The Destination of Progress[?]
     By B. Gleason, who knows better than to ramble on such impossible concepts.

 

The idea of human progress, both its potential benefits and its potential shortcomings, affects every person kneeling at its altar and reeling in its wake. It renders us insignificant in its shadow. And it speeds, unabated, to uncertain ends – at a faster pace than we can address. This has historically drawn the expressive notice of poets, artists & musicians. It is addressed in the Mother Hips tune LATER DAYS. The term ‘later days’ is credited to Sherwood Anderson's "Winesburg, Ohio", a book which elevates intersecting tales of simple citizens into a larger comment on societal change ["…in these later days the coming of automobiles has worked a tremendous change in…our people..."]. Author Cormac McCarthy’s ‘Border Trilogy’ ["All the Pretty Horses," "The Crossing", "Cities of the Plain"] is another literary paean to the collision of past and future ["…shrouded in the black thunderheads the distant lightning glowed mutely like welding seen through foundry smoke. As if repairs were under way at some flawed place in the iron dark of the world."]. These works and others take an earnest and somewhat melancholy look at the state of towns & nations, the technologies which drive & bind them, and the people stuck for good or ill betwixt the grinding stormfronts.

It is not easy to pass judgement on the many tangents of our human efforts. Historically, we have succeeded in establishing borders and drawing up contracts to organize ourselves. I guess we underestimate how fertile our imagination can be, how it manifests itself into our world, and how it should be properly monitored. As such, the unforeseen tides of progress roar beyond those self-made quarantines. This seismic & inevitable process evokes the lone image of a defiant stem rising from cracked concrete.

Here we are at the end of a century and a millennium. Our chronicling of mortal history is honed to a concise science ["…only a scratch in the path, an arrow to point you in some other way"]. Ironically, the lessons we were meant to pick up, for which we offered ourselves this gift of recorded history in the first place, go largely unheeded. Continuing threats to individual liberties and wide-ranging environmental abuses alone illustrate this. And it is unfortunate. Have we lost the sense of our context? Have we lost the perception of the greater continuum? Are responsibilities to that timeline, such as maintaining the sanctity of the planet’s resources, for example, kept down by modern, ephemeral distractions?

Indeed, the human society is moved by one great leap after another. Years and decades pass beneath these strides. These take form as ideas or as physical inventions, or as processes that bridge them both. They are defined by irrigation, and by folding ladders, by the alphabet and the refrigerator, by magnets and shovels, by mass media’s enlightenment and intrusion, by the calendar and the light bulb, by periods of warring, and safe havens of peacetime. But the swift parade of these items or notions or movements [or attempts of the same] has its own inherent curse. When its pace quickens, our control slips, and the perils mount. Every major, self-proclaimed advancement in the 20th century, the assembly line, five-lane freeways, the global apparatus perpetuating processed fast food, and so on, seems only equal to its compiled waste, and even its cost in lost blood and hastily spent bones. [When these lost ones are tallied, some new great leap has already emerged to steal their spotlight.]

"There was an old horseskull in the brush and he squatted and picked it up
and turned it in his hands. Frail and brittle. Bleached paper white. He squatted
in the long light holding it, the comicbook teeth loose in their sockets. The joints
in the cranium like a ragged welding of the bone plates. The muted run of sand
in the brainbox when he turned it."

-from ALL THE PRETTY HORSES, Cormac McCarthy

"In these later days we’re making, of living on the taking
from each other all the things for which we had no further use…"

- from LATER DAYS, Mother Hips

On the whole, there's not much you & I can do on a large scale about our rampant society, and its intrusive changes, without crossing certain thresholds of violence or calamity. Tremors of revolution have been known to shake clean the slate from time to time. But we can never expect dynamic change to resolve itself in our own lifetime. So, we should spend the downtime as anchors for those we love -- to protect them in a makeshift shelter of relative morality and positivity as the hurricane howls and whips us all ‘round.

"…if I ever lost you I’d be crazed…
Could you hold me tightly through these later days?"

- from LATER DAYS, Mother Hips

One frightening aspect amplified by the lenses of chronicled history, especially in the 20th century, is the clean swipe of a landscape into [concrete] nothingness, or the mutation of the same into someone else’s dubious mold. Been to an old ballfield lately to find new ‘developments’? We are strangers in our own society. If a familiar association with a place on the map [or toward one another] grants us certain identities, then the numbing transformation of this natural scenery into an alien horizon leaves us formless and isolated in its cold shadow.

What alters our worlds around us? The same baby-steps that lead one person to riches and another to poverty: small choices following small choices and so on, down the chain. Each decision forms a hinge; the swinging of this hinge may toss one toward their fairest dreams, or threaten to fling them off-course. As for the latter: When one is in the midst of veering and hurtling across the dusk, it’s the landing that brings the perspective. Everyone’s fear is that our civilization is collectively plummeting toward a similar impact, and that we’re unprepared to painfully toil through the thatch to forge a new start. The threat of a standstill or, worse, a setback, is daunting for both the morale of an individual and a civilization. Since we link the word ‘progress’ with ‘forwardness’ and ‘betterment’, a gridlock in any capacity goes against the root association of the term. It fractures our faith in the promises of progress. This scares the hell out of us.

"But we’re not moving on the freeway, and there’s got to be a new way
To get my things from Point A to Point B."

- from LATER DAYS, Mother Hips

"I would never rest beneath your architecture,
You, who lodge your dams into our canyons.
Look and see what your children have been building
In the ruins of your own plan."

- from DESERT SONG, Mother Hips

The conundrum remains, however: If the sum of human endeavors is ultimately bloodier than the risk justifies, or less miraculous than its potential may declare or demand, then why even proceed onto the fragile limb of chance at all? Simply because we can, it seems. And we are scared not to. The thought of rusting in stagnation chills our blood, and we press on and stay alert for new avenues to move toward to keep our hearts aroused, and to keep our fright well behind us. We are also moved to "make something of ourselves." This pressure can inspire proud but premature enterprises. Our souls – which are both intangible and yet so strongly, strongly felt – are among the first casualties.

Any rash acts, no matter how ostensibly noble, threaten to produce rash byproducts. For every positive breakthrough in the fields of medicine & health, for example, witness the new glut of homogenized chain stores clogging our local colors and communities. The television glowing within most homes is barely the useful information medium it promises, but rather, mostly, an apparatus for obnoxious, even deceitful, campaigning. When humans gather to form neighborhoods and cities, our initial efforts to selflessly build up our communal surroundings may ultimately erode into serving the greater comfort and convenience our pride craves. An example of this is the emerging parasitical relationship between banks and supermarkets. The dubious power dealings behind such an arrangement stain the otherwise surface convenience. Does anyone truly believe we can back down from that one? Or summon restraint to retreat from similar dead-ends? What marks true progress, and what is merely a wasteful cul-de-sac? It’s hard to tell until you’re there. To paraphrase the famous philosopher, "Life is only understood backwards but must be lived head-on."

So we keep trying and hope for the best. The further out on the branch we bravely or foolishly cling, the more every action spells the difference between our support strengthening or failing. Uncertainty hounds us. Often, a lack of foresight and focus renders us confused and incapable of carrying out our once-proud plans. We are perhaps frozen in fear at our selfish refusal to sacrifice our grand movements – ambitious reflections of ourselves – even for the good of our children. "Kids today will not be kids tomorrow," and "there’s nothing you can say to make your daddy’s wrong right." It is a lonely limb we dangle from then, burned into silhouette by the retiring sun offsetting and overseeing it all.

"Please forgive me beforehand of all that I do.
May adulthood come gracefully slower than seasons to you."

- from THANK YOU, TIARA DEAVERS, Mother Hips

This is not to ignore or disown truly altruistic developments brought forth by humanity’s more positive ambitions. But they seem outnumbered these days by developments crafted for the sake of developments. I believe this is a circumstance of our current overpopulation: it’s increasingly difficult to encourage or enforce a moment’s pause before someone, somewhere launches an enterprise on impetuous wings. Consumerism is a common fuel: within the capitalist arena, the drive to capture the markets triggers a greedy stampede. With precious little frontier left to conquer, the herd then turns inward on itself. May we recapture those thoughtful pauses again, and be led by wisdom rather than whim.

"So the year has brought you to your knees?
It’s over now, so get up please."

- from OCTOBER TEEN, Mother Hips

We plan & mark our progress by calendar. But that linear measure is challenged by our circular senses of perception & memory, which are stubbornly cyclical. This presents a conflict. When a pattern in history runs its course – a war, or a national economic condition, for example – we look back down the timeline in ‘remembrance of things past,’ but silently fear that such a period lies in wait to test our collective limits and exploit our mortality again. Artists rightly tap into this dilemma as a source for expression - it's as righteous a subject as any other, this separate entity called civilization, this independent culmination of our mortal efforts, given life by us, grown beyond our control, on which we are basically hapless passengers. As artists take stock of the world mutating ceaselessly around us, they capture fleeting moments and moods onto easels, onto book pages, and through electric tube amplifiers. The fact that Sherwood Anderson and Tim Bluhm, for instance, exist at opposite ends of this century, but share a common kernel of inspiration, is a further example of how the impact our shifting society forever moves us. And the lineage of concerned artistic expression along this topic extends back much further, into the gray times between official calendars, when history hiccuped, and each emerging civilization was secretly feared to be another false start.

"One cannot begin to understand how a grain of sand that’s falling
is the motion that they’re calling time."

- from AFTERNOON AFTER AFTERNOON, Mother Hips

Now, a new millennium faces us around the corner. Our perception of this linear benchmark has stirred our imaginations, as we feel some pride in our dependable calendar’s relative longevity. Though our ‘years’ are ultimately arbitrary in the cosmic scheme of things, they are pretty well accurate enough because they stretch over the recurring foursome of natural seasons. However, in a great bit of irony, the contemporary computer – a tangible symbol of our current human achievement, upon which our jobs & livelihood are increasingly dependent – threatens our otherwise unbending calendar with the ‘Y2K bug. This glitch threatens to obstruct many massive, networked computer systems’ normal operations, because they won’t accept the year 2000’s existence [as most systems recognize ‘19xx’ as their default year template – effectively trapping time in the 20th century]. Its effect on our global community is still not completely known, let alone acknowledged, even at this 11th hour. It is a lazy nation that unwisely waits on the arrival of a costly disaster to gain the inspiration for its repair.

Bring a flashlight on the night of New Years Eve, 1999. When 11:59:59 p.m. rolls over, the network controlling the electric grid may just halt at the end of time itself. And, in darkness, the world will once again greet 1900 – hopefully with a better understanding of, and reverence for, the societal potentials we must labor to maintain. And you’ll at least have a light to shine, a battery-charged beacon of that redemption, around which the other partygoers will appreciatively orbit.

[-Thanks to the quoted musicians & authors].