On Earning The Grass Crown In Industrial Society / by Bryce Hidysmith

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There's a kind of story—I'm thinking specifically of Kubrick's Spartacus, the recent Bong Joon-ho film Okja, and Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go—that delivers its eventual emotional blow because of the way that humans are incapable of ontologizing scale. 

In Spartacus, the eponymous character fails basically because he's incapable of properly telling the difference between cops and soldiers. The cops—slaver guards in this case to be specific—have a personal relationship to the slaves, whereas the legions are industrial. They've made a business out of the military art. That was always the central component of Roman-ness, the existence of the Legion as the actuating arm of the whole enterprise. The use of force by military, rather than police, is totally impersonal. It does not listen, it simply follows orders. Its regular. Predictable. Not listening. 

Okja does not have a pyrrhic victory at its end, where a win has been achieved at great cost. Instead, when it comes time to face down Tilda Swinton's portrayal of the corrupt corporate executive to save the titular Okja, the protagonist, Mija, simply buys Okja for a Chekov's solid gold pig. Swinton's character bites the pig to ensure its validity and makes the trade. The whole attack on Okja was never anything personal—just business. She never cared about anything in the movie that didn't directly influence the bottom line of her business. The entire plot was a sideshow, permitted to occur for sentimental purposes while the industry would continue unaffected. Mija and Okja walk out of the slaughterhouse through the feed lots, showing just how small they are. They get on with their lives as best they can. 

Never Let Me Go is similar. The dark secret that the characters are clones being raised to have their organs harvested is revealed candidly a quarter way through the book. The style resembled the young adult novels of my youth where there's a resistance and a glorious revolution just around the corner, but the narrator and her closest friends were raised to be consumed and were never given the opportunity or resources to even develop the necessary cognitive faculties to discern an opportunity for escape. They simply spend the book living their allotted time, engaging in some simple speculation. They then complete their donations, and their bodies and minds are gone from the earth. 

These stories play us against ourselves by being stories, by forcing us to relate to a narrative rather than a non-narrative description of things. There is a scale that builds around the individual mind as the atomic unit of a narrative, and these are stories that subvert that expectation by putting individual minds against those forces that are structurally distinct from minds in a way that means they cannot be anthropomorphized. All three of these stories of course concern domesticated organisms—a gladiator, livestock for calories, livestock for organ donation—that contain the lived experience to synthesize a narrative, but not the lived experience of meaningful choices. It is possible to create organisms as tools, living in standing reserve. By harnessing the force of industry—in other words the ability to replicate a process on a scale incoherent to human experience—we are able to industrially farm predictably enough so as to create organisms entirely lacking in agency. It is entirely clear that industry outcompetes alternative methods of production, if possibly only by feeding armies well in the short term that can conquer and extract resources from non-industrial natural systems. How can we harness that which is controllable, but not relatable, in a way that it creates lives that are worth living? 

Something on my mind has been the old Roman military honor of the Grass Crown, which was the highest military decoration in the empire. While the legions might be impersonal, they were not disposable. While there was a norm of heroic sacrifice, there was not a norm of heroic martyrdom—Christianity's lionizing of wholly symbolic death appears to have been less terrifying to the romans than it was to the Japanese over a millenia later during the Shimabara rebellion, but the notion was certainly unattractive. Regardless of the willingness of temporally local individual monarchies and oligarchies there was that Rome that might endure for the population to live within its walls and its extended domains, through Italy to Iberia and back through Syria. Even the auxilia were not kept in standing reserve in the eyes of the empire itself, no matter how any individual commander might use them—they were simply at a point along the process of incorporation. 

I wrote the first notes on this subject on the fourth of July. America has always marketed itself as the one country that might be able to live up to Emmanuel Kant's Categorical Imperative by providing the constraint-set that allows for maximal freedom of its population so that said population can specify the life that it hopes to lead, according to its own self-determination. It has never lived up to that goal, but it could. To be the meta-national melting pot that America seems to usually hope to be it seems as though if you could somehow harness industrial force to increase rather than decrease the total accessible state-space of the world, you would have preserved the ineffable internal experience that justifies industry, that produces moral patients and treats them well. There's a part of me that thinks that the recent American Gods television series got the protagonist and the antagonist wrong. The difference is mostly in the aesthetics of affability or vague, creepy malevolence, and the narrative feels strangely distinct in text, rather than in the emoting of actors. Mr. World might be the future, as long as he's providing choices for things other than Salsa. Still, though, ultimately everything is all systems, interlaced, a single product manufactured by a single company, for a single global market...