To Doom or not to Doom, that is the Head-scratcher

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: Nostalgia is what happens when we remember the ‘happens’ minus the ‘shit.’

Just a couple of responses to several queries made over the course of the past several days. I have no definite info on the writing class I’ll be teaching this summer. I have no clue how or why the release dates for my books get shuffled around. And I rarely allow myself more than an hour or two to put these posts together. They are pretty much as ad hoc as can be – which is just to say that they fly straight out of my ass!

I’ve been meaning to post about nostalgia and the importance of fantasy for a few days now, but my thoughts have been hijacked by the related notion of ‘societal decline’ for some reason, particularly by what struck me as uncomfortable parallels I felt lurking between my thought and Theo’s.

I’ve never encountered any research on the subject (links would be welcome) but the tendency to idealize the past almost seems an axiom of human nature. As is the tendency to think things are going to shit. What ever happened to the good old days?

Let’s be honest. We are in the midst of the most remarkable efflorescence of human achievement in the history of the human race. No period in any human civilization has enjoyed the health, prosperity, and sheer cultural productivity that we are presently enjoying now.

Resource pessimists will tell you that we’ve exhausted this or that critical resource, but the fact is, the technological optimists have pretty much carried the day in the history of these debates. Consider ‘peak oil,’ the thesis that our dog-sprinting economies are about to reach the limit of their fossil fuel leash. Although this might be true for easily accessible forms of oil, there’s enough oil locked in tar sand and shale deposits to last decades, if not longer. And the current prices are already high enough to make extraction economical. It’s scaling up as we speak.

Environmental alarmists will tell you that the climate and biosphere are unravelling beneath our feet. But their predictions are only dire in the long term, and the technological optimists once again have powerful arguments to make.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m about as big a ‘doomer’ as they come. I’m not a resource pessimist simply because of research I did exploring my brother’s worries about peak oil. I do think we are in the midst of an environmental crisis–we are literally living through one of the biggest extinction events to hit the planet–but the technological optimist’s position is a genuinely powerful one, and I never feel comfortable committing to a guess unless I’ve given the Devil his due due. I also think that the masses who do all the work are being progressively and systematically duped and cheated by the few who enjoy and command their labour–in North America, at least.

But what I’m really afraid of is the growing disproportion between our collective self-understanding and the dizzying power of our toys, weapons, and tools. A man, as the saying goes, has got to know his limitations, and here we are, living and participating in a culture that continually trumpets our ‘limitless potential.’ A triumphalist culture.

I no longer give a flying fuck about the canonical ‘radical’ concerns of left wing academia. I see ‘problems’ like the ‘metaphysics of presence’ or ‘identity thinking’ as hothouse conceptualizations of specific cognitive tendencies that are much better understood in psychological terms, and much better tackled in the arena of popular culture and public education. So where someone like Adorno, for instance, goes on and on about art and the non-identical, I would rather talk about teaching elementary students about the invisibility of ignorance, and how it skews their conceptions of the world. Where Derrida plays with notions of text and differance, I would rather talk about interpretative literacy, and how the humanities need to take responsibility for, rather than simply bemoan, the fact that the majority of their fellow citizens believe in univocal interpretation.

Once you realize that so many of the debates in scholarly circles serve no determinate function, it becomes hard not to see it all as largely the product of in-group status seeking–as a colossal waste of critical resources that our society desperately needs. (Identity and equity politics are important, as are ‘prosperity politics,’ but I see these as skirmishes within the battlefield of liberal democracy.)

So I don’t think we’re entering anything that could be plausibly described as ‘societal decline.’ I also don’t think there’s any kind of historical precedent for what’s happening to us. Analogies to Late Imperial Rome strike me as preposterous. No human being ever has lived in times remotely like these. Pre-Renaissance Europe has far, far more in common with the failing Roman Empire than does the Post-Industrial West.

Here’s a cartoon: Imagine that human society is a peculiar kind of race car, an organic one whose engine is growing in power more quickly than its frame and chassis. Some kind of break up is inevitable. Since the engine (science and capital) seems impossible to throttle back, I’m concentrating on augmenting the frame and chassis (ideology and appearance). Since I’m far more creative than organized, I’m throwing my peculiar bacterial strain into the petri dish of popular cultural, rather than taking any activist, administrative reform route.

The problem is accelerating, unchecked ascent, not decline. It’s the growing mismatch between our collective power and collective wisdom. And this is what makes nostalgia and declinism seem so dangerous to me, not simply the stick-man version Theo and his crew suffer, but in the more sophisticated forms you find in literary culture as well. The notion that what once was literary is literary still, despite the drastic changes in our techno-social circumstances. The notion that naive, pre-cognitive revolution assumptions about human nature provide an adequate basis for cultural critique and speculation. (What could be more nostalgic than semiotics?)

Nostalgia is the instinct, the intuition, that we must keep the frame the same to see our way through, or even worse, dial it back to some previous incarnation. The engine, meanwhile, keeps winding higher and higher.