Secrets of the crematory

“Hey, come in here and help me get this big guy on the table”

You won’t be there to realize what’s happening, or what the mortician is saying. Here’s what you will be missing

Secrets of the crematory: “Hey, come in here and help me get this big guy on the table”
Caitlin Doughty (Credit: YouTube/OrderoftheGoodDeath)

The day started innocently enough. “Caitlin!” Mike hollered from the preparation room, “Hey, come in here and help me get this big guy on the table.”

Actually, I remember him saying, “Hey, come in here and help me get this big Mexican on the table.” But that cannot be right. Mike was always politically correct in his terminology. (He once referred to the victims of Oakland’s gang violence as “young urban men of color.”) I have trouble believing “this big Mexican” is not just a trick of my memory. Regardless, the man we transferred from the stretcher to the prep table was neither big nor Mexican. He was massive and El Salvadorian, an insurance salesman who weighed well over 450 pounds. Should you ever wish to understand the phrase “dead weight” in all its gravitational glory, attempt to lift the corpse of a morbidly obese man off of a perilous, wobbly stretcher.

Juan Santos died from an overdose of cocaine. His body went undiscovered for two days in his apartment in the East Bay. He was autopsied by the medical examiner and his chest sewn back up leaving a dramatic Y-shaped stitch stretching from his clavicle to his stomach. “Did you catch this guy’s bag of viscera in the back of the reefer?” Mike asked.

“Viscera? All his organs and stuff ?”

“Yeah, the medical examiner takes the organs out and piles them in those red hazmat bags. Comes in to the funeral home with the body.”

“Just, like, tucked up next to ’em or something?” I asked.

Mike grinned. “No, Chris carries them slung over his shoulder like Santa Claus.”


“No, man, no. What the hell—that’s gross,” Mike said.

Ah, Mike in a jovial mood. I tried to play along with his yuletide-themed organ humor. “So that’s where the legend of ‘Chris’ Kringle comes from? Is it the good or bad kids that get internal organs for Christmas?”

“I guess it depends on how morbid a kid you are.”

“Does it all get put back in the body?”

“Eventually. When Bruce comes in this afternoon to embalm him. There’s a service tomorrow, so he’ll soak them in embalming sludge and stick them back in,” he explained.

After hoisting Juan onto the table with a theatrical heave, Mike brought out a tape measure. “The family bought a casket, too. I’m going to measure him. I hope he fits because I really don’t want to call this family back and tell them they need the oversized casket. Maybe I’ll make you do it,” Mike said, smiling at the thought.

The World Health Organization (along with any of the forty-five extreme-weight-loss television programs) tells us that the United States has more overweight adults than any other country in the world. It’s no surprise that the market for oversized caskets is booming.

The website for Goliath Casket, Inc. features this charming origin story:

Back in the 70’s and 80’s oversize caskets were hard to get and poorly made. In 1985, Keith’s father, Forrest Davis (Pee Wee), quit his job as a welder in a casket factory and said, “Boys, I’m gonna go home and build oversize caskets that you would be proud to put your mother in.” . . . The company started in an old converted hog barn on their farm, by offering just two sizes and one color.

We could have used Pee Wee’s ingenuity, because there was no way Juan was going to fit into a regular-sized casket. The man, bless his departed soul, was almost as wide as he was tall. “Go ahead, cross his arms, like he’s in the casket,” Mike instructed.

I stretched myself across Juan’s body to access both appendages. “No, cross them harder, harder, harder,” Mike insisted, extending the tape measure across his shoulders. By now I was fully spread out over the body. “Keep going, keep—there we are! Boom. He will totally fit.”

“Oh, c’mon, he will not!” I said.

“We’ll make him fit. The family is already paying more than they can afford for this service. I’m not going to tack on the extra $300 for an oversized casket if I can help it. Just telling them their son needs an oversized casket is hard enough.”

Later that day, as the Cremulator whirred through the backlog of bones, Bruce arrived to embalm Juan. After seeing him laid out, Bruce, always one for tact, yelled into the crematory: “Caitlin! Caitlin, this is a lot of Mexican. It’s gonna stink. Bigger people always stink.”

“Why does everyone keep calling him Mexican?” I yelled back over the rumble of the cremation machines.

Bruce was wrong about Juan’s country of origin, and surely he was also wrong about fat people stinking. Yet emanating from the preparation room was the most ferocious smell my nostrils e’er had smell’d. You would think such an odor would have repelled me, but for some reason it aroused a desire in me to find the pot of gold at the end of the olfactory rainbow.

I had seen Bruce embalm bodies, but I was in no way intellectually or emotionally prepared to see 450 pounds laid out before me. Autopsied bodies require the embalmer to cut open the stiches from the Y-shaped incision and, as Mike had said, to chemically treat the deceased’s internal organs from Santa Chris’s red hazmat bag. Bruce had just begun that portion of the preparation when I walked in.

To describe the scene as a “swampy mire” simply would not do it justice. It was more guts and blood and organs and fat I could ever have imagined a single human body containing. Bruce, who was pulling the organs out of the bag, launched into a narrative immediately: “I told you it would stink, Caitlin. Bigger people just decompose faster. That’s science, girl. It’s the fat; the bacteria love the fat. By the time they get here after going in for an autopsy, phew.”

To Bruce’s credit, this turned out to be true. His “bigger people always stink” comment wasn’t based on prejudice, it was a fact.

“All that stuff is bubblating in that body. I call it bubblating. At least this guy didn’t die in the tub. Tubs are the worst. The worst. You go to take a body out of the tub and the skin just pulls right off. The tissue gas bubbles up, all oily, and the smell.” Bruce whistled for dramatic effect. “Psychologically, you’ll be smelling that for the rest of the day, rest of your life sometimes.”

He kept on talking. “Look at this guy. Cocaine overdose? More likely he had a heart attack. Look at this,” Bruce said as he reached into Juan’s chest cavity, picked up his heart, and presented it to me. “Look at his heart! All this fat around it. You know he was sittin’ there with his friends at the bar eating a hamburger and doin’ his lines of coke. All this stuff”—he pulled his gloved hands apart to reveal the yellowed deposits—“this is why you can’t be fat!”

I must have looked insulted at this accusation, because he quickly added, “Naw, I don’t mean you specifically can’t be fat, girl, you got a good figure. But I know you must have fat friends. Tell your fat friends.”

I had no reply.

For Bruce, the former instructor, this demonstration was not done for shock value, but for the benefit of my education. Obese people smell particularly bad after an autopsy due to their faster rate of decomposition. Fact. Not that we would ever share this fact with a decedent’s family. You couldn’t have paid me any sum of money to explain to Juan’s mother the truth about why her son smelled the way he did. These facts were only for the ears of the deathmongers, the initiated behind the scenes.

Much of our negative reaction to a decomposing corpse like Juan’s is raw instinct. We’ve evolved to be disgusted by things that would hurt us to eat, rotting meat being one of the top contenders in that category. Some animals, like vultures, can safely consume rotting flesh because of their highly corrosive stomach acid. But humans would prefer to avoid spoiled food altogether rather than having to fight off the ill effects after the meat has entered our bodies. Recall the Wari’, consuming their decomposing brethren and being forced to leave the ritual, have a bit of a vomit, and return to eat again.

“Bruce, seriously Bruce,” I said. “This might be the worst thing I have ever smelled.”

For those of you who have not had the privilege of smelling Eau de Decomposition, the first note of a putrefying human body is of licorice with a strong citrus undertone. Not a fresh, summer citrus, mind you—more like a can of orange-scented industrial bathroom spray shot directly up your nose. Add to that a day-old glass of white wine that has begun to attract flies. Top it off with a bucket of fish left in the sun. That, my friends, is what human decomposition smells like.

Bruce was apologetic. “Yeah, I’d tell you not to smell it, but that would be like tellin’ a little kid, ‘Son, don’t you dare push the big red button!’”

Except for the rare decedent like Juan Santos who slips past the system, decomposition and decay have all but disappeared from our way of death. The modern corpse has two options: burial with preservative embalming, which grinds decomposition to a halt into perpetuity (or at least until the body starts to harden and shrivel like a mummy); and cremation, which turns the body into ash and dust. Either way, you will never see a human being decaying.

Because we’ve never encountered a decomposing body, we can only assume they are out to get us. It is no wonder there is a cultural fascination with zombies. They are public enemy number one, taboo extraordinaire, the most gruesome thing there is—a reanimated decomposing corpse.

There is a misconception that “burial” involves placing a body directly into the earth, leaving us vulnerable should the zombie apocalypse come about. Like in Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video, a decayed hand shoots up through the dirt and the body hops easily out of its grave. Burial in that fashion used to be the case, but in the developed world the paradigm no longer fits. Instead, a body is chemically embalmed, then laid in a sealed casket, which is then placed in a heavy concrete or metal vault beneath the earth, surrounding the body in several layers of artificial embrace, separating it from the world above. The headstone is placed on top of the whole affair, like the cherry on a death-denial sundae.

Vaults and caskets are not the law; they are the policy of individual cemeteries. Vaults prevent the settling of the dirt around the body, thus making landscaping more uniform and cost effective. As an added bonus, vaults can be customized and sold at a markup. Faux marble? Bronze? Take your pick, family.

Rather than let author and environmentalist Edward Abbey be buried in a traditional cemetery, his friends stole his body, wrapped it in a sleeping bag, and hauled it in the back of his pickup truck to the Cabeza Prieta Desert in Arizona. They drove down a long dirt road and dug a hole when they reached the end of it, marking Abbey’s name on a nearby stone and pouring whiskey onto the grave. Fitting tribute for Abbey, who spent his career warning humanity of the harm in separating ourselves from nature. “If my decomposing carcass helps nourish the roots of a juniper tree or the wings of a vulture—that is immortality enough for me. And as much as anyone deserves,” he once said.

Left to their own devices, human bodies rot, decompose, come apart, and sink gloriously back into the earth from whence they came. Using embalming and heavy protective caskets to stop this process is a desperate attempt to stave off the inevitable, and demonstrates our clear terror of decomposition. The death industry markets caskets and embalming under the rubric of helping bodies look “natural,” but our current death customs are as natural as training majestic creatures like bears and elephants to dance in cute little outfits, or erecting replicas of the Eiffel Tower and Venetian canals in the middle of the harsh American desert.

Western culture didn’t always have this aversion to decomposition. In fact, our relationship to rot used to be altogether intimate. In the early days of Christianity, when the religion was still a small Jewish sect fighting for its survival, those who worshipped the new messiah faced harsh persecution, sometimes dying for their faith. These martyrs came to grisly ends. You had your beheadings, your stonings, your flayings, your crucifixions, your hangings, your boilings in oil, your eatings by lion, and so forth. As a reward, the martyrs went straight to heaven. No purgatory, no Judgment Day: just a direct shot into the kingdom of God.

For medieval Christians, these martyrs-cum-saints were celebrities. When the emperor Constantine declared Christianity legal in 324 CE, the bodies of martyred saints became major attractions. Having the dead body of a famous martyr in your church—or even just a heart, bone, or vial of blood—brought hordes of worshippers. It was believed that the souls of the saints lurked around their corpses, dispensing miracles and general holiness to those who came to pay tribute.

Diseases were cured! Droughts were ended! Enemies were defeated! But why stop at just paying a visit to a dead saint when you could be buried in the same church? It stood to reason that being buried for all eternity ad sanctos (literally “at the saints”) would ingratiate you to the saint in the afterlife, ensuring protection for your immortal soul.

As the Christian faith grew, more and more members of the congregation insisted on being buried in and around the church to reap the benefits of saint proximity. This burial practice spread throughout the empire, from Rome to Byzantium and to what is now present-day England and France. Entire towns grew up around these corpse churches.

Demand rose and the churches supplied it—for a fee, of course. The wealthiest church patrons wanted the best spots, nearest the saints. If there was a nook in the church big enough for a corpse, you were sure to find a body in it. There were, without hyperbole, dead bodies everywhere. The preferred locations were the half circle around the apse and the vestibule at the entrance. Beyond those key positions, it was a free-for-all: corpses were placed under the slabs on the floor, in the roof, under the eaves, even piled into the walls themselves. Going to church meant the corpses in the walls outnumbered the living parishioners.

Without refrigeration, in the heat of the summer months, the noxious smell of human decomposition in these churches must have been unimaginable. Italian physician Bernardino Ramazzini complained that “there are so many tombs in the church, and they are so often opened that this abominable smell is too often unmistakable. However much they fumigate the sacred edifices with incense, myrrh, and other aromatic odors, it is obviously very injurious to those present.”

If you weren’t rich or influential enough to score a spot inside the church, you would go into one of many graves in the church’s courtyard, some pits thirty feet deep, containing up to 1,500 corpses. This practice reflected a seismic shift from the pre-medieval Roman and Jewish belief that dead bodies were impure, and best kept on the far outskirts of town. The medieval church courtyard turned cemetery was the place to see and be seen. It was the center of town life, a place of socialization and commerce. Vendors sold beer and wine to the crowds and installed communal ovens to bake fresh bread. Young lovers took nightly strolls; speeches were made to gathered crowds. The Council of Rouen in 1231 banned dancing in the cemetery or in the church, under pain of excommunication. To require such a forceful ban, it must have been a popular pastime. The cemetery was the venue where the living and the dead mingled in social harmony.

Historian Philippe Ariès, author of a brilliant, sweeping study of a millennium of Western death entitled “L’Homme devant la mort,” declared that “henceforth and for a long time to come, the dead completely ceased to inspire fear.” Ariès may have been exaggerating, but even if the Europeans of the Middle Ages were afraid of death, they got over it, because the sublime benefits of being near the saints outweighed the drawbacks of living with unseemly sights and smells.

Medieval death was my first true (academic) love. I was captivated by the dancing skeletons, the maggot tomb décor, the charnel houses, the putrefying bodies in the church walls. The brazen acceptance of human decomposition in the late Middle Ages was so different from what I grew up with. The only two funerals I had been to as a child were Papa Aquino’s, with his heavily embalmed and made-up face sneering up from his casket, and the memorial service for a mother of a childhood friend. Her body was absent from the service altogether, and instead of speaking directly of her death, the pastor running the memorial spoke only in euphemisms: “Her soul was a tent, and the cruel winds of life came through the palm trees and blew our sister’s tent down!”

Decomposition was rare even behind the scenes at Westwind. At ye olde warehouse of modern secular death, the majority of our clients died in contained medical environments like nursing homes or hospitals before being swiftly whisked away to our cold-storage fridge, which, while not freezing, maintained a steady temperature below 40 degrees. Even if the bodies had to hang out there for a few days while the proper state permits were filed, most corpses were cremated long before they ever made it to the smellier phases of decomposition. One morning I came in, opened the freezer door, pushed aside the plastic strips, and was blasted by the unmistakable, unforgettable smell of human decomposition.

“Chris, dear God man, why? Who is it that smells like that?” I asked.

“His name is Royce, I think. Picked him up yesterday. It’s not good in there, Cat,” Chris answered, shaking his head with a seriousness I appreciated. This vile, corrosive smell was indeed no laughing matter.

So it is you, Royce, source of the horrible, infernal stench emanating from the fridge. I worked my little fingers to the quick to file his death certificate with the city so I could then cremate him as quickly as possible. When I opened his cremation container, I found a man who could best be described as “boggy.” Royce was vivid green, like the color of a 1950s Cadillac. He was a “floater,” the unfortunate funeral-industry term for bodies found dead in the water— in Royce’s case, the San Francisco Bay. I sent him to the flames, satisfied that my day of decay had come to an end.

But the smell did not go away. Royce was gone—and yet—the smell persisted. This matter required investigation. Investigation of the worst possible kind. Sifting through the cardboard boxes of bodies sniffing away until . . . You!— Ellen! The woman from the Medical Examiner’s Office. ’Tis, in fact, you who stinks more putridly than the worst smelling thing ever to smell. You, with your skin flaking away. What happened to you? You were fifty-six and your death certficate says you worked in “fashion sales.”

Unlike Royce, who had floated in the SF Bay for several days, I never found out what had happened to Ellen. When at last I was able to send the poor woman to the pyre, I sat down and read a chapter of Octave Mirbeau’s “The Torture Garden,” a book I first encountered during my decadent French literature phase. Not three lines into the chapter a character was described as “a lusty dilettante who reveled in the stench of decomposition.” My first reaction was, “Lovely, just like me!” But really? No. Not just like me, not like anyone who worked at Westwind. It may have been an academic interest, but that didn’t mean I took some perverse, maniacal delight in decomposition. I didn’t walk into the fridge every day, inhale deeply, and cackle with delight, dancing around naked in the cold miasma, transgressing with obscene pleasure. Instead, I wrinkled my nose, shuddered, and washed my hands for the twelfth time that day. Decomposition was just another reality of death, a necessary visual (and aromatic) reminder that our bodies are fallible, mere blips on the radar of the vast universe.

That reminder of our fallibility is beneficial, and there is much to be gained by bringing back responsible exposure to decomposition. Historically, Buddhist monks hoping to detach themselves from lust and curb their desire for permanence would meditate on the form of a rotting corpse. Known as the nine cemetery contemplations, the meditation would focus the different stages of decomposition: “(1) distension (choso); (2) rupture (kaiso); (3) exudation of blood (ketsuzuso); (4) putrefaction (noranso); (5) discoloration and desiccation (seioso); (6) consumption by animals and birds (lanso); (7) dismemberment (sanso); (8) bones (kosso); and (9) parched to dust (shoso).”

The meditation could be internal, but often the monks employed images of the stages of decay or took trips to the charnel grounds to meditate over a real decomposing corpse. There is nothing like consistent exposure to dead bodies to remove the trepidation attached to dead bodies.

If decomposing bodies have disappeared from culture (which they have), but those same decomposing bodies are needed to alleviate the fear of death (which they are), what happens to a culture where all decomposition is removed? We don’t need to hypothesize: we live in just such a culture. A culture of death denial.

This denial takes many forms. Our obsession with youth, the creams and chemicals and detoxifying diets pushed by those who would sell the idea that the natural aging of our bodies is grotesque. Spending over $100 billion a year on anti-aging products as 3.1 million children under five starve to death. The denial manifests in our technology and buildings, which create the illusion that we have less in common with road kill than with the sleek lines of a MacBook.

The way to break the cycle and avoid embalming, the casket, the heavy vault, is something called green, or natural, burial. It is only available in certain cemeteries, but its popularity is growing as society continues to demand it. Natural burial is what transpired with Edward Abbey’s remains, minus the whole stealing-the-corpse and hightailing -itinto- the-desert thing. The body goes straight into the ground, in a simple biodegradable shroud, with a rock to mark the location. It zips merrily through decomposition, shooting its atoms back into the universe to create new life.

Not only is natural burial by far the most ecologically sound way to perish, it doubles down on the fear of fragmentation and loss of control. Making the choice to be naturally buried says, “Not only am I aware that I’m a helpless, fragmented mass of organic matter, I celebrate it. Vive la decay!”

By this stage of my time at Westwind, I had already decided on a green burial for my own body. I understood that I had been given my atoms, the ones that made up my heart and toenails and kidneys and brain, on a kind of universal loan program. The time would come when I would have to give the atoms back, and I didn’t want to attempt to hold on to them through the chemical preservation of my future corpse. There was one such natural burial cemetery in Marin, right across the bridge from Westwind. There, I could sit among the cemetery’s rolling hills, looking down over the mounded graves and contemplate my date with decay. The monks found liberation through their discomfort, and in a way I was doing the same. Staring directly into the heart of my fear, something I could never do as a child, and ever so gradually, starting to break clear of it.

Excerpted from “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: And Other Lessons From the Crematory” by Caitlin Doughty. Published by W.W. Norton and Co. Copyright © 2014 by Caitlin Doughty. Reprinted with permission from the publisher. All rights reserved.

Caitlin Doughty is a licensed mortician and writer living in Los Angeles.  She is the founder of The Order of the Good Death and the host of the “Ask a Mortician” webseries. W. W. Norton will publish Caitlin’s memoir, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory,” on September 15. Follow on Twitter at @TheGoodDeath

The Great Lightbulb Conspiracy: Free Markets in Action

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Today, with many countries phasing out incandescent lighting in favor of more-efficient and pricier LEDs, it’s worth revisiting the history of the Phoebus cartel — not simply as a quirky anecdote from the annals of technology, but as a cautionary tale about the strange and unexpected pitfalls that can arise when a new technology vanquishes an old one. Prior to the Phoebus cartel’s formation in 1924, household light bulbs typically burned for a total of 1,500 to 2,500 hours; cartel members agreed to shorten that life span to a standard 1,000 hours.

Each factory regularly sent lightbulb samples to the cartel’s central laboratory in Switzerland for verification. If any factory submitted bulbs lasting longer or shorter than the regulated life span for its type, the factory was obliged to pay a fine. Though long gone, the Phoebus cartel still casts a shadow today because it reduced competition in the light bulb industry for almost twenty years, and has been accused of preventing technological advances that would have produced longer-lasting light bulbs. Will history repeat itself as the lighting industry is now going through its most tumultuous period of technological change since the invention of the incandescent bulb?

“Consumers are expected to pay more money for bulbs that are up to 10 times as efficient and that are touted to last a fantastically long time—up to 50,000 hours in the case of LED lights. In normal usage, these lamps will last so long that their owners will probably sell the house they’re in before having to change the bulbs,” writes Krajewski. “Whether or not these pricier bulbs will actually last that long is still an open question, and not one that the average consumer is likely to investigate.” There are already reports of CFLs and LED lamps burning out long before their rated lifetimes are reached. “Such incidents may well have resulted from nothing more sinister than careless manufacturing. But there is no denying that these far more technologically sophisticated products offer tempting opportunities for the inclusion of purposefully engineered life-shortening defects.””


Why Facebook, Google, and the NSA Want Computers That Learn Like Humans

Deep learning could transform artificial intelligence. It could also get pretty creepy.

lol cats

Illustration: Quickhoney

In June 2012, a Google supercomputer made an artificial-intelligence breakthrough: It learned that the internet loves cats. But here’s the remarkable part: It had never been told what a cat looks like. Researchers working on the Google Brain project in the company’s X lab fed 10 million random, unlabeled images from YouTube into their massive network and instructed it to recognize the basic elements of a picture and how they fit together. Left to their own devices, the Brain’s 16,000 central processing units noticed that a lot of the images shared similar characteristics that it eventually recognized as a “cat.” While the Brain’s self-taught knack for kitty spotting was nowhere as good as a human’s, it was nonetheless a major advance in the exploding field of deep learning.

The dream of a machine that can think and learn like a person has long been the holy grail of computer scientists, sci-fi fans, and futurists alike. Deep learning—algorithms inspired by the human brain and its ability to soak up massive amounts of information and make complex predictions—might be the closest thing yet. Right now, the technology is in its infancy: Much like a baby, the Google Brain taught itself how to recognize cats, but it’s got a long way to go before it can figure out that you’re sad because your tabby died. But it’s just a matter of time. Its potential to revolutionize everything from social networking to surveillance has sent tech companies and defense and intelligence agencies on a deep-learning spending spree.

What really puts deep learning on the cutting edge of artificial intelligence (AI) is that its algorithms can analyze things like human behavior and then make sophisticated predictions. What if a social-networking site could figure out what you’re wearing from your photos and then suggest a new dress? What if your insurance company could diagnose you as diabetic without consulting your doctor? What if a security camera could tell if the person next to you on the subway is carrying a bomb?

And unlike older data-crunching models, deep learning doesn’t slow down as you cram in more info. Just the opposite—it gets even smarter. “Deep learning works better and better as you feed it more data,” explains Andrew Ng, who oversaw the cat experiment as the founder of Google’s deep-learning team. (Ng has since joined the Chinese tech giant Baidu as the head of its Silicon Valley AI team.)

And so the race to build a better virtual brain is on. Microsoft plans to challenge the Google Brain with its own system called Adam. Wired reported that Apple is applying deep learning to build a “neural-net-boosted Siri.” Netflix hopes the technology will improve its movie recommendations. Google, Yahoo, Twitter, and Pinterest have snapped up deep-learning companies; Google has used the technology to read every house number in France in less than an hour. “There’s a big rush because we think there’s going to be a bit of a quantum leap,” says Yann LeCun, a deep-learning pioneer and the head of Facebook’s new AI lab.

What if your insurance company diagnosed you without consulting your doctor? What if a security camera could tell if the person next to you is carrying a bomb?

Last December, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appeared, bodyguards in tow, at the Neural Information Processing Systems conference in Lake Tahoe, where insiders discussed how to make computers learn like humans. He has said that his company seeks to “use new approaches in AI to help make sense of all the content that people share.” Facebook researchers have used deep learning to identify individual faces from a giant database called “Labeled Faces in the Wild” with more than 97 percent accuracy. Another project, dubbed PANDA (Pose Aligned Networks for Deep Attribute Modeling), can accurately discern gender, hairstyles, clothing styles, and facial expressions from photos. LeCun says that these types of tools could improve the site’s ability to tag photos, target ads, and determine how people will react to content.

Yet considering recent news that Facebook secretly studied 700,000 users’ emotions by tweaking their feeds or that the National Security Agency harvests 55,000 facial images a day, it’s not hard to imagine how these attempts to better “know” you might veer into creepier territory.

Not surprisingly, deep learning’s potential for analyzing human faces, emotions, and behavior has attracted the attention of national-security types. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has worked with researchers at New York University on a deep-learning program that sought, according to a spokesman, “to distinguish human forms from other objects in battlefield or other military environments.”

Chris Bregler, an NYU computer science professor, is working with the Defense Department to enable surveillance cameras to detect suspicious activity from body language, gestures, and even cultural cues. (Bregler, who grew up near Heidelberg, compares it to his ability to spot German tourists in Manhattan.) His prototype can also determine whether someone is carrying a concealed weapon; in theory, it could analyze a woman’s gait to reveal she is hiding explosives by pretending to be pregnant. He’s also working on an unnamed project funded by “an intelligence agency”—he’s not permitted to say more than that.

And the NSA is sponsoring deep-learning research on language recognition at Johns Hopkins University. Asked whether the agency seeks to use deep learning to track or identify humans, spokeswoman Vanee’ Vines only says that the agency “has a broad interest in deriving knowledge from data.”

Mark Zuckerberg

Mark Zuckerberg has said that Facebook seeks to “use new approaches in AI to help make sense of all the content that people share.” AP Photo/Ben Margot

Deep learning also has the potential to revolutionize Big Data-driven industries like banking and insurance. Graham Taylor, an assistant professor at the University of Guelph in Ontario, has applied deep-learning models to look beyond credit scores to determine customers’ future value to companies. He acknowledges that these types of applications could upend the way businesses treat their customers: “What if a restaurant was able to predict the amount of your bill, or the probability of you ever returning? What if that affected your wait time? I think there will be many surprises as predictive models become more pervasive.”

Privacy experts worry that deep learning could also be used in industries like banking and insurance to discriminate or effectively redline consumers for certain behaviors. Sergey Feldman, a consultant and data scientist with the brand personalization company RichRelevance, imagines a “deep-learning nightmare scenario” in which insurance companies buy your personal information from data brokers and then infer with near-total accuracy that, say, you’re an overweight smoker in the early stages of heart disease. Your monthly premium might suddenly double, and you wouldn’t know why. This would be illegal, but, Feldman says, “don’t expect Congress to protect you against all possible data invasions.”

An NSA spokeswoman only says that the agency “has a broad interest in deriving knowledge from data.”

And what if the computer is wrong? If a deep-learning program predicts that you’re a fraud risk and blacklists you, “there’s no way to contest that determination,” says Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel for privacy issues at the American Civil Liberties Union.

Bregler agrees that there might be privacy issues associated with deep learning, but notes that he tries to mitigate those concerns by consulting with a privacy advocate. Google has reportedly established an ethics committee to address AI issues; a spokesman says its deep-learning research is not primarily about analyzing personal or user-specific data—for now. While LeCun says that Facebook eventually could analyze users’ data to inform targeted advertising, he insists the company won’t share personally identifiable data with advertisers.

“The problem of privacy invasion through computers did not suddenly appear because of AI or deep learning. It’s been around for a long time,” LeCun says. “Deep learning doesn’t change the equation in that sense, it just makes it more immediate.” Big companies like Facebook “thrive on the trust users have in them,” so consumers shouldn’t worry about their personal data being fed into virtual brains. Yet, as he notes, “in the wrong hands, deep learning is just like any new technology.”

Deep learning, which also has been used to model everything from drug side effects to energy demand, could “make our lives much easier,” says Yoshua Bengio, head of the Machine Learning Laboratory at the University of Montreal. For now, it’s still relatively difficult for companies and governments to efficiently sift through all our emails, texts, and photos. But deep learning, he warns, “gives a lot of power to these organizations.”

Once again, UN climate meeting comes up empty

By Daniel de Vries
25 September 2014

As United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon opened the Climate Summit in New York this week, he described climate change as the defining issue of our age, warning that “there is no more time for business as usual.” The summit must not be about talk, he urged, but rather about “producing actions that make a difference.”

What world leaders offered up, however, was little more than empty, self-serving pledges that will do nothing to stave off the impact of global warming.

One of the key goals of the meeting had been to build momentum for the Paris Conference in December 2015, which the UN has targeted for a binding agreement on climate change. Fifteen months away, almost no one expects such an agreement to be forthcoming. The Obama administration underscored this last month, saying they intend only to “name and shame” countries into setting voluntary targets, rather than pursuing a legally enforceable treaty.

Tuesday’s summit was the highest-profile effort to bring together leaders of the major countries on the issue of climate change since Copenhagen in 2009, when the last attempt to negotiate a binding agreement ended in debacle. Over 120 heads of state participated in the summit.

However, despite the large numbers of dignitaries, low expectations and rising geopolitical tensions ensured that leaders of several of the most important countries, in terms of both economic output and greenhouse gas emissions, stayed away. Angela Merkel of Germany, Vladimir Putin of Russia, Xi Jinping of China, and Narendra Modi of India, among others, were absent.

A day after initiating the bombing campaign in Syria, President Obama used his remarks to take aim at China. Obama challenged China as the world’s second-largest economy and biggest greenhouse gas emitter. Like the US, China has a “special responsibility to lead,” he said. “That’s what big nations have to do.”

The US has long since gone back on the past concession that the wealthy industrialized countries, having created the bulk of greenhouse emissions, had greater responsibility than the poorer countries for finding a remedy. Instead, the primary aim of Obama’s international climate policy is to gain a competitive advantage against China. In this respect, his singling out of Beijing can be understood as the “green” component of the US “pivot to Asia.”

While Obama boasted in his speech about the United States “stepping up to the plate” to regulate pollution from power plants, the Environmental Protection Agency quietly announced September 16 that it was delaying implementation of the new rules at least through the end of the year.

The president also bragged that the US was on track to meet its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent in 2020. This goal, which is based on a cherry-picked starting point when emissions neared their peak, is nowhere near adequate. The US remains on a trajectory to exceed 1990 emissions by five percent in 2030. The bulk of the recent reductions are attributable to the transition from coal to natural gas in the power sector. Made economically attractive by the boom in hydro-fracking, this development has carried alongside it devastating environmental consequences.

Obama was far from the only leader to make cynical claims of environmental progress. The UK’s David Cameron remarked, “As prime minister, I pledged to lead the greenest government ever and I believe we have kept that promise,” before touting the low-carbon benefits of shale gas exploration.

French President François Hollande was one of the few to announce any new commitments, pledging $1 billion over four years to the Green Climate Fund. Formally established at the Cancun climate conference in 2010, the fund is intended to raise $100 billion a year to finance climate-related projects in so-called developing countries. Four years later, however, the fund remains near empty, with only Germany equaling France’s pledge, plus a handful of other countries making smaller donations. The $1 billion pledge by France is a mere drop in the bucket, equal to roughly half a percent of the country’s military spending over the same four-year period.

The Green Climate Fund, like all the “market-based measures” advanced at the UN conference, is based not on what is needed to limit climate change or adapt to its consequences, but on the profit interests of the banks and major corporations. Wall Street is preparing for a bonanza, eying the fund as a vehicle for huge profits at essentially no risk. National governments would provide loan guaranties and subsidies, essentially covering losses in case the climate investments fail, while ensuring windfall profits flow to private companies.

Underscoring the subordination of climate policy to business interests, Tuesday’s summit had the largest ever involvement from the private sector. A UN press release highlighted this fact, stating, “In a major departure from the climate negotiations and previous climate summits, the business community and civil society are playing a major role. There were 181 representatives from the business and investment community, including 90 chief executive officers.”

Meanwhile, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced last week that global temperatures this summer were the hottest on record. This year is on track to break the record for the warmest ever, previously set in 2010, they project.

The NOAA announcement is just the latest in a steady stream of reports and assessments highlighting the severity of the climate crisis. While the governmental, business and “civil society” leaders present at the summit near universally admitted this, they once again demonstrated that it is impossible, within the framework of capitalist property relations and the nation-state system, to muster any meaningful response.

How our botched understanding of ‘science’ ruins everything

Intellectuals of all persuasions love to claim the banner of science. A vanishing few do so properly.
We're not doing science any favors if we don't properly understand it.
We’re not doing science any favors if we don’t properly understand it. (iStock)

Here’s one certain sign that something is very wrong with our collective mind: Everybody uses a word, but no one is clear on what the word actually means.

One of those words is “science.”

Everybody uses it. Science says this, science says that. You must vote for me because science. You must buy this because science. You must hate the folks over there because science.

Look, science is really important. And yet, who among us can easily provide a clear definition of the word “science” that matches the way people employ the term in everyday life?

So let me explain what science actually is. Science is the process through which we derive reliable predictive rules through controlled experimentation. That’s the science that gives us airplanes and flu vaccines and the Internet. But what almost everyone means when he or she says “science” is something different.

To most people, capital-S Science is the pursuit of capital-T Truth. It is a thing engaged in by people wearing lab coats and/or doing fancy math that nobody else understands. The reason capital-S Science gives us airplanes and flu vaccines is not because it is an incremental engineering process but because scientists are really smart people.

In other words — and this is the key thing — when people say “science”, what they really mean is magic or truth.

A little history: The first proto-scientist was the Greek intellectual Aristotle, who wrote many manuals of his observations of the natural world and who also was the first person to propose a systematic epistemology, i.e., a philosophy of what science is and how people should go about it. Aristotle’s definition of science became famous in its Latin translation as: rerum cognoscere causas, or, “knowledge of the ultimate causes of things.” For this, you can often see in manuals Aristotle described as the Father of Science.

The problem with that is that it’s absolutely not true. Aristotelian “science” was a major setback for all of human civilization. For Aristotle, science started with empirical investigation and then used theoretical speculation to decide what things are caused by.

What we now know as the “scientific revolution” was a repudiation of Aristotle: science, not as knowledge of the ultimate causes of things but as the production of reliable predictive rules through controlled experimentation.

Galileo disproved Aristotle’s “demonstration” that heavier objects should fall faster than light ones by creating a subtle controlled experiment (contrary to legend, he did not simply drop two objects from the Tower of Pisa). What was so important about this Galileo Moment was not that Galileo was right and Aristotle wrong; what was so important was how Galileo proved Aristotle wrong: through experiment.

This method of doing science was then formalized by one of the greatest thinkers in history, Francis Bacon. What distinguishes modern science from other forms of knowledge such as philosophy is that it explicitly forsakes abstract reasoning about the ultimate causes of things and instead tests empirical theories through controlled investigation. Science is not the pursuit of capital-T Truth. It’s a form of engineering — of trial by error. Scientific knowledge is not “true” knowledge, since it is knowledge about only specific empirical propositions — which is always, at least in theory, subject to further disproof by further experiment. Many people are surprised to hear this, but the founder of modern science says it. Bacon, who had a career in politics and was an experienced manager, actually wrote that scientists would have to be misled into thinking science is a pursuit of the truth, so that they will be dedicated to their work, even though it is not.

Why is all this ancient history important? Because science is important, and if we don’t know what science actually is, we are going to make mistakes.

The vast majority of people, including a great many very educated ones, don’t actually know what science is.

If you ask most people what science is, they will give you an answer that looks a lot like Aristotelian “science” — i.e., the exact opposite of what modern science actually is. Capital-S Science is the pursuit of capital-T Truth. And science is something that cannot possibly be understood by mere mortals. It delivers wonders. It has high priests. It has an ideology that must be obeyed.

This leads us astray. Since most people think math and lab coats equal science, people call economics a science, even though almost nothing in economics is actually derived from controlled experiments. Then people get angry at economists when they don’t predict impending financial crises, as if having tenure at a university endowed you with magical powers. Countless academic disciplines have been wrecked by professors’ urges to look “more scientific” by, like a cargo cult, adopting the externals of Baconian science (math, impenetrable jargon, peer-reviewed journals) without the substance and hoping it will produce better knowledge.

Because people don’t understand that science is built on experimentation, they don’t understand that studies in fields like psychology almost never prove anything, since only replicated experiment proves something and, humans being a very diverse lot, it is very hard to replicate any psychological experiment. This is how you get articles with headlines saying “Study Proves X” one day and “Study Proves the Opposite of X” the next day, each illustrated with stock photography of someone in a lab coat. That gets a lot of people to think that “science” isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, since so many studies seem to contradict each other.

This is how you get people asserting that “science” commands this or that public policy decision, even though with very few exceptions, almost none of the policy options we as a polity have have been tested through experiment (or can be). People think that a study that uses statistical wizardry to show correlations between two things is “scientific” because it uses high school math and was done by someone in a university building, except that, correctly speaking, it is not. While it is a fact that increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere leads, all else equal, to higher atmospheric temperatures, the idea that we can predict the impact of global warming — and anti-global warming policies! — 100 years from now is sheer lunacy. But because it is done using math by people with tenure, we are told it is “science” even though by definition it is impossible to run an experiment on the year 2114.

This is how you get the phenomenon of philistines like Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne thinking science has made God irrelevant, even though, by definition, religion concerns the ultimate causes of things and, again, by definition, science cannot tell you about them.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson (

You might think of science advocate, cultural illiterate, mendacious anti-Catholic propagandist, and possible serial fabulist Neil DeGrasse Tyson and anti-vaccine looney-toon Jenny McCarthy as polar opposites on a pro-science/anti-science spectrum, but in reality they are the two sides of the same coin. Both of them think science is like magic, except one of them is part of the religion and the other isn’t.

The point isn’t that McCarthy isn’t wrong on vaccines. (She is wrong.) The point is that she is the predictable result of a society that has forgotten what “science” means. Because we lump many different things together, there are bits of “science” that aren’t actual science that get lumped into society’s understanding of what science is. It’s very profitable for those who grab some of the social prestige that accrues to science, but it means we live in a state of confusion.

It also means that for all our bleating about “science” we live in an astonishingly unscientific and anti-scientific society. We have plenty of anti-science people, but most of our “pro-science” people are really pro-magic (and therefore anti-science).

This bizarre misunderstanding of science yields the paradox that even as we expect the impossible from science (“Please, Mr Economist, peer into your crystal ball and tell us what will happen if Obama raises/cuts taxes”), we also have a very anti-scientific mindset in many areas.

For example, our approach to education is positively obscurantist. Nobody uses rigorous experimentation to determine better methods of education, and someone who would dare to do so would be laughed out of the room. The first and most momentous scientist of education, Maria Montessori, produced an experimentally based, scientific education method that has been largely ignored by our supposedly science-enamored society. We have departments of education at very prestigious universities, and absolutely no science happens at any of them.

Our approach to public policy is also astonishingly pre-scientific. There have been almost no large-scale truly scientific experiments on public policy since the welfare randomized field trials of the 1990s, and nobody seems to realize how barbaric this is. We have people at Brookings who can run spreadsheets, and Ezra Klein can write about it and say it proves things, we have all the science we need, thank you very much. But that is not science.

Modern science is one of the most important inventions of human civilization. But the reason it took us so long to invent it and the reason we still haven’t quite understood what it is 500 years later is it is very hard to be scientific. Not because science is “expensive” but because it requires a fundamental epistemic humility, and humility is the hardest thing to wring out of the bombastic animals we are.

But until we take science for what it really is, which is both more and less than magic, we will still have one foot in the barbaric dark.

(Top photo: Leemage/Corbis)

US plans to invest $1 trillion in nuclear weapons arsenal

Nuclear Explosion (pixdaus)

By Niles Williamson
23 September 2014

The New York Times reported on Monday that the Obama administration is planning to spend more than $1 trillion over the next three decades to significantly upgrade its nuclear weapons capability.

The front-page article, authored by William J. Broad and David E. Sanger, serves a definite political purpose. It is a warning to Russia, China and any other country that may try to stand in the way of the American ruling class that the US military is preparing for nuclear war.

The Times writes: “With Russia on the warpath, China pressing its own territorial claims and Pakistan expanding its arsenal, the overall chances for Mr. Obama’s legacy of disarmament look increasingly dim, analysts say.”

The newspaper quotes Harvard Professor Gary Samore, Obama’s former chief nuclear weapons advisor and a stand-in for the administration itself: “The most fundamental game changer is Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. That has made any measure to reduce the stockpile unilaterally politically impossible,” he told the Times .

While the Times article is couched in the language of defense, in relation to both Russia and China the US has played the role of aggressor. The US and its allies in Europe organized a right-wing coup in Ukraine that has been followed by a campaign of sanctions and war threats against Russia. And the Obama administration has been carrying out a “pivot to Asia,” asserting its control over the Asia-Pacific while encouraging the remilitarization of Japan.

These confrontations, as well possible conflicts with European powers, pose the danger of nuclear war. Moreover, in its conflicts with Iran, Syria and other smaller countries, there can be no doubt that the US military is preparing for the use of nuclear weapons as well. It should be recalled that the United States is the only country in the world to have ever used nuclear weapons in combat: the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan at the end of the Second World War.

As part of these preparations, the US military is retooling its nuclear arsenal. The White House had announced in August that it would be reviewing its atomic spending plans in advance of next year’s Congressional budget request, which will set spending for 2016.

Amidst continued austerity and endless claims that there is no money for basic social programs, the US military is spending vast sums on this project. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the Obama administration’s current atomic weapon plan will cost at least $355 billion in the first ten years alone. The plan is focused on developing and deploying nuclear weapons that are more powerful and reliable, yet smaller, than the current warheads. This will serve Obama’s publicly stated goal of reducing both the number and tonnage of nuclear weapons held in US stockpiles, while increasing the targeting capability of delivery systems and destructiveness of the warheads.

The administration’s modernization plans include the refurbishment of existing nuclear warheads, development and construction of improved nuclear weapon delivery systems, and the upgrading of major nuclear weapons plants and laboratories.

According to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the United States currently maintains an estimated 4,650 deliverable war heads. Of these, 2,120 are currently deployed on ballistic missiles. Under the terms of the New START treaty signed with Russia in 2010, the US is required to reduce the number of deployed war heads to 1,550 by early 2018.

When President Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, the committee placed special emphasis on his “vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons.” In spite of Obama’s supposed vision and public calls for the elimination of the threat of nuclear weapons, he is committed to a development of the country’s nuclear weapon infrastructure that will increase both the precision and lethality of its stockpile.

The Obama administration’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) reasserted the US government’s right to a nuclear first strike against other nuclear-armed powers and countries Washington deems to be in violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, i.e., Iran, Russia and China.

Ruling out the use of nuclear weapons in retaliation against non-nuclear states that deploy chemical weapons, the NPR made clear that in “extreme circumstances” the United States still reserves the right to use nuclear weapons “to defend the vital interests of the United States or its allies and partners.”

The United States nuclear weapons industrial complex, overseen by the National Nuclear Security Administration, consists of eight plants and laboratories across the country, from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California to the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. It employs more than 40,000 people. At least 26 upgrades to these facilities have been approved and a further 36 have been proposed.

A $550 million fortification project was completed in 2011 at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, which serves as the main supplier of highly enriched uranium bomb fuel in the United States. The price of a new project at Y-12 to upgrade uranium processing facilities has risen from $6.5 billion to $19 billion.

The latest addition to this network is the National Security Campus, which opened in 2012 in suburban Kansas City, Missouri, and was built at the cost of approximately $700 million. Employees at the plant are currently working on refurbishing nuclear warheads built in the 1970s, which are utilized by the Navy on its 14 Ohio class nuclear submarines. Each of these submarines is capable of carrying and firing 24 nuclear-armed ballistic missiles.

Costs for modernization projects are projected to soar further in the second and third decades of the plan, reaching the trillion dollar mark as current nuclear-capable bombers, submarines, and missiles reach obsolescence and must be replaced. The administration has requested that the Pentagon make plans to purchase 12 new ballistic missile submarines and 400 new or refurbished land-based missiles.

A report released in January by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), “The Trillion Dollar Nuclear Triad,” details the administration’s plans to spend at least $100 billion for 100 new long-range strategic manned bombers, and a further $30-40 billion to build the nuclear bombs and cruise missiles to arm them.

The CNS report notes that the budget requests for the country’s nuclear weapons program have been largely unaffected by recent budget cuts since they were exempted from the 2013 budget sequestration cuts.

The report also indicates that $1 trillion is a conservative estimate for the total cost over the next three decades. Defense procurement programs often go as much as 50 percent over budget, and estimates do not consider the cost of dismantling weapons systems or paying out benefits to retired military personnel.

A climate of disobedience: Flood Wall Street

 …the coming destituent flood

by Skye Bougsty-Marshall on September 22, 2014

Post image for A climate of disobedience: the coming destituent floodFlood Wall Street signals radical disobedience, a destituent power that will rise to inundate the institutions of the political and financial order.

On September 22, 2014 a flood descended upon Wall Street and financial centers across the globe, an emergent flood of collective disobedience, creativity, and shared compassion and existential terror to confront ghoulish capitalism, states, corporations, and financial institutions relentlessly unraveling the planet’s delicate network of ecosystems. Flood Wall Street will bring swelling waters forcing a necessary disruption to the flow of capital, which acts as the pathogenic blood pumped through the planetary body progressively bringing about its decay.

The flood will come as global emissions continued to increase 2.1 percent in 2013; as consensus is being built around constructing emissions reductions in the form of voluntary pledges rather than binding legal obligations in the 2015 Paris climate agreement; as current voluntary emissions reduction pledges are associated with levels of carbon dioxide equivalent in the atmosphere exceeding 580 parts per million (ppm) by the end of the century (with prominent scientists increasingly arguing that the 350 ppm threshold associated with the generally agreed upon “safe” 2°C of warming is itself too high); and as 150-200 species go extinct daily in the midst of the sixth mass extinction in planetary history (how many just while you are reading this article?).

The gravity of the tragedy in which we are living defies psychological assimilation, a putrid sun at which we cannot bare to look for more than mere moments as even fleeting glances leave us quaking and disoriented as we shuffle along the abyss. Flood Wall Street is a harbinger of gathering waters of radical disobedience, of a destituent power that will rise to completely inundate the institutions of this political order and the power relationships that traverse them, to halt their operation. Our collective waters will finally recede in a withdrawal of all our vital energies and support for the legitimacy and representation of the political order to the vanishing point of the state and capitalism on new horizons.

The praxis and theory of destituent power, which Flood Wall Street embodies and announces, constitutes a radical disobedience that consummates itself in a rejection of and subtraction from the extant political order. In the urgent present, it reflects the pressing need to disrupt and deactivate the continuous functioning of capitalism that is destroying the biosphere. The virtually unparalleled level of scientific consensus surrounding the gravity and imminence/immanence of the threat of climate change, as well as the almost daily release of further documentation of the extent of intersecting ecological crises, cannot assail or forestall the economic logic of capitalism.

Neoliberal Rationality

The penetration of neoliberal political rationality into every corner of the global social space and its generalized application to an expanding domain of social life correspond with and extend the reductionist logic of capital incessantly striving to transmogrify the dense universe of heterogeneous, non-fungible human and ecological values into the smooth monolithic texture of economic value. The relative imperviousness of the continuing flows of financing from Wall Street — as the embodiment of global financial capital — to extractive industries, even as these businesses’ activities are directly and transparently causing the climate catastrophe (not to mention their literal mutilation of communities and ecosystems), testifies to this singular rapaciousness.

Through its univocal conception of value, capital serves to shape our actions and how we imagine our relationships with one another and the ecosystems that support us. It also mediates how we cooperate together to reproduce our world. This reconfiguration of personal and social life in strictly economic terms obliterates a whole ecosystem of values which are foundational to the continued maintenance of life on this planet. This inherent drive of capitalism to commodify ecological values, when multiplied and extended globally by its structural imperative for endless expansion, leads to the despoliation of the natural world we are ever more acutely experiencing. In its injunction to “Stop Capitalism! End the Climate Crisis!”, Flood Wall Street diagnoses a critical node in the network of power relations suffusing global society that must be resisted and dismantled in order to avert planetary disaster.

Yet we remain obedient to and actively enable this system to persist despite the immiseration, deracination, and chaos it engenders and on which it feeds because of the productive nature of power and the occlusion of power’s operations that ensure we largely misapprehend its elaboration and functioning. As Foucault suggested, power is successful to the extent that it is able to mask its operations. Power operates to produce us as subjects who then act as accomplices in our self-enslavement through obedience to this system and the deformed set of values it fosters.

Voluntary Servitude

The political logic of modernity that we have inherited and that informs our discourses can in many ways be understood as a response to the lack of a transcendent objective foundation for this obedience and the resultant need for artificially constructing it and ensuring its maintenance. However, paradoxically, this political project for securing obedience cannot completely negate disobedience, as this would entail the negation of the basic fundamental assumptions of modern subjectivity — freedom, autonomy, and self-determination — those which founded the modern political order (though are not exclusive to it) and which characterize the modern subject, on which this order is predicated and for which it was originally created to sustain.

In order to neutralize the most destabilizing and subversive effects of these foundational qualities which animate disobedience, modern political thought transformed these principles into “voluntary servitude” under the state. This reigning mode of voluntary servitude is everywhere identifiable, permeating our social existence and is reinforced through the operations of power mechanisms that appear to place the naturalness of the state and capitalism beyond assailment. Flood Wall Street constitutes an activation of the latent and suppressed disobedience our political order strives to contain and manage, and its effective release and exercise requires a careful understanding of the functioning of power.

We are accustomed to the view of power as that force which is external to the actor and impinges on, constrains, represses, or subordinates her actions. However, following Foucault, power is productive and creative, that which also forms and formulates the subject, providing coordinates for her social positioning that she, in turn, vivifies and lives through thereby rendering such position coextensive with her social identity and orienting the vectors of her desires. In this way a normative discourse, concerning, for instance, gender or heteronormativity — always and everywhere already invested with power relations — only persists as a norm to the extent that it is (re)produced through its instantiations in subjects acting out this idealization in social practice. This is how subjects are both the effect and vehicle of power.

The norm is reproduced through the acts of subjects that seek to approximate it, through the normalizing idealizations concretized in and through these acts. Discursive regimes and normative constraints are not external to individuals, but are guaranteed by individuals subscribing to them and reproduced through being subjected by them. The operation of power through subjectification and subjects in turn self-activating these mechanisms of power effaces power relations and dominance, rendering them difficult to perceive because we, in apparent freedom, participate in their (re)production in the ways we relate to and govern ourselves and our bodies.

Crisis and Control

Power can infuse and achieve effective control “over the entire life of the population only when it becomes an integral, vital function that every individual embraces and reactivates of his or her own accord.” In this society of control, power mechanisms become immanent to the social field, enacted and reinscribed constantly through their diffusion throughout the consciousnesses and the bodies of the population across the whole of social relations. Thus, we must conceive of power as not merely suppressive or repressive, operating on its objects (“from above”), but also as productive and creative, operating within and through them (“from below”), as not in a position of exteriority to other relationships but interior to and traversing them.

This means that power, in addition to bringing about that which must be resisted, also, and more perniciously, gives rise to the forms resistance assumes. Because power shapes and configures its own resistance, it is crucial to engage in analysis of local, specific power mechanisms to properly understand the operation of power so as to apprehend modes of resistance that do not inadvertently reinscribe and reinforce those very power relationships.

The importance of scrutinizing particular power mechanisms is heightened in our present reality which, following the assessment of Italian political philosopher Giorgio Agamben, is characterized by a state of perpetual crisis — ecological, economic, social — a time where crisis distends and stretches forth from horizon to horizon. Its uninterrupted nature collapses it into the smooth surface of the now, divesting the concept of its traditional restriction to any temporal reference or spatial register. The expansion of security and multiplication of control have attended this phenomenon, laying bare the dominant mode of government consisting almost exclusively of governing effects, as opposed to endeavoring to ascertain and address causes.

As Agamben points out, causes are difficult and costly to determine and so governing is focused on controlling and containing effects, marshaling them in a “profitable direction.” Modulating effects assumes an undulatory character in a ceaselessly mutating, smothering security blanket that touches all points, simultaneously purporting to support the social body while enveloping it as water to a drowning victim.

The virtually complete posture of reactivity corresponding to this method of governing — with even apparently proactive, preventative measures like the deepening penetration of surveillance and increasing militarization of police forces ultimately being reducible to mere preparations for managing future effects, for governing future disorder — finds its dominant expression in the intensification of policing, which by its nature is only capable of acting on effects.

Viewed in this light, the Pentagon’s warning about civil unrest stemming from ecological shocks assumes a particularly ominous tone. In 2008, the Department of Defense’s Army Modernization Strategy analyzed the arrival of an “era of persistent conflict” stemming from competition for “depleting natural resources” that would contribute to “future resource wars over water, food and energy,” as well as increasing “anti-government and radical ideologies that potentially threaten government stability.” That same year, the Pentagon was developing a 20,000-strong force of troops to be ready to respond to “domestic catastrophes” and civil unrest.

The menacing prospects of these developments do not require much elaboration by the imagination when considering the wide, vague powers granted to the US military under existing law: “Federal military commanders have the authority, in extraordinary emergency circumstances where prior authorization by the President is impossible and duly constituted local authorities are unable to control the situation, to engage temporarily in activities that are necessary to quell large-scale, unexpected civil disturbances…”19

Destituent Power

It is within this context of the prevailing security paradigm that we must evaluate and situate the mode of political struggle Flood Wall Street betokens. The modern conception of political conflict has been predominantly understood in terms of “constituent power,” which is the creative energy or violence that, ex nihilo, is capable of creating a (new) institutional order — a new constitution and new juridical norms — whereby social relations are organized (into “constituted power”). The peculiar and aporetic character of constituent power is revealed when considering that if constituent power succeeds in creating a new legal order, constituent power will, in following its essence, instantly threaten the same constituted power it has just created.

Thus, as Rafaele Laudani notes, if constituent power with this excess is not to undo the new legal order it has just constituted, “constituent power must then, at some indeterminate but decisive threshold, begin to be neutralized and contained.” It is in this dynamic that Walter Benjamin, in his essay On the Critique of Violence, identified and located the dialectic between constituent power (as lawmaking violence) and constituted power (as law-preserving violence). The mutually constituting and reinforcing nature of security and resistance reflects this underlying dialectic between constituent power and constituted power.

The concept of destituent power, on the other hand, originates from the Colectivo Situaciones’ analysis (poder destituyente) of the uprisings in Argentina on December 19th and 20th, 2001. Destituent power exhibits a similar potency to constituent power, but operates as a continual process of open-ended withdrawal from or refusal of the juridical, institutional order. It functions completely outside the law — extra-institutionally — seeking to dismantle sovereign, constituted power altogether rather than to reform it or overthrow it and then re-institute it in a different form. Destituent power is the energy immanent to law that tends toward the latter’s dissipation and disordering in a relationship analogous to that between entropy and matter.

Destituent power, in this sense, undermines and erodes the obedience that is fundamental to and presupposed by the constituted order for its continued existence. However, destituent power is not a purely reactive or nihilistic force, but instead is creative — not in the sense of producing new institutions to replace the old, but through its deactivation of juridical norms it opens new horizons of possibilities for harmonious social and ecological relationships far exceeding what is practicable under the current destructive political order.

Constituent power’s direct confrontation with the state — through “terrorism” or insurrection — simply reinforces the security apparatus, provides more effects for it to control, and invites greater levels of repression. As destituent power, disobedience can be conceived not as direct clash with constituted power but instead as the withdrawal of consent to the political order, as a direct negation of its legitimacy. Étienne de La Boétie recognized the potency of destituent power in 1548 in his Discourse on Voluntary Servitude when he wrote: “I do not ask that you place hands upon the tyrant to topple him over, but simply that you support him no longer; then you will behold him, like a great Colossus whose pedestal has been pulled away, fall of his own weight and break into pieces?”

Benjamin also envisaged this immanent creative potential within destituent power as he attempted to identify a pure violence that could “break the false dialectics of lawmaking violence and law-preserving violence.” Following this line of reasoning, he argues that “[o]n the breaking of this cycle maintained by mythical forms of law, on the suspension [destitution] of law with all the forces on which it depends as they depend on it, finally therefore on the abolition of state power, a new historical epoch is founded.”

Thus, although a constituent power destroys law only to re-institute it again in a new form, merely perpetuating the cycle; insofar as destituent power dismantles and deposes the law once for all, it can function to open onto the terrain of a new epoch characterized by radically new possibilities. In deposing the political order, destituent power opens becomings, enabling for experimentation with new practices and the development of new knowledges that will, in turn, themselves be de-instituted in the continual and open-ended process unfolding.

Flood Wall Street

Flood Wall Street arises within and partakes of the ferment of the most recent wave of global social movements — Occupy, the Indignados, and the Arab Spring — that significantly articulated a strategy of radical disobedience and channeled a plurality of discontent into the unifying rejection and refusal of the interrelated crises wrought by capitalism.As we confront the current security paradigm of government, we must understand the critical importance of the destituent power embraced by Flood Wall Street as its waters swell to inundate the centers of global capital to block the latter’s destruction of the planet and then recede in an exodus withdrawing all support to the institutional order to open onto the wild of new possibilities.

This motif expresses how Flood Wall Street must carefully proceed to urgently bring the global machine of capital to an abrupt stop, while at the same time avoiding recuperation in the endless dialectical spiral that binds together security and resistance, through the evacuation of institutions, dissolving and dissipating them, emptying them of their support and power. This radical disobedience, in the form of destituent power, has the potential to escape from the endless dialectic of lawmaking and law-preserving violence — the most salient expression of which is the prevailing reflexive interplay between security and terrorism, with each inducing and strengthening the multiplication of the other.

Each day passes as we lay prostrate on the precipice watching the violent churning of the odious machine of capital. As Hannah Arendt argued, we voluntarily give power and legitimacy to institutions to the extent that we obey the law-making authority. Accordingly, acting with continued submissive obedience to the global capitalist order is to be complicit in its depravity and serves as an ongoing legitimation and proffering of consent to the system’s operation. In rushing torrents, Flood Wall Street is determined to follow Mario Savio’s exhortation to throw our bodies on the gears and levers and all the apparatus of the machine to wrench it to a halt.

Given the relative lack of radical militancy characterizing the political landscape, we cannot only rely on a gradual mass exodus as the climate change juggernaut continues until planetary tipping points have been reached and exponential accelerations in climatic disruptions proliferate and become irreversible. With Flood Wall Street we endeavor to bring down the Colossus of capitalism and the illegitimate political institutions — the state, corporations, financial institutions — which comprise it and act as its functional vehicles. At the same time, the flood announces the arrival of the beginning of a process of withdrawal, the beginning of an open-ended process entailing a radical reorientation of our relationships with the biosphere through practices of food sovereignty, commoning, and radical participatory democratic practices.

A Rising Tide

In this way, the concept of destitution should be understood as a “positive no”, rather than a pure negation, that in rejecting representation at once produces “a ‘self-changing’ affirmation that engenders new practices and modes of subjectification, from which the ‘no’ first derives its force.”Destituent power deactivates sovereignty, institutions and representation, thereby expanding “the field of the thinkable” as if manipulating an aperture. This capacity of destituent power to expand the thinkable, the horizon of possibilities, finds consonance in David Graeber’s analysis of the effects actualized through the neutralization of the constraints imposed by institutional bureaucracy in past revolutionary moments. With the destitution of the apparatus that limits imaginaries, the unequal structures of creativity will unravel and a proliferation of social, artistic and intellectual creativity and experimenting with new ways to see the world can flourish.

Flooding Wall Street is the incipient act of disobedience, the first wave of a rising destituent tide, suffusing the concrete, glass, steel, and material power of Wall Street with an existential “NO!” presaging the razing of the institutions of finance capital and the state, and that will finally recede in a cacophonous subtraction and reciprocal production of an opening onto new horizons of possibilities for alternative forms of social relationships and harmonious relations with ecosystems. Desertion and withdrawal of obedience and support to the institutions and representation of the constituted political order is the trajectory we must follow, but this process must be accelerated through more immediate disruptions to the flow of capital because we do not have enough time to pursue exodus at a walking pace; we must move at the pace and with the indomitable urgency of a flood.

We must urgently deactivate the operations of capital while minimizing embroilment in the spiral of the security paradigm. Simultaneously, we must conceive of ways in which the flood of the precarious, the excluded, the indebted, the refugees can withdraw their vital energies from the mutilating system of capital and its dominant actors (state, corporations, financial institutions), to swell and discover outlets for escape in an eerie tandem ballet with actual floodwaters climbing, inundating, and displacing those least responsible for and least equipped to address them. We are invoking a flood after which nothing is rebuilt — only a line of flight into the wild, a radical smooth openness, a piece of origami with indefinite dimensions that is shit-covered and delicate which we collectively begin to unfold and find we are doing the same with ourselves.

Skye Bougsty-Marshall is an activist and organizer with Flood Wall Street, a direct action taking place in New York City today (September 22).