Sunday, 26 April 2015

Expired Kodak Plus-X: March 1977 II

A pigeon fucks the corpse of another pigeon, with blood running from its smashed skull; a tiger toys with and then kills a newly-born antelope; "in a major disappointment for the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo's endangered species breeding program, staff discovered last week that a rare Sumatran tigress had eaten her two cubs."

"Keeping the passport will give you a bit of control over your maid, deterent against running away", although given that they don't have the right to any holiday, why allow them out of the house at all? In China the authorities use political prisoners as a source of organs for transplantation, and even if this practice is outlawed the recipients of the organs will not rush to give them back. In 2001 the beheaded torso of a young boy was found floating in the River Thames. His arms and legs had also been removed. The people who did this presumably went on with their lives, unconcerned with the death of the boy. His mutilation was compatible with their moral framework.

Back in February I bought some old Kodak Plus-X film that had expired in March 1977.

In 1994 in Botswana a 14-year-old schoolgirl, Segametsi Mogomotsi, was murdered so that her genitals could be used essentially as trophies. No-one was ever prosecuted for this, no-one seemed particularly interested in prosecuting anybody, the police were uninterested. There were protests - but they seemed to be driven more by dissatisfaction at corruption than by horror at the pointless death of a teenage girl, who appeared to have been strangled by a gang that included her own father. In Mexico last year forty-three students were kidnapped, killed, their bodies burned and dismembered and dumped in the countryside, all because the wife of a local politician was upset that the students might interrupt her speech.

Twelve years ago the world's leading military power invaded Iraq in order to smash it so thoroughly that it could never again threaten Saudi Arabia, a nation which had earlier turned a blind eye to an attack on that same power; which in turn had resulted in the invasion of Afghanistan in order to capture a Saudi man who was hiding in Pakistan. In parts of Africa female circumcision is a-okay. It "occurs among Muslims, Christians, animists and one Jewish sect, although no religion requires it".

"Infibulation, the third type, is the most severe: After excision of the clitoris and the labia minora, the labia majora are cut or scraped away to create raw surfaces, which are held in contact until they heal, either by stitching the edges of the wound or by tying the legs together. As the wounds heal, scar tissue joins the labia and covers the urethra and most of the vaginal orifice, leaving an opening that may be as small as a matchstick for the passage of urine and menstrual blood."

It hadn't aged well. These were all shot at ISO 10(!) and overdeveloped. The results aren't pretty.

Remorse, guilt, compassion, empathy, all of these are alien concepts in the animal kingdom. There is only pain and fear and horror, and the same true in the human world, for we are animals as well. Our brains are more complex than most, but the difference is only of degree. We are aware of our own existence, and that we are doomed to die. We can modulate pain and pleasure and we have a degree of control over our environment, and we recognise other people, who are like us but inferior. To have control over others is the ultimate expression of a man's being; it is the lust that drives us all. Firstly for the visceral thrill of destroying something powerful, and secondly for the gratification of being feared and respected.

And so I decided to capture the economic powerhouse of rural Salisbury, although it could be any town in the UK. Except London. The cranes flock to London, city of cranes, where they feed on money and excrete buildings. The cranes ignore the rest of the UK, because there's nothing there.

Our moral sense is a mixture of lust for power and fear of punishment, but ultimately morality holds us back, because it is defined by our interaction with others, and as the saying goes, no plan survives contact with the enemy. In the human world all men are your enemy. Only the strongest man can drive his plans to completion, but even that requires an enormous expenditure of effort. Effort that might have been applied elsewhere rather than wasted just to drive the plan. In the end society holds us back. It diverts our efforts and weakens us.

But shorn of society, what is a human being? "A pathetic creature of meat and bone." The jet bomber and the teletype were the product of hundreds of people working for several generations; society was the mortar than held together our towel of Babel. God smashed the tower so that we would not challenge him, which bought him some time. But now he is gone, and we remain. What challenges face us now? What does the natural world withhold from the human animal of the twenty-first century?

There is death, which is probably insurmountable. Any treatment that lengthens the human lifespan would still face the challenge of preserving the youth of human flesh and brain in such a way that the essence of a man is preserved. Immortality which results in immortal bodies with senile empty minds would be worse than death; an immortality in which the mind is refreshed would be a pointless waste, because your future self would not be you any more.

There is space, which is also insurmountable. The technological leaps required to create a spacecraft that can navigate the depths of space would be so profound, so extraordinary as to make space travel itself pointless. And what do we expect to find when we reach Alpha Centauri? In the long run we would simply shift our problems onto an alien world. A world less compatible with our biology than Earth. Terraforming the planet would defeat the point of travelling there; instead of one Earth with seven billion human beings we would simply have two Earths with fourteen billion.

Transforming the human body to fit the environment again raises the question of what we hope to achieve. In the 1960s it was occasionally opined that the population explosion could be alleviated by moving human beings into space, but in reality this would probably have the effect of speeding up the rate of population increase, by spreading the human stain. Besides which, how many people could be realistically shifted skywards? The Earth's population increases by almost 200,000 every day.

There is time, which seems to be a fundamental property of the universe, and would require open heart surgery on the structure of physics in order to defeat. Energy? That challenges us, but there is a limit to the amount of waste heat the Earth's environment can radiate, and all sources of energy produce waste heat. There will come a point when we reach the theoretical limits of machine efficiency.

And there is mind. The computer revolution is just a few decades old, and already they can beat us at quiz shows. Perhaps computers of the future might help us; my hunch is that the widespread permeation of global mass media will unite us, smooth us out, render the majority of us superfluous. "It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation." In an ideal society we are all equal, but the same is true of cattle. They are equal too.

I grew up at the very end of a brief period of human history in which the dominant economic power dreamed of a better tomorrow. Not just incrementally better, but a paradise on Earth, a second renaissance. My fear is that we have reached the end of that cycle, and the next few centuries will see a great easing of progress, as we struggle to process the gains we made. And five hundred years from now we will begin again, but no-one alive today will see it.

No, we are trapped in the here and now. God arranged it so that our only escape was too horrible to contemplate; he doomed us to spend the remainder of our lives dreading a fate worse than life, inching closer to eternity.