paradigm,” complexity-miniaturization-duration, with its defining aphorism: “A waste of space equals a waste of time equals a waste of people.” Or, to put it in practical terms, Soleri’s idea was that the type of city Arizona is known for, the city with tract homes instead of apartments, or with freeways instead of sidewalks, is bound to squander human potential. Though even on these points, Soleri didn’t appear to be particularly dogmatic. In fact, he freely admitted that it wouldn’t be until after an arcology is built that its problems and possibilities would be fully understood.

Hence Arcosanti—incomplete arcology though it may be. As soon as our guide led us outside, he was shadowed by another man, taller and thinner, a relative old-timer who would allow the guide to try the spiel first, then add on answers to our questions, asked and unasked, as needed. When we went out to see the South Vault, construction guy (CG; I didn’t get a name, all right?) told us the basics—that this was where they meet in the morning for assignments, that this was the first piece of Arcosanti built after the initial base camp setup in 1970—whereupon old timer (OT; ditto) gave us extra details about how Solari had siltcast the forms before they were flipped up and welded together, or how the colors were set deep into the concrete, so if one wanted a brighter ceiling, the top layer could be scraped off to reveal the vibrant colors underneath.

South Vault. Not sure if the "Arc" in "Arcosanti" has to do with circles, but just you try to find a Soleri structure w/o any.

South Vault. Not sure if the “Arc” in “Arcosanti” has to do with circles, but just you try to find a Soleri structure w/o any.

Part of the ecological interest of these buildings is that they’re supposed to have passive climate control. In South Vault, there’s an openness that allows both shade and air flow. Farther down the hill, there are buildings with glass walls that, in summer, can be whitewashed and closed during the daytime and opened up at night—or, in winter, washed clear, so the heat is trapped inside as a greenhouse.

Another of Soleri’s favorite forms—claimed as alongside the others as an ecological consideration, though one has to assume that aesthetic considerations, in this case, were just as important—was the quarter-sphere, the apse. Because the bells are made in apses (one for each type: the Ceramics Apse and the Foundry Apse) we spent much of the tour beneath them. Once the basic bell-making process was described, OT explained how apse construction had been the macro-version of ceramic bell making. Since the site is within walking distance of the Agua Fria riverbed, now usually dry, it was easy to find silt, and, as with bells, Soleri would oversee the form of the apse to be siltcast. This form would then be undergirded by scaffolding/silt and overgirded by rebar, whereupon concrete could be poured over it, creating structures whose exteriors are as unformed as their interiors are baroque.

1. Ceramics Apse.

1. Ceramics Apse.

2. Silt beds used for casting ceramic bells.

2. Silt beds used for casting ceramic bells.

3. Inside Foundry Apse, where OT explains the brass bell trade.

3. Inside Foundry Apse, where OT explains the brass bell trade.

4. Brass bells, post-cast, pre-assembly.

4. Brass bells, post-cast, pre-assembly.

Of course, any Arcosanti story could easily veer into a bell-making tutorial, but I’m not sure how intrinsically interesting are the clay-setting properties of silt, or the metal-cleansing wonders of muriatic acid. Even for those scattered readers who might want a fuller account of the artisanal lore, there’s Carried Away, an indie comedy I haven’t watched; if you skip to 57 minutes in (this I checked) there’s a foundry montage, Arcosanti based, that contains more detail than anything I can provide [2].

But independent of how intrigued you are by the bells themselves, it’s problematic how central these items remain to the local economy. Moving from the bells to the amphitheater, we were told of the far past, before this schwanky stage was built, when kids would drive out to see Jackson Browne, say, performing with the mesa itself as a shell (including that one time when all the cars burnt up), which at least was something else the site was good for—apart from these darn bells. To be fair, they also make olive oil and honey. Still, the amphitheater has storefronts around it, in anticipation of future business, but with a stable population hovering around a hundred, what incentive do those businesses have to arrive? How can this environment be considered “urban” in any way whatever?

CG surveys the amphitheater, with its perpetually empty storefronts (background circles).

CG surveys the amphitheater, with
its perpetually empty storefronts (background circles).

OT pointed out the apartments built above the amphitheater’s outer ring, noting that these were probably the best living spaces, which usually go to the people who’ve been at Arcosanti the longest. Holly asked if this meant that the only way a resident could get a nicer place was if someone else left or died, and OT replied that, yes, that’s the way it’s set up for now. “Seems dark,” said Holly.

We walked down the amphitheater, where CG pointed out Soleri’s comparably palatial digs, now used as offices. “One thing I’ve been wondering,” I added, “is what kind of social structure would be able to support an arcology. Like, did Soleri think the government would own these huge buildings in the future, or would they belong to big corporations, or what?”

Soleri's old house, now Cosanti offices. For comparison, individual units at the Base Camp are 8' x 8' cubes.

Soleri’s old house, now Cosanti offices. For comparison, individual units at the Base Camp are 8′ x 8′ cubes.

“That’s a great question,” said OT, “a very good question,” and confirmed that he had asked Soleri that same question many times before the man’s death without ever getting a straight answer.

Which meant, unfortunately, that I wouldn’t get any, either. When we returned to Craft III with some time before supper—visitors can pay $9 for a buffet—I wandered around the building, taking notes, feeling more and more that I wasn’t in a future city so much as a weird art commune. Minimum wage may be the norm for Arcosanti workers, but the whole downstairs was filled with the richness of their art, art of all kinds, ranging from the funny/bizarre (possibly intentionally; how else to interpret those sex-cyborg printouts, or “Blue Jesus,” the painting of a pants-less, many-armed Christ?) to the natural/mystic (one artist had smeary digital photos, kaleidoscopically tiled; another’s neo-primitive scrawls were halfway between Henri Rousseau and Grandma Moses) to the straightforward/practical (plant portraits; clay pots).

I returned to the stairwell timeline to be sure I had the dates right, and, reviewing this history, I wondered if this had been anything other than a weirdo colony, a sort of anti-Taliesin West, Type A architects replaced by Type B artists. It took five years (1973-78) just to build the swimming pool, for God’s sake. And when a blast of music from the kitchen signaled that it was time to eat—corned beef and cabbage, garlic tofu, potato soup, a salad bar, pretty tasty stuff—we managed to sit alongside the oddest of all the downstairs art oddities, Soleri’s own design for the über-arcology, the Hyper Building: a proposed one-building city, housing a hundred-thousand people and stretching a full kilometer into the sky, to be constructed midway between Las Vegas (“an icon of hyper-consumption”) and Las Angeles (“an icon of hyper-consumption”) as a moderate alternative to each.

Residents linger in the Craft III café at night.

Residents linger in the Craft III café at night.

Arcosanti Night

I’ll admit that there’s nothing too profound in pointing out the gap between Arcosanti and the Hyper Building, between the real community whose plans are enormous but whose present scale is modest vs. the imaginary building that has quite literally everything (an adjacent zoning poster indicated uses for each of its zillion levels). Nor is it probably useful to collect Soleri quotes [3] for future snark. The idea that Modernist architects could create a better world through architecture has been thoroughly enough abused by now—cf. Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House—that rebuttals of rebuttals have been digested and put on video. A fair upshot is that while architecture alone probably won’t save society, neither is it credible to blame Modernist architecture for very many social ills.

Guesthouse exterior, morning, with photobombing background crane.

Guesthouse exterior, morning, with photobombing background crane.

The most intriguing thing about Arcosanti, as the dim reflection of its creators’ visions, may be just how far removed it is from whatever totalitarian overtones the super-structure evokes on paper. When we returned to Craft III for an 8 AM breakfast, the community was already at work, whether at bell-making or maintenance, keeping the old flame lit. It was easy to see what would draw artists to a place like this—though, ironically, with that open view of the mountains and sky, it’s probably not any strict doctrine of urban planning. Soleri was an architectural visionary, yes, but one without the social dogmatism that might have allowed him to conquer a larger cultural territory. When asked, late in his career, what twenty years of work at Arcosanti had taught him, he said, “In general, I’ve learned that the human animal is a very strange animal.”

An hour later, as we bounced back along the road (somehow, it was even worse on the way out), I said to Holly, “Let’s stop for another picture. I’d like an establishing shot with some cows in it.” We were headed back to Phoenix, the acme of non-arcologies, but in the next days I would come across Soleri nods scattered online, from virtual arcologies in SimCity to a real one in Abu Dhabi. “That’s good,” I said, when we were in position. Arcosanti was a smudge on the far plain, already distant, and in the pictures it was tough just to see the cows.

Cows Again

[1] Why he was dismissed was explained differently by each side. The video didn’t go into this, of course, but here’s Soleri’s version, from The Urban Ideal: “And the last thing was probably my wearing of bikinis—only bikinis and, when I was outside, sandals. I think that was the last straw. Mrs. Wright was very conservative in that sense.” On the other hand, brusque unofficial quotes to the contrary can be found from Wright (mid-comment on one of Soleri’s early commissions): “Oh, yeah, it’s by those two faggots, Soleri and [Soleri’s friend] Mills. I had to kick them out.” Up.

[2] OT mentioned one more film in which Arcosanti is featured. Although, on checking, this one turns out to be sort of anti-informative. After Armageddon, a History Channel production, uses decontextualized site footage from to show what life might be like after the hypothetical fall of civilization—an optimistic stretch, in this case, since if we could all live as well post-fall as do Arcosanti’s current inhabitants, maybe we should just leave off with the scary docs and now welcome its swift coming. Up.

[3] From the Hyper Building poster: “The Tower is the lingham, the male. Two cocentric Exedrae, semicircular edifices, are the female. The fecundity of the city, the richness of invention and complexity it germinates, is produced by the interpenetration of the two forms.” And let’s not even start with the Eros●Nudes pamphlet sold in the gallery upstairs. Up.

Objectivity

In Ethics, Internet, Pop Culture on 2011/01/17 at 4:06 am

There are things in heaven and on earth that many of us wouldn’t dream of, alone, without some outside help from news reports and smutty comedians. As an example, I offer up the phenomena that is the ultra-realistic sex doll. If (by some miracle) you haven’t followed the reports of such things at all, I hope not to predispose you to one position or another before you have a chance to view the thing in itself. Hence, a video:

This clip is from Reuters.com, so I think the account is at least factually reliable. The reputable source is important, because the story is so photogenically weird that were it dredged up from a sleazier corner of the Internet, I might suspect it to be made up. It is, after all, a nearly perfect news story. It has the threat of a public menace—i.e., the creepy engineer w/ 100+ dolls crammed everywhere in his apartment (sample quote: “A human girl can cheat on you or betray you sometimes, but these dolls never do those things. They belong to me 100%”); flashes of unexpected humor—e.g., the reporter’s verbal praise of the doll’s simulated humanity resulting from a complexly articulated skeleton, juxtaposed against an image of a Koyuki’s well-oiled but obviously very dead, very creepy, flopping arm (“Koyuki”? “just like a real woman”?); and, most importantly, that WTF quality of an instantiated nightmare…the quality, in my experience, that is the surest thing to keep the choice-deluged viewer’s finger from tapping the remote. The story portrays an oddball niche of hedonistic weirdos who the viewer can be at once repulsed and fascinated by, and this combo, in journalistic terms, is one that often parlays out into easy money [1].

Now, I should reveal an audience expectation: I don’t expect that this is the first time you’ve ever seen an ultra-realistic sex doll. I’m basing this expectation on a fairly reliable barometer for edginess, the Have My Parents Heard of It? Test. And since we’re living in the post-2007 world, after the release of the PG-13 comedy Lars and the Real Girl (a film that my parents mercilessly forced me to watch [2]), I guess that this topic has been about as mainstreamed as it’s likely to be. What this means, in terms of a blog entry, is that I don’t have to spend any space telling you explicitly about the possibilities of ultra-realistic sex dolls. There are plenty of good articles that cover that, and I can throw them down in a footnote [3]. What I’m instead interested to address are two questions that might arise when we’re thinking about this—two questions that might at first seem related, but in fact aren’t. They are: 1. Is the use of URSDs for sex perverse? and 2. Is the use of URSDs for sex wrong? Both of these questions, of course, should technically be followed by another question—the classic, If so, why?

How about we look at perversion first.

On the face of it, the question of whether having an emotional and sexual relationship with a hunk of silicone is perverse is pretty dumb. Yes, being the answer, followed by duh. I’d wager that if you don’t think that URSDs fall somewhere under the umbrella term of ‘perversity,’ then you’d also more than likely disagree that the term applies to any licit sex act. There’s probably not too much to discuss there. I’m going to stay neutral on this subject for a bit, however, long enough to present two engaging (though, I’ll soon argue, also incorrect) views on the why of sexual perversity.

The first of these views I’m going to blame on the formerly redoubtable provocateur [6], Camille Paglia. The Paglian view of history, broadly characterized, seems to be that is that there is a way of life that Nature intended—viz., probably something close to a vanilla view of the heterosexual Darwinian struggle—and that the grandeur of humankind is that we’ve gone against Nature. In her view, the awesome thing about Culture and Science is not that they’re an expected outgrowth of the way things have to be, but instead that they’re a powerful response to Nature, an aggressive subversion of existent processes to our own decadent ends. For this reason, a lot of the stuff she’s written has been engaged with new interpretations of old works as expressions of ‘un-Natural’ modes of sexuality and being. In her view, sexual personas like the homosexual and the androgyne are to be celebrated as societally dangerous, deliberately un-Natural developments (the science here is pretty dubious, we admit), and the history of art shows the ends of such artistic perversion and conventional society in constant struggle.

I’m bringing this up because it offers us one possible explanation for why sex with URSDs may be ‘perverse’. Maybe it merits such a designation because of the way that it’s taken elements of Nature out of an evolutionary context (things like: normal het men’s excitement at certain body types; the need for a physical presence to quell feelings of loneliness; the periodic desire for ejaculatory release) and treats them not as a signal that a guy should take on a lover, but as symptoms that can be each filled by a scientific fix, contra Nature’s expectations. This is not to say if it’s bad or not—so far, I’ve only neutrally suggested that it could be ‘perverse’ by dint of its deliberate short-circuiting of evolutionary demands.

What about a drier, more carefully rational view? For that, we turn to the analytic philosopher Thomas Nagel, who took on the concept of sexual perversion in his directly entitled essay, “Sexual Perversion” [7]. The strategy he used was to outline a theory of how ‘unperverted’ (a.k.a. ‘normal’) sex works, and then to package the stuff that doesn’t fit this framework as perverse. Which begs the question: how does sex work, normally? Nagel seems to think that there’s a “reflexive mutual recognition” that occurs in mature sexual relationships. He gets this across via a little story of a hypothetical Romeo and Juliet in which Romeo “senses” (stronger than mere “noticing”—there’s a tinge of arousal running through this) Juliet, whereby Juliet senses Romeo sensing Juliet, whereby Romeo senses Juliet sensing Romeo sensing Juliet…and this can go on recursively as many cycles as one might like. Says Nagel, “[S]exual desire leads to spontaneous interactions with other persons whose bodies are asserting their sovereignty in the same way, producing involuntary reactions and spontaneous impulses in them.” And in this picture, it is just this sort of a reciprocity that makes a sexual interaction possibly non-perverted: he asserts that “physical possession must eventuate in creation of the sexual object in the image of one’s desire, and not merely in the object’s recognition of that desire, or in his or her own private arousal.”

It’s the “own private arousal” bit that’ll allow us to winnow out URSD sex as perverse. Nagel hedges here, realizing that private fantasies are at a usual part of everyday thought, but he’s adamant that the thing that makes voyeurism, exhibitionism, and (at the extreme) rape ‘perverse’ is that they aren’t “complete”; they involve only one aroused party. If a person has incomplete sex as his preferred mode of expression, I guess that such an individual would be one that he’d label a perv…and, since a Real Doll, however pretty, can’t herself be aroused, all sex with URSDs exactly fits the bill of Nagelian Perversity [8].

Huh. Do these explanations make any sense? Both, even if they turn out to be wrong about perversity, make intriguing suggestions about the nature of sex and society. But if we’re judging them strictly on their accounts of what ‘perversity’ is, I suppose the first thing to do is to see if they fit the facts. And (naively) it looks like this simple test immediately disqualifies the Paglian account. The problem with classifying all ‘un-Natural’ sex as ‘perverse’ is that suddenly the large majority of all sex becomes perverse—any sex, really, that doesn’t fit the strictest 19th-Century Roman Catholic criteria. This seems way too prudish to be reasonable. In fact, this prudishness (dickishness? douchiness?—it’s hard to come up with a punchy term) seems to infect both of the offered theories. Around where I live, most people tend not to be too judgmental about masturbation, and that would seem to be classed as a perversion by both theories presented here.

I suspect that the thing we’re running up against is that a word like ‘perversion’ is utterly malleable and has no meaning without reference to an embedded culture; when I hear it, it sounds like it’s somewhere between ‘icky’ and ‘evil’—two words that probably shouldn’t be intimately intertwined—and it’s easy to find examples of how it’s varied. Less than a paragraph ago, I used masturbation as a counterexample to perversity, but this isn’t anywhere near a historical absolute…as everyone knows. My attraction to theories like the ones I’ve listed above is that they give some sort of argument, at least, for what’s being discussed. What I believe, however, is closer to an ultra-lazy form of empiricism. The entire issue of perversion can be dissolved easily—trivially, even—by recourse to claims about definitions, along with a little inferential trick. I.e., instead of saying, “Sadism, zoophilia, and necrophilia are forms of sexual perversity” and trying to show why by proposing a thorny metaphysics, it’s easier to use a reformatted ‘Socrates is a man’ argument to get rid of the problem, like this:

‘Sexual Perversity’ is a term that we use to designate sexual acts that we don’t approve of, culturally;

Sadism, zoophilia, necrophilia, et al., are sexual acts that we don’t approve of, culturally;

Ergo, Sadism, zoophilia, necrophilia, et al., are forms of sexual perversity. Q.e.d.

Fine. So URSDs are perverse if we (collectively) don’t approve of them. But notice that this definitional gambit doesn’t get us anywhere closer to pinning down the moral status of the ultra-realistic sex doll sex. And despite the fact that this post is already too long and has gotten kinda pedantic, I think that there’s something intriguing to learn from such an attempt.

I’ve already lamented in an earlier post that I don’t have any steady rubric for moral judgments (other than maybe the Golden Rule and “You Should Give a Shit”), but I can nonetheless make a few fuzzy remarks. One of the basic mantras I learned from my sister’s sermons on feminist doctrine, growing up, was thou shalt not objectify women—a dictum that I always agreed with, guiltily, often w/o having the slightest clue as to what the verb ‘objectify’ might even mean. Agreeing with this statement, however, didn’t stop me, in those pre-Internet days [9], from carefully scouring all the magazines and books in our house for whatever informative/titillating images I could find. I did this, I emphasize, even though it was locked in my head that such an action was horribly, terribly wrong, an offense against both Women and God. This isn’t a ‘proof’ of anything per se, but to me, as an individual, it’s a powerful indicator that the urge to totemize women, disconnected from their personalities and souls, is an inborn characteristic of men like me, not just a imposition of a lady-hating society. And while the attempted trying-to-be-sincere tone of this paragraph might make it seem like I’m wretched with anxiety about this, I’m really not. At this point, it feels like another neutral fact of life that adulthood forces me to admit, like it or not.

Why this personal psychodrama might be passingly relevant to the URSD thing is that it’s probably the indirect cause of my notions about them. One thing—the thing that’s immediately obvious, just looking at a Real Doll—is that no more direct objectification of women has ever existed. This marks a kind of low point for men [10], w/r/t the ‘objectification’ charge, and if you read the sociological article referenced in ftnote 3, it’s hard to avoid the impression that at least some of the men who end up purchasing URSDs are also men who can’t stand women. When Ms. Laslocksy lobbed one man the double-headed query of a) how the dolls changed his life and b) if they made him more confident, he replied, “I don’t like being around people at all now…the less human contact I have the happier I am. Yes, I do feel more confident. I realized not long after I got Ginger that I don’t really need anybody…I feel safer and more secure knowing that I will never waste my time and money on another human female that just wants to use me.”

It’s hard for me to gauge a priori what reaction such quotes (the one directly supra paired w/ that of the menacing engineer) might bring, but I have a feeling that the response may be sex-dependent. When I discussed this with Holly (my wife), her immediate reaction hewed toward the ‘these guys are awful people’ stance, which certainly makes sense; were I to fall into a group of people with an implied penchant for misandary, I doubt that I’d be overly geared toward sympathy. But the thing that sticks out most plaintively in these conversations is that these men are scared and angry—men who have decided, for whatever reason, that an engagement with the outer darkness is too horrifying to continue, when there’s any other available option.

And, you know, I get that. This makes sense. Sure, there are undoubtedly dark insights about male psychology to be gained from the fact that men exist who prefer emotional help-mates over whom they exercise complete, dominant control, but that’s probably not the main story. The big story here seems to be something about despair and almost unimaginable loneliness, and we can discuss the ideas of Paglia or Nagel or Kordahl all night w/o touching on the that psychically heavy problem—a problem, I fear, that I haven’t even nearly earned the right to discuss.

Have I posed any answer to whether the use of URSDs for sex is wrong? Let me put it this way: if by ‘wrong,’ we mean ‘not such a super idea’—then fine. Let it be wrong. Not genocide-wrong or rapeage-wrong or even embezzlement-wrong, but I’m willing to put it somewhere way farther over into the pale spectral end, near the petty crimes of self-destruction: the sorts of crimes that, given a consistent temptation and a chance to burn, a lot of us would fall into. For once, I don’t even want to judge…because I’m pretty sure that were a Real Doll sitting helplessly in my living room, patiently waiting day after day, it would probably be only a matter of time.

[1] This is known as the Real World Effect among the cognoscenti, though some modern scholars have taken to calling it (alternatively) the Tila Tequila, Flava Flav, or Jersey Shore Effect, dependent on the periodical’s particular focus. Up.

[2] My parents often make me watch unpredictably awful films (Fireproof and Obsessed being perhaps the most heinous recent offenders), but I’ve hated none of them more than Lars. Allow me to spell out some of the subtle suspensions of disbelief that must occur before a person can enjoy this film: 1. Lars, a guy who lives in his brother’s garage, has enough money to order a Real Doll (which cost several thousands of $); 2. And even though he’s the sort of guy who would order a Real Doll, he commences to think completely non-sexually about it; 3. Furthermore, Lars would go so far as to make his Real Doll a wheelchair-bound Brazilian/Danish missionary; 4. And furthermore still, the entire Midwestern town decides, out of kindness and mercy, that this is totally OK and that Lars’s delusional fantasies should be supported; 5. So by the end, when finally Lars is getting sick of the whole ‘I have a sex doll in the house but refuse to use it’ thing and imagines that the doll is dying, this town of kind, pious neighbors decides that it’s totally a cool way to end the drama to give the sex doll a religious burial. Right.

I hesitate to make value judgments based solely on the types of movies that a person enjoys, but in this case, I have to wonder if those defenders of LatRG might themselves be suffering from various degrees of a delusional disorder that I’m none too apt to condone. Up.

[3] The best of the informative Sex Doll Articles, IYI, deal only with Real Dolls, the supposed crème de la crème of the URSD market. Meghan Laslocky’s long sociological report, “Real Dolls: Love in the Age of Silicone” [4], gives a detailed portrait of the damaged dudes who use them, while Grant Stoddard’s article gives an account of…ahem…a rather more personal Real Doll interaction [5]. Up.

[4] For those of you lacking the interest or fortitude to read a 28 pg. report on the lives of sex-doll aficionados, there’s a radically condensed version of that article here, along with a picture gallery. Up.

[5] I have once before discussed Grant Stoddard’s incredible American sexploits. For his Nerve.com column ‘I Did It For Science,’ he reported (as an increasingly unbelievable sexual naïf) his reactions to successive, completed sexual challenges. It should not be a surprise, then, that he eventually tackled a Real Doll; one of the reasons his column had to end was that he’d eventually performed nearly every legal sex act known to man. Up.

[6] If ‘formerly’ sounds like a diss, I guess it is; I’ve tried to read Paglia’s books after Sexual Personae, her bizarre but also dazzlingly well-researched first, but by now she’s devolved into a repetitive sort of self-parody. Not that that doesn’t have its own charms; if she were still presenting fresh opinions and changing her mind on various issues, after all, I wouldn’t have such an easy time of characterizing a set vision as ‘Paglian’—which is what I’m about to do. (Although for the purposes of this essay, it doesn’t really matter what the Real Paglia thinks about anything. I’m indulging a rhetorical weakness for Straw Men, again.) Up.

[7] I read this in a copy of Mortal Questions, one of Nagel’s essay collections. Up.

[8] A digression, to break of the tedium of an argument that’s veering uncomfortably toward abstraction. What might not be obvious from my account is that Paglia and Nagel are both quite funny writers. Paglia needs no particular quotation to support this—most statements of hers are designed to exude the crazed-Amazon-bitch-goddess vibe, and if you want to find something outrageous she’s said, it’s merely a Google away. Nagel’s work is much more subdued and requires out-of-context samples…and here we go, with samples from the scrutinized article. “Sartre too stresses the fact that the penis is not a prehensile organ.” AND “Hardly anyone can be found these days to inveigh against oral-genital contact, and the merits of buggery are urged by such respectable figures as D. H. Lawrence and Norman Mailer.” AND “Finally, even if perverted sex is to that extent not so good as it might be, bad sex is generally better than none at all.” Up.

[9] Pre-Internet for me, that is—not for the World. Up.

[10] For whatever reason, it does seem to be almost exclusively men who are interested in this product. The Real Doll company is outfitted to sell male versions of its product, but they have sold only a handful of these (so far). Up.

Sidenote: the BBC made a documentary about some of the sad souls who love Real Dolls, and I’ve embedded it below.