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Thoughts on Thanaticism

What does it take to inaugurate a new historical epoch, then? A name certainly helps. The “Anthropocene” has gained currency recently, and while its denotation of time is ostensibly geologic, there is surely a political edge to claiming we have moved beyond the Holocene. How many more ways can we explain this to you, muse the scientists. The very condition of the Earth, do you understand?

Redefining our current geological age is historical materialism writ so large (really putting the “world” in “world-historical,” as it were), that it makes McKenzie Wark’s recent pitch, in these pages, for “thanaticism” — as a conceptual improvement on contemporary (or ‘late’) “capitalism” — seem almost modest by comparison. According to Wark [1], thanaticism is “a social order which subordinates the production of use values to the production of exchange value, to the point that the production of exchange value threatens to extinguish the conditions of existence of use value.” As is clear from Wark’s article, the empirical context for this definition is climate change, and in particular the IPCC’s recently released Fifth Assessment Report — a report which, as you well know without having read it, portends rising oceans, spreading disease vectors, and all the other ominous predictions we are all so used to hearing.

Wark is correct, inasmuch as his definition indicates that the crucial distinction between our current social order and what we have known as “capitalism” is not a change to the logic or character of the latter’s operation, but simply the fact that an endpoint — the final working out of that logic — has heaved into view, with all its attendant apocalyptic menace. If this is a system defined primarily by its telos, however, then it rather begs the question: when exactly did thanaticism begin?

I ask this question not to attempt to answer it, but as a springboard to interrogating more closely the issues of continuity and change that lie behind attempts to rename our current epoch, and the perils and possibilities of doing so.

To begin with, it must be said that Wark occasionally falls into the trap — common among exasperated environmentalists — of exaggerating the uniqueness of our current situation, and of the future that climate change implies. For example, he writes that outside the over-developed world, “Hundreds of millions now live in danger of rising seas, desertification and other metabolic rifts. Everyone knows this: those populations are henceforth to be treated as expendable.” As though — to make matters quite concrete — Europeans treating Africans as expendable is a novel phenomenon.

Wark writes too that the ruling class are “dreaming of space-hotels”, obscuring the inconvenient truth that however appalling the consequences of climate change become (and appalling they most certainly will be, to the extent that the 21st Century looks well placed to outdo the 20th in terms of human devastation), those consequences will not be wholly apocalyptic, in the sense of a total eradication of the human species. The rich will not need to go off-planet to survive: one viable strategy for ensuring that your grandchildren will be able to enjoy clean water and healthy food remains to pursue a successful career in hedge fund management.

Furthermore it would be a mistake to argue that this is the first time that human irrationality in interacting with the environment has put paid to civilization as we know it — as Ronald Wright describes in his Massey lecture series (and later book), A Short History of Progress, a similar dynamic did for the Easter Islanders and Sumerians, among others.

What we are faced with, therefore, is an apocalypse, but not a very useful one. It is altogether too slow, too undemocratic, and too partial to truly shock us into action. In consequence, we are tempted by the Noble Lie: to exaggerate the threat and emphasize at every turn that what looks and feels like continuity — winter, followed by summer — is in fact utterly changed.

To be clear, I am not accusing Wark of any substantial inaccuracies; on the contrary, I am deeply sympathetic to his project. I do wish to push a little further, however, on the tension between the real and the ideal, as it pertains to our changing climate.

* * *

In her discussion of Marx’s Capital, Seyla Benhabib discerns:

two strands of analysis, corresponding to two distinct social epistemologies… the first presents crises as the lived phenomena of alienation, exploitation, and injustice, the second regards crises as the failure of the functional logic of the system from the perspective of the thinker-observer.

This distinction — between what Benhabib refers to as “systemic” and “lived” crises — is evident in Capital in the split between Marx’s economic theorizing (“systemic crisis”) and his historical discussions (“lived crisis”). For Marx, of course, it was the industrial proletariat, become cognizant of its historical role, which was to bridge the two spheres. With the disappearance of the proletariat as a serious contender for the pivotal agent of history, however, this tension remains, to a large extent, unresolved.

For some struggles, of course — against racism, sexism, homophobia, for immigration reform or an increase in the minimum wage — the systemic and lived crises can be readily joined up. For environmental crises in general, however, and for climate change in particular, the division asserts itself with a vengeance. For despite being an eminently physical phenomenon, climate change exists for us primarily at the level of discourse; [2] that is to say, we only know a climate crisis exists because scientists tell us that it does — a fact amply demonstrated whenever a Fox News contributor is able to assert with a straight face that the entire phenomenon is nothing but a figment of Al Gore’s imagination.

Thus in a world of important but particular struggles — against racism, sexism and so on — climate change stands alone as the inheritor both of Marxism’s pretensions to world-historical theorizing, and of one of its most problematic tensions. For while there are often good reasons to suspect the primacy of theorized crises over those directly experienced – one does not have to look far into history to discern the perils of rigidly ideological vanguardism — the fact remains that by the time the climate crisis becomes a lived one, it will be far too late to do anything about it.

Perhaps the problem is not simply carbon dioxide’s radiative forcing but another of its physical characteristics — its transparency. Were carbon dioxide a fluorescent pink, perhaps, or a turgid green, we would be able to see the air itself thicken and change, a constant visual reminder of the peril we are in. Absent this, however, language alone — the “anthropocene,” “thanaticism” — seems thus far to have been woefully inadequate in bridging the gap between theorized and lived climate change. The rational is real, as Hegel once pointed out (another insight that strongly asserts its relevance in this context). The problem, of course, is that we aren’t. In the first humanity-wide test of the Enlightenment – of reason and language against lived experience — we are, slowly but surely, failing.

* * *

In closing, let us consider one final attempt to establish a new epoch — Bill McKibbon’s suggestion, picked up by Wark, that climate scientists go on strike. As McKibbon points out, these scientists have been telling us essentially the same thing for a long time. Perhaps shutting up in protest is now the best thing they can do.

The sentiment is a good one, but it is misplaced. For as we have seen, it is not a failure of information but of imagination that is the problem. As Wark notes in his opening sentence, what we are witnessing is a “failure or blockage of the poetic function of critical thought” (emphasis added).

It is the poets, therefore, who should be on strike. Adorno claimed that to write poetry after Auschwitz was barbaric, and the sentiment seems apropos. We carry with us the entire ark of human beauty: of art, literature and music. Yet it is our generation that is failing so spectacularly to protect it, and the civilization that sustains it; do we deserve, then, to enjoy it? Have we any business adding to it? Not just the poets, then, but the novelists, the composers, the painters and sculptors, actors and musicians: all must down tools. Shutter Broadway. Barricade the bookstores. Stop all the clocks, and let a great, rolling silence engulf the world. A total failure of language, and of imagination: if thanaticism is anything, it is this.

NOTES

[1] I note that having been a student of Ken’s, it jars somewhat to refer to him by surname. Disclaimer made.

[2] I am focusing here on those of us in the over-developed world who have, by and large, thus far been spared the worst manifestations of climate change. Yet even for those who have suffered already from the effects of extreme weather attributable to climate change, no particular storm or drought is “climate change” until we say that it is. This is not simply a matter of naming, but of detailed climatological analysis that is, of necessity, an elite scientific discourse.

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