The force of disaster hit me in the heart when, as a young woman, I heard Bob Dylan sing ‘Hard Rain’. The 1962 song elaborates an old American folk genre that works with question and answer. In the familiar songs of my childhood, the questions concerned how he managed to give his love a chicken that had no bones, or whether his darling could bake a cherry pie. The witness in ‘Hard Rain’ is no longer the naïve Billy Boy. He is asked: where did you go, what did you see, and what will you do? Still today his answers impel themselves into us with terrible force and anguish.
In a voice stunned by violence, the young man reports on a multitude of forces that drag the world into catastrophe. In the 1960s I heard the social justice in the song. In 2013 the ecological and political issues ambush me. The song starts and ends in the dying world of trees and rivers. The poet’s words in both domains of justice are eerily prophetic. They call across the music, and across the years, saying that a hard rain is coming. Long before climate change became a major public issue, Dylan’s words sing into ‘extreme weather events’. Flood and drought, poisons and waste stalk the world of ‘hard rain’.
My research has led me to develop the concept of double death through which I explore some of the ways in which we become partisans with death rather than life. On the one hand, double death is a threshold process in which the work that promotes death starts to overwhelm the work that promotes life. On the other hand, double death presses us to take a stand: for life or for death. This choice is pressed upon us not because life and death are in themselves oppositional but because the work that amplifies death is destroying the capacity of life to twist death back into life. Increasingly, life is struggling or failing to hold death in balance; increasingly life is struggling to affirm and promote relationships that sustain life and death in their mutual integrity.
Species are rendered locally or everywhere extinct, billabongs and springs are emptied of water, and soils are turned into scald areas, and forests are clear-felled. Dust storms, major heat events, massive bushfires, desertification, and acid sulfate soils stalk the land. This violence produces vast expanses where life founders. It amplifies death not only by killing pieces of living systems, but by diminishing the capacity of living systems to repair themselves, to return death back into life. What can a living system do if huge parts of it are exterminated? Where are the thresholds beyond which death takes over from life? Are we not exceeding those thresholds violently and massively not only through direct destruction but also through all the indirect, amplifying unpredictabilities of climate change?
And still, the damage rolls on. As research scholars we, too, are vulnerable. The degree of vulnerability shifts with shifts in social life, and the Coalition has just announced a new shift. Under proposed new rules, research funded by the Australian Research Council should no longer address national priorities. As reported in the Daily Telegraph, ‘Coalition sources said they believed that there was “waste” in the grants process and funding of projects that didn’t meet the Coalition’s priorities’. One of the ARC-funded projects singled out for approbation concerns public art and climate change. It is part of a research initiative at RMIT on Art and Environmental Sustainability. Research scholars in this initiative investigate ‘how cultural interpretations of the non-human world contribute to our knowledge of the environment and the crisis in global ecological sustainability’.
Tony Abbott may, perhaps, recognise the danger of research that brings cultural analysts and industry partners together to address major issues of how our people and our environments can remain resilient, adaptive and sustainable under the weight of all the ‘hard rain’ that is coming. When ‘coalition sources’ say that research must be responsive to the coalition’s priorities, let us be clear that they are not identifying the priorities of the nation, or of biodiversity, or of international conventions, international law, or the local integrity of bio-social communities. When they target the ARC-funded research project on ‘Public Art and Climate Change’ they perform to perfection the double bind.
Over fifty years ago, Gregory Bateson developed the concept of the double bind to describe a coercive and surreptitious form of power. In the context of the Coalition’s attack on research, it goes something like this:
1) As good citizens of an open democracy, we should all work for the sustainability of the nation;
2) The coalition will decide what is good for a sustainable nation, and will disallow anything that gets in the way of its own political agenda;
3) No critique will granted legitimacy.
Double death walks the land in just such cloaks of coercive power. ‘The executioner’s face is always well hidden’, in Dylan’s gloriously truthful words. Well hidden, that is, by being put out there in plain sight: behind a mask of the ordinary – of economic rationality and ‘business as usual’.
Dylan sings the bleakest and most powerful existential stand for witnessing that I have ever encountered. The words bear no story at all; they give us a series of compelling images, an account of impending calamity. The artistry of the poet (Bob/Billy Boy/Dylan) offers sequences of reports that pile wreckage upon wreckage. When Dylan’s questioner asks him what he will do now, he replies that he will go back out to keep on witnessing even if it kills him.
His song defends the integrity of life against destruction. And still it seems to call us ever more provocatively. Far from the sweet world of cherry pies and babies without crying, we are called again, and again, to rise up in defence of our capacity as humans to be involved in our own destiny and in the future of life on earth.
Nothing less is at stake. These are our times. The rain will get harder.
©Deborah Bird Rose (2013)
Other comments on the coalition’s criticism of ARC funding processes and outcomes can be found at: