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'Killing' Ourselves to Death

Heller Levinson

In 1985, Neil Postman's book Amusing Ourselves To Death was published.  His thesis, in brief, is that television and the media culture have replaced thoughtfulness with entertainment.  We are being converted from a critically minded inquisitive population enjoying informed discourse to a nation of passive retards.

Yesterday, May 26, 2010, the Yahoo! news headline was "BP plans a ‘Top Kill.'"  Prior to going to my home page I had been reading Henry Miller's The Air-Conditioned Nightmare (first published in 1945).  Passages such as this:

               "This world which is in the making fills me with dread.  I have seen it germinate; I can read it like a blue-print.  It is not a world I want to live in.  It is a world suited for monomaniacs [BP, my insert] obsessed with the idea of progress -- but a false progress, a progress which stinks.  It is a world cluttered with useless objects which men and women, in order to be exploited and degraded, are taught to regard as useful."

I go from a passage like the above to the headline.  "Kill?" "Top Kill?"  Is BP hunting terrorists now, I wonder.  Battered with too many Jason Bourne movies, living in the surround sound of Jack Bauer on television's "24 Hours," I am titillated to explore what is the nature of this "Top Kill."  I click on the link.  No, it's not Osama Bin Laden.  It's an oil leak.  BP's very own oil leak.  The weapon of choice is mud.  "The company will shoot high-pressure mud into the well, hoping the pressure of mud coming in will eventually overcome the pressure of oil shooting out."

I am struck by the language.  What BP is intent upon "killing" is the very "lifeblood" of our civilization.  Oil's roots, hydrogen and carbon, are the basis of all earthly life.  Carbon fuels currently empower our civilization. Using terminology of execution to describe a strategy for containing a ‘livelihood leak' is peculiar indeed. What concerns is the language, the ecology of the language.  Are we not able to catch the semantic overtones of "shooting mud?"  Mud slinging?  Mud in the face? Mud being slung in the face of the BP executives? 

Language usage describing this contamination event is very revealing. Is a language contamination also operative?  Is language being endangered?  As "the limitations in our language is the limitations in our world," (Wittgenstein), we have a lot to be wary of.  A lot to protect.  When we speak of ‘killing' that which sustains us are we not revealing something very perverse about ourselves?  To be sustained by that which hazards our health and our air, to that which has the capacity to devastate wetlands and wildlife, to that which when corrupted (leaks) corrupts, -- is this not corruptible?

Alternatively, one could have used expressions such as "get control of" the leak, "contain," "redirect," "repair," "regulate," "salvage," "stop," "reverse," ... but "Kill?"  And a "Top Kill" at that.

"Kill" is also used to express annihilating time.  "It killed time."  "It killed the weekend."  What bizarre commentary this is.  A nation obsessed with longevity hell bent on "killing time?"  Wow, we really beat the shit out of "Time." 

I want to suggest a Language Leak.  Here's Henry Miller: 

      "Tell me what it is that man can build, to protect himself, which other men cannot destroy?  What are we trying to defend?  Only what is old, useless, dead, indefensible.  Every defense is a provocation to assault.  Why not surrender?  Why not give -- give all?" (from The Air-Conditioned Nightmare)

We won't surrender because we're in peak conditioning.  We're in the Oil-Conditioned Nightmare -- enslaved to our cars, our blackberries, our cell phones, our kindles, our powerbooks & computers, our itunes and apps, our televisions & treadmills.  We're a nation of Reactivity rather than Investigation and Reflection.  A nation assaulting our environment.  As the wetlands are being overcome with suffocating ooze, so our mental capacities are being smothered, shut down, diminished.  Our interior landscape is vanishing.  We're experiencing a perpetual leak, a prolonged erosion of our life sources, our domain of external and internal habitat.  We buy and sell, we kill and defend, we update and install, we click and click ... our horizons are shrinking -- it is the Time of Shrivellization.  Let this Leakage be a wake-up call, a last ditch alert -- if it's not too late already -- to look to new methods to nurture and fuel, to provide, to sustain ourselves.  Let us seek out the subtle and the tenebrous, the non-palpable and invisible, the slight and the insignificant.  Let us seek to use language more richly, with more consideration, with more tenderness, with more understanding, with more -- embrace.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do.

Heller Levinson is a poet and the founder of Hinge Theory.  His next volume, from stone this running, is forthcoming from Black Widow Press in Fall 2010.

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