Archives for posts with tag: Environmentalism

First, by way of introduction I’d like to thank Will for inviting me to contribute to the blog. I’ve never tried this before, but I hope I can provide content as interesting and valuable as he has. Now, on to the show.

I subscribe to the idea that the rise of zombie related horror in recent times is reflective of the idea that we, as a culture, see the mindless masses as terrifying. The zombie is bent on consumption at all costs; incapable of higher level functions of reflection or tactics or what have you, the zombie mindlessly shambles through its unlife as a parasite incapable of production. With hits such as the Left 4 Dead series and, particularly relevant for my point here, World War Z, the rise of zombies in popular culture was impressive.

Now let me draw your attention to a parallel movement, that of robots. Here we see, for example, the Portal series, and the recently released Robopocalypse. The NPR review draws the quite obvious parallel to World War Z, and I assure you that anyone who has read both will have been struck by the similar narrative style. In each case the end of the civilization as we know it is told from a number of vantage points in a briefing style after the fact.

The interesting reversal here is obvious. We move from the fear of the mindless consuming masses to fear of the superintelligent, hyper-logical robot. The question we have to ask ourselves is what does this tell us about ourselves. The ever increasing production of new technologies certainly gives us a way to avoid becoming “like the zombie,” our ability to create sets us apart from that fear, but will we be able to control what we create.

To me it raises the question of the environmental crisis, a topic I admit I know less about than I could. But it seems to come down to a fundamental question, and that is do we go back and try to mitigate the damage to the environment we have already caused, or do we press ahead hoping that technology can truly save us from itself?

Or, another example, the economic crisis. Do we try to mitigate disaster by re-regulating the economy, or do we press forward with deregulation? The question in both cases ultimately revolves around the issue of whether we can find a new way of doing things which will save us from ourselves. How does/should the Left respond to such a crisis? Does one demand a return to the communist or social democratic critique of capital? Or does one adopt the radical center approach of a ‘third-way’ politics?

The Zombie/Robot dichotomy is about who we are and how we deal with crisis. But for those who uncritically drive forward or pull back we will eventually find a problem we can’t solve. We can’t afford to believe that philosophy is a luxury item.

Ads for the Kinect have taken many different forms. Most of the time, the only disturbing part to me is the headline, “You are the controller.” But in this case, I thought it was noteworthy that the “real” person and her “virtual” counterpart are distinguished only by two physical traits eerily reminiscent of Arian-race ideology: hair and eye color. Notice that the person has dark hair and dark eyes, and her virtual image has blonde hair and blue eyes…

You start to wonder how much control the person really has over her choice of character. Is it not rather that the virtual self-representation shows what’s operative in the subject’s ideological worldview, that the virtual assignation provides the illusion of a free choice while the roots for this decision are already so entrenched as to make that freedom meaningless and the choice over-determined? Is this not, in effect, a forced choice?

The basic message of the video above is obvious: “The Green Dragon” (ecologism) is ‘spiritual deception’ for Christians; ‘its twisted view of the world elevates nature above the needs of people, of even the poorest and the most helpless;’ the Dragon’s ‘destructive control’ of the cultural landscape extends into the most important political spheres, is ‘seducing your children in our classrooms,’ etc.

But the sad truth of this cliché right-wing religious response to the environmental catastrophe is that liberalism’s response to the ecological crisis really does ignore the needs of the poor and the oppressed. My assertion here is that, as Zizek points out in First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (a reference to Marx), liberal-democratic capitalism may (though probably not) be able to overcome three of the four most prominent threats to humanity, which are simultaneously threats to the functioning of capitalism itself –

(1)   the destruction of external nature (ecosystems).

(2)   the destruction of internal nature (the privatization and corporatization of our own bodies, of genetic material; the robotic revolution and technological takeover of the human body; ‘post-humanism’ – on this, see Donna Haraway’s utterly ridiculous A Cyborg Manifesto).

(3)   the privatization of other areas of the public sphere, of the internet and the intellectual goods that belong to the commons (e.g., the strange notion of ‘intellectual property’).

Capitalism may be able to surpass these threats to its functioning and convince even skeptics that it really is the best we can do, really is the most just way of constructing society, etc., but it cannot solve the problem of slums, of poverty, of the dichotomy of inclusion and exclusion: this is inherent to its very nature.

And so what we should see, beyond the clichés in the “Green Dragon” video, is what it can tell us about the flaw of liberal capitalism: ‘its twisted view of the world elevates nature above the needs of people, of even the poorest and the most helpless.’ In other words, it can only focus on the problems of the environmental catastrophe, and of the other major threats mentioned above, at the cost of exposing its fundamental flaw, that of the generation of inequality based on private property and worker exploitation, a flaw which (as we see above), is easily exploitable in the hands of right-wing ideologues.

Indeed, what should make us worry about the ideological position(ing) of this video is not only the obvious adherence to religious authority and the denial of genuine, rational political efforts to curb what is surely the worst crisis in human history, but also the argument for the excluded masses, for the poor which capitalism leaves out. For however senseless this video is, there is something appealing in it — some would say — and it is precisely this call for a return to human welfare, to the satisfaction of basic needs and of a community of values.

So what should worry us is that the ideology expressed in the video actually does have a point. What the Left must do in response, then, is not simply argue against right-wing policy on the basis of the simple distinction between rationality and religiosity, on the distinction between ‘insane’ ideological positioning and ‘true’ or ‘sensical’ liberal-democratic discourse – surely this is just a straw-man argument, just a dramatic oversimplification and irresponsible glossing of the actual ideological claims? What we should rather do is to accept the challenge as genuine, as a sincere expression of populist sentiment which, if left in the hands of the right, has the destructive potential of any proto-fascist community.

In other words, the threat from the right-wing is real, but its populist sentiment is not to be dismissed as an immature or unthinking commitment to ideology – rather, we must see in this movement against ecologism (which, Green Dragon notwithstanding, does pose its own threats to human agency) a rightful claim to basic human rights, to equality, to wealth distribution, etc.: the much-maligned decline of the Left – the collapse of its political weight and the inability of its leaders to construct a coherent ideology – is a result of this narcissistic, off-hand dismissal of ‘populist’ uprising on the basis of an unthinking commitment to the Left’s own institutional norms, which themselves perpetuate a distinction of classes, a social hierarchy, a self-righteous smugness…

I think Zizek has it right when he says that we have seen the normative functioning of the political inhere in three distinct varieties throughout modernity: (1) the idiotic, conservative return to the pre-modern injunction, “Obey, don’t think!”; (2) the hyper-rational endless interpretative mode of ‘post’-modernism a la Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard, et al., with the motto, “Don’t obey, think!”; and (3) Immanuel Kant’s inauguration of the Enlightenment with his original modernist prescription, the categorical imperative, which is today more important than ever — that is, “Obey, but think!”…. In other words, a committed faith/belief/obeisance is constitutive of every properly political and moral act, so rather than dismiss as mere populist irrationality those movements which enjoin their subjects to obey an ideology, one should do some difficult intellectual work and dig deeper to uncover the strategic core (and not be so smug as to assert one’s own infallibility): the thing to do today is to cultivate a society wise to the fact that any political ideal is already false, is already doomed to fail at the level of ‘reality.’

So we do not need perfectionism or obsessive analysis and an endless perusal of facts without normative judgment (values/norms are one thing, facts are another); we do not need to attempt to dis-burden ourselves of every ‘illusion’ or ‘bias’ (as though this is really possible), to relegate important political decision-making to scientific committees and ‘think-tanks’: rather, we need to confront dis-sensus with respect, to develop and debate our values through community-based, rational dialogue.

The move, then, is to obey a belief (ideology), but to do it in a thoughtful, sober, sincere, and strategic manner.

Edited July 30, 2001: Today I listened to an interview with Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute on Ecoshock radio. He made the interesting point that, whereas environmentalism has focused in the past on “saving the planet,” the focus now is just, plainly, “saving our civilization.” So maybe one way to counter the anti-green-movement propaganda above, specifically the claim that environmentalists put the needs of the planet before people, is to shift our thinking away from protecting nature and start thinking about the very real possibility that in a decade or two there could be world wars and failed governments, everyone struggling for resources once the economy collapses under its own weight. When the economy stops being able to keep up with the radical changes (failed crops, zero oil, depleted water supplies) brought on by changes in our planet’s natural forces, it will be obvious that the thing to save is humanity itself.

When I woke up this morning, I had a bowl of cereal, like usual. Normally I have the same basic brands, like Quaker Life, or Cheerios. But yesterday at the store I couldn’t resist the sales and I picked up 5 boxes of cereal, including some Kashi. So I had Kashi for breakfast. I started to read the cereal box, and noticed what’s increasingly important to advertisers (and apparently to the American public as well) – the cliché statement about ‘nature,’ the benefits of ‘organic’ food processing, of a back-to-basics kind of (industrial) activity. The most striking thing this time, though, was the blurb on the side of the box, the text within which – surrounding a green image of the Earth – said “Nature takes care of us. Let’s take care of it!”

The problem here should be obvious. Nature takes care of us if and only if we take care of it; we cannot survive in nature without manipulating it in one way or another, and indeed it is insane to imagine a time when human society functioned without this ‘unnatural’ rationality. As Theodore Adorno pointed out in the early twentieth-century, the problem today is not that we must return to a pre-modern sort of relationship to nature, not that we should ‘allow a thousand blossoms to bloom’ or let ‘nature,’ the pre-individual drives or ‘innate’ (Id) existence to flourish against the repressive forces of the superego (however it is conceived: industrial, capitalist, hyper-rational, etc.), but that these very concepts are themselves a kind of superego injunction, a violent force against human consociation. In other words, the ideological message expressed in some sectors of the ecological movement today is that one should reject a ‘determinate reflection’ on how technology itself is necessary to solve the ecological crisis (and constitutive of the crisis, of course), and instead should take nature at its word — a very dangerous message indeed.

Adorno’s point is that this very relationship to nature is itself repressive, is imaginary, reified, overridden with sociocultural norms: our thinking about nature is inescapably a second nature. Adorno originally makes this claim in the context of a dispute with revisionist accounts of Freud’s theory of the drives, in which Freud’s libidinal economy is pegged as a degradation of cultural progress, as an excessive emphasis on the ‘pre-individual’ or ‘innate’ drives, which supposedly limit autonomy and cloud the historical mediation of the drives (that is the Marxist point, anyway). Now why would Adorno (a Marxist) reject this revisionist account of the Freudian theory of the drives? Because it cripples the theory’s critical potential: Freud’s point is not that we are tied to ineluctable ‘natural’ drives which always work against any organization of human effort, any sociocultural institutions, and so on; rather, the point is that these drives themselves are inherently mediated by society – there is no such thing as ‘natural’ desire.

It is because of the functioning of society, of its ‘sublimation’ or exclusion/repression of certain forms of life, that the libidinal economy works the way it does, outside of the control of the conscious Ego. (This goes against standard Anglo-American ego-psychology, which puts the analyst in the position of the ‘subject supposed to know,’ as a model for the analysand’s weak Ego).

Drives as such are ineluctable, but they change based on historical events and sociocultural thought: with Freud we should begin to see how the unconscious drives express the Truth of a society, not of human/internal (or external) ‘nature,’ but of society’s pathological functioning. Indeed the critical move, which Zizek continues to elaborate, is that we should not be fooled by a quasi-biological explanation for the way things are, for the way we behave, etc.; rather, we should uncover what is simply beyond the scope of these modes of interpretation and description — which justify themselves with the purported ‘causal mechanisms’ of an innate ‘human nature’ or external nature — something of a second nature, one whose significance is its ability to tell us something about our own society, not about nature itself… In other words, drives are historically mediated, repressive, and powerful cultural norms/injunctions: they consist of things such as, say, the (libidinal) drives to consume, to possess, to dominate, to submit, to enjoy, to forget, to rationalize, to rebel, to know, to symbolize, and so on.