Tag Archives: tuna

Inside Greenberg’s Tuna Machine

Paul Greenberg wants us to regard bluefin tuna as “wildlife” on the verge of extinction, but when he admires the fish he admires them as machines: at one point in his article for the New York Times Magazine he likens the bluefin to a big inefficient “Hummer”; he watches its “tuna motor” run, and slow; he marvels at the bluefin’s “miraculous engine.” And in one of the oddest passages in the entire article, he refers to the fish explicitly as a machine:

Not only is the bluefin’s dense, distinctly beefy musculature supremely appropriate for traversing the ocean’s breadth, but the animal also has attributes that make its evolutionary appearance seem almost deus ex machina, or rather machina ex deo — a machine from God. How else could a fish develop a sextantlike “pineal window” in the top of its head that scientists say enables it to navigate over thousands of miles? How else could a fish develop a propulsion system whereby a whip-thin crescent tail vibrates at fantastic speeds, shooting the bluefin forward at speeds that can reach 40 miles an hour? And how else would a fish appear within a mostly coldblooded phylum that can use its metabolic heat to raise its body temperature far above that of the surrounding water, allowing it to traverse the frigid seas of the subarctic?

This may be as pretentious as it is confusing. And the two qualities may be inseparable here. Take the most pretentious moment of all, the recourse to Latin and the variation on the literary phrase “deus ex machina.” Greenberg here first requires us to see the bluefin as a stage god of papier mache, brought up through the trap door or riser (the “machina”) on to the evolutionary stage. The fish is a piece of stagecraft, a device, the artifice of a Poet or Maker, I suppose, who writes the great drama of evolution. Here and elsewhere, Greenberg flirts with, but never really strikes, a compromise position between evolution and – I won’t call it Creationism, but I will call it Deism.

Horace, who coined the phrase “deus ex machina” in his Ars Poetica, considered the mechanical delivery of the god on stage a clumsy way to resolve plot conflicts, and advised strongly against it; but I suppose we are not meant to take the Latin that far, or that seriously. We, too, are supposed to pretend, or at least feel smug and assured. So it wouldn’t do, I suppose, to ask what conflict or entanglement is resolved by the evolutionary appearance of the bluefin.

Besides, Greenberg himself isn’t comfortable with the phrase, as his next move reveals: the bluefin tuna doesn’t just seem like a plot device, or a god brought on stage by the Maker of evolution; the fish also seems “a machine from God.” Whether “machina ex deo” is really the most elegant way to express this in Latin I leave for others to discuss, but I will note that the “ex” with the ablative “deo” here feels like a clunky way to express the idea of the bluefin as God’s machine, almost medieval, or like late Latin at best: it just feels a little too mechanical. (Of course that has not deterred scholars from using the phrase in books about technology; we even have Joan Rothschild’s Machina Ex Dea, an anthology that purports to offer “feminist perspectives on technology.”) Apparently, Greenberg and his editors at the Times did not fuss too much over the Latin, and could not resist the allure of the reversal here. But what does it mean? What could it mean?

The Neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus conceived of a “creatio ex deo”. Creation, in this view, is an emanation from God, or “the One.” The emanation is simply (not merely, but simply) a consequence of the transcendent One. Plotinus asks us to consider the sun, which is not diminished by its rays. The created universe shines forth from Divine Nous, which Christian writers would identify with the Logos or the Word of John’s gospel. God in this conception is not the Aristotelian prime mover, creating the universe and all living things “ex nihilo,” out of nothing; presence itself, The One, is in no way affected or diminished or changed by the emanation of or from its presence. We recognize the transcendent One when we recognize the Good or the Beautiful in the world, and from there, as in Platonic thought, move to contemplate the Forms.

Now you can easily see how this Neoplatonic view – a view of the creation as an emanation of God, the beauty of which leads us to the Creator – could inform what I am calling Greenberg’s Deism. We can come to know God, the Transcendent One, by watching the bluefin run. But this isn’t exactly Greenberg’s point of view – or at least it’s not the point of view his language allows. Instead, he wants to see God as a great engineer, a maker of machines; he has converted creatures to machines.

This idea of the world as a big clockworks, and all the creatures as instruments in that elaborate work, has been around since the 17th century. For Descartes, animals are automata and their bodies are machines, a complex set of moving parts, which can be replaced by pistons, drivers, rods, chips, apps, and so on. This cold and cruel view is part of the great philosophical heritage of the fish farm that Greenberg visits in Hawaii, where the idea is to engineer a better sushi fish, so that the bluefin can be left to run wild – or so that we can still eat sushi after the bluefin go extinct. Man assumes the role of maker, or helpmate, to God; the exercise of dominion over the created world, entrusted to man by the God of Genesis, is really a bit like running a machine shop or an industrial plant.

What gets lost or severely diminished when we liken creatures to machines is the essence of Creation or, indeed, of evolution: what gets lost is life. Wendell Berry has written beautifully on this theme, the ugly determinism it involves, the industrial devastation it enables, “the incalculable cost,” as he puts it in Life is a Miracle, “to other creatures and to ourselves.”

Without a full appreciation for life, and for all that sustains life, all the many relationships and little connections that sustain the lives of creatures and our own lives, and allow the life of one place – the sea, the forest, a farm – to be unique and truly marvelous, the idea of “wild life” is never really going to have much grab. And the only things we will find really marvelous will be the machines of our own making, or, even worse, our ability to make and remake them.

StarKist Cans Samoans

The economic news from faraway America is grim. Unemployment in the U.S. territory of American Samoa now sits at around thirty percent. More trouble is on the horizon.

In a bid to save jobs at the StarKist tuna cannery, the Territory’s big employer, American Samoa had asked to be exempted from the minimum wage increase to $7.25 an hour. Congress rejected that plea. StarKist predictably responded with a fresh round of layoffs, and the company is likely to follow Chicken of the Sea to Thailand and other places in Asia where cannery workers earn as little as 75 cents an hour.

Congress is not indifferent to the lot of the American Samoans, of course, so it has proposed $18 million in new spending for the tiny, remote island territory of 65,000 people . An editorial in the Wall Street Journal the other day observed, with some justice, that this “taxpayer handout” amounts to foolishly attempting “to undo the damage Congress’s economic illiteracy has caused.” The editorial then went on to blame the Democrats, the unions, and the minimum wage for the layoffs and all the Territory’s economic woes. Apparently even the South Pacific cannot escape the socialist scourge.

Of course, that’s not the whole story. First, the $18 million set aside in the new spending bill was already being given away, to StarKist. Or, more precisely, StarKist would have already been entitled to that amount – up to $18 million dollars — in “30A” tax credits for 2010 if it had operated “at a profit” in American Samoa. In the language of the proposed legislation, this “economic development tax credit” was intended to reward StarKist for “the corporation’s employment and capital investment in American Samoa.”

The proposal now is to channel that same $18 million in credit directly to the American Samoan Government “for purposes of economic development.”

“Development” is a tricky word in this context — everybody’s doing it — and it’s hard to imagine that $18 million can buy the kind of development American Samoa needs. The Territory is still recovering from last year’s 8.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami, which wreaked havoc all over the island.

We might get a better fix on the word if we were able to specify what will be entailed in the program of “economic development” to which the $18 million will be dedicated. The answer seems to be pretty straightforward: keeping StarKist in American Samoa. Last month, Eni Faleomavaega, the non-voting House Delegate from American Samoa, worked with Carl Levin of Michigan and Max Baucus of Montana “to convert the 30A tax credit in a way that will provide a direct payment” to the American Samoan Government. The Territory’s government would, in turn, use the money “to help StarKist until we can put a more long-term solution in place.” There go those Democrats and their anti-business agenda again.

As a headline in the Samoa News put it, StarKist would get the $18 million as an inducement to stay, “in lieu of” its tax credit, even though it was operating at a loss. One reader of that paper asked its editors to “please explain to your readers what lieu means– not all our folks know the word.” Of course, to explain the word is to reveal the sleight of hand it is meant to cover up. But Samoa is in a tough spot. “Without help,” Faleomavaega said, without exaggeration, “StarKist will be forced to close its operations in American Samoa and, if this happens, the Territory’s economy, which is barely hanging by a thread, will collapse.”

The fight over the minimum wage has put Faleomavaega in a tough spot, too, and that’s probably why he is now taking a more conciliatory position than ever before toward StarKist. Just a few years ago, in May of 2007, Faleomavaega penned an angry letter to Richard Wolford, President and CEO of Del Monte, StarKist’s parent company, in which he railed against “corporate greed” and “hypocrisy,” and noted that Wolford’s own compensation amounted to “over 400 times more per year than the average cannery worker in American Samoa.”

According to my calculations, you have approximately 3,000 employees and an increase of $0.50 per hour equates to about a $3,000,000 increase per year for StarKist and Chicken of the Sea. Considering that you do not pay health care benefits to our cannery workers which in itself is un-American, and also given that after 20 years of dedicated service you only pay out $160 a month in pensions to Samoan men and women who stand on their feet and clean fish for 8 hours a day, I believe your wisest course of action is to join with me in supporting a one-time increase of $0.50 per hour.

Faleomavaega ended his letter by taking issue with Del Monte’s notion of “responsibility” – which the company defines as “an economic, legal, and moral responsibility to maximize the return it gives to its investors or shareholders” – and reminded them of other obligations: “I believe higher laws should guide our actions and that we have a moral responsibility to do unto others as we would have them do unto us.”

I leave it for others to decide whether securing $18 million on behalf of a multinational corporation that is probably going to pull stakes anyway amounts to following the golden rule. The real question in American Samoa is whether that $18 million transfer amounts to development, at least in any meaningful sense of the word.

I have my doubts, unless by “economic development” Faleomavaega and associates merely mean saving jobs – or making a desperate bid to save jobs — at the StarKist cannery. That would seem to be the very antithesis of sustainable development, and though it may be politically advantageous for Faleomavaega in the short term, it does little for Samoa’s long-term prospects.

Worse, the proposed arrangement will launder the StarKist payoff through the American Samoan government. Corruption, as one CNN report put it, is “endemic” in American Samoa, which receives about $250 million in federal funding every year. Governor Togiola Tulafono has been accused of bribery; so have sundry government officials. In early 2007, one year before the quake and tsunami hit, Department of Homeland Security inspectors found that millions in disaster-preparedness had been diverted to other uses – flat screen televisions, expensive leather chairs, trips to Las Vegas, and miscellaneous entertainments. In response, our government temporarily froze all federal funding to the island. (That freeze did not and could not last. In the wake of the 2009 tsunami, President Obama declared an emergency and directed federal aid to the Territory.)

There has been some speculation that corruption made the natural disaster much worse than it could have been. The Homeland Security funds squandered by government officials in American Samoa were intended to pay for an early-warning system, which included thirty towers with thirty sirens that could have been activated with the push of a button in the event of a disaster. None had been put in place when inspectors arrived in 2007; Governor Tulafono claimed there was “never a plan for a system.” So disaster struck, and nobody was able to sound the alarm.

No surprise, then, that there are no viable economic recovery plans in place should StarKist decide to pull out of American Samoa. The Territory has relied on a mix of corporate interests and federal assistance for too long, counting on help from greater powers without making any long-term plans of its own. Maybe that’s what makes this remote island territory quintessentially, and uncannily, American.