Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Dark Mountain and hope: some quotes and reflexions

No emotion lends itself so well to paradoxical formulations as hope. Writing this I recall Walter Benjamin's words at the end of his essay on Goethe - “Only for the sake of the hopeless are we given hope”. Yes, this may well be true. There is a logic connecting hope and hopelessness, two emotions that constantly seem to invite each other. Indeed, the very presence of hope testifies to the existence of something bad, something that we want to escape. In that sense, every incidence of hope is cause for pessimism. Perhaps there is no pure hope, no hope without an element of hopelessness? But conversely, isn't it true that one sometimes experiences how giving up hope can be a cure against hopelessness?

When asked by an interviewer if he had hope in view of the ecological disaster, Paul Shepard replied: "Of course I have hope. Why not, it’s cheap and available. It is also the last resort” (quoted in Jensen 2004: 256). A seemingly opposite viewpoint is offered by the Salvage magazine: "Hope is precious; it must be rationed".

The curious thing is that both statements ring true, and that's the paradox.

Here's what Naomi Klein wrote after Trump's election: ”To quote a popular saying on the French left, 'The hour calls for optimism; we’ll save pessimism for better times.' ('L’heure est à l’optimisme, laissons le pessimisme pour des temps meilleurs.')”

I realize of course that hope isn't the same as optimism. Hope is a feeling not wholly under our conscious control, while optimism is a cognitive assessment. Rebecca Solnit puts it well when she writes that both optimism and pessimism are set views of the future and both provide excuses for inactivity. Hope, by contrast, is to see the future as open and thus calling for action (Solnit 2006; also Ehrenreich 2009:3, Weber-Nicholsen 2002:183). Yet despite this difference, the paradoxical quality of hope often seems to reflect on statements about optimism (and pessimism) as well, at least to the extent that such statements are meant to induce a feeling of hope.

I'd like to use these remarks about hope as a way of approaching and making sense of two books I've read recently, Paul Kingsnorth's Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist and Other Essays (2017) and Walking on Lava: Selected Works for Uncivilised Times (2017), an anthology of texts produced by the Dark Mountain collective (of which Kingsnorth is a co-founder). Dark Mountain is a hugely interesting group of writers, artists and activists who came together in 2009 to put words on the experiences of loss accompanying the decay and collapse of civilization. The fundamental gesture of Dark Mountain consists, I believe, in giving up hope that "the world can be saved". Instead, the group insists that accepting loss and honestly confronting the fact that the catastrophe can no longer be avoided is a liberating act. In a debate with fellow enviornmentalist Wen Stephenson, Kingsnorth expresses it as follows:
This may sound a strange thing to say, but one of the great achievements for me of the Dark Mountain Project has been to give people permission to give up hope. … I don’t think we need hope. I think we need imagination. We need to imagine a future which can’t be planned for and can’t be controlled. I find that people who talk about hope are often really talking about control. They hope desperately that they can keep control of the way things are panning out. … Giving up hope, to me, means giving up the illusion of control and accepting that the future is going to be improvised, messy, difficult. (quoted in Stephenson 2012)

Whereas much environmentalism until now has employed an apocalyptic rhetoric, pointing to the threat of a future, global catastrophe only in order to enable us to avoid it, Dark Mountain instead exemplifies what I've called a new post-apocalyptic form of environmentalism which sees catastrophe as something that's already here: as already having happened, as ongoing or as unvaoidable.

In post-apocalyptic environmentalism we encounter a new paradox. Don't people need hope in order to become activists? It's a well-known saying that people don't join movements because of pessimism. As Klein points out in the quote above, pessimism should probably be "saved for better times" if you want to stop bad things from taking over entirely. In regard to climate activism in particular, researchers have pointed to the centrality of the emotion of hope in mobilizing and sustaining activism (e.g. Ojala 2012). Even if emotions such as fear, anxiety, despair or depression may exist among activists, hope is still indispensible, mediating the other emotions so as to motivate action (Gardner 2017, Kleres & Wettergren 2017). At the climate summit in Paris 2015 (COP21), well-known environmental organizations such as Greenpeace made a point of delivering a bright and hopeful message, praising the deal as an important breakthrough. The aim was to avoid generating feelings of disappointment among activists and in the general public, and thereby maintain trust in the efficacy of activism (see e.g. Thörn et al 2017: 240f).  

To understand post-apocalyptic forms of activism, as in Dark Mountain, we need to drop the premise that all mobilization needs hope in the sense of upbeat, optimistic messages - the "positive thinking" lambasted by Barbara Ehrenreich in her 2009 book Bright-Sided. Dark Mountain is the antithesis of such thinking.

The answer to the riddle is, I believe, that Dark Mountain relies on the paradoxical quality of hope - the fact that giving up hope may be a way to gain hope. Sean Parson (2017) advocates making use of this paradox in activism, citing Adorno as the great theoretician of “revolutionary pessimism” in which politics is generated by “embracing doom”. An even blunter example is Roy Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene (2015) which advocates a radical-Buddhist rejection of hope. By realizing that we are “already dead” and that our civilization, including capitalism, are also dead, we can let go of our fear. That is the only way of seeing what possibilities we have to adapt to the new reality. Somewhat similar is the suggestion by Flores & Rousse (2016) to embrace ecological finitude, learning to die as a species, while at the same time finding space for “fulgor” – the faint glimmer or glow of a dawning reconfiguration – and radical hope as a commitment to possibility. Here again we see how important it is not to confuse hope with optimism. In all these writers and thinkers, hope co-exists with a lack of optimism, and perhaps it even arises because of this lack. Like Kingsnorth, they also all emphasize the need for imagination - for new ideas and new stories - and that giving up hope may be the key to freeing up this imagination.

The best theoretician of this kind of paradoxical mechanism is perhaps the philosopher Jean-Pierre Dupuy, who has put forward the idea of “enlightened doom-saying” and post-apocalyptic retroactivity as a way of handling climate change and other environmental threats (Dupuy 2007/2008; 2013: 27f, 46f). The problem, he states, is that the world is headed for doom, but people don’t prevent it since the future is not conceived as real. It appears unreal precisely because we believe in our free will, in our capacity to "act otherwise" which makes it impossible for us to believe that the worst will occur. Only retrospectively will it appear possible. The catastrophe “possiblizes itself” – and that is our problem, because to prevent it one needs to believe in it before it occurs. What is the solution? To project oneself into the future and look back at our present from there. One must allow “the mind to project itself into the aftermath of the catatstrophe, and treat the event in the future perfect tense” (Dupuy 2013: 204).

This strategy is described very well by Zizek in In Defense of Lost Causes. There he points to the notorious “pessimism” of Adorno and Horkheimer as an example of this paradoxical strategy: “While traditional Marxism enjoined us to engage and act in order to bring about the necessity (of communism), Adorno and Horkheimer projected themselves into the final catastrophic outcome perceived as fixed (the advent of the 'administered society' of total manipulation and the end of subjectivity) in order to stimulate us to act against this outcome in our present” (Zizek 2008: 460). Here the very rejection of ostensible “hope” becomes the precondition for hope. Only by renouncing the seemingly hopeful prognosis that the catastrophe can be averted can we free ourselves from paralysis and act.

Here it's possible to object that Dupuy isn't really accepting loss. Isn’t he still hoping to avert or at least postpone the future catastrophe by using retroactivity as an intellectual ruse? What he calls enlightened doom-saying at first sight does not appear to be based on a genuine post-apocalyptic acceptance of catastrophe; instead it is supposed to spur us to undo the catastrophe that fate has ordained for us: “to believe in fate is to prevent it from happening” (Dupuy 2013: 32). This may seem like a form of rationalism, a mere strategy for averting the worst, which is still tied to the linear perspective on time which Dupuy claims to be criticizing. But to understand Dupuy's strategy as a rationalism is to do it a disservice. It appears to me that the strategy becomes genuinely persuasive only when seen as practiced by subjects groping their way towards recovery from a traumatized or melancholic state. Rather than as a calculated trick implemented by a wholly self-controlled subject, I prefer to see it as a strategy that doesn’t have to be wholly conscious. This is why his idea is relevant in the context of Dark Mountain’s literary production where a strategy similar to Dupuy's post-apocalyptic retroactivity appears to be involved, albeit in a form that is perhaps unconscious or only half-conscious.

Dupuy himself seems to admit that full consciousness of the strategy is not required when he writes that the post-apocalyptic future should be believed in as a “fate” that is somehow similar to the way we believe in the world we encounter in literature: “We must… believe in fate exactly as one believes in a work of fiction” (ibid. 193). This stance is seemingly rational but also a way of working-through and liberating the mind in a way that could be described as only half-conscious or even dreamlike.

Michael Ortiz Hill provides an illustration of what this form of belief might mean in his discussion of apocalyptic dreams. To begin with, it is crucial not to confuse the literal and the psychic apocalypse. “In the psyche… images often have different implications than in our waking life, and the apocalyptic initiation may well require destruction” (Hill 1994: 53). Entering the “apocalypse of the psyche” may be a way of avoiding “enacting apocalypse in the world” literally. What is suggested here is that the confrontation with apocalyptic destruction in dreams can function as a catharsis, freeing us to act with greater sensibility and freedom in our waking lives. I would like to suggest that this form of confrontation is aimed at in the literary production of Dark Mountain as well as in Dupuy's “enlightened doom-saying”. Rather than a purely rational operation, this doom-saying can be enacted in dreams and played out in the unconscious as well as in literary production. The point is to psychically visit the apocalypse to free ourselves from the fixations that, in our ordinary lives, prevent us from taking action against the catastrophic course of events that unfold around us in reality. There is thus a therapeutic function to anticipating loss – to liberate the mind, and find something positive in the loss, and thus, perhaps, regain the ability to avert the worst.

It's time to wind down, but before finishing I'd like to offer a final quote. Here's Max Brod recallling a conversation with Kafka (quoted by Benjamin).
‘I remember,’ Brod writes, ‘ a conversation with Kafka which began with present-day Europe and the decline of the human race. “We are nihilistic thoughts, suicidal thoughts that come into God’s head,” Kafka said. This reminded me at first of the Gnostic view of life: God as the evil demiurge, the world as his Fall. “Oh no,” said Kafka, “our world is only a bad mood of God, a bad day of his.” “Then there is hope outside this manifestation of the world that we know.” He smiled. “Oh, plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope – but not for us.”
Infinite hope indeed, but this invocation of hope only serves to strengthen the impression of infinite hopelessness. And isn't that the perfect way to end this essay?


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