A Design Challenge

I believe my first experience with Dan Dezarn was when he was in the role of Director of Sustainability. I was part of an environmental club interested in reducing the school’s carbon footprint. At the time I didn’t know he had formerly been a professor of Fine Arts, and it is such an interesting transition in roles. For me I see overlap between designing the transition from a fossil fuel based economy to a carbon neutral world, and the Reconstruction era in the South overseen by the Freedmen’s Bureau that WEB Du Bois talks about in the “Dawn of Freedom” chapter. The design challenge of a whole new way of life as evaluated through some of the art vocabulary we learned in class, as well as the text and paratext of Dawn of Freedom will be the topic of this blog. Later in life, Du Bois became interested in Marxism (as evidenced by his book Black Reconstruction).

Capitalism as a philosophy grinds up people, and destroys the environment as well. Mark Fisher, author of Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, has written about the incompatible relationship of capitalism and environmental care on page 18, alleging, “Yet environmental catastrophe features in late capitalism only as a kind of simulacra, its real implications for capitalism too traumatic to be assimilated into the system. The significance of Green critiques is that they suggest that, far from being the only viable political-economic system, capitalism is in fact primed to destroy the entire human environment. The relationship between capitalism and eco-disaster is neither coincidental or accidental: capital’s ‘need of a constantly expanding market’, its ‘growth fetish’, mean that capitalism is by its very nature opposed to any notion of sustainability.” The point of Mark Fisher’s very readable little book is that it is easier for us to imagine dystopian futures where human civilization has been ruined, rather than imagine an end to capitalism, which I believe we need to save the planet from overheating into temperatures that human civilization cannot thrive in. Relying on Industrialization in the North, rather than human labor, was fueled by fossil fuels like coal and oil, and now we need a creative and well designed green revolution with renewable energy, quickly. I digress a little bit, but I have a lot of questions about my future (I plan to work in solar technologies), our future, just as newly freedmen had about their futures after the Civil War.

This chapter is the first time we as readers see Steve Prince’s art within in the book, working as a corridor between the ideas in the first two chapters, as well as lifting the book’s ideas out of history and illustrating how they persist today. “The Veil” is held up by white hands in the sky and the progression of power over black people from slave owner (Uncle Sam) to military general to the warden of the for-profit prison system America suffers from today. The detailed lines of the men’s harsh faces adds an emotional intensity to the discussion. The poem Du Bois chose as an epigraph, entitled “The Present Crisis” by James Russell Lowell, reminds readers that the crisis of slavery continued long after the Civil War ended. Both paratexts share an unexpected temporal shift, and an emotional intensity that Du Bois avoids in his analysis of the situation. The line “Careless seems the Great Avenger” spoke to me, and I liked the framing of the situation as an epic battle between forces (“Twixt old systems and the word”) that God watches but does not necessarily participate in, which would explain the disorganization of it all.

Dan Dezarn made the point that Reconstruction could be seen as a case of poor design. Du Bois certainly critiqued the work, but on page 32 he also made clear the daunting social forces the work had to contend with, “In a time of perfect calm, amid willing neighbors and streaming wealth, the social uplifting of four million slaves to an assured and self-sustaining place in the body politic and economic would have been a herculean task; but when to the inherent difficulties of so delicate and nice a social operation were added the spite and hate of conflict, the hell of war; when suspicion and cruelty were rife, and gaunt Hunger wept beside Bereavement,—in such a case, the work of any instrument of social regeneration was in large part foredoomed to failure.” Similarly, in a time when world wide cooperation is needed most to forestall climate change, fascism and xenophobia rear their ugly heads. In the South, Jim Crow laws increased the starkness of the color line. Immediately after the war, little kingdoms and despots arose, creating a program that lacked unity. The courts did not provide balance as they should have, instead either punishing whites if they were Freedmen Bureau courts, or presupposing guilt of black people in the regular courts as in the supposedly past days of slavery. Most crucially, the temporal scale of the Bureau was insufficient, because they saw their work as temporary and thought suffrage could be the ultimate solution. The options appeared to be reversion to the previous system of slavery, or suffrage, instead of a gradual march to equality. I see a similar flawed pattern of all or nothing thinking from conservatives like Trump in regards to carbon emissions.

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