Saturday, September 10, 2016


In the beginning all hominins were hunter/gatherers in groups numbering from a couple of dozen up to maybe a couple of hundred.  The group moved from one place to another in pursuit of food, usually determined by season, or sometimes to escape from geological disasters (flood, drought) or hostile entities (disease, infestations, predators).  All animals do this.  

When thinkers try to identify the point at which humans became the primary and then the only hominins, they often mention the use of fire, the dexterous opposable thumbs esp. in creating tools, the cooperation and communication among persons leading to language (possibly as an aid to hunting).  Few ever mention the impact of staying in one place because of the shift to agriculture.  Not all tribes were sedentary planters because not all ecologies were hospitable.  The Blackfeet always grew tobacco by planting it in some fortunate (usually hidden) spot, leaving it — then returning at harvest time.  They were nomads but they always came back according to the round of the seasons.  Nomads don’t normally wander at random, but rather have habitual camp spots (rhizomes) among which they travel (stolons).

When Euros came to North America with their millennia of sedentary life, they brought with them many features of governance related to staying in one place, because their thought was based on boundaries, permanent construction in one place, protective walls, written maps and definitions — all accompanied by ownership.  This they imposed on the indigenous people, namely reservations and commodities, agencies and restrictions such as blood quantum.  They called it an American Dream, a place of one’s own which one was obliged to manage according to community consensus.  

This is so deep and powerful that it is Lakoff-style metaphor that grips many ways of thinking.  It is an alternative way of thinking besides the metaphor of family with the primary “father” who controls everything, a “decider,” a bread-winner.  But in an ironic double-back, the metaphor of nomads has returned.  One travels as a loner or with a small tribal group, a major way of life for many contemporary people, esp. techies and military.  (Oracle has just transferred a big part of their operation out of Bozeman, where they had implied they would be permanent.)  

In places where this pattern is strong, like Great Falls, many people merely rent their furniture and re-equip the kitchens with packages of the basics: utensils, pots and pans, flatware, china, and big faux paintings.  Same in the bathroom:  towels, rug, toothbrush holder. I was in Target this week and saw them: cheap and bright, not particularly durable. It's because the way of life among them is about the same.

I would distinguish this from the great numbers of displaced people who live in tent cities of thousands with no place to go and no means to get there.  One plastic basin, one metal pot, a tiny stove, and I don’t know what else.  But these refugees, who didn’t want to travel, threaten the settled sedentary communities, partly because that’s where the displaced people once were and want to go back to.  They live in the same meaning frames and can communicate with each other, but their more closely examined frames of comfort may be quite different from the larger context.  The first time an Afghani family killed, butchered and roasted a goat in their yard, the phones at the Town Hall began to ring.

Living practices affect the way we think, setting norms and boundaries.  I tried to explain what I write about to two different friends in Great Falls, one an oculist and one a baker.  Their eyes turned into pinwheels and they found reasons to break off.

When, in everyday language, one says “I need space to think” or “give me some space to think”, this usually means: I need distance from the situation or place I am in precisely in order to think. Now, on an ontological level, the free space of thinking means that thinking is already distanced from itself, a distancing that does not mark out a terrain or territory of thinking in which a specific paradigm or school of thought can lay its foundations and build its temples, but rather, to adopt now the idiomatics of Deleuze and Guattari, this distancing amounts to the deterritorialisation of the space of thinking. Deleuze and Guattari’s nomads do not passively inhabit the smooth space of the open steppe or desert, they make their habitat, which expands out in all directions. 

The nomads freely add steppe to steppe and desert to desert, making space for themselves, allowing their open space to grow along vectors of deterritorialisation, vectors that trace the mobile limits of deterritorialised space. Likewise, the free space of thinking can be seen as the realm of the nomadic thinker, giving him or herself space to think at the limit of this very space dispensed by freedom. Nomadic thinking is therefore thinking at or on the limit of freedom, which by definition has no limits, and which, to use another expression of Deleuze and Guattari, turns the nomadic thinker into a “war machine” on a direct collision course with the static, ossified, and institutionalised thought that one could associate with the state apparatus.

Nomads are not refugees.  Travel is their natural state and their culture is one that supports their way of life — now we’re talking gypsies or retired  persons’ trailer culture.  They find the abandoned concrete pads at closed airports or industrial spots now empty, and invent streets and shops.

But there is also a kind of nomad who doesn’t move around physically, but identifies terrains of thought that can be inhabited by exploration of the mind.  The internet excels as an enabler and definer of these communities, which the physical locals simply never imagine exist.  Even if they ran across people building connections among themselves based on assumptions and affinity, they might not be able to “see” because the local culture never addresses the ideas, never identifies them.  The worst hazard is techies, always trying to make silicon chips out of humans.

Most of the thinking I’ve read about this sort of thing have only considered a few options: people who are hunter-gatherers, maybe computer programmers who follow the job, in contrast with farmers or neighborhood people who stay in one place and know only the parameters of that place.  We’ve been so focused on individuals that we’ve overlooked some other patterns.  What about the military groups, now including free-lance corporate armies, who move around the land according to urban powerful people with commercial interests based only on profit?  

What about the animal-raisers who treat their herds in great batteries in warehouses, as though inanimate factory products and ship them around the country: bees to orchards in spring, to fields in summer, maybe to seasons in the Southern Hemisphere instead of to dormancy.  Or cattle shipped to mountains for summer, to the South in feedlots or pastures in winter.  Nomadism is forced upon them artificially.  But then, after even the humans have been grouped and shipped for labor, they are not treated as individuals but as herds, defined and confined to please authorities of one place or another.  If they self-determine their destinations, they are treated as invaders.

The most subtle predator, disease, travels with insects, animals and people.  Now we have changed the planet enough for the climate to also travel and carry other beings along so that they are migratory non-humans that never really go back home, refugees who stay as weeds.  This erases the advantage of the sedentary, who by staying in one place and through regulation and adaptation making it into a sweet spot, an Eden.  

The Mayor's House

The community consensus that justified confinement and restriction runs headlong into people who move in who have different standards and is soon trying to make them move out.  The Mayor of Valier is determined to make us all meet his standards, which he achieves by employing a Rolodex of services and a checkbook.  He’s only lived here a few years.  I’m on his list of weeds, but I’m used to that, which is why I think about it a lot.

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