The Last Trace of 1968

The last of the 1968 Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination riot damage, 14th Street NW, between N Street and Rhode Island NW, 24 April 2009

When I first moved to D.C. in 2003 I set out to explore. My aunt had told me that it was unwise to go east of 16th Street but I did anyway. I remember walking up 14th Street NW toward U Street and it being obviously a neighborhood in transition. There were a few new places, but much remained burned out and deserted. The middle class people who were there were the homosexual vanguard of gentrification.

I simply thought of it as the usual urban decay and renewal, but it turns out that 14th Street had something unique about its desolation. Here’s the AIA Guide to the Architecture of Washington, D.C. (Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, Fourth Edition, 2006):

The Logan Circle / Shaw area declined gradually until 1968, when a series of riots in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. dealt a devastating blow. Angry mobs set fire to businesses that refused to close in mourning of the slain civil rights leader, and the physical and psychological scares of that tragic period are still evident in various corners of the neighborhoods. (p. 268)

Fourteenth Street wasn’t just any urban decay, but was where some of the most notable of the rioting and arson had occurred in 1968. The damage to the buildings that I was witnessing was the damage that had been done then and the area was only now, 35 years later, starting to be repaired. The scars were those rent in anger over the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

I have lived in Washington, D.C. for six years now and during that time the 14th Street corridor has gentrified significantly and the street of which it would be unwise to go east has moved significantly further eastward. At this point 14th Street is more or less a continuously nice street from the Mall all the way up to Columbia Heights and on to … I don’t know where … probably where 14th Street terminates at Iowa Avenue out in the early generation suburbs (I’ve commented previously on the transformation of 14th Street at Columbia Heights here: “The Future of Columbia Heights,” 25 February 2007). The last remnants of the 1968 riots is the block between N Street and Rhode Island NW (pictured above) and now even it is being refurbished. When they are done there, the last physical remnant of the 1968 anger will finally have been erased.

In a city of monuments, I almost feel as if they should leave it as a monument to the end of an era, to a bad year, to a time when the populace wouldn’t take it, when misdeeds were met in kind and to the city that was. Cities need to change, but they need to show their history as well. When this refurbishment is complete, the District of Columbia will have gained a few thousand more square feet of places to go and to live and a few thousand dollars more in rent and taxes, and a neighborhood blight will have been eliminated, but the record of 1968 in our everyday, non-nostalgic, non-consciously historical lives will be gone.


When I was in college and struggling to get postmodernism in philosophy, I asked a friend who was a writing student what postmodernism in literature meant. His very brief description — he was dismissive like that — was that in modernist literature, ordinary, every-day occurrences drove the drama of the story. In postmodernist literature, extraordinary events drove the plot of the story. The example that he made was that a story might start one morning when a man realizes that there’s a tree growing out of his leg.

Today, Komsomolskaya Pravda Daily reports that Artyom Sidorkin of Izhevsk, in the Ural Mountain region of the Russian Federation, went for surgery to remove what doctors had believed to be a tumor, but in fact turned out to be a five centimeter tall spruce tree growing in Mr. Sidorkin’s lung (“5 cm. Fir Tree Removed from Patient’s Lung,”, 13 April 2009 [Warning: Images Not Safe For Dinner]).

Two observations:

  1. Life imitates art — and vice versa. It’s not just philosophy and literature that are post-modern. They are merely middling indicators. They have become so only to the extent that actual lived life has become post-modern. Trees are actually growing out of people. I’m concerned that tomorrow I might read news of a man who woke up to find that he had turned into a giant beetle, or that the latest trend among young people was to turn into a rhinoceros.

  2. Life is fucking relentless. I used to find it bizarre that a mile out into Lake Washington on the 520 floating bridge, weeds grew in the automobile soot that had accumulated in the crevices in the asphalt and spiders had spun webs amidst their stems and apparently caught enough food to survive. Here you have a tree that actually tried to make a feeder-log of a man.

Update, 2 May 2009: On Monday, Steven Colbert picked up the story for his segment, Craziest Fucking Thing I’ve Ever Heard. He offered that that’s why he uses Roundup Nasal Spray.

A Cyberpunk Rereading of German Idealism

Pattie Maes's TED talk demonstrating an enhanced reality device, February 2009

Over at SLOG there is a bit of a conversation is going on about Pattie Maes’s recent TED talk in which she demonstrated what she calls “sixth sense,” but that I would call “augmented reality” (with Pranav Mistry, “Unveiling the ‘Sixth Sense,’ Game-Changing Wearable Tech,” TED, February 2009; Hecht, Anthony, “Holy Freaking Crap,” SLOG, The Stranger, 3 April 2009).

Today Charles Mudede, one of the thinkers to whom I consider myself most close, comments on the significance of Ms. Maes’s innovations along a line similar to my own project (“The Near Future,” SLOG, The Stranger, 8 April 2008):

It’s as if Hegel’s geist in his grand narrative of the history of consciousness, Phenomenology of the Spirit, actually came true. We can laugh at Hegel and his impossible absolute spirit, but we cannot laugh at Pattie Maes and her wearable tech.

For some time now I have been thinking that a cyberpunk rereading of the German Idealists is necessary. I have made a number of posts along this line (see Related Posts below). One of the themes of this blog — one that has emerged accidentally — is of the hard materiality of that which we call “ideal”; the degree to which mind is in the world; and not just statically so, but the degree to which the balance of matter and information is giving ground to information, processes of reification, the “imperialism of information”; that tool for rendering the study of ideology a material science, the meme; of those twain machines which bridge the gap: brains and computers.

My contributions to the project to date:

The Deus ex Machina of Economic Crisis,” 25 March 2009
The Noosphere Visualized,” 1 January 2009
Emergence and Aufhebung (Hegel and the Swarm),” 5 December 2008
The Day I Became a Hegelian,” 18 August 2008
Imagination Unmoored,” 8 August 2008

“What is rational is actual, and what is actual is rational”!

Preface to The Philosophy of Right (1821)

Consider the Hermit Crab

À la David Foster Wallace’s famous essay, “Consider the Lobster” — published in Gourmet of all places (August 2004) — new research shows that hermit crabs experience pain, remember it, can recognize and take steps to avoid future encounters of a similar kind (“Crabs ‘Sense and Remember Pain’,” BBC, 27 March 2009). The full research report is:

Elwood, Bob and Mirjam Appel, “Pain Experience in Hermit Crabs?,” Animal Behaviour, vol. 77, no. 5, May 2009, pp. TBD, doi:10.1016/j.anbehav.2009.01.028.

I’m a vegetarian so of course I find the practice of boiling crustaceans alive disturbing — and have since the first time I witnessed the gruesome spectacle at about the age of eight or ten. Nevertheless, I find Professor Elwood’s characterization of the practice as “potentially very large problem” to be bizarre. “Problems” have no objective existence. A “problem” is an issue of perspective. It would seem that, say, 5,000 years and trillions of boiled crustaceans into the practice of cooking arthropods alive, it’s a little late to declare it a “potentially very large problem.” An ethical lapse is only “a problem” if the perpetrator runs afoul someone who objects and is in sufficient a position of power to do something about it. Unless we wake up in the antechamber of the afterlife and it turns out that the correct answer was Hinduism, or unless it turns out that Yahweh takes seriously that bit in Isaiah about wolves and lambs lying down together (11:6-9), or unless we vegetarians establish a GULAG and declare universal jurisdiction for crims against animals then there is no problem here — at least not for the humans.

My Interests, As Reverse Engineered by

According to’s reverse engineering of my purchases, here are my interests:

Accounting, Asia, Biology, Chaos & Systems, Cognitive Psychology, Communism & Socialism, Consciousness & Thought, Economic Conditions, Economic History, Economic Policy & Development, Epistemology, Ethics, Finance, Government, Greek & Roman, History & Surveys, History & Theory, Holocaust, Intelligence, Intelligence Agencies, International Relations, International Security, Investments & Securities, Japan, Logic, Marxism, Military & Spies, Military Science, Modern, Napoleon, Naval, Nonfiction, Nuclear, Philosophy, Physics, Political, Political History, Political Ideologies, Presidents & Heads of State, Public Policy, Purple Politics, Relations, Russia, Social Theory, Sociology, Statistics, Strategy, Theory, World War I

That reads about right. I could quibble about some omissions, e.g. where’s Europe. That being said, why do Amazon’s recommendations suck so much? How is it that I can routinely go into a bookstore and find, not obscurely hidden in a lesser-trafficked corner, but prominently displayed, some work of exceptional interest to me, but that Amazon hasn’t recommended? And the heavily cut tracks! I find that I have an occasional interest in, say, the U.S. Civil War, but that I refrain from adding a Civil War title to my wish list because the Civil War is such an overdone cottage industry: if you add a single Civil War title, next thing you know every new volume by every small-town antiquarian, about every two-bit local general is going to be recommended.

Update, 5 April 2008: And what the hell is “Purple Politics”? Everything listed under that category seems perfectly respectable, but when I hear “purple politics” I think of Jessica Cutler’s The Washingtonienne, the Starr Report or the tabloids on Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni.