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Ecological Antagonisms

A talk by Rupert Read I recently intended at UEA proved very much “something interesting to think about” in the words of Twin Peaks’ Gordon Cole, largely in the sense that it illustrated some of the antagonisms within ecological discourse. It also, need it be said, made some very important points regarding the reality of the catastrophe we find ourselves within and the value of ecological thought, and I want to make it clear that I saw much value there, even if what I say here is largely points of disagreement that it raised with me.

Something that became apparent to me during the lecture was the absence of a specific term. For whatever reason, despite openly talking about it at various points, referring to a “system”, and even towards the end mentioning the “means of production” the word Capitalism failed to appear. Despite everything being talked about within the lecture being some facet of the complex system of effects we may designate as the capitalist order, it was never directly references, becoming something of an elephant in the room even as Read referred to the scale of necessary change necessary to fight ecological collapse.

On key points I agree absolutely, the sheer scale of climate catastrophe, the need for large scale change, but in the back of my mind I couldn’t help but constantly question the notion of an environmentalism removed from anti-capitalism as something that is as deeply flawed as anti-capitalism devoid of environmentalism. Read made some interesting observations on how we may or may not be governed by nature in the sense that nature is or isn’t something we are part of, trying to negotiate a position between those two points and arriving at a point where nature both is something that opposes us and that includes us. For me this lined up with my inclination towards the fundamentally incomplete and ruptured order of reality, and gave me some extra impetus on route towards an idea of re-weirding the structures of reality that inform us.

Re-weirding in this context sounds very much like a slight diversion from the term re-wilding which was discussed much here, the idea of returning the land back to a percieved natural state, and something that actually I find quite interesting and promising as a practice, having grown up within the countryside myself and witnessed the sheer ravaging of the land that is wrought by industrial agriculture and other practices. As I see it, Re-weirding the landscape is a natural bedfellow to this, something the aim of which is to excavate the antagonisms within nature, hint at the underlying and terrifyingly alien forms lying beneath the idyllic surface of a country meadow. During the Q&As Read endorsed a kind of romanticism, hinting at ideas of the sublime, of a kind of spiritual veneration of nature found in some indigenous cultures. This struck me as something that could quite easily be extrapolated into a process of re-weirding, but actually strangely at odds with the statement heard elsewhere in the talk about de-alienating ourselves and, as it were, getting back in touch with nature. In truth what this process seems to suggest is a different state of alienation, or a re-alignment of perception, rather than a simple re-assertion of affinity.

Highly interesting to me was mention of James Cameron’s Avatar, mentioned with regard to it being one of the highest grossing films of all time and containing a clear ecological message. My immediate thought was back to Mark Fisher’s Terminator vs Avataran essay in which Fisher presents Avatar as a wholly more contradictory film, one that is far from presenting a simple ecological program, or even an effective critique of techno-capital. From the piece;

“James Cameron’s Avatar is significant because it highlights the disavowal that is constitutive of late capitalist subjectivity, even as it shows how this disavowal is undercut. We can only play at being inner primitives by virtue of the very cinematic proto-VR technology whose very existence presupposes the destruction of the organic idyll of Pandora.

And if there is no desire to go back except as a cheap Hollywood holiday in other People’s misery – if, as Lyotard argues, there are no primitive societies, (yes, the Terminator was there from the start, distributing microchips to accelerate its advent); isn’t, then, the only direction forward? Through the shit of capital, metal bars, its polystyrene, its books, its sausage pâtés, its cyberspace matrix?”

This highlights my main criticism of the talk, something I might call “eco-primitivism”, the desire to return back to a state close to nature, live in communion with it, something that contains within it some deep contradictions I think Fisher effectively excavates. If we are to return to this state of nature, to re-wild ourselves so to speak, the only way we seem to be able to do so is via the very tools which are currently facilitating ecological disaster, the technologies of late capitalist subjectivity, the libidinal drives of advertising, the digital spaces of the internet, the “shit of capital”. This is an issue that I think is going to come more and more into focus as we proceed into collapse, that we are already past the event horizon as it were of capitalism, and that the only way to truly overcome the hugely damaging modes of production, the systems of ecological destruction, is via the very means in which we are already engaged. This is not to say that we cannot to some extent pay more heed to the world around us, but it does suggest a deep contradiction that we must work past rather than against.

“Hands up who wants to give up their anonymous suburbs and pubs and return to the organic mud of the peasantry. Hands up, that is to say, all those who really want to return to pre-capitalist territorialities, families and villages. Hands up, furthermore, those who really believe that these desires for a restored organic wholeness are extrinsic to late capitalist culture, rather than in fully incorporated components of the capitalist libidinal infrastructure.”

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Post-ironic Metamorphosis; Detachment, Horror, Collapse

“Prophesying catastrophe is incredibly banal. The more original move is to assume that it has already happened.” -Jean Baudrillard

If there’s one thing that we have to come to terms with, in this cornucopia of conflicting multiplicitous simulations, it’s undoubtedly that reality is an infinite pit of horrors. The reality, that which underlies our normalised interactions, the everyday, banal, surface-level minute to minute second to second, episodic temporal order, threatens to collapse our understanding into itself. It lies underneath everything, this seething weirdness, it bubbles to the surface occasionally, an unseemly reminder of all that is uncertain and fragile about our precarious social existence. We surround ourselves with normality, inculcate ourselves into a numbing process of repetition and ritual, a shroud of removal.

Because ultimately, what is horror but a pseudo-Heidegerrian encounter with being? We often encounter it as an invasion of the other, some insidious terrifying threat from the outsider, but does this not belie a realisation that we are entangled in an eternal dance with this other? That these demons and apparitions may have existed as part of this reality all along, we just refused to acknowledge them seems to underlie a lot of our search for abjection in entertainment, a place of safety in which we can run a simulation of truth, test our reaction to the all consuming threat of the real. Like Lovecraft’s story Pickman’s Model or the Man Behind Winkie’s in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive the terror arises not from invasion, not from some outside force, but from the breaking down of logics and realities. We realise that what we previously considered fiction is reality, that what we spent so much time explaining away, hand waving as some immaterial nonsense, is confronting us directly as a manifestation of being. This denial, this othering of aspects we don’t wish to confront, defines to an extent the violence and fear that have dominated our limited lifespan as a species. We do not wish to encounter the reality of our own situation, so we go to untold lengths to prevent that happening, from simply lying to outright bursts of violence. We pathologically avoid being.

And this is the background against which we find the proliferation of ironic detachment. We situate ourselves within something of a “postmodern” [though that term is nigh useless so I will try not to use it too much] capitalist landscape of economic hand-wringing and corporate platitudinous simulation undeniably laid upon a backdrop of unmitigated exploitation, violence, and, most prominently, ecological collapse. We live within a paper thin surface-ideology that works tirelessly to hide the blood and viscera underneath, and what’s more, it’s unsuccessful.

Yes, you heard me, it doesn’t work. The fact is, we all know about what lies underneath the shroud of capitalist idealism that governs the banality of our lives, we are, for the most part, aware that we are being lied to, not shown the whole picture, that the door is being held shut lest the horrors of the other pour through, and yet we find ourselves doing nothing. Some of us respond by simply diving headfirst into the neoliberal promises made to us, just strapping on the blinkers and getting on with the task of reinforcing the wobbly appendages of capital’s outer reaches, but many more of us begin to approach life with a ever-amplified sense of irony. When I say irony, I don’t simply mean irony in the sense that it might be employed in a  comedy routine or a novel as a contextual device, but an entire attitude, a worldview necessitated by the denial of the real that becomes a cultural touchstone. In everyday conversation, we run away from it not by avoiding the topic completely, but by talking about it with a wry smile and a wink. This thing isn’t real, it is merely a simulation of the future, one of many, one of the many topics available to us, like the weather, football et al. 

Confronting Collapse

Ironic detachment is also entirely understandable. It seems the only meaningful way to get though the day without utter despair, and we fear the alternatives. Indeed, we often see obsession with the horror of the world lead decent people down a dark path of total and complete devastation of their own well-being in the face of an all-consuming hopelessness. Left Wing Melancholy is a term used to describe this distinct sense that there’s nowhere to go, not chance of success, change, simply no hope, no way out. The current ruling framework does indeed often seem inescapable, its horizons constricting and limiting, the cogs seemingly endless and constant, and yet one approaching entity, a “Hyperobject” as Tim Morton would describe it, seems to break through all of it, and that is the similarly implacable, acentered, Rhizomatic effects of human-induced ecological catastrophe, something that over-everything takes on the mantle of the real. All other priorities pale in comparison to the possibilities of the ravaging of global warming and mass extinction, and in some sense it can be seen as a direct mirror of Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism. Our ruling ideology examines itself in the mirror to find a malignant, twisted, fucked-up reiteration of its own idealistic vision staring back at itself. It is a self induced nuclear blast, the oncoming disintegration of every carefully constructed theological and philosophical construct that tried to reach beyond its unfathomable depths.

So surely, when we look towards this unthinkable horror, we laugh or turn away, we consider it with a nervous laugh, make fun of it, we detach ourselves from its reality… Is this our only recourse? While I’ve presented this as a distinctly macro issue, one of social devastation and world collapse, it is simply, to some degree, a scaling up of our own existential drowning in the waters of irony, a continuous attempt to avoid reality and subsist on simulation, in a world in which simulation has become an order far beyond what Baudrillard could have predicted. From something so vast and impossible to conceive, we can look under the hood of our own sensibilities and consider the micro effects tied into the macro umbrella. We can consider this not only as an adaptation to catastrophe on the widest possible terms, but something into which we are inevitably tied.

This is not the same as considering collapse and systematic issues as a problem connected to individual action, something that has become all too prevalent and tied up in the mechanisms of late capitalist irony that give us our existential coping mechanisms. In truth, part of our individual confrontation must be to recognise that ultimately no matter how many straws we don’t use, how much plastic we recycle, how much we buy the right products, undergo all the government-ordained and corporately managed ecological procedure, ecological collapse will still bear down upon us in the same way it has been for decades now, being not a consequence of individual decision-making, but the very structures into which the idea of individual culpability is baked. We have seen the very source of the horror we are now ensconced within and try desperately to avoid or mitigate try to sidestep its own central part in this cosmic comedy of errors in a gigantic exercise of what we might term in some sense as victim-blaming. 

I say here, and without any sense of metaphor or mediation, that what is necessary is a direct, horrifying, unfiltered confrontation with being. We can simply no longer afford to wallow in ironic detachment, and must find an alternative. The closer we come to realising the sheer tenuous nature of our situation, and the more we realise that we in fact exist in some sense as part of a post-apocalyptic landscape, instead of continuously awaiting said apocalypse in anticipation of fighting it, the more we need another recourse. Irony becomes a poor bedfellow when we come face to face with the unstoppable disintegration of extinction. We must find some spark, some catalyst for metamorphosis, beyond simply opining for revolution in some retrospective greatest hits compilation of radical politics, we find in this necessary confrontation with an ultimate abjection a need for some kind of new process and new mediator, whether this be found simply in the folds of unbound pessimism or something more, something more… other. 

This is, when we come to look at it in the cold light of day, the moment for the new and, if any point in history calls for a reconfiguration of every priority and axiom of culture, this is it. Any kind of futurism ultimately must, and this is a must I cannot place enough emphasis on, do two things; 1 – Abandon the ironic detachment from the horror of out current situation, and 2 – Adapt its precepts to the immediacy of catastrophe. If there’s one constant annoyance I find with predictions of the future, often ones with a technological bent, it’s that they consistently present a vision of humanity or posthumanity divorced from the collapse of values and progress currently on the definite horizon. If, for instance, we are to see a world overtaken by the engines of technology, machine incarnate, we would have to entirely ignore the disintegration of technological progress and capital itself that can be witnessed alongside that of the surrounding ecological systems that govern it. There simply isn’t a possibility of eternal progress to fuel the visions we so often pine for, it will, and I believe we can say this with a good degree of certainty, have to encounter the material effects of its own deficiencies. How ironic.

Irony does not cancel reality

For irony, ultimately, is as much a source of misery, perhaps more so, than its counterparts. Irony pervades so much of our consciousness that we find ourselves unable to enjoy, in any sense that isn’t mediated or removed from ourselves. Oh this song? I don’t actually like it, I just like it ironically. This hat? Of course I’m wearing it ironically, I wouldn’t wear something like this sincerely. This racism? Can’t you tell it’s just ironic?

Ok, so that last one might strike a chord with anyone who’s ever come across the cesspit of online racism cloaking itself under the pretence of fooling around, of edgy humour. The alt-right and associated branches often hide behind a heavy shield of irony when questioned on the deeply unsavoury nature of their words and actions, and while this may seem different to the simple act of claiming to like a song ironically, it works in pretty much the same way. This is the key thing to bear in mind when encountering the irony practiced by “provocateurs” to justify promoting or amplifying racist or otherwise morally defunct worldviews; Irony does not cancel reality. We find it, in this context, to be an entirely ludicrous excuse, as if a murderer had just told us he butchered someone as a joke in an attempt to escape the law. No matter whether we did something “ironically” or not, the fact of the matter is the result is the same, the irony here is imply a flimsy shield against accountability, and easy to recognise as such.

Ironic detachment as a way of approaching the world seems to change reality while leaving it pretty much untouched, it facilitates simulation in a way that is entirely non-conducive to our own happiness and simply leads into an ever increasing and expanding pool of cynicism; detachment coupled with deep disdain and elimination of connection, with the end result of a deep distrust of our own being. Ultimately the result is not exactly replicated between us, but it becomes apparent that this problem, that we seem unable to function without a layer of irony protecting ourselves from reality, permeates our social and political undertakings.

What?

What of it then? Can we even look beyond irony in this case? If anything, it might already be occurring to ourselves that in the face of collapse ironic detachment proves an entirely ineffectual salve, nothing but a pathetic sticking plaster to protect the small and vulnerable being of our own egos. The issue is one of translation from micro to macro, from the existential to the political, where we realise that not only do we have to shift our own priorities, search for new horizons and new possibilities allowing us to adapt to whatever this all-consuming collapse has in store for us. We may have to try, to whatever extent it is possible, to confront before we can move on, whether this takes the form of a theological, a philosophical, a political paradigm shift, or all of the above, as tied together as they invariably are. We must, on some level, try to push our fingers through the veil into the uncertain otherness we fear so much and in some way to tear it, to visualise the beyond and to venture forward into it, not only because its advisable, not only because of our drive to uncover it, but because it is upon us, because, on some fundamental level, we know this confrontation is now unavoidable. We already live in a post-ironic future, it’s simply a matter of navigating it without disintegrating.