Extract from Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization (City Lights, 2015)
You’ve heard the call: We have to do something. We need to fight. We need to identify the enemy and go after them. Some respond, march, and chant. Some look away, deny what’s happening, and search out escape routes into imaginary tomorrows: a life off the grid, space colonies, immortality in paradise, explicit denial, or consumer satiety in a wireless, robot-staffed, 3D-printed techno-utopia. Meanwhile, the rich take shelter in their fortresses, trusting to their air conditioning, private schools, and well-paid guards. Fight. Flight. Flight. Fight. The threat of death activates our deepest animal drives.
The aggression and fear that arise in response to perceived threats are some of the most intense emotions we ever experience. For human society to function at all, these instinctive reactions have to be carefully managed and channeled. Outbreaks of panic and hate are dangerous, but lower levels of aggression and fear help keep a population controllable and productive. Restrained aggression keeps people suspicious of collective action and working hard to overcome their fellows, while constant, generalised anxiety keeps people servile, unwilling to take risks, and yearning for comfort from whatever quarter, whether the dulling sameness of herd thought or the dumb security of consumer goods.
Since at least September 11, 2001, people in the United States and across the world have been subject to an unprecedented terror campaign — not from Al Qaeda, but from the United States government. National domestic policy transformed ‘security’ into constant fear, threatening its citizens at every turn: first with alarms of explosions and anthrax, then with prison, austerity-produced structural unemployment, and harassment, and finally with torture, SWAT tanks, snipers, drones, and total surveillance. Owing to the racial logic of US politics, in which white/black is the definitive semiotic distinction structuring American society, most of the government’s violence against its own citizens is directed against those with darker skin, but in subtler ways its terror campaign targets every single person who flies coach, watches the news, or uses the internet.
Fear comes to us every day in our encounters with increasingly militarised police and our humiliating interactions at metal detectors and body-scan machines. Fear comes to us in the absence of job security, in our want of appeal when confronted by institutionalised inequality, and in our mistrust of corrupt institutions. Fear comes to us in widespread surveillance, in the form of a homeless woman or a hospitalised friend without adequate financial support, and in the constant nagging worry that we’re not working hard enough, not happy enough, never going to ‘make it’. Fear comes to us in weather porn, unpredictable shifts in formerly stable climate dynamics, and massive storms.
More than in any other way, fear comes to us in images and messages, as social media vibrations, products of cultural technologies that we have interpolated into our lives. Going about our daily business, we receive constant messages of apprehension and danger, ubiquitous warnings, insistent needling jabs to the deep lizard brain. Somebody died. Something blew up. Something might blow up. Somebody attacked somebody. Somebody killed somebody. Guns. Crime. Immigrants. Terrorists. Arabs. Mexicans. White supremacists. Killer cops. Demonic thugs. Rape. Murder. Global warming. Ebola. ISIS. Death. Death. Death.
Sociologist Tom Pysczynski writes: ‘People will do almost anything to avoid being afraid. When, despite the best efforts, [fear and anxiety] do break through, people go to incredible lengths to shut them down.’ Sometimes when these vibrations shake us, we discharge them by passing them on, retweeting the story, reposting the video, hoping that others will validate our reaction, thus assuaging our fear by assuring ourselves that collective attention has been alerted to the threat. Other times we react with aversion, working to dampen the vibrations by searching out positive reinforcements, pleasurable images and videos, something funny, something — anything — to ease the fear. We buy something. We eat food. We pop a pill. We fuck.
In either passing on the vibration or reacting against it, we let the fear short circuit our own autonomous desires, diverting us from our goals and loading ever more emotional static into our daily cognitive processing. We become increasingly distracted from our ambitions and increasingly susceptible to such distraction. And whether we retransmit or react, we reinforce channels of thought, perception, behaviour, and emotion that, over time, come to shape our habits and our personality. As we train ourselves to resonate fear and aggression, we reinforce patterns of thought and feeling that shape a society that breeds the same.
Fight-or-flight is compelling because it serves essential evolutionary purposes. It increases alertness and adrenaline flow, and generally works to keep the human animal alive. As we proceed into the Anthropocene, though, capitalism’s cultural machinery for balancing fear and aggression against desire and pleasure is grinding and sputtering sparks. What cultural theorist Lauren Berlant has identified as the ‘cruel optimism’ of a system sustained by hopes that can never be fulfilled mixes dangerously with an atmosphere of beleaguered anxiety, increasing frustration with working-class and middle-class economic stagnation, and a pervasive sadistic voyeurism that grows by what it feeds on. While our fraying social infrastructure holds together, our fear and aggression can be channeled into labour, consumption, and economic competition, with professional sports, hyperviolent television, and occasional protests to let off steam. Once the social fabric begins to tear, though, we risk unleashing not only rioting, rebellion, and civil war, but homicidal politics the likes of which should make our blood run cold.
Consider: once among the most modern, Westernised nations in the Middle East, with a robust, highly educated middle class, Iraq has been blighted for decades by imperialist aggression, criminal gangs, interference in its domestic politics, economic liberalisation, and sectarian feuding. Today it is being torn apart between a corrupt petrocracy, a breakaway Kurdish enclave, and a self-declared Islamic fundamentalist caliphate, while a civil war in neighboring Syria spills across its borders. These conflicts have likely been caused in part and exacerbated by the worst drought the Middle East has seen in modern history. Since 2006, Syria has been suffering crippling water shortages that have, in some areas, caused 75% crop failure and wiped out 85% of livestock, left more than 800,000 Syrians without a livelihood, and sent hundreds of thousands of impoverished young men streaming into Syria’s cities. This drought is part of long-term warming and drying trends that are transforming the Middle East. Not just water but oil, too, is elemental to these conflicts. Iraq sits on the fifth-largest proven oil reserves in the world. Meanwhile, the Islamic State has been able to survive only because it has taken control of most of Syria’s oil and gas production. We tend to think of climate change and violent religious fundamentalism as isolated phenomena, but as Retired Navy Rear Admiral David Titley argues, ‘you can draw a very credible climate connection to this disaster we call ISIS right now.’
A few hundred miles away, Israeli soldiers spent the summer of 2014 killing Palestinians in Gaza. Israel has also been suffering drought, while Gaza has been in the midst of a critical water crisis exacerbated by Israel’s military aggression. The International Committee for the Red Cross reported that during summer 2014, Israeli bombers targeted Palestinian wells and water infrastructure. It’s not water and oil this time, but water and gas: some observers argue that Israel’s ‘Operation Protective Edge’ was intended to establish firmer control over the massive Leviathan natural gas field, discovered off the coast of Gaza in the eastern Mediterranean in 2010.
Meanwhile, thousands of miles to the north, Russian-backed separatists fought fascist paramilitary forces defending the elected government of Ukraine, which was also suffering drought. Russia’s role as an oil and gas exporter in the region and the natural gas pipelines running through Ukraine from Russia to Europe cannot but be key issues in the conflict. Elsewhere, droughts in 2014 sent refugees from Guatemala and Honduras north to the US border, devastated crops in California and Australia, and threatened millions of lives in Eritrea, Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Uganda, Afghanistan, India, Morocco, Pakistan, and parts of China. Across the world, massive protests and riots have swept Bosnia and Herzegovina, Venezuela, Brazil, Turkey, Egypt, and Thailand, while conflicts rage on in Colombia, Libya, the Central African Republic, Sudan, Nigeria, Yemen, and India. And while the world burns, the United States has been playing chicken with Russia over control of Eastern Europe and the melting Arctic, and with China over control of Southeast Asia and the South China Sea, threatening global war on a scale not seen in 70 years. This is our present and future: Droughts and hurricanes, refugees and border guards, war for oil, water, gas, and food.
We experience this world of strife today in one of two modes: either it is our environment, and we are in it, or it comes to as images, social excitation, retransmitted fear. People are fighting and dying in ruined cities all over the planet. Neighbours are killing each other. Old women are bleeding to death in bombed rubble and children are being murdered, probably as you read this sentence. To live in that world is horrific. Constant danger strains every nerve. The only things that matter are survival, killing the enemy, reputation, and having a safe place to sleep. The experience of being human narrows to a cutting edge.
I remember living in that world many years ago as a soldier in occupied Baghdad. Today that world seems impossibly distant, yet every day it presses in on me in a never-ending stream of words, images, appeals, and reports. I see videos. I read stories. I see pictures of this or that suffering or injustice and I am moved. To act, perhaps, but more accurately to emote. To react. To feel. To perform. We do not usually ask where these feelings come from or who they serve, but we all know that the cultural technologies transmitting these affective vibrations are not neutral: news outlets shape information to fit their owners’ prejudices, while Facebook, Twitter, and Google shape our perceptions through hidden algorithms. The specialisation and demographic targeting of contemporary media tend to narrow the channels of perception to the point that we receive only those images and vibrations which already harmonise with our own prejudices, our own pre-existing desires, thus intensifying our particular emotional reactions along an increasingly limited band, impelling us to discharge our emotions within the same field of ready listeners, for which we are rewarded with ‘Likes’ and ‘Favourites’. Our consciousness is shaped daily through feedback systems where some post or headline provokes a feeling and we discharge that feeling by provoking it in others. Social media like Facebook crowdsource catharsis, creating self-contained wave pools of aggression and fear, pity and terror, stagnant flows that go nowhere and do nothing.
Pictures of children killed by bombs or police, or pictures of the devastation left in the wake of a tropical storm may move me to sadness and horror. Retransmitting such images will pass along that sadness and horror. My act of transmission will mark me as someone who has feelings about these things and who condemns them. I can rationalise my retransmission by saying that I am ‘raising awareness’ or trying to influence public policy: I want my fellow citizens to be as horrified as I am, so they’ll think like I do, or so they’ll vote for a representative who works to prevent such horrors from happening, or maybe so that if enough of us all think the same way and feel the same way, the organs and institutions of power will be forced to hear us and align themselves along our vibrations, the way a honeybee colony will pick a site for a new hive through the dance of its advance guard scouts.
These are perfectly reasonable human assumptions, because that is how physical human collectives function. Anyone who has been in a crowd, a basketball team, a nightclub, a choir, or a protest knows how bodies resonate together. But politics is the energetic distribution of bodies in systems, and we live in a system of carbon-
fueled capitalism that we shouldn’t expect to work in physical human ways for several reasons, especially when it comes to responding to the threat of global warming. First, our political and social media technologies are not neutral, but have been developed to serve particular interests, most notably targeted advertising, concentration of wealth, and ideological control, and the vibrations that seem to resonate most strongly along these channels are envy, adulation, outrage, fear, hatred, and mindless pleasure. Second, the more we pass on or react to social vibrations, the more we strengthen our habits of channelling and the less we practice autonomous reflection or independent critical thought. With every protest chant, retweet, and Facebook post, we become stronger resonators and weaker thinkers. Third, however intense our social vibrations grow, they remain locked within machinery that offers no political leverage: they do not translate into political action, because they do not connect to the flows of power. Finally, while the typical collective human response to threat is to identify an enemy, pick sides, and mobilise to fight, global warming offers no apprehensible foe.
That hasn’t stopped people from trying to find one. The Flood Wall Street protestors say the enemy is American corporations. Tanzania’s Jakaya Kikwete and Nauru’s Baron Waqa say the problem is the United States and Great Britain. Shell Oil and the Environmental Defense Fund seem to think that it’s intractable UN bureaucracy that’s holding us up. Barack Obama has implied that it’s China. Tea Party Republicans would blame Barack Obama, I’m sure, if they admitted that global warming was actually happening and caused by human activity. Meanwhile, NPR-listening liberals want to believe that Tea Party Republicans are responsible, so that they can frame the problem as one amenable to solution by moral education and enlightened consumerism, as if it were all a matter of convincing people to eat more kale and drive electric cars. One climate activist has argued that just 90 companies are responsible for almost two-thirds of all historical greenhouse gas emissions, which conveniently absolves billions of automobile drivers, airline passengers, meat eaters, and cellphone users of responsibility. The enemy isn’t out there somewhere — the enemy is ourselves. Not as individuals, but as a collective. A system. A hive.
How do we stop ourselves from fulfilling our fates as suicidally productive drones in a carbon-addicted hive, destroying ourselves in some kind of psychopathic colony collapse disorder? How do we interrupt the perpetual circuits of fear, aggression, crisis, and reaction that continually prod us to ever more intense levels of manic despair? One way we might begin to answer these questions is by considering the problem of global warming in terms of German thinker Peter Sloterdijk’s idea of the philosopher as an interrupter:
We live constantly in collective fields of excitation; this cannot be changed so long as we are social beings. The input of stress inevitably enters me; thoughts are not free, each of us can divine them. They come from the newspaper and wind up returning to the newspaper. My sovereignty, if it exists, can only appear by my letting the integrated impulsion die in me or, should this fail, by my retransmitting it in a totally metamorphosed, verified, filtered, or recoded form. It serves nothing to contest it: I am free only to the extent that I interrupt escalations and that I am able to immunize myself against infections of opinion. Precisely this continues to be the philosopher’s mission in society, if I may express myself in such pathetic terms. His mission is to show that a subject can be an interrupter, not merely a channel that allows thematic epidemics and waves of excitation to flow through it. The classics express this with the term ‘pondering.’ With this concept, ethics and energetics enter into contact: as a bearer of a philosophical function, I have neither the right nor the desire to be either a conductor in a stress-semantic chain or the automaton of an ethical imperative.
Sloterdijk compares the conception of political function as collective vibration to a philosophical function of interruption. As opposed to disruption, which shocks a system and breaks wholes into pieces, interruption suspends continuous processes. It’s not smashing, but sitting with. Not blockage, but reflection.
Sloterdijk sees the role of the philosopher in the human swarm as that of an aberrant anti-drone slow-dancing to its own rhythm, neither attuned to the collective beat nor operating mechanically, dogmatically, deontologically, but continually self-immunising against the waves of social energy we live in and amongst by perpetually interrupting their own connection to collective life. So long as one allows oneself to be ‘a conductor in a stress-semantic chain’, one is strengthening channels of retransmission regardless of content, thickening the reflexive connective tissues of mass society, making all of us all the more susceptible to such viral phenomena as nationalism, scapegoating, panic, and war fever. Interrupting the flows of social production is anarchic and counterproductive, like all good philosophy: if it works, it helps us stop and see our world in new ways. If it fails, as it often and even usually does, the interrupter is integrated, driven mad, ignored, or destroyed.
What Sloterdijk helps us see is that responding autonomously to social excitation means not reacting to it, not passing it on, but interrupting it, then either letting the excitation die or transforming it completely. Responding freely to constant images of fear and violence, responding freely to the perpetual media circuits of pleasure and terror, responding freely to the ongoing alarms of war, environmental catastrophe, and global destruction demands a reorientation of feeling so that every new impulse is held at a distance until it fades or can be changed. While life beats its red rhythms and human swarms dance to the compulsion of strife, the interrupter learns how to die.
Roy Scranton writes for Rolling Stone, The Nation, the New York Times, and elsewhere. He is the author of Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization.