Into metaphors and back again

Most English speakers are familiar with the saying, “a rotten apple.” Employed as a sort of lame excuse for the bad behavior of some, it’s the end of the saying that makes it so much worse, “spoils the bunch.”
Do we develop metaphors to describe things/phenomena/feelings/people that otherwise elude description? It seems so. But do we then turn the metaphors back onto actual situations again? Less clear, but promising.

His only adaptation of a book from his favorite writer, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Akira Kurasawa’s “The Idiot” turns the film into a larger metaphor for Postwar Japan, a nation traumatized, ashamed, destroyed and suffering a severe identity crisis. It also has a what-could-have been awfulness: the director originally intended the film to be nearly five hours long, and in two parts, but his backers, Shochiku, cut it to shreds, ending up a little shy of three hours.

No other work has been a better companion to Dostoyevsky’s unrelenting view of humanity than Akira Kurosawa’s much-maligned 1951 film Hakuchi. The original cut stood at 265 minutes, trimmed to 166 minutes by studio executives at Shochiku against the director’s wishes. “In that case, better to have it cut lengthwise,” he is said to have responded. Nobody knows what was left on the cutting room floor as Kurosawa was unable to locate the lost footage, leaving it impossible for audiences to follow the narrative of the film. Hakuchi was critically derided upon its initial release, finding only a handful of fans in Russia – among them Andrei Tarkovsky.

Hakuchi must have been a very special project to Kurosawa. It is one of his most important early works, and he refused to stray from a wholly faithful adaptation to the book unlike later on with his liberal interpretations of Shakespeare in Throne of Blood and Ran. And despite its obvious failings in narrative flow, no other Kurosawa film tells us more about Japan at the time or conveys as much intense emotional power as Hakuchi. His decision to transport the novel’s events from the glittering St Petersburg to wintry Sapporo on the northernmost island in Japan, is not a purely aesthetic one.

Perhaps a more obvious choice would have been Tokyo or Osaka, cities which are closer similar in spirit to St Petersburg. But then we would have been denied that remarkable scene at the beginning of the film. The thuggish merchant Akama (Rogozhin in the book, played by Kurosawa stalwart Toshiro Mifune) and Kameda (Masayuki Mori as Myshkin) stop before a portrait of the woman they will both destroy each other for, her gaze lit up by the blizzard. All around them, peasants struggle by with their carts and goods in the bitter cold. The darkness, both literal and metaphorical, is almost complete save for the faint falling snow, which makes the men’s faces flicker in the shop window. How difficult it is, Kurosawa seems to be saying, to bring light to a place where it is perpetually night.

An old stereotype valorises the purity of the “traditional way of life” in Japan, outside of the moral corruption of the big cities. This is epitomised in many classic novels including Yasunari Kawabata’s ‘The Old Capital’ from 1962. But Kurosawa situates the showy greed and lust of The Idiot in the heart of Japan’s rural outposts, turning this assumption on its head. There is no foreign malice come to take away the innocence of the people; they have nobody to blame but themselves. Fittingly, although the film is set in post-war Japan, the endless snow negates all reference to the time period. The struggle to do good in the world and to eke out a redemptive humanity requires no specific cultural context.

I have a deep reverence for The Idiot (as well as Poor Folk), and its rendering into a different medium brings up some good questions about the utility of metaphors themselves. Refracted cultural explanations of real life that slap back onto actual things; this is [one of the reasons] why, as soon as I heard about it, I couldn’t wait for Postmodernism to be over.

‘Till the pinyons get ripe

The 30th anniversary of Banned Books Week is coming up on Sept.30, and it’s amazing how scary words can be. Banning knowledge is exemplary of fear and weakness, Genesis 2:17 notwithstanding. Or sitting.

In that spirit, because it’s Friday and you’re the priest, here’s a little Upton Sinclair. I know The Jungle was banned at one time, though I don’t know about this one, maybe it’s time is coming. This is the beginning section 3 from the novel King Coal, by Sinclair.

Hal Warner started to drag himself down the road, but was unable to make
it. He got as far as a brooklet that came down the mountain-side, from
which he might drink without fear of typhoid; there he lay the whole
day, fasting. Towards evening a thunder-storm came up, and he crawled
under the shelter of a rock, which was no shelter at all. His single
blanket was soon soaked through, and he passed a night almost as
miserable as the previous one. He could not sleep, but he could think,
and he thought about what had happened to him. "Bill" had said that a
coal mine was not a foot-ball field, but it seemed to Hal that the net
impress of the two was very much the same. He congratulated himself that
his profession was not that of a union organiser.

At dawn he dragged himself up, and continued his journey, weak from cold
and unaccustomed lack of food. In the course of the day he reached a
power-station near the foot of the canyon. He did not have the price of
a meal, and was afraid to beg; but in one of the group of buildings by
the roadside was a store, and he entered and inquired concerning prunes,
which were twenty-five cents a pound. The price was high, but so was the
altitude, and as Hal found in the course of time, they explained the one
by the other--not explaining, however, why the altitude of the price was
always greater than the altitude of the store. Over the counter he saw a
sign: "We buy scrip at ten per cent discount." He had heard rumours of a
state law forbidding payment of wages in "scrip"; but he asked no
questions, and carried off his very light pound of prunes, and sat down
by the roadside and munched them.

Just beyond the power-house, down on the railroad track, stood a little
cabin with a garden behind it. He made his way there, and found a
one-legged old watchman. He asked permission to spend the night on the
floor of the cabin; and seeing the old fellow look at his black eye, he
explained, "I tried to get a job at the mine, and they thought I was a
union organiser."

"Well," said the man, "I don't want no union organisers round here."

"But I'm not one," pleaded Hal.

"How do I know what you are? Maybe you're a company spy."

"All I want is a dry place to sleep," said Hal. "Surely it won't be any
harm for you to give me that."

"I'm not so sure," the other answered. "However, you can spread your
blanket in the corner. But don't you talk no union business to me."

Hal had no desire to talk. He rolled himself in his blanket and slept
like a man untroubled by either love or curiosity. In the morning the
old fellow gave him a slice of corn bread and some young onions out of
his garden, which had a more delicious taste than any breakfast that had
ever been served him. When Hal thanked his host in parting, the latter
remarked: "All right, young fellow, there's one thing you can do to pay
me, and that is, say nothing about it. When a man has grey hair on his
head and only one leg, he might as well be drowned in the creek as lose
his job."

Hal promised, and went his way. His bruises pained him less, and he was
able to walk. There were ranch-houses in sight--it was like coming back
suddenly to America!

What if a New Carbon Pollution Rule fell in the woods?

The ACA case in the Supreme Court is rightfully taking up most of the media oxygen at the moment.

But, via Romm, the EPA is also expected to issue its first limits on carbon pollution from power plants this week:

The proposed rule — years in the making and approved by the White House after months of review — will require any new power plant to emit no more than 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt of electricity produced. The average U.S. natural gas plant, which emits 800 to 850 pounds of CO2 per megawatt, meets that standard; coal plants emit an average of 1,768 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt.

Industry officials and environmentalists said in interviews that the rule, which comes on the heels of tough new requirements that the Obama administration imposed on mercury emissions and cross-state pollution from utilities within the past year, dooms any proposal to build a coal-fired plant that does not have costly carbon controls.

While these are ‘new source performance standards,’ they will also ensure that future electricity generation comes from renewable sources. Without the penalty incentive, the new technologies keep poking off down the road, never getting any closer. This is kind of a boring way to bring them into the near(er) future. Let the ennui ensue.

Killing ‘carbon-capture’ Softly

You often hear – and I often write – about the unfashionable ‘need for more government regulation.’ Whether it is exotic financial instruments or greenhouse gas emissions, there is really no other entity who can handle reigning in our excesses at the scale of their own destructive impacts. The discussion is often set up as a public vs. big business, easy-to-understand (if not swallow) debate. But what gets less attention is how much big business needs sustained government policies, too.

American Electric Power, a huge utility company providing electricity mainly in the Midwest, is postponing or killing plans to build a full-scale “carbon capture” facility at its Mountaineer plant, in West Virginia.

Then Fallows hits on the implications:

Companies can’t do this without a sustained government policy. AEP, which is by no means a pinko organization — it is running acampaign now of complaint about burdensome EPA regulations — said the reason it was calling off the plans was governmental failure to set a clean energy/climate policy. By definition, any “cleaner” form of using coal will be more expensive than the current dirty approach, at least in the short run. This is true “by definition” because if the cleaner approaches were cheaper, the utilities would already have switched to them; because the cleanup technology is still in its developmental phase; and because in many places cleaner systems mean new capital investment.

You should also read his cover story on our future with coal, but this is an important addendum to it. It’s the other side of the story of companies needing to know what the regulations will be in order to plan. And whatever they are, companies will adapt. That means even if they hate it, which they will, they will still find a way to profit. Hint to EPA, Congress and the WH: go ahead and do something.

Nothing to See Here

So just move along. Yesterday in L.A.:

Meteorologist Jeff Masters notes “a station in the foothills at 1260? elevation near Beverly Hills owned by the Los Angeles Fire Department hit 119°F yesterday–the hottest temperature ever measured in the Los Angeles area, tying the 119°F reading from Woodland Hills on July 22, 2006.”

Weather historian Christopher C. Burt has a great post at Weather Underground, “The Remarkable Summer of 2010,” which concludes, “it is probable that no warmer summer in the Northern Hemisphere has ever been experienced by so many people in world history.”

Some further encroaching news in the continuing story of how ‘Obama is the greatest danger to our way of life’ brought to you by your friends at Shell, BP, NewsCorp and the Southern Company.

Coffee, Unions, Guns and Coal

This Coffee Party thing sounds interesting.

Growing through a Facebook page, the party pledges to “support leaders who work toward positive solutions, and hold accountable those who obstruct them.”

It had nearly 40,000 members as of Monday afternoon, but the numbers were growing quickly — about 11,000 people had signed on as fans since the morning.

“I’m in shock, just the level of energy here,” said the founder, Annabel Park, a documentary filmmaker who lives outside Washington. “In the beginning, I was actively saying, ‘Get in touch with us, start a chapter.’ Now I can’t keep up. We have 300 requests to start a chapter that I have not been able to respond to.”

The slogan is “Wake Up and Stand Up.” The mission statement declares that the federal government is “not the enemy of the people, but the expression of our collective will, and that we must participate in the democratic process in order to address the challenges we face as Americans.”

But not as interesting as this Union of the Unemployed:

UCubed is the brain-child of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM), whose leaders feel that the millions of unemployed workers need a union of their own to join in the struggle for massive jobs programs.

The idea is that if millions of jobless join together and act as an organization, they are more likely to get Congress and the White House to provide the jobs that are urgently needed. They can also apply pressure for health insurance coverage, unemployment insurance and COBRA benefits and food stamps. An unemployed worker is virtually helpless if he or she has to act alone.

Joining a Cube is as simple as it is important. (Please check the union web Six people who live in the same zip code address can form a Ucube. Nine such UCubes make a neighborhood. Three neighborhood UCubes form a power block that cntains 162 activists. Politicians cannot easily ignore a multitude of power blocks, nor can merchants avoid them.

Both of which had me considering an unanswered, if open-ended analogy: If we need to keep our gigantic military operational even as we contrive other means to effectively combat terrorism – laws, police, financial transactions monitoring, establishing provenance of traded natural resources, then might it not follow that we pursue simultaneous, if dual, tracks along the arc of energy use? Continue to burn trainloads of coal and millions of gallons of gas by day and night, and work feverishly to develop and implement renewable means – solar, wind, tidal + two things we haven’t thought of yet – of supplying our energy needs.

What am I missing?

Greenface vs. Peacebook

It seems a little much.

Social networking giant Facebook has been taking heat from enviros recently for its decision to site a massive new data center in Prineville, Ore. The issue? Pacific Power, the utility that serves Prineville,gets most of its power from coal, the enemy of the human race. Greenpeace International has started a Facebook group opposing the move.

But as Roberts points out, it’s the movement of the societal norm needle against/away from coal that’s the key here. Coal sucks and is doing some very terrible, long term damage the longer we use it. But we have quite a lot of it and it’s cheap – the perfect storm for planetary self-extortion. We’d like to change but we can’t afford to. We hedge about its effects on the future as a way of making ourselves feel better, but this ploy does absolutely nothing for long term self-preservation. It’s not a ploy in that direction at all, but a psychological ameliorative. Until somebody does something.

Big manufacturers can’t envision a way to replace the trainloads of coal flowing into their plants each day, so they do nothing. The government hasn’t found the courage to begin to discourage coal usage and/or incentivize clean energy on a grand scale. So what to do? One thing: you might begin to castigate, ridicule and generally create negative PR buzz on the coal front for the entities who are effected by such things. It’s weak, I’ll admit. But we already make all kinds of small decisions like this that re-enforce the status quo on energy consumption, and there are and will be that many more that will have to be reckoned with – or ignored on the basis that nothing can be done – to begin to effect change.

If it’s going to happen.