bob dylan, modest mouse and the end of the world

This isn’t really a throwback Thursday though that is what I usually write. But I am not quite sure what it is…

So I read this book recently called Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth put out last month by PM Press. It’s about political tendencies that have an aspect of end-of-the-world gloom and doom. It covers a various range of topics over its short length – from the environmental movement’s attempts to mobilize people through fear of the impending global collapse to right-wing catastrophists like Anders Breivik, who fear the end of the world is coming fast and multi-culturalism is the cause. it’s a good and very interesting book that I highly recommend.

But what made me think about writing something about it here is twofold. One, as some of you may already know, I’ve been listening to Bob Dylan a ton recently and his song “Let Me Die In My Footsteps” had been on my mind.

This song is about impending nuclear war and Bob’s desire to NOT go into the bomb shelters but to die in his footsteps above ground.

I will not go down under the ground
’Cause somebody tells me that death’s comin’ ’round
An’ I will not carry myself down to die
When I go to my grave my head will be high
Let me die in my footsteps
Before I go down under the ground


 
The second reason was that I recently pulled out Modest Mouse’s Good News For People Who Love Bad News.

I had not listened to this record in awhile and I remember when it came out just being ‘meh’ about it. But when I listened to it yesterday I realized how kick ass a record it is. It is not my favorite Modest Mouse record but even the fourth best MM record is still better than tons of other records out there.

But what got me this time was the song “Bury Me With It.” Especially this part:

Well as sure as planets come I know that they end
And if I’m here when that happens just promise me this my friend
Please bury me with it
I just don’t need none of that mad max bullshit


 
So now what does all this have in common you ask? Good question.

Well the book posits in one of the essays that increased fear and a thorough appreciation of the level of destruction we’re seeing in the world right now doesn’t actually lead to people getting more involved in fighting against climate change. In fact in a lot of cases the opposite is true. People retreat and feel hopeless to make any change.

And while many “don’t need none of that Mad Max bullshit,” instead of trying to fight for a better world, many are more likely to simply want to “die in their footsteps.”

These songs do differ a little in fundamental ways though. Dylan’s song encourages the listener to get out into the country and see nature while you can so that you may die on your own terms. And while he does say that he would “throw all the guns and the tanks in the sea” this is predicated on him having “rubies and riches and crowns,” or put another way, power.

Dylan’s song is fatalist because he believes that we have no power to change these things and we should simply try to enjoy what little time we have left and not get buried by the fear. The sentiment at the end is good but the demoralization inherent in having no power to change things is demobilizing.

If you’re not rich enough to throw the tanks in the sea then just check out and get ready to die on your own terms.

To me this really relates to the theme of Catastrophism. For Dylan, the immense fear and almost incomprehensible destruction associated with nuclear war did not inspire action but caused crippling apathy and a move away from collective solutions into personal attempts to live right. While this of course is not true of all people historically, it is part of the point of the song.

Even when anti-nuclear activists hoped that the fear would spark action, the opposite was equally likely (and attractive to many).

Modest Mouse’s song is also about enjoying what little time we have on this planet but Isaac Brock takes this even further.

It is very pointed that the first verse has the line “I probably really should’ve been at work.” This song is not simply about the destruction of the planet (as the verse at the top of this deals with) but also about the stultifying nature of work in our modern capitalist system. Or as Karl Marx put it:

the fact that labor is external to the worker, i.e., it does not belong to his intrinsic nature; that in his work, therefore, he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He feels at home when he is not working, and when he is working he does not feel at home. His labor is therefore not voluntary, but coerced; it is forced labor. It is therefore not the satisfaction of a need; it is merely a means to satisfy needs external to it. Its alien character emerges clearly in the fact that as soon as no physical or other compulsion exists, labor is shunned like the plague.

Anyone that has ever worked any shitty job knows these words to be true. Marx’s philosophy though is based on action. He wrote about this bitter alienation to point people to how things could be better. To how things don’t have to be this way. And how we could and should work together to change them.

Anyone familiar with MM knows that Brock peppers many of his songs with references to jobs, getting jobs, getting fired from jobs, bosses, etc (for some examples see: “Custom Concern“, “Float On“, “Third Planet“, “Wild Pack Of Family Dogs” etc). Also there is a strand of anti-suburban sprawl environmentalism in some songs (again “Custom Concern” and also “Novocain Stain“).

But instead of Brock looking to inspire some sort of action, again there is the desire to check out. And shoot guns at a mound of dirt. And when you can no longer do that or any of the other simple (though wholly unsatisfying) escapist activity, it’s time to die.

Please, bury me with it.

Despite the best intentions of those who fight for a better world for all of us, the politics of fear and imminent destruction are not helpful. I am, of course, not chiding Brock or Dylan on this but merely using their songs for examples. There are larger issues here about the context within which these songs were written but, while interesting, I don’t have time to get into those here.

The book does a great job of pointing this out and where Brock says he’s not interested in that “Mad Max bullshit,” the intro essay in Catastrophism puts it a different way:

“Dystopia is for losers.”

And while I think we can all agree on that, fear is not a good motivator. We desperately need a politics of hope; imbued with revolutionary enthusiasm. Now more than ever.

Anyway, jam out to the songs and read that book. Then instead of getting overwhelmed and checking out, get involved in making the world a better place.

We don’t need rubies or crowns because we have numbers. Remember the words of Percy Shelley:

‘Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number—
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you—
Ye are many—they are few.’


Dan Sharber wrote this today. He is obsessedly interested in connecting revolutionary politics and popular culture. He’s a nerd.

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39 comments
  1. adshand said:

    For the longest time the ego and vanity of men has led them to think that the great sweep of history leads inexorably to the place they are standing. The world keeps turning despite all this conceit. One day 5 billion years from now some man will finally be right.

  2. You’re absolutely right that hope motivates and fear cripples. As far as politics/government goes, though, I know many people think the problems are too many and too big (and would take too much money) to change.

    Great post. And thanks for recommending the book. I will add it to my Christmas list!

    • yeah i think you are right. a lot of people just feel completely disempowered. i hope you enjoy the book!
      -dan

  3. Perhaps the reason environmental activists sometimes talk about catastrophes is that those things in truth could come to pass, not as a mobilizing tactic… if that inspires apathy that is a social psychology problem. On the other hand many people work for practical solutions and individual action. There are many things that people can do about the environment, although those lacking a yard may have to look further afield to social instead of individual direct action.

    As for Marx… his sentiment has been echoed by many, but most these days seem to begrudge the alienation of labor as a post-modern phenomenon. A more radical comment from: http://deoxy.org/aaw.htm
    ::::::::”There are three types of labor – wage work, domestic labor and autonomous activity, the latter being (in most cases) exempt from charges of drudgery and slavery.”
    ::::::::”The sacrosanct notion of work is the cause of most of humanity’s woes. Never trust the priests of work because they’ve poisoned their minds with it. For example, the quantity of economically necessary work declines, yet politicians and economists tell us that the only way to end unemployment is with more useless work. Why couldn’t more people do much less?”
    To live in a world where all work is autonomous would take a massive realignment

    • oh for sure. i think the reasons are pretty clear – shit is terrible and looks to get worse! the point is, though, is that an effective strategy to mobilize for change? the authors of the book (as well as myself) think not. the problem with individual action, is that it not effective. we are such a tiny portion of the problem that any changes we make at the individual level are just tinkering around the edges. water is a good example. we are often told to conserve water but what we are not told is that 90% of the water used by humans is used in industrial processes. out of the other 10%, 5% of that is used by municipalities for things like golf course irrigation and ponds in rich neighborhoods. so you can see the impact of my individual water conservation effort would not have much of an effect. and the point is not to do anything, but to attack the problem where it’s casuses lie. and that is not at the individual level. i’ll take a look at that link. i will say though that i don’t believe all work is bad in all cases. i think that work and labor can be fulfilling and fructifying. just not under a capitalist system. ;)
      -dan

      • Well golf courses do use a lot of water, but a ton of grass is privately held.
        ~The EPA estimates that a third of public water is used for landscaping, 50% in Florida, and 70% in Western States ~
        “Blades of Glory: America’s Love Affair with Lawns.” theweek.com

        • sure. but again that is a very small fraction of the total when you consider that ‘public’ water is already less than 10% of TOTAL water.

  4. Great combination of music, politics and calamitous circumstances to capture my mind for minute or ten

  5. “Then instead of getting overwhelmed and checking out, get involved in making the world a better place.” Great advice for many situations. Thanks.

    • very true! and i hope more and more people will take it to heart. :)
      -dan

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  7. Hey there, interesting post and I’ll definitely put that book on my list. I want to strenuously object a little bit though to the interpretation of Let Me Die In My Footsteps :). For me, this song is exactly the opposite of giving up. The revolution starts from within and only once you free yourself from the bonds of fear – the ones that tell you that “death’s comin’ round” – can you begin to affect the world around you. He’s simply saying don’t play into their hands because, “Instead of learning to live they are learning to die”. Learn to live. Learn to appreciate the land – wherever you live – and enjoy all that mother nature has to offer. What he’s saying is don’t get involved in the false reality that these people are creating. The lie is that we are not in control of these things.
    Like the environment. WE use the electricity, WE drive the cars. Yes, we need to stand up against the people that do this on a mass scale, but one way to do that is to stop using their products. Stop giving them the power, so to speak. Each person that believes we need to reduce our “carbon footprint”, that’s what they need to do. And each person that does that affects the system as a whole. Because, at the end of the day, we’re the ones that are going to have to stop doing these things anyway. So, yes, it can be a massive campaign that brings 100 million voices to bear on the people that destroy our resources. Or it can be 100 million people that stop using the results of that destruction. I’m betting option b would be a whole lot more effective.
    Anyway, guess I rambled a bit (we are talking Dylan, after all), but I think what he’s trying to say here is that if enough of us realize the fallacy, it may just disappear. If someone tells you he has a purple rabbit it sometimes makes it a lot more real if you yell “there’s no such thing as a purple rabbit!”, then if you just chuckle and walk away. This song gives hope that one day when someone tells us about bomb shelters we’ll have a good laugh and go play in a stream.
    Oh, and thanks for the thought-provoking post. And the memory of that song :)

    • yeah i generally agree with your take on the dylan song – he is saying don’t let your life get ruled by fear. but live it on your own terms. but i would argue that that is not enough nor effective. i don’t think that individuals can make the difference you ascribe to them. more importantly, the problem is collective and the solution must be collective. we, as individuals, are not the problem. sure cars pollute and we use water etc but the main sources of all environmental devastation come through the process of production. and we have no say in how things are made and if things are made. the idea that we can make individual choices that will have an impact on the overall system is a fallacy. i am not saying to NOT do what you personally can for the environment but i am saying that if you want to really fix the problem that is not how it will be done. the system wants to keep us atomized as individuals who can only engage via the market. this already sets us up for a loss. buying green products will not save us. turning off my lights more often will not save us. strikes and protest against polluting companies will have a much greater impact that any personal choice you or i make. dylan says don’t get wrapped up in all the fear and just live your life. well that is cold comfort if the planet blows up. and since dylan sees the only way to change it is if you have rubies and things and are rich, then this song is a call to check out. i am not saying there is not great joy in living your life to the fullest but you are basically fiddling while rome burns. the threat of nuclear war was shockingly real during that time. so this was not some sort of call to not buy into a purely fabricated death trip. it was an individual call to live your life well since we’re all going to die. that is fatalism. not feeling like you have the power to change something is fatalistic. my argument is that we shouldn’t check out as dylan advocates (though i always and wholly endorse living your life well and enjoying nature) but rather that we join together to not simply live until we’re blown up but to fight to end the forces wishing to blow us up. i think we agree more than we disagree on the meaning of the song. i think we just place greater emphasis on different parts. ;) either way, i too could go on about dylan songs all day… thanks for reading and commenting!
      -dan

      • Yes, I’m also sure that we agree more than we disagree. I think my sticky point is that the end result of the “strikes and protest against polluting companies” is pretty much that we’ll buy green products and turn our lights off more. And also, that protesting a company who you then go home and send a check to is not really going to get them to listen too hard. But, yes, I’m not too thick to not acknowledge your point :)

        • yeah i get what you’re saying. but i disagree that the a company is going to listen more to those that send them checks. i think history shows that they will listen more to the rowdy mob in front of their offices… ;)

  8. You used Marx as an axiom to collective thought here but I say Marx was wrong. Labor may be external to the worker but one must not skip the understanding Marx was speaking of labor in a different climate than the one you or I live in. Here… no matter where your here is (except China), you can make a living for yourself from your labor (especially motivated by owning the place you work at this labor). This then is not differentiated as separate from the worker; which is in turn more a part of him/her and completely different from the view Marx had and held.

    As to fear, fear is but a lack of faith… even to the loss of faith in one’s belief to improve or make a difference in the lives of those around us. “Green” is nothing more than a repackaged marketing ploy for corporations to litter more with the newest version to alignment with globalism. There is a big difference between communism and commonality, Socialism and social services… democracy and freedom. To accept free will is to be cognizant of living… more than simply existing- and more people are doing just that today… surviving or existing. To fear, shun or deny individuals the right to their own choice is to remove all hope for improvement itself… this then is where fatalism wins- fear was truly effective.

    You will find more people that follow thoughts of Marx within the U.N., and Agenda 21 is coming to a: town, city, county, state or country near you sooner than you might like to admit to. Look up ICLEI… and if this doesn’t scare the Dickens out of you nothing will. Find more here… you want to talk about fatalism, let’s discuss global vs. free choice- and please get back to me. I do love Dylan’s music, like to openly express thoughts and opinions and value my own freedom to choose what is right for me personally.

    http://iclei.org/
    http://www.iclei.org/index.php?id=801
    http://www.americanthinker.com/2009/10/un_agenda_21_coming_to_a_neigh.html
    http://www.freedomadvocates.org/
    http://www.freedomadvocates.org/images/pdf/iclei_usa_easy%20read_050511.pdf

    • i think we have a different view of what marxism is all about. thanks for the comment though. :)

  9. “And we’re losin’ all touch, losin’ all touch building a desert…” You know, I named my son Isaac I love Modest Mouse so much. Weird, huh? Is your favorite MM album Lonesome Crowded West? Everywhere and His Nasty Parlour Tricks is my current favorite, but Lonesome Crowded West is my all-time favorite. Anyway, thank you for writing this post, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and you make a solid point. I agree that we need to focus rhetoric on building hope and inspiring action and not encouraging despair and hopelessness. Now, that being said, I’m going to go smoke pot and cry about the end of the world ;). Keep writing; I am subscribing to this blog!

  10. thanks! yeah i love mm as well. i think my favorite would be long drive. i think lcw has more ‘hits’ per se but i think long drive is a better record start to finish. i would really say building nothing out of something but i don’t count that one as an album proper since it’s really just all the singles. but yeah everywhere and his nasty parlour tricks is a great record too. i have been jamming here it comes a lot lately. man i love that song… enjoy your weed cry! when you put it that way though it doesn’t seem all that bad! :)
    -dan

  11. Like your thoughts and love the songs you posted! And love the Shelly quote: beautiful! Would love you to take a look at my blog at theanalystdreams.com and read “Tweaking the revolution: Pussy Riot’s Fearsome Call” which is related to your thoughts, I believe! I’m subscribing.

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