Wednesday, February 01, 2017


Steve Bannon in 1993

One strategy when trying to understand someone is to look at their earliest adult life (or maybe a little earlier) as a controlling metaphor for later developments.  Often the metaphor extends back or out to the larger category beyond family to the time and place of the person.  Wikipedia is mostly useless as a source of information for someone like Steve Bannon, because he undoubtedly is the source of his entry.  Still, this is included:  “In 1993, while still managing Bannon and Co., Bannon was made acting director of the Earth-science research project Biosphere 2 in Oracle, Arizona. Under Bannon, the project shifted emphasis from researching space exploration and colonization toward pollution and global warming. He left the project in 1995.”  

Until I began to look for the background of Bannon to try to understand why he is so toxic, I had forgotten about Biosphere 2.  It was a experiment in creating a sort of giant terrarium, a planet in a bottle, to try to understand how an ecosystem works with the idea that the knowledge could be used on a space ship or maybe the moon.  Bannon was one of the managers and so controversial, so feared and hated, that he left once, but then came back again — which prompted some of the participants to smash the glass wall, letting the world back in.  By that time the humans were suffocating and starving, the plants were dying, the bugs were nearly gone except (as you might guess) the cockroaches.  

Bannon’s specific function in this mess is muted, possibly erased.  I suspect that his concern was not for the life in the terrarium, but rather control of the reputation of the experiment and its funding millionaire.  He is an Iago.  (By the end oxygen was being secretly pumped in to keep the eight people alive, though listless.)  It was less than scientific from the beginning, eutopia that became dystopia.  Bannon is NOT a scientist nor is he governed by any other higher principles than success.  His success in this instance was his grip on the psyche of the millionaire, a man named Ed Bass whose fortune came from Texas oil.  

When I was with Bob Scriver, Western sculptor, we were aware of Bass’ bachelor uncle, Sid Richardson, who endowed an art museum named for himself in Fort Worth, Texas.  It features the work of Remington and Russell, which explains why the Remington bronze of the bronc buster is so often in Oval Office photos.  This whole movement celebrating the exploitation of Western resources is a hagiography of the frontier as uniquely American, combining anthropological “big man” phenomena with ironic grieving for the potential opportunity that was apocalypse for the indigenous people, justifying it with white man’s obsession with control, tenacity, and manliness.  (This may explain why Bannon often looks as though he’d just returned from a camping trip.)

When democrats, liberals, urban, Eastern, European ideas expanded for a few decades, Western art and movies withered.  Now we see the return of frontier images in films like “Frontier” and “The Revenant.”  Its accompanying set of images has always been the saloon/whorehouse with lots of red plush and pneumatic women displayed behind the poker players.

Ed Bass funded Biosphere 2 partly to explore a survival strategy in a polluted world, a kind of bomb shelter, but also fought the idea of global warming by denying it.  After all, his fortune was from oil.  When there began to be conflict among managers over scientific approaches versus idealism, Bass supported Bannon’s firm grip and when Bannon was removed, Bass restored him.  Accusations that Bannon is a “monster” seem to date from this uproar and are often relayed by women, but there has clearly been a lot of suppression of accounts.  Suppression seems to be characteristic of Bannon enterprises, including now.   There is also a description of the experience on TED, recounted by a woman who was sealed in for more than two years.  She gives a rather positive version of what must have been terrifying, near starvation and near suffocation when the calculations and bad science made predictions go wrong.  It was a “sim-planet,” with the negative results watched through glass as though on a screen.

Bannon’s entree to the world of venture capital as expressed in media images begins with a 2004 film called “In the Face of Evil: Reagan’s War in Word and Deed”. is the trailer.  is the whole film.  Andrew Breitbart . . . would later describe him as the Leni Riefenstahl of the Tea Party movement.  Riefenstahl was a female cinematographer who glamourized the German Olympics with beautiful filming and clever editing.  For instance, the diving competition begins conventionally, but by the end the sequence seems to show handsome blonde men actually flying off into a shining blue sky.  

This is a quote from Dr. Andrew Gordon, a board member of the PsyArt Foundation.  “Psychometrics, or personality targeting, may have played a major role in Brexit and in the recent American election. Psychologist Michal Kosinski developed a method to analyze people's personalities, preferences, and fears in minute detail based on their Facebook activity.  He concluded that our smartphone is a psychological questionnaire we are constantly filling out. Companies such as Cambridge Analytica (of which  Steve Bannon is a board member) starting using this method in elections. Trump's scattershot messaging was actually data-driven: a different message for every voter.”

At first glance this might seem like a variation on the “Trump is crazy like a fox” idea, but the real significance is that this is the “tell” of the shift to advertising as the third political force.  One of the evils of it is the substitution of indicator for reality: this time statistics instead of story.  The world under glass, a bottled world, a handheld world whose grip can be broken only by real life demonstrations.  

The message need not be apocalyptic.  Part of the reason it is so grim is that our political system, which clearly IS paralyzed and rotted, is run by those notorious old white men with lots of money.  Trump and Bannon are in poor health supported by disease and bad habits.  Their values are left over from the Cold War and their vision of the future is locked into the seeming collapse we call the Anthropocene, but it is supported by images of disaster instead of scientific optimism and biometrics.  

When the cause of the collapse of the Biosphere 2 was found, it turned out to be the concrete cement that was much of the shape and substructure under the glass.  The chemistry of the concrete was seizing oxygen out of the air and converting it to its own substance, calcium carbonate.  Tiny molecular dynamics that were beneath the notice of those in control.  A useful political metaphor.  Not flattering to Bannon.

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