Splitting the Atom

the mirrors of being, staring at the sun


“More than any other country, the United States in the post-war era lionized the individual at the expense of community and family. It was the sociological equivalent of splitting the atom.” -Wade David, “The Unraveling of America,” Rolling Stone.

We must approach elliptically.

When I was 17, this guy, a middle-class white kid who liked to party and who was renowned for taking things too far, drank too much and took Xanax and burned down the middle school. The twenty-two year old walked right up to the brick building that spread out over the hilly Virginia ground and went at it—long plaid shorts, a cigarette in his mouth. Whatever the reason or resentment, he didn’t remember at all throwing a chair through a window and burning a good deal of the school, which, as the news reported on its constant churning of the story for the next week, had just completed renovations. The next day, seeing himself in plain sight on the security footage they broadcasted all hours of the day, he shaved his head and sought refuge. But the reward did him in; he was caught. He didn’t he even have the memory of his crime to run from, washed as it was. Years later, his younger brother was my boss at Dominos.

Where is the individual in this story? In the act? In the face on the T.V. screen? In the communion of face and fire? What is the individual and how can we possibly approach it in the face of such disruption? We are told that this age is the age of the individual, that we are atomized, but that we experience this atomization only as the senseless, and separating ourselves from ourselves usually manifests as a negative experience. That senseless violence of burning down a school — not as oneself — in order to deal with the injunctions of the state, with dissatisfaction, with poor societal treatment of mental health (often brought on by the pressures of individuality itself!) is one of many disparate tracer fires in the night of subjectivity in the dark present.

Generalized alienation, or our disconnection from social worlds that make humans so great — “the cultural foundations of our lives, the toolbox of community and connectivity that is for the human what claws and teeth represent to the tiger” according to Wade Davis in the same August 2020 essay as show above — is obvious. It’s been talked about for hundreds of years and though it’s had its different iterations and offshoots, it almost feels banal to talk about the individual as problem, like gossiping or being the drunk guy at the bar who keeps saying capitalism, capitalism, capitalism like some slurring Kubrick character. Instead of grabbing these concepts from the outside, like an overzealous eater, we must stride in through so many back doors and instances.

Deep in the frigid wastes of the Arctic Ocean, thousand-year-old folds in sand and stone make up an aesthetically alien landscape. These drowned worlds are enough to make anyone rethink the basic assumptions we make about our planet. Here, the Greenland shark (called skalugsuak by the Inuit) dwells. It has an ultra-slow metabolism to live at the bottom of the icy seas; scientists think it can live for 400 years or more, and they know that by measuring radiocarbon in the body, which shows its lifespan in relation to the extreme nuclear events of the 20th century.

That these creatures survive before and after nuclearity, alone, and in their hunt are crystallized as living legends, seems to paint a cruel mirror of what happens here on land. A natural template for the irradiated paleness of the contemporary individual. Though this is probably not being very fair to the shark, who, after all has simply learned to live, our depictions of the shark, our curiosities, give word to terrible and uncanny correspondences. The fascination in the media of the age of this creature, endlessly debated, probably belies some other truth about its mystique and allure: a nervous truth wading in the depths in the cold, its only truth its muscularity, its instinct. The traces of something, of us, in the cells of its fins that have cut through the dense water since the American Revolution, are a timestamp of human ambition and cruelty.

Imagine a young Black poet from the brighter seas of the Antilles. Of Martinique, he is alone and up late in a garret apartment in post-war Paris. Having grown up as a colonial subject, poeticizing his tropical world through metaphors of elements not seen in the Caribbean (“chaste Snowdrop, venturous harbinger of Spring”), Édouard Glissant is in Paris to get to the heart of the culture that had imposed itself on him. Frustrated with the affectations of the poets, steeped in a tradition of self-referential subjects and universal ideals, he writes in Sun of Consciousness: “Imagination is shared, can only sustain a common surge; it is nonetheless a tributary of silence, which is individual.” For Glissant, in the cold of winter, imagination held possibility but was cold and dead without expression, or the journey between two shores. The access to these waters, though, his own style and encumbrances, the petty feuds, the blind stupidity of his peers were necessary. This paradox troubled him.

The existential individual, the individual of philosophy, film, and novels. The consumer self, the self on the couch, the tax payer, the voter, the dreamer, the judge. The individual takes many forms. Yet, the one sun blazes alone in the night sky. It is our sun and at the threshold of space we know now that there are many, but the individual deepens, digitizes and grows cold too soon like a White Dwarf. Metaphors wear thin on this terrain. A star subject to fission splits in two. These binary stars are beyond our vision.

John Dalton, a Quaker living in England, who was one of the first people to bring color blindness into scientific discourse, is considered to have had the first modern “atomic” conception of matter. Never married and a life-long devotee to his faith, Dalton figured out the combinatory properties of base materials by watching the weather, using certain processes to talk about other hidden, deep materials he could not see. His eyeballs were preserved and brought out to be tested and researched in the 1990s.

Traveling through Fukushima on a Fulbright, Ari Beser reported the story of a horse farmer who refused to leave his herd and bemoaned the slow death and dissolution of the multigenerational family of equine stock. His grandfather started the farm, and now the man refuses to leave his slowly dying horses.

“But he must have himself in order to reject himself!” Glissant cries on the page, into the night.

The Greenland shark and its increasing popularity of late—which, perhaps by avoidance, revolves mostly around quibbles about its actual aging—shows a figure of individuality marked by deep time and nuclear beyond the human. Not to say that nature justifies the individual but that we seek out figures in nature that resemble our own plights. It also shows the ways that our actions and effects are written on the deep time, on the Paleozoic traces that remain, and that the actions of the current are always jumbled up in the biological matrices that connect time and space. We exist outside of time. It is useful for now to dream about this shark, a figure for an individuality far from the gifts of the sun, who is marked by the nuclear, who is thought of as mythic or scientific before it is thought as alive. Every culture needs its mirrors.

I’ve heard that some people of Guerrero in Mexico do not let the children see themselves in the mirror for the first year of their lives. This is a base unit of understanding how the human is thought to be mentally and socially formed. But each person is a sun onto themselves; not a fortress but a gravitational mass of constantly changing matter, depending on and inflicting gravity.

The memory of the young amnesiac arsonist stays with me over and above the person attached to it. Who knows where he is? and in a way, for the memory, it doesn’t matter. We often give more credence to the memory of a person than to life; maybe as a way of dealing with how hard it is to keep track of the complexity of everyone we reduce them to memories, their remembered selves: long-dead stars.

John Dalton famously tried to turn down the honorary doctorates that were bestowed upon him. He also got a statue, which was rare for scientists in Manchester in the 19th century. As if his protestations and his piety provoked even greater ceremonial excess, the more he protested the more they loved him. At one of the ceremonies, his official robes were red, a color forbidden by Quakers, which Dalton could not see and so was excused from the prohibition.

We are constantly putting up mirrors to reflect ourselves. The mirrors are the sharks in the deep. The places that define us in the negative that we need to burn. The mysteries of a nature that is being presented for the first time to the individual as individual.

“I was populating that Parisian solitude, I was trying to nail solar keys to the measured door of the New Domain. And I gave over to what was elemental…” Glissant approaches the point. The poem itself is grown by the sun and in that way it too is nuclear. “No art so much as poetry is bound to the apocalyptic course of human knowledges,” he continues. The poems of the splitting society in the tissue of the sharks, the horses, the cargo pants.

In George Bataille’s famous conception of the economy as one of excess based on the giving of the sun and of solar plentitude, where cultures mirror this sovereign awesomeness, he pauses for a moment while describing the artificial fattening of animals as an example of the natural excess they are able to incur. It’s as if he is doubting the fact of these familiar things as part of his own theory of the superabundant, general economy that flaunts the familiar and austere toiling of the work. He writes “It was convenient for me to choose a domestic animal as an example, but the movement of animal matter are basically the same in all cases…The calf and the cow, the bull and the ox merely add a richer and more familiar illustration of this great movement.” The cover of The Accursed Share Vol 1 from which this quote comes is a deep red that Dalton would surely not have been able to see.

To see yourself on the screen as an example of your own fall, without the memory of it. To see the individual “you” that you do not possess is usually written off as madness, this moment of division. But it is seeing the effects of something beyond; the individual becomes an example of consciousness’s own detachment from itself. The poem of the contemporary body plays best on these screens. In the mirror. Between the poem and the statue.

To be continued….