“We’re fucked. The only question is how soon and how badly.” (16) This is the refreshingly candid way Roy Scranton starts his small, intense book, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene (City Lights Books, 2015). For Scranton, the first and last job of critical thought is to interrupt habits of non-thought and to insist on what is essential. And that he does.
One has to keep stating and restating certain bullet points even if in terms of how people think and feel they are beside the point. Its quite certain that the earth will be in some unprecedented kind of climate in about thirty years. Now there’s a perverse kind of modernism. The time has passed when this could have been avoided. The Holocene is coming to an end.
Much lesser variations on climate have caused whole civilizations to rise and fall. Based on the record, its hardly likely capitalism can endure the very fate it created. Not the least effect of which is that what Raymond Williams might call a structure of feeling, a series of habits of thought and action, of selected understandings of the past – all that is unlikely to be much use for much longer. Scranton: “We’re going to need new ideas.” (19)
It may seem strange to imagine that humanities scholars might have any particular utility in such a situation. And indeed, it must be said that the habits of what I think we should call the carbon-humanities are indeed somewhat besides the point now. There’s new problems for thought now, which the scholars of the carbon humanities “with their taste for fine-grained analysis, esoteric debates, and archival marginalia, might seem remarkably ill-suited to address.” (19)
But the form of such work might yet be the carrier for work of another kind, which can be extracted from it. That other work of extraction is what Scranton models in this small essay. Montaigne wrote that philosophy is learning how to die. This may then be a philosophical age – and maybe even epoch. And it might call upon the old form of the archive for the means by which think through this passing time.
I should at this point say two things about Roy Scranton: the first is that he is a graduate of the MA program in Liberal Studies at the New School for Social Research. I teach in that program, although Roy was not one of my students. The second is that he is a former soldier. As such he restores a certain bleak intimacy between humanistic thought and human action that professional humanists tend to to quite get. Scranton: “To survive as a soldier, I had to learn to accept the inevitability of my own death. For humanity to survive in the Anthropocene, we need to learn to live with and through the end of our current situation.” (22)
It is going to take all kinds of reflective thought about all kinds of experience to endure the Anthropocene, and so I welcome Scranton’s distillation of a zone of thought and experience that was never mine. Perhaps the vivid dwelling in a capricious time, which as I wrote elsewhere so fascinated Guy Debord as the lot of the soldier, might not be a bad way to think about the problem of living in a civilization that is already dead.
As Debord remarked, he preferred the classics of military rather than political writing because it lacked the “silly chatter of optimism.” There’s a particular point of view from which, and despite being written during the same wartime, just a few pages of René Char’s Hypnos is worth the whole of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. The latter was fighting for his culture; the former was fighting for his life.
One might wonder too, as Scranton does, about the durability of the liberal progressive structure of feeling, and the culture of writing that extrudes out of it. It is too dependent on institutional arrangements which in turn depend on carbon-capitalism. But does not the culture of conflict and mortal danger bend toward a reactionary view of life? Maybe not. The literatures of the labor movement, of civil rights, of anti-colonialism are all borne of desperation and emergency. Its just that sometimes we get out of the habit of teaching them that way.
It’s a shame that so much of the carbon-humanities got obsessed with a rather narrow way of thinking about a rather narrow band of the past. Everybody has an opinion about Greek philosophy or its fabled polis. The archaeological as a record of the ruins of serried layers of civilizations has fallen out of view. But let’s not forget that one of the founders of modern archaeology – my countryman Vere Gordon Childe – was a Marxist. He offered a frame for thinking that put the present as a very brief second at the end of a quarter million year struggle of the evolving human species-being to endure changing situations with whatever means they could assemble. Means he thought included “spiritual equipment.”
Scranton offers a glimpse of a contemporary version of that sensibility. Better than Childe, we now know that human populations have ebbed and flourished according to climactic changes. Within that longer record, all that might bear the ambivalent title of ‘civilization’ happened within the relatively stable climate of the Holocene. “Human civilization has thrived in what has been the most stable climate interval in 650,000 years.” (38) And human civilization has ended it prematurely.
Taking a former soldier’s cool look at the current situation, Scranton thinks the odds are very poor. As noble as the objective of change might be, that does not mean that the forces are at hand to achieve it. “The problem is that global de-carbonization is effectively irreconcilable with global capitalism.” (43) Renewable energy is not without its problems. Nor are nuclear power, or coal power with carbon capture panaceas. It may just not be do-able to pump out this much energy on this planet without breaking it.
That the odds are against us is the thought that haunts all forms of action. Scranton thought the People’s Climate March, “an orgy of democratic emotion.” (62) The UN Climate Summit, “a bleak ritual stalemate.” (63) Flood Wall Street, where a small band of protesters at least named a culprit, was a matter of closing a street for brief period of time. Meanwhile, Scranton observed a conference at the Harvard Club where a bunch of suits who are well paid to defend the existing energy industry interests did exactly that. And as I have discovered too, there’s a global conference circuit you can join where you fly around the world burning tons of carbon to talk about the evils of burning tons of carbon. Merely accepting such an invitation seems to invalidate one’s claim to speak to it.
Scranton: “The problem is that the problem is us.” (68) Here I would want to insist on a more asymmetrical idea about the problem. Both the production of greenhouse gases and the power to do something about it are rather unevenly distributed. It is the very ‘nature’ of alienated labor that one has no choice but to work against the interests and needs and desires of one’s own being. Scranton: “The enemy isn’t out there somewhere – the enemy is ourselves. Not as individuals but as a collective. A system. A hive.” (85) But most of us are merely drones in that hive.
I would further want to propose that the problem with today’s ruling class is that it too lacks any useful agency. All it can do is squeeze the last juice out of the over-ripe fruit of the world – to the increasing disadvantage of that world itself. It can do nothing but exploit labor, non-labor, nature and even technology – what Lazzarato calls machinic surplus value. The ruling class are going to save anybody. Their best laid plan seems to be to buy up bolt-holes in New Zealand before the mob shouts “off with their heads!”
Meanwhile, “as we proceed into the Anthropocene… capitalism’s cultural machinery for balancing fear and aggression against desire and pleasure is grinding and sputtering sparks.” (79) We’re left with nothing but what Laurel Berlin called the cruel optimism of desiring a life that can never be. Various forms of creepy neo-fascism become legit. And in the face of a refugee crisis of unprecedented proportions. As Eyal Weizman also notes, anthropogenic climate change is already a contributor to instability in marginal climate zones.
When I was on a panel at The New School with Scranton and Stephanie Wakefield from the Woodbine group, I started imagining a variation on that old conference game that in this case would be called Anthropocene Denial Bingo. For at this point all the old habits of thought come into play: Just a fad! Old news! A bad name! Malthus! Capitalism! Science is evil! Rarely does one find, as one does in Scranton, the will to question some cherished assumptions.
He insists on a role of philosophy in interrupting habitual thought. “While life beats its red rhythms and human swarms dance to the compulsion of strife, the interrupter practices dying.” (88) Dying well is hard. We live in denial and distraction. We don’t want to let go of petty ambitions, attachments, hopes. We’re unwilling to let the thought and work of accepting fate to enter.
This is where humanistic thought might help, but only if made something more than a mere instrument of a professional life. “The study of the humanities is nothing less that the patient nurturing of roots and heirloom varietals of human symbolic life… It is not enough for the archive to be stored, mapped, or digitized. It must be worked.” (99)
There’s an ark to be built, but one made of the dead skins of forgotten structures of feeling, one that there might be need of again, and fairly soon. “We must practice suspending stress-sematic chains of social excitation through critical thought… We must keep renovating and innovating perceptual, affective, and conceptual fields through recombination, remixing, translation, transformation, and play.” (108)
As Paul Valery wrote, just after the so-called Great War, “we later civilizations… we know too that we are mortal.” But somehow in the triumphal mood after the second Great War, that sensibility was lost. What was lost was the sense, so powerful in Dada, of both refusing a fallen civilization, and of making a new one out of the ruins.
Scranton: “It may be that we have crossed the summit of our knowledge and power, and the brief explosion of human life in the Holocene will turn out to have been as transient as an algae bloom.” (116) I don’t know if anyone can dwell for long with such an interruption to our daily sense of deluded self-involvement. Maybe the problem for culture is not to disrupt people’s illusions – when has that ever lasted long or for many? – but to create a new illusory envelope. One at least more attuned to what kinds of action in the world such delusion needs to motivate.
As I wrote in the blurb that is printed in the book: Roy Scranton gets it. He knows in his bones that this civilization is over. He knows it is high time to start again the human dance of making some other way to live. In his distinctive and original way, he works through a common cultural inheritance, making it something fresh and new for these all too interesting times. This compressed, essential text offers both uncomfortable truths and unexpected joy.