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No Mushroom Cloud

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A fungus offers a complicated lesson in late-capitalist logistics and survival. A review of Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World

“The timber has been cut, the oil has run out, the…soil no longer supports crops”; global capitalism has stripped the place and abandoned it as “[t]he search for assets resumes elsewhere.” This is the setting for anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World, and the titular mushroom is the matsutake, a fungus with a talent for making its home in wrecked environments. In a world increasingly defined by capitalist devastation, Tsing sees a parable in that talent. “What do you do when your world starts to fall apart?” she wonders in the book’s prologue. “I go for a walk, and if I’m really lucky, I find mushrooms.”

To seek out matsutake is to delve into complex histories of damage and disturbance. The mushrooms have been a delicacy in Japan since at least the eighth century, when aristocratic logging activity helped them spread across the rural hillsides near present-day Kyoto and Nara, and a lucrative global commodity since the 1950s and 60s, when the combined effects of urbanization and an invasive nematode mostly killed them off there. A booming Japanese economy, flush with money to spare, helped fuel a worldwide search for matsutake, absorbing far-flung forests into a circuitous network of supply chains. In addition to the Japanese forests, The Mushroom at the End of the World examines three sites along those chains—in Oregon, Finland, and China—each with their own stories to tell about the failures of capitalist progress.

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Cap and Trade

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An anthropologist explores the world of matsutake mushroom picking and what it reveals about neoliberal capitalism

THE best chapter in Anna Tsing’s new book The Mushroom at the End of the World is a short introductory piece called “Arts of Noticing.” In it Tsing, an anthropologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, brings the reader into the world of matsutake mushroom picking by insisting that sometimes the most valuable things can only be found by the practiced eye looking closely at the forest floor.

“Arts of Noticing” might also refer to the methods of anthropology. Tsing takes a long, slow look at the commodity chain that links the Japanese mushroom market to the clearcut forests of the Pacific Northwest, where a seasonal assemblage of white veterans, Hispanic migrant farm workers, and Southeast Asian refugees pick matsutake amid lodgepole pine. Tsing is part of a growing movement of scholars working to underscore the contingent and provisional nature of capitalism. “Arts of Noticing” is a demonstration that scholarship on capitalism can and should examine worlds beyond its leading sectors.

I talked with Tsing about her book, the intellectual traditions she was working in, and why mushrooms help us understand how nature is essential to our productive activity as human beings.

Matsutake mushrooms are, you write, “a place to begin.” They are an agent, a commodity, and a metaphor. How do you think about matsutake mushrooms and what do they do for you as a theorist?

Mushrooms are amazing, because you never know where they are going to turn up. You just have to be in the right place at the right time. Matsutake can be especially elusive because they often grow up underground. You are looking very closely for this tiny crack in the ground, and a smell. It’s the smell and the crack. There is something there about noticing that is important to me. It’s about noticing the stuff that other ways of seeing might cause you to miss.

Temporality is a central part of this. We pay so much attention to the elements that seem to lead forward in a direct line to the future that we don’t notice the other kinds of temporalities around us. Mushrooms and mushroom hunters allow us to notice things like temperature and rainfall and cracks in the forest and coordination between trees and fungi and supply chains coming out of Japan into Oregon.

In the dominant ways of thinking about capitalism, mushroom picking is a marginal story. But if we only pay attention to the leading sectors, we miss important insights about how capitalism really works. We have to notice all these other temporalities. And not just because they exist, but because capitalism depends on them.

What does mushroom picking tell us about the way that labor creates value?

Mushroom picking is interesting to the extent that it can stand in for other forms of casual, informal labor that characterize the political economy today. These range from well-paid work like software programming to day labor and construction and the many, many kinds of unpaid labor that workers are expected to take on as their individual responsibility. Mushroom picking exemplifies that in an exaggerated way. Most of the mushroom pickers in the U.S. that I know don’t call it labor at all. Even “work” is a word they feel uncomfortable with. They think of it as searching for their fortune.

It’s the same with other kinds of labor. When I talk to colleagues that are studying the garment industry, the workers say that they are apprenticing in order to open up independent boutiques later. It’s part of the ideology we sometimes call neoliberalism, which forces workers to take on responsibility for both the rewards and the working conditions of labor. Mushroom picking is like that and more. There are no wages; there are no benefits. Everyone pays their own costs and sells their own product.

I had a conversation with a Japanese trader who argued that mushroom pickers shouldn’t get paid at all. They should just be giving their mushrooms for free, he said, because they don’t own the land. They weren’t ordinary laborers, and they didn’t put in any kind of capital investment. He saw payment as a gratuitous gift. When both the pickers and the downstream traders are arguing that mushroom picking isn’t even work, the ideological waters are pretty muddy.

There’s also the nonhuman labor that goes unacknowledged. You write about that throughout the book.

I think that’s really important. Mushrooms are the fruit of the body of a fungus that lives underground, surviving by exchanging nutrients with trees through their roots. We are incapable of making mushrooms, and every mushroom picker knows that. Historically, theorists of labor have sometimes forgotten that the things we make, whether for use or exchange, are made in part through the contributions of nonhuman kinds of histories.

Is that why the book is largely set in a forest? So much of the writing about capitalism is located in factories, fields, or counting houses. What can forests help us understand about capitalism?

Not all forests are just groups of trees. Much of the book takes place in the industrial forests of the Pacific Northwest. It was a center of industrial timber in the mid-20th century and is still considered an industrial forest today. Managed forests have become an important model for the industrial plantation. The sugar cane plantation of the New World was the early model for industrialization. Now when you look up the word plantation, tree plantations come up first. For me, writing about forests is a way of getting at industrial discipline.

Of course, the original New World colonial plantation haunts capitalism to this day. It is on the slave plantation that Europeans learn to create assets through the joint disciplining of people and crops. They also invented techniques to shield investors from the environmental and social consequences of the investments that they were making, often over long distances. The mid-20th century managed forest in the U.S. was a model for the intensive crop production of a forest. Weeds were removed through spraying, and the technical monocrop features of the forest were really exaggerated, even in national forests.

In your essay “Gens” you make this statement of purpose along with your co-authors: “Instead of capitalism a priori, as an already determining structure, logic, and trajectory, we ask how its social relations are generated out of divergent life projects.” How did you come to this way of thinking about capitalism?

I came to it in part through feminist political economy. In the late 20th century, feminist political economy started asking questions about labor that weren’t getting asked, like why there were women factory workers and why certain industries preferentially hired women, or even certain kinds of women. In order to explain that, one simply couldn’t ignore complicated historical trajectories—colonialism, racism, and the way the state interacted with the family—and the way these histories intertwined to create a particular moment in capitalism. Those basic opening questions turned into fertile theoretical ground for feminist scholarship. Rather than starting from a monolithic structure of capitalism and asking about its effects, feminist scholarship asked how a set of histories congealed together to create a particular kind of economic moment.

Matsutake mushrooms are very small. The mushroom trade is very small. But you convincingly argue that small does not mean unimportant. Scale is an important theme in the book. What can mushrooms help us understand about capitalism and scale?

We are seduced by our computers today. Computers have such an easy time making something bigger or smaller on a screen without appearing to distort its characteristics at all. It makes us think that this is how reality works. When reality does actually function this way, it is a whole lot of work to make it scale up and scale down. And it never works perfectly. The plantation chases that ideal. Its goal is to scale up or scale down without changing the manner of production at all. But doing that is an enormous amount of work, and the work is often violent.

Mushrooms turn out to be a good way to think about contradictory and interrupting scales, both in terms of political economy and ecology. In the supply chain, there’s not the same emphasis on maintaining production standards across scale. Instead, there are techniques for translating mushrooms produced in different local realities and scales into a single, uniform commodity. And these techniques never succeed completely. Ecologically, if you don’t have certain small disturbances between particular organisms, you wouldn’t have the effect of the forest at all.

The book flips the geography of the supply chain we are most used to hearing about. The flexible labor is in rural America, and the buyers are overseas, in Japan. Is this a new historical period, economically speaking? How do you situate this in the context of the broader 20th century global economy?

I argue that there was a moment in the late 20th century when a particular model of Japanese supply chain became so powerful, it kicked over a big change in the way supply chains worked globally. Production was no longer the organizing force, which had been the case in the U.S. corporate supply chain, the predominant form before that. These changes disentangled the relationships between nation-states and powerful sourcing corporations. This disentanglement allows the rural northwestern U.S.to resemble the global south in certain ways as a sourcing area for global supply chains. But the matsutake supply chain is an unusual case. If you want to find U.S. companies sourcing from other parts of the world, that’s still the dominant form of supply chain.

The book seems hopeful.

I’ve been accused both ways.

Well, it has “End of the World” in the main title, and “the Possibilities of Life” in the subtitle.

That’s true. We don’t have a choice except to muddle by. So that’s the hopeful part. We have to figure out what we’ve got and what we can do with it. To me, this is practical hopefulness. It is a hard line to pull off. The subtitle is not actually about hope in a traditional Christian sense of redemption. At this particular historical moment, I don’t think that makes much sense. There are plenty of people who want to use a set of philosophies or technologies to get us out of the soup. That’s tough. On the other hand, there’s just getting stuck in a big bundle of apocalyptic thinking.

The book asks us to pay attention to the imperfect situation in which we live, to recognize both the handholds and the pitfalls. Perhaps looking at this particular mushroom lends hopefulness. I’ve since realized I don’t have to go that direction. Lately I’ve been giving papers on killer fungi, the kind of fungi that grow unintentionally out of the plantation system. These fungi and other pests and diseases represent the plantation system gone wild in ways that negatively affect humans, plants, or animals. Fungus can be terrible too.

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Seconds of Pleasure

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Phone games, listicles, masturbation booths, and the return of rational recreation
IN the late 1990s, a new Windows computer came with some free games: Solitaire, Minesweeper, or the standout of the bunch, Ski Free. A computer back then could connect to the internet, but often only via a dial-up connection that could handle loading only one page at a time and made an entire household unreachable by phone. If we were on the internet, it was the only thing we were doing. The first browser to have tabs, NetCaptor, was developed in 1997, but the need for them was inconceivable to many then. Tabbed browsing wouldn’t catch on until a decade later; today the average user has over 10 tabs running at any given time.

We could argue for continuity between the old games and the new: Minesweeper a forerunner to Angry Birds; Ski Free a precursor to Flappy Bird or Temple Run. But something of a break has occurred in the way we relate to such games. While a few people did sneak in some Solitaire at work while their bosses’ eyes were turned, most of the time these games were enjoyed for the way they could sustain players’ concentration and attention for several hours at once. Thus Minesweeper is more like Sudoku, and Ski Free akin to the extreme sports games found on a PlayStation or Xbox. These require something closer to full attention and some critical-thinking skills, and most important, they are typically enjoyed during “leisure time” rather than in or around the workplace. By contrast, today’s internet tab entertainment and mobile-phone games are designed to be a perfect supplement to the workplace, and it is almost impossible to enjoy and experience them in any other way than through their relationship to work.

Living in what Walter Benjamin had predicted would be a “culture of distraction,” we now experience and enjoy hundreds of apparently mindless things that function to fill our time — not only mobile-phone games and internet tabs but also phenomena like social-media notifications and YouTube clips. The opening of a “masturbation booth” in midtown Manhattan as a marketing stunt plays on the same logic, that we urgently yearn to steal seconds of pleasure in the middle of the work day.

The most popular time to play mobile phone games, check social media, and visit list-based websites such as Buzzfeed is on the way to and from work or actually from our work computers. The most popular time to tweet is between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., after two hours at work has begun to breed dissatisfaction and the need for distraction. The most popular time to post a link on Reddit is during work hours on Mondays and Tuesdays, with the week stretching out ahead of us. These distractions, far from being as useless as they pretend to be, are productive and powerful tools that transform us into suitable workers. They set into motion a strange guilt function that turns one into a good capitalist and ultimately makes more money for the company.

Though nostalgia for Ski Free is tempting, I am not arguing that the old days were any better than these distracting times of ours. Instead, I want to develop an argument I made in my book Enjoying It: Candy Crush and Capitalism that we are in a bizarre second wave of what the Victorians called “rational recreation.” That project emerged after 1832, when Britain was as close to political upheaval as it ever came — “within an ace of a revolution,” according to historian E.P. Thompson. Through such useful and instructive “rational” amusements as parks, museums, and the promotion of team sports and social clubs designed to group people together in easily manageable clusters, those in power hoped to contain and control a restive population  by organizing their enjoyment.

Today, rationality demands the opposite: mobile phone games and internet tabs encourage individual enjoyment and appear totally useless and uninstructive. Yet while the enjoyments themselves may be different, we are seeing another wave of controlled recreation today that attempts to organize us through our enjoyment, making us work harder for capitalism.

Distracting games and websites appear to be totally useless and nothing more than a complete waste of our precious time. But precisely because these distractions are seen as completely wasteful and useless, they make the mundane work we perform for capitalists seem so much the more “productive” and “useful” by contrast. They stimulate a feeling of guilt that sends us back to work eager to make reparations. After we have “wasted” five minutes on Cookie Clicker, we feel like we are carrying out an act that is both productive and reparative when we return to work afterward. Reporting on a recent study, The Entrepreneur, a business magazine, reported that productivity on CRM (Microsoft’s data management server) could be massively increased when workers were allowed to play games. Likewise, the company Snowfly specializes in improving company productivity by employing regulated game use in the workplace. In short, we input data quicker after playing Candy Crush.

The idea is the game simply offers a much needed refreshing break, but I think there is more to it than this. By seeming useless and wasteful these distractions not only consolidate our impression that capitalist productivity is comparatively useful and positive, but they also make us feel indebted and keen to make amends. They renew our commitment to capitalist production when we might otherwise be reflecting on how unfulfilling our working conditions are.

While hardly as egregious as masturbating in a midtown phone booth, a quick level of Angry Birds is at least akin to watching porn while being paid to sit in front of a spreadsheet. It produces a feeling of having at least slightly transgressed. What New York City’s masturbation booths show us is that these acts are not really transgressive at all. Rather, they are a licensed transgression that not only allows society to continue unharmed but actually reinforces our desire to pay back what we owe for our little acts of nonconformism.

This investment in cycles of distraction and compensatory productivity can preclude the sort of social interaction that can foster worker solidarity. Just a decade ago, when working as a chef in a hot and physically demanding gastropub kitchen, I pretended to be a smoker so that I could get hourly five-minute breaks and escape the intense summer heat. These five minutes were spent talking to my workmates and colleagues. The main subject of discussion was, of course, the only thing we all had in common: work. More specifically, the time was used to discuss our working conditions, even if that discussion took the form of rants or moaning about our long hours, shift patterns, and managers, rather than any organized assessment of our place in the capitalist machine. Now, smokers or not, we take our breaks alone so that we can try to set a new high score on Smashy Road.

These acts of self-distraction are strangely positioned: They are neither allowed nor disallowed. Most employers will allow at least some level of procrastination, and some encourage it. But this downtime must be structured as useless, indulgent, unhelpful, and even slightly sinful. These little moments of distraction, tiny misuses of our employer’s time, characterize the modern experience of work and supplement it, turning back to support and endorse the very process we think we are distracted from and resisting.

The usual line would be that a culture of distraction prevents us from concentrating on what is really important and doing truly worthwhile things. This often is nothing more than the age-old generational complaint that young people ought to do something better with their time, and worse, it endorses specific ideas of what “worthwhile” time expenditure consists of, just as Candy Crush does in the very act of distracting us. A culture of distraction doesn’t stop us doing really important things; it makes us believe that there really is something that is really important: capitalist production. Distractions only serve to focus our faith in that myth.

Bown, an assistant professor and the co-editor of Everyday Analysis and the newly launched Hong Kong Review of Books, is the author of Enjoying It: Candy Crush and Capitalism (Zero Books)

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City Hunger

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A 15th century book shows the entanglement of architecture and appetite

ARCHITECTURE has a limited vocabulary for hunger. Predicated on sets of codes and reined in by fastidious discipline, associated with the avarice of urban development or the personified appetites of architects themselves, architecture at its root addresses a visceral wish not only for shelter but for threshold, mystery, and separation. Desire is a way of “negotiating the real,” as historian K. Michael Hays has written, and as the concretion of the real itself, architecture is less about built objects than lived experience. Desire in architecture is motivated not by lack—sterility, division and fear—but the excess and complexity of life and death. The ultimate modern hero, Baudelaire’s libidinal, feline flâneur, slinks through the Paris night, craving crowds and the “Babel d’escaliers et d’arcades.” The emergence of the modern city yielded a number of spatial pathologies—agoraphobia, claustrophobia—and new, nonlinear ways of mapping and traveling through the urban forest. The production and experience of the city are a two-way street.

Some of these conditions far precede modernity. Ferociously messy, modern and haphazard, the mysterious Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (“the strife of love in a dream”), published in 1499, is in form alone one of the most radical books ever published and a manifestation of the High Renaissance appetite. If in the Middle Ages the body had been untrustworthy and contemptible, by the 15th century Eros had become a creative and civilizing force. The Hypnerotomachia was written in a volgare amalgam with smatterings of other languages, including Greek, Hebrew, and the first European appearance of Arabic. Illustrated by 172 ornate and delicate woodcuts, it is most famed for its erotic imagery—heavily inked over by the Vatican Library—but its depictions of ruin and landscape are almost as exuberant. The Hypnerotomachia at once repudiates the austere architectural treatise and is a precise, gemlike example of the modern book. It features a whole font family, including italics, but more fantastically, text flows around images and into shapes: spades, arrows, chalices. Attributed to many writers and illustrators, it usually bears the name of Venetian monk Francesco Colonna.

As polyglot pagan forest dreams go, it is notoriously difficult to translate. No full English translation was completed until 1999—the quincentennial of the book’s first appearance—by the musicologist Joscelyn Godwin, but it does not retain the original polyglot style. French translations—which appeared in the 16th century—not only retained much of the original style, but the woodcuts, in a more elaborate and refined French style, adjusted for perspective, contributed to the popularity of the text and were hugely influential on the dreams of Enlightenment architecture parlante: Anthony Vidler has suggested that the spherical chamber in the Hypnerotomachia influenced Etienne-Louis Boullée’s Cenotaph and Claude-Nicolas Ledoux’s Shelter for Rural Guards. In addition to Bernini’s elephantine Obelisco della Minerva, its influence is visible also in the Carceri, Piranesi’s fictional prisons and Bramante’s Belvedere Courtyard at the Vatican, but also Ashok Balhotra’s whimsical 1990s Kattenbroek neighborhood development in Utrecht.

While as a literary text the Hypnerotomachia has been dismissed as a silly Renaissance romance, it is also the most postmodern novel to appear until the 1920s, one of the world’s first graphic novels, a love epic, and an allegory of Platonic ideals. An atlas of fragment and alchemy and hieroglyphics, it is the strangest architectural treatise ever written, an ode to the polis not erupting from the forest but cemented in it. Four hundred years before psychoanalysis, the Hypnerotomachia dealt in the language of sleep and nighttime, seen not only as something sacred, but something to be feared.

The titular protagonist, Poliphilo—loving friend of “everything,” the city, and the beloved, Polia, with whom he is unacquainted—feverishly walks through a phantasmagoric forest of architecture and historical ruin, and falls asleep. Within this dream there is a second in which he travels through this dark forest again, facing a series of trials and riddles, embedded in the architecture with which he is obsessed, even fornicating with buildings themselves, one of whom responds ecstatically. Poliphilo feels “frenetic pleasure and cupidinous frenzy” at the sight of buildings, which give him “the highest carnal pleasure.”

The forms are depicted in immoderate detail—relics of the ancient world to the precise measurements within the architectural orders to feats of engineering—and distract him from finding the elusive Polia. Poliphilo, a bit of a hothouse orchid, is terrified by the journey. Early on, he is rescued by five nymphs, all of whom invite him to frolic and carouse in an extraordinary bathhouse before being permitted to meet with the queen, who presides over the Palace of Free Will. She provides him with a sumptuous banquet. In the garden he is faced with three doors: vita activa, vita contemplativa and the winner, the sinuous vita voluptaria. There he finds Polia, and they encounter several Petrarchan triumphal processions in their honor. Polia encourages Poliphilo’s exploration of architecture and the ancient world when he sees a mural depicting Hell and is terrified. They marry on the island of Cythera and receive yet another Petrarchan triumphal procession.

It’s all a bit too lucky for him: suddenly, in a Molly Bloom-style usurpation that occupies one-fifth of the book, Polia—hitherto silent—angrily informs the reader of what it is like to be the object of erotic fixation, rages against expectations of chastity, reveals her own carnality and rejects Poliphilo, who dies of heartache. When she kisses him, he is revived. Poliphilo tells his side. They are blessed by Venus. Finally, Poliphilo wakes up alone to the sound of the nightingale and shrugs; at least he still has architecture. He reasons away his disappointment:

I was left filled to the brim with a sweet and loquacious illusion…think how dark and dusky [it] would have been at this hour if I had really been enjoying the genuine and voluptuous delights of this lovely and divine maiden, this noble nymph!…I awoke and emerged with a start from my sweet dream, saying with a sigh: “Farewell, then, Polia.”

Hypereroticism drives the plot; Poliphilo desires building as much as body. Still most of his lust is directed at Polia—“sometimes it would come to pass that the wind would make her clothes flutter and uncover her legs that seemed to be made of scarlet, milk and music all mixed together”—but he is awake to the nymphs—in flesh and stone—and, unusually for books of the time, his fellow men. He swoons at the silken laces of delicate red shoes—“fine instruments for disturbing one’s life and for the excessive torment of a heart aflame!”—and takes great pleasure in displays of kissing—“juicy and tremulous tongues nourished with fragrant musk.”

 

INTEREST in the Hypnerotomachia surged after the book’s English translation. The Rule of Four, a Da Vinci Code–style thriller, saw great popular success. Liane Lefaivre published the hugely influential Leon Battista Alberti’s Hypnerotomachia Poliphili: Re-Cognizing the Renaissance in 2005; in addition to a speculation about Alberti’s authorship—unlikely, given the book’s preperspectival drawing—it provides a great study of the text, especially as it relates to the phenomenology of the body. Le songe de Poliphile, a short film by Camille Henrot commissioned by the 2011 Paris-Delhi-Bombay exhibition at the Centre Pompidou—it appeared also in her 2014 retrospective at the New Museum—takes a more radical, dreamlike thread from the book, inspired by Jung’s reading and lengthy trip to India in the 1930s. The three stories within—a pilgrimage, pharmaceutical production, and milking snake ­venom—build in intensity as all separations dissolve.

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The strangest reading, however, belongs to the architectural historian Alberto Pérez-Gómez, a 1992 book called Polyphilo, or the Dark Forest Revisited: An Erotic Epiphany of Architecture. If the original Hypnerotomachia was all about the lusty Renaissance appetite, Polyphilo is a warning tale of anorexia: architectural, emotional, sexual. The protagonist—the Anglicized/Russified “Polyphilo”—occupies not a sumptuous forest, but the air-conditioned non-places of the contemporary world, mostly in flight and at airports, at once frenetic and soulless. In 1992 Beijing had two subway lines and Dubai was a desert plain; one wonders what this text would be in the anti-spaces of the Internet. It has an extraordinary website: polyphilo.com.

Pérez-Gómez is a figurehead of architectural phenomenology and has been arguing since the early 1980s that the privileging of technology—in fact the visual—has led to a crisis of representation in modernity and loss of meaning in architecture. Polyphilo’s publication date is also important; the early 1990s were the beginning of Deleuzification throughout the discipline, which paralleled  the development of parametricism throughout the decade. Among other things, the concept of the rhizome would liberate architectural discourse from some of its treelike constraints, like schemes of classification.

The Hypnerotomachia is often compared to Finnegan’s Wake, but Pérez-Gómez uses Ulysses as a formal paradigm in this “story of delay and fulfillment,” distilling the Hypnerotomachia into 24 chapters in about 18 hours. Much of Polyphilo is set in non-places, in flight or in airports; in addition to Boullée’s Cenotaph, Le Corbusier’s Convent of La Tourette and Gaudi’s Casa Batlló are found in the celestial shapes of the airspace and the planes of the new city. It takes on a similar didactic tone to the Hypnerotomachia, dreamlike, sexist and stilted, loaded with tautologies, and as well as—perhaps too successfully—the tone of its erotic content, “blunt and full of clichés;” it attempts a Rabelaisian journey through modern life, with flat tablets of fast food and the rush of white noise. Polyphilo cannot be judged by the standards of the novel or architectural text; much of the writing, in striving to be clinical, is simply unbearable, much in jest: “if I could slit axially your glimmering nylon cocoon with a single stroke of my X-Acto knife!”

Polyphilo’s humor seems to emerge from its fidelity to the text, so much so that its intent to convey that the meaning of architecture is like the knowledge of eros, learned on impulse through the body—not through aesthetic abstraction or functional logic—is lost; perhaps this is part of the game: “the curtain brings back longing. The indistinct image of Polya is imprinted on every crease and undulation of my body.” These are the erotic epiphanies of bodies without organs. Polyphilo lives in the “old capital,” founded on fratricidal blood like Sodom or Rome, which, at 60 degrees north, seems to be St. Petersburg. The citizens dress for the future climate and are able to comment on the refinement of each other’s intimate grooming. When Polyphilo wakes up feverish and alone and sees Polya for the first time, he remarks that her body is “clearly delineated,” inviting, even in fantasy, surgical care and precision:

An elastic vortex of insubstantial crystal projecting itself from her navel and surrounding me. Captured by the reflection on the surface, my vision continues for an instant, but my body is numb. The flesh is prevented from contact by the enveloping void. All my senses, except for vision, have been suspended and frozen in a different time.

Polyphilo observes the shape of the world at the airport, “manifestly capable of neutralizing erotic and criminal impulses, allowing only the material debris of sexuality, robbery and murder to exist.” Advertisements abound, and 20 years ago one could smoke in flight: “an odor of forced, pressurized oxygen and burning tobacco immediately saturates the cabin. I tumble into a state of abandon that almost leads me to renounce existence. In a fit of erotomania I am set by an uncontrollable vertigo, once more at the edge of the balcony.” Polyphilo, gazing at the “pigment of crushed snow crystals under the moon” as he listens to the airplanes’ metallic white noise, is mystified by the crush of technology, which once seemed so promising to him.

Most intriguing is the depiction of Polya, who, as in the Hypnerotomachia, hijacks the story. If the original was all milk and strawberries, Polya is an robotic, hyper-contemporary character raised between cultural extremes of the United States and North Korea, but is clearly from New York, extolling the Dutch tyrant Peter Stuyvesant. In her country, excessive emotion is “perceived as a degeneration of the primary functions of the neurorational system;” citizens of her country receive, through education, an invisible film on the epidermis that decreases sensitivity. She is consumed by work and religion and is taught: “a day has 86,420 seconds, that an ulva is a genus of seaweed, that little girls think about knives and blood, that women who are loved are in the grave,” and, when she grows up to become a “professional flyer”—flight being, for Perez-Gomez, a road to nowhere—so that she becomes impervious to physical desire. She is unable to understand gesture, emotions, or poetics. When she meets Polyphilo, she feels contaminated, irritated; her hostility depletes his life force, and he dies. After a horrific massacre in Polyphilo’s hometown, Polya wakes in the hospital. A nurse advises her:

Neither passivity, signs and tears, nor a domineering will to power would do. She emphasized that love is a kind of active feminine making, a compassion that lets things be, beyond the dualistic alternatives of action and passivity; an intuition deeply ingrained in the soul of women that would engender the unnamed order of the future in an act of creation that should invariably be implemented at the right and propitious time and place. She sent me on my way back to Polyphilo repeating for the last time that my vision and personal knowledge through love were indispensable to avoid the demise of the world.

Polyphilo—revived by Polya—writes her three letters imploring her to return. He tells her death is violent and ugly and nothing to extol. He writes twice more, from Greenland and Saskatchewan. They get together. There is a film of their story much like Last Year at Marienbad, which itself precedes the screening. The last chapter is a stage play—with three characters: The Lover, The World, and an “androgynous choir”—of pain and pleasure to be performed in real time in which the ending is almost like the original, except that the characters wake up to modernity and live happily ever after.

Pérez-Gómez has been criticized for a reactionary position on technology and meaning, but is not so far from the late 20th century anxieties of Barthelme, Pynchon, or Wallace about in the malignant, rhizomatic cloud of fecundity and violence that threatens modern life. Despite the introduction to Polyphilo which acknowledges the original text’s misogyny, Polya is an absurdly sexist character, a literal android leached by modern life, a late-capitalist ideal detached from the nubile Renaissance body and from decay. It is true that her lessons in becoming human are important; she may not be the original Polia, subverting the gaze to reclaim her identity from the heroic male Subject, but she is much more trapped in another person’s phallic journey, and one might wish for her a greater liberation than Polyphilo’s guidance.

Much architectural discourse longs for the Renaissance as if it contains within some lost Lacanian Thing. Manfredo Tafuri suggests the Renaissance is the site of an “original sin” in architecture that extends to a kind of mnemic mass destruction throughout contemporary art; he refers to a kind of spiritual nihilism which, in an attempt to obfuscate its way out of the nightmare of history only manages to anaesthetize its soul. There is no public lexicon of complexity and pleasure. The Hypnerotomachia not only transgressed the laws of its contemporaries but continues to warn against frigidity and tedium; its influence is also evident in the modern architectural storytelling of John Hejduk, Aldo Rossi and Madelon Vriesendorp. Bernard Tschumi’s 1976 essay “The Pleasure of Architecture”—written around the time of his Advertisements for Architecture, which now look like the provocations of any developer—distinguishes between eroticism as a subtle theoretical concept, discrete from blunt sexual allusions to skyscraper height and suggestive doorways; it is a voluptuousness that renounces conceptual isolation.

The imperial, colonial and propagandist objectification of building as tool of control contributes to the reification of architecture; divorced from the body, moral and aesthetic obligation, and even its role in the shaping of cultural memory, the built environment becomes merely an illustrative and instrumentalizing tool. Poliphilo, the ur-flâneur, living in a forest of ruin, counters with only this: Walk better; demand a braver and more expansive reading of the city than the anxious and linear one; think cool and live warm. His mythic dream of existential tourism is active and lucid: he acts on curiosity and is not presented with suggestive architecture, but hungers for everything he finds beautiful. The most sinister of structures creates its own mystery, casting shadows, creating threshold in the most forbidding places. It is a permission we give ourselves when we travel, to crumble and caress new textures as if we had no reference for them. The body adapts to the rhythm of its surroundings, and absorbs, in muscular memory and leftover dust, its character; the cities are our jungles, with all the accompanying cruelty and beauty, in shocks of smog and star.

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Bitter Medicine

autism-social

Using mercury poisoning treatments to “fix” autism punishes children for bearing the mark of an unhealthy society.

In liberal society, the vaunted right to bodily autonomy can be suspended by two forces: the right of the parent, and the right of the doctor, both in the name of preserving life. The two are not equal: Parents control the way children’s bodies metabolize the world, but conventional medicine requires that they relinquish a certain amount of their control. Since the rise of industrialized medicine in the West, people have often worked through their feelings of alienation from the medical establishment by asserting their right to practice alternative modes of care and healing precisely because of their rights as parents. Practitioners of alternative medicine assert their right to choose medical care for their children, despite the warnings of established healthcare institutions. In an effort to curb the constrictions that contemporary biomedicine has imposed on the autonomy of individuals, proponents of alternative medicine (like those in the anti-vaccination movement) insist on their right to uphold the biological integrity of their disabled offspring’s bodies, sometimes at the expense of their children’s own gastrointestinal or psychic well-being.

Everyday parental concerns regarding the substances that circulate in society reach an extreme level in the fad of chelation therapy for autism among so-called anti-vaxxers. “Chelation” describes the process by which ions and molecules bind to metal ions, deriving from the Latin chela, or “claw.” Chelation therapy is used to bind and remove poisonous heavy metals like mercury from the body. It has various legitimate medical applications, but has been taken up by those in the anti-vaccination movement as a “treatment” for autism, which they presume to result from chemical injuries inflicted by mercury additives found in vaccines. Anti-vaxxers fear that the bodies of children cannot safely metabolize the toxic chemical substances that abound within American society, and that parents must take matters into their own hands to repair the traumas that the modern world has inflicted upon their children. But instead of insisting on alternative treatments that might improve the livelihood of their children, these parents use their neurodivergent children to displace anxiety about their own disenfranchisement in the face of the medical establishment.

Implicit to these alt-medical discourses is the idea that it is better to pay for expensive therapies that expose children’s bodies to dangerous chemicals than it is to have a child grow into an autistic adult. This is, it should be said, a destructive concept for the neurodivergent people trying to survive in situations with limited employment, healthcare, and housing access. And yet the use of dangerous alternative treatments like chelation has been pervasive in the United States, and continues despite various warnings by the scientific community. A 2013 article featured by the journal Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders reports that as of 2008, up to 7% of children with autism have been poisoned by dangerous chelation treatments. Despite an upsurge in attention toward autism, the fear that mercury in vaccines causes debility and mental illness is hardly a novel phenomenon.

The fear that mercury in vaccines might cause autism starts with the so-called thiomersal controversy at the turn of the millennium. According to this theory, autism is caused by mercury poisoning that results from exposure to a preservative, thiomersal, found in many vaccines. Perhaps the most widely-cited proponent of this theory is the physician Mark Geier, who has testified in over 90 cases regarding allegations of injury caused by vaccines. In an article within the (non-peer reviewed) journal Medical Hypotheses, Geier claimed that testosterone binds mercury to the central nervous system. According to his so-called Lupron Protocol, “testosterone mercury” along with low levels of glutathione leads to “hyperandrogenicity,” which in his view is a cause of autism.

According to Geier, the “autism epidemic” is an iatrogenic result of routine vaccination, an illness that has been “brought forth by the healer.” To repair such supposed toxic trauma, Geir advocates that a physician should administer chelating agents as well as Leuprodite (also known by the brand-name Lupron), a hormone-blocker with various clinical applications, such as delaying puberty, treating steroid abuse, or chemical castration. That is, Geier proposes that dangerous chelation treatments are an appropriate treatment for autistic children, cleansing and excising the chemical traumas that he thinks cause their neurological difference. According to Geier and his adherents, the root of “neurodevelopmental illness” is modern medicine itself, and it requires the use of noxious medical interventions to reverse.

Much like the first anti-vaccination movement in the 19th century, contemporary “anti-vaxxers” figure modern society as a toxic monstrosity with an appetite for mercury and a penchant for poisoning children. But it’s not just figurative: the medical language that anti-vaxxers like Geier use is just a contemporary reformulation of 19th century homeopathy, whose followers argued similarly that the use of mercury by mainstream medicine causes neurological debility.

Despite being institutionally discredited, the use of chelation therapy as an autism treatment continues. Parental attachments to theories regarding the entanglements of mercury toxicity, metabolic vitality, and cognitive difference are the remnants of unresolved conflicts over how responsible parents are supposed to situate the bodies under their control in an impersonal system which they can’t. At the dawn of industrial agriculture and medicine, this contradiction produced the pseudoscience of homeopathic chemistry as a way of reasserting sovereignty over the body at a moment when direct control over health and food production was newly alienated and replaced with impersonal systems.

In 1810, Samuel Hahnemann published the Organon der Rationellen Heilkunde, which laid out the ideas of what he termed “homeopathy,” a technique of medical care premised upon Paracelsus’s notion that “what makes a man ill also cures him.” Hahnemann argued that chemicals used in early 19th century medicine, like mercury, were causing physical, mental, and spiritual weakness in the bodies of Westerners. “Diseases correspond to man’s affections,” argues Hahnemann in his Lesser Writings, “and the diseases upon the human race today are but the outward expression of man’s interiors.” The proud ignorance of his contemporaries, Hahnemann supposed, was making them sick by unleashing the miasms—which were essentially a sort of spiritual pathogen, a Christianized term for disease that anticipates the modern notion of “xenobiotics” (a term for foreign chemical substances found within an organism that is not typically produced or expected to be present within that organism).

Hahnemann argued that all disease was caused by miasm, and that modern society (especially modern medical practice) has accelerated the spread of miasm, debilitating mass populations with physical and moral weakness. In his Lectures, Hahnemann writes: “the human race today walking the face of the earth, is but little better than a moral leper. Such is the state of the human mind at the present day. To put it another way everyone is Psoric.”

For Hahnemann, the Psora miasm (whose name derives from the Hebrew tsorat, meaning a groove or stigma) caused most diseases to the nervous system (that is, those that were not caused by syphilis or other STIs). “Psora,” Hahnemann says, “is a state of susceptibility to disease from willing evils” and that “is the beginning of all physical sickness, the underlying cause and is the primitive or primary disorder of the human race.” Like a clinical retelling of original sin, Hahnemann’s speculations regard Psora as an originary susceptibility to illness as a result of humankind’s inherent moral corruption. “Psora is the evolution of the state of man’s will, the ultimates of sin.” According to him, medicine accelerates the extinction of humanity by causing poison to build up within the body over generations:

A new contagion comes with every child. As Psora piles up generation after generation, century after century the susceptibility to it increases. This is true of every miasm and true of all drugs. We find in the drugged world that those who have been mercurized become more susceptible to Mercury and are more easily poisoned by it.

In other words, Hahnemann believed that scientists and medical practitioners were complicit in the moral and biological degeneration of humankind. Mercury found in drugs supposedly corrupted the bodies of children with contagion and caused widespread mental, physical and spiritual illness.

Hahnemann would prescribe sulfur or mercury tinctures (a practice that begins with American founding father Benjamin Rush) to treat the neurological problems associated with Psoratic illness — which he supposed to be a more pragmatic form of medical treatment than the norm. Hahnemann castigates Western medicine for privileging the study of physiology while vainly ignoring the “practical” art of healing; in his Organon der Rationellen Heilkunde, Hahnemann writes:

Physicians no longer tried to see diseases as they were; what they saw did not satisfy them, but they wished by a priori reasoning to find out an undiscoverable source of disease in regions of speculation which are not to be penetrated by terrestrial mortals. Our system-builders delighted in these metaphysical heights, where it was so easy to win territory; for in the boundless region of speculation everyone becomes a ruler who can most effectually elevate himself beyond the domain of the senses. The superhuman aspect they derived from the erection of these stupendous castles in the air concealed their poverty in the art of healing.

For Hahnemann, modern medical practitioners have stepped beyond a metaphysical boundary drawn in the proverbial sand by the divine, a hubristic infraction into the heavenly order of nature that both offends god and perpetuates disease. This anticipates arguments like those of anti-vaxx advocate Byron J. Richards, who writes that “unelected bureaucrats and scientists in our government agencies, tied financially to the profits of the drug industry and linked to the military, have been playing God for many decades. They know full well there will be deaths and injuries from vaccinations; collateral damage that is justified by prevented disease (a convenient and fear-driven argument).” Both Hahnemann and Richards believe that their contemporaries were complicit in widespread moral corruption by hubristically “playing god.” Writers like Richards capitalize on the widespread alienation from the machinery of conventional medicine, and alternative medicine subcultures (like the homeopathic and anti-vax movements) market themselves as having a kind of moral high ground over the pretensions of mainstream clinical practice.

Like Hahnemann’s homeopathic mercury tinctures, there is no evidence that chelation therapies are effective as a “treatment” for autism — they are simply a proposed response to a hypothetical source of the “disorder.” But unlike the highly diluted balms and potions used in homeopathy, the chelation and Lupron treatments that anti-vaxxers have access to are demonstrably toxic. Leuprodite (essentially a chemical castration treatment) and chelation treatments can inflict chemical injuries upon patients. Health authorities agree that chelation therapy can be harmful even in cases when it is necessary.

According to the American College of Medical Toxicology and the American Academy of Clinical Toxicology, unnecessary chelation therapy can have serious side effects, including blood pressure changes, allergies, chemical sensitivity, liver and kidney damage, and, in some cases, the death of the patient. In a 2011 article published by the Annals of Pharmacotherapy, Dennis K. Flaherty states that “the alleged autism-vaccine connection is, perhaps, the most damaging medical hoax of the last 100 years.” Various autism rights organizations, such as Aspies for Freedom, denounce the use of chelation therapy as unethical, abusive and dangerous. And yet the use of chelation therapies to treat autistic children continues.

Why do these parents elect to poison their children? In order to justify such treatments, autism must be considered the result of humanity’s immoral medical practices — a corrupting injury to the body that has to be be repaired before autistic children develop into autistic adults. Anti-vaxxer and chelation advocate Jenny McCarthy stated on Fox News that “us moms aren’t treating autism, we are treating a vaccine injury. And when you treat the vaccine injury, the autism goes away, minimizes or disappears.” For McCarthy, autism is not a benign neurological difference, but a result of chemical trauma.

Some articulate McCarthy’s sentiment that chelation “cures” autism in even more violent language. Anti-vaccination advocate Karyn Seroussi writes in her Unraveling the Mystery of Autism that “Autism is still a treacherous beast, terrible and mysterious. Killing a few of the monsters had not killed the species, only exposed its vulnerability.” Seroussi renders autism as a sort of multi-headed hydra, a chemical mistake that traumatizes children with neural debility. Like the mysterious Psora miasm described by Hahnemann, anti-vaccination discourses render autism not as a mode of human existence among many, but as a monstrous reminder of human pride that should be slain by alternative approaches to medicine and healing. These discourses are themselves harmful to autistic individuals, stigmatizing them as incomplete people, or worse, criminal outcomes unleashed by mainstream medicine’s infractions against the moral order of things.

Anti-vaxxers suppose that autistics are corrupted by the horrors of modern medicine, and that poisons are the only cure that can recover the childhood innocence that had been presumably tarnished by the machinations of industrialized medicine. Alt-biomed advocates like McCarthy arrive at a critique of the medical industrial complex only through a highly stigmatizing and violent analysis that renders the autistic as a xenobiotic, a toxic substance that is out of place within the social body, and which can only be removed by equally toxic measures.

Arguments like McCarthy’s, Seroussi’s, and Hahnemann’s empower a fantasy for parents to regain control of the means by which their children metabolize the world, challenging the exclusive power of mainstream medicine to inoculate the American public from disease. Anti-vaxxers perpetuate the notion that autism is itself a toxic trauma unleashed by the contingencies of biotechnical hubris. This notion displaces alienation that many Americans may rightly feel from industrialized medicine onto the bodies of the disabled, re-imagining disabled children as the carriers of the miasms released by the (supposed) moral crimes of modern medicine. And such conversations divert attention from infrastructural problems that marginalize disabled people and their families.

The anti-vaxx movement performs a sleight-of-hand that distracts from other criticism that might emerge from widespread alienation from industrialized medicine — that it reproduces social stigmas; forecloses access to affordable care for low-income people, immigrants, and people of color; that it is often ill-equipped to understand or treat issues faced by those with cognitive disabilities. By drawing upon a rich archive of alternative medical discourses that includes homeopathic chemistry, anti-vaxx advocates cast “autism,” a term that describes one possible form of neural embodiment, as a miasmic incursion into the moral order of things.

These arguments disparage neurodivergent life by reminding neurotypical parents of the horrifying possibility that human neural embodiment might be more various than regularly presumed. Autism comes to signify the mystery of human health and the threat posed by our incomplete control over it. The anti-vaxx movement renders autistics as moral outsiders, as mutant anomalies to the natural order of things. But their eagerness to poison their own children must be seen for what it is: not simply a tragedy the benighted inflict on their children, but a limit of the toxic liberal concept of the human itself.

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