Historian Paul Hudon is the author The Valley & Its Peoples: An Illustrated History of the Lower Merrimack and a collection of poems, All in Good Time. A former college professor and museum curator, he lives in Lowell. For nine weeks he has been sending his diary entries to the Howe blog as a personal record of his time and our time in the public health emergency.
by Paul Hudon
June 14, 2020
The stretch of Broadway between Pawtucket and Wilder runs right through South Campus. I learned to avoid it. When the University is in operation, there’ll be hundreds of students crossing the street, certain times of the day, and that means stop-and-go delays. But there’ve been no classes this semester, and no students. Driving around this part of the city has been radically changed.
Which is how it happened that I was alone driving through there recently, having a leisurely look-around. (Coburn looks magnificent.) So I notice that one of the buildings on South Campus is named Weed Hall. And when I get home I check it out on UML’s website and learn that there’s a Student Service Center in Weed Hall. I’d have been sorry to miss that.
The Union is going through a bad patch, every bit as bad as the 1790s or the 1850s. It may even be worse. This time we have at the helm a true, no-conscience Porker — than which there is no “whicher” as a Georgetown friend used to say. Fenton thinks that “objective conditions” are moving toward the point when a new iteration (he calls it) of Time & the River will have its best chance of a hearing. Objective conditions is a Leninist term meaning the political dynamic working events on the ground. It’s all about momentum and direction. Riding the wave.
There’s plenty to momentum around, no doubt about that. The problem is direction, taking hold of the momentum and giving it direction. Fenton has a direction, he’s fixed on a goal, not to say fixated. He thinks we have to reposition ourselves as a species to maintain our command stature. We need to shape evolution. Otherwise, AI or capital or both will do it. “We have to be deliberate about occupying time which means we have to assume a radically biological predicate. That’s our objective. Embodied AI, building a brain to manage the watershed, is only the project. The McGuffin.”
It will lead to a more perfect union, he says. “It will be a corporation with an actual corpus on the planet, the watershed. Organic too.” And he quotes Arati Prabhakar, former director of DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency of the U.S.). “Biology is nature’s ultimate innovator, and any agency that hangs its hat on innovation would be foolish not to look to this master of networked complexity for inspiration and solutions.”
Without a clear-cut map of man’s present understanding of his own nature, no frontier of innovation is definable. Joshua Lederberg (1973).
In the time of coronavirus. There is a gravitas to it, undeniable, and it has the advantage of being attached to material quantities and daily protocols. Body counts and social distances.
We chop up time into segments, pieces and chunks of it, and give them names, the same way we do with river and mountains, and for the same reason. We need to know where we are. We place ourselves in a narrative location because storytelling is how we manage time. Just reciting the story is a part-ways to control time, or anyway literally talk ourselves into claiming control.
For a hundred thousand years, our hunter-gatherer ancestors knew where to find food just by knowing when to be there. And if that stopped working for whatever reason, they set out in new directions, made themselves at home elsewhere just by telling the story of how they got there. We should go with that. Invent another time, tell another story. Shame on us if we break faith with them.
Time & the River opens on the proposition that we write ourselves another story; otherwise said, that we occupy a more deliberate narrative. March ’03
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” That was FDR in his first inaugural address, 4 March 1933. We still see a clip of that broadcast occasionally. He returned to the theme in the so-called Four Freedom Speech — actually his State of the Union address to Congress, January 1941.
It makes a stunning contrast to the evil-minded deployment of fear by the current administration. It’s the only politics they know and it works for them. Here, for example: Panicked armed men hit small-town streets across America to fend off imagined hordes
Eric Cline is billed as a professor of ancient history and archeology at George Washington University, Washington D.C. He has posted several videos on Youtube where he describes what he calls The Collapse of Civilization in the 12th century b.c.e. — 1177 b.c.e. to be exact. One of these videos, a talk he gave at the Long Now Foundation, runs for 90 minutes . Dr Cline explains the factors, some of them climatic, that brought about the disappearance of several empires in the Aegean-Near-East in the late bronze age. It was several states around one specific date, that draws attention.
There is a shorter video with a longer title: Why the Bronze Age Collapse matters today. Dr. Eric Cline (If Civilization Collapsed Would We Know?). Why it matters today, and what worries Eric Cline, is the perfect storm profile of events, then and now. Today, in our case, the pile-up of climate change, the deliberate corrupting of our capitalist structures, the deepening social and political divisions, and now a coronavirus pandemic. “We have learned that civilization is mortal,” Paul Claudel wrote in 1919, summing up lessons learned in The Great War.
So, the question: Would we know? Would we recognize the point of no return? Would we know enough to hit the reset button?