It’s all dying

'Occasionally it'll strike. You just float into the middle of the water, look around you and think: "Wow, it’s all dying."'

Throwing ourselves into activism can leave us feeling even more helpless, even more guilty, because of how massed the forces are against change. 

The innovation by fossil capital of the idea of an individual ‘carbon footprint’ - a way of turning collective responsibility into personal debt - was a far-sighted investment in guilt. 

This is a strategy with deep roots in fossil capital. And it is now wired into what Kathryn Tanner calls the ‘new spirit of capitalism’. Indeed, capital has long had an apparatus of guilt that is related to debt.

This article is an extract from The Disenchanted Earth, from Indigo Press.

The disciplinary effects of financialization on the whole system come at us in the form of a seemingly chaotic buffering of unaccountable forces, and yet we live their effects with a completely individualized burden of guilt for them.

Anticipatory

This is an example of the way, paradoxically, we feel most guilty when we suspect we have no say in what happens to us.

The related modern concept of ‘public apathy’ has been imported into environmentalism from the annals of marketing. It was originally an attempt by marketers to label the non-responsiveness of consumers and target audiences to a specific campaign.

We can see how this ideology works to incapacitate effective action when even evidence of clear majorities favouring necessary measures is packaged as evidence of public indifference. And we can see the other side of the double bind when resistance is classified as ‘extremism’.

Do nothing, you’re guilty; do something, you’re guilty. Guilty, guilty, guilty. The only people who aren’t in the least bit guilty are the owners and managers of the hundred corporations responsible for 71 per cent of global carbon emissions.

What we call ‘apathy’, Lertzman argues in Environmental Melancholia, is no such thing. In her fieldwork, she finds not dead-eyed doziness, but an anguished compound of stalled mourning, ambivalence, anxiety, powerlessness and the guilt that follows from powerlessness.

It might be even better to speak of a kind of ‘anticipatory mourning’, wherein, perceiving the damage to an object of our love - what the Gwich’in call the ‘wounded sacred’, we start to withdraw affection from it, before it finally dies.

Strike

An example of anticipatory mourning appears in Freud’s short essay, On Transience (1915). He describes a walk through a ‘blossoming summer landscape’ with a poet friend, presumed to be Rainer Maria Rilke.

The poet expresses admiration for the beauty, but dared not be moved by it because it was bound to fade and die. Within a year, the ecological cataclysm of the First World War erupted and "robbed the world of its beauties".

Yet that did not devalue the beauty that had existed. To respond to transience by devaluing what will surely pass, to speak of one’s envirosomatic envelope in the past tense, as something that once held one securely, is in Freud’s terms a ‘revolt’ against mourning.

Throwing ourselves into activism can leave us feeling even more helpless, even more guilty, because of how massed the forces are against change. 

And yet it comes. Tim Gordon, a marine biologist, describes in a news report on BBC Radio One how "occasionally, for no particularly good reason, it’ll strike – you just float into the middle of the water, look around you and think: 'Wow, it’s all dying.' There’s been times that you cry into your mask because you look around and realise how tragic it is."

II.

Walking such paths, you might walk up strange pasts. This in the hunter’s sense of ‘walking up’ – meaning to flush out, to disturb what is concealed.

Robert Macfarlane, Holloway

If climate activism frequently takes an apocalyptic tone, stuffed with theological expectancy, it is because, as Catherine Keller argues, "theology […] articulates what unconditionally matters".

The planet is what unconditionally matters, since it is the undercommon ground of all life. We can’t simply add ‘ecology’ to a list of issues concerning the left, because it is the unconditional condition for everything else.

It’s all dying, and somehow it isn’t enough to point out that ‘consumers’ are not to blame. To what imaginary tribunal are we pleading innocence, anyway? Besides, we’re all implicated, because the infrastructure of life depends on fossil capital.

And throwing ourselves into activism can leave us feeling even more helpless, even more guilty, because of how massed the forces are against change. ‘Doing something’, even if it doesn’t necessarily help, becomes a way to master that feeling.

Anxiety is a threat-response. It needn’t be a present threat, or even a real threat, as long as we believe in the idea of the threat. In fact, anxiety in the properly psychoanalytic sense is a response to an unknown, enigmatic danger.

Exhaustion

What else could we call the permathreat of wild weather events, new epidemics, new economic crashes, all both predictable and unpredictable?

How much more disturbing a power might such possibilities have if they merged with the signal of an inner, psychic danger, which followers of Melanie Klein call the ‘death instinct’ and followers of Lacan call the ‘real’?

And what if the threat doesn’t ever go away? As Anouchka Grose tells us, in her Guide to Eco-Anxiety: the hypothalamus keeps ordering more cortisol, more adrenaline.

The heart beats faster, the lungs open up, immune and reproductive systems are suppressed. Anxiety is supposed to be transient, not permanent.

The longer it goes on, the higher the blood pressure, the more immune problems arise, the lower the bone density, the higher the risk of strokes, the greater the exhaustion, the lower the fertility rate.

Psychoanalysis

When Dominic Pettman wonders, in Peak Libido, how it is that celibacy rates are soaring and sperm counts are down, pervasive anxiety may be part of the answer.

If anxiety is derided as overthinking, the prescribed cure of exercise is supposed to neutralize thought. A cheap, depoliticized way to get people to complete their fight-or-flight responses in quiet and piss off. It doesn’t work.

Run off some stress, get an endorphin cookie, and you’ll still face the headlines about wildfires and mass extinction. It’s all still dying.

However, thinking is an ambulatory experience. The muscles, heart and lungs partake of thought, conscious and unconscious.

‘Embodied cognition’ is not the half of it. To go walking down coastal paths and up glacial peaks is to walk up strange pasts.

This is what Nietzsche intuited when he said, in Ecce Homo, "do not believe any idea that was not born in the open air and of free movement". And this is what Maurice Merleau-Ponty adverted to when he suggested we "do a psychoanalysis of nature".

III.

We have to cultivate sensibilities as much as ideas and strategies. The ambulatory doctrine of thought is a counterpoint to the anti-naturalism, indeed sociocentrism, of radical social theory.

Theory that resists biochemistry, oceanography and palaeontology tends to undercut the necessary sensibilities. It tends to downgrade ‘nature’ and ‘wilderness’ as so much romantic, völkisch twaddle - of which, indeed, there are libraries full.

It perhaps tends, in this way, to resume the cold circuit of idealism. To "do a psychoanalysis of nature" is to work through the chiasmic relationship between ‘spirit’ and ‘nature’.

Bollas’s term for strange pasts is "the shadow of the object". "It is usually on the occasion of the aesthetic moment," he writes, "that an individual feels a deep subjective rapport with an object (a painting, a poem, an aria or symphony, or a natural landscape) and experiences an uncanny fusion with the object, an event that re-evokes an ego state that prevailed during early psychic life."

The aesthetic moment is not what we might have supposed. Marion Milner, in learning how to paint, had to give up on the inhibiting principles of beauty, perspective and realism. 

Barbaric

She would sit in front of a landscape, and produce technically proficient, realistic paintings. But they left her feeling that they were hardly worth the bother. They were lifeless. The common-sense foundations of sensory experience denied her creativity.

Then she discovered that "the eye should find out what it liked". And when she did seek out what the eye liked – a feature of the sea wall, the way outlines appeared to melt away – she found that somehow they expressed moods, feelings deriving as much "from the sense of touch and muscular movement" as from sight.

In Santayana, she reads that "waking life is a dream controlled" and that "the gods sometimes appear" in nature.

As Milner discovered, much of what began to appear in her art, composed in moments of apparent serenity, was "fire and tempest".

It was what Merleau-Ponty would have called the "barbaric principle". Or that signal of internal danger that one might call the death drive, or the Lacanian ‘Real’.

Uncanny

In Bollasian terms, the natural environment is a version of the ‘transformational object’ par excellence. The transformational object is the earliest emotional tie in an infant’s life, the first caregiver, usually the mother.

What makes this object different from others is that the infant at first experiences the mother not as a separate object, but as its environment. It finds its moods regulated by changes in the environment, by nurture and play, by giving and withholding, by presence and absence.

And because this relationship is pre-linguistic and pre-mirror phase, the object will be recalled existentially, not representationally.

In adult life, we can strive to rediscover this object within a mythic or religious structure, or by buying a commodity which is advertised as a solution to our difficult feelings - feelings which the advert will have deliberately incited or exacerbated.

Wherever we find this object, as we may find it lying about in nature, it produces an uncanny feeling of recognition.

Patient

In my own experience of walking up strange paths, I try to memorialize whatever has produced a stir. As I can’t eat the scene, I take photographs, and I make lists of names and descriptions.

Wild, windswept Cornish farms, lines of frosted wild cherry and alder, walls of slaty mudstone rising like a great cliff, lemon blooms of gorse, the plump grape-coloured berries of blackthorn, the marshmallow-pink Cornish daises, the spiky olive fronds of Astelia and Furcraea, slates of watery blue sky in muddy fields, the curious symmetry of equally desolated, fossil-black columns stuck with seaweed, a booming Atlantic thronging with the compound music of ruddy turnstones, skuas, puffins and storm petrels.

It’s all dying. Visit it, as you would a dying patient.

This Author

Richard Seymour is the commissioning editor of Salvage magazine and the author of The Twittering Machine. He tweets at @leninology. This article is an extract from his latest book, The Disenchanted Earth, published by Indigo Press.

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