Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Dipesh Chakrabarty, the Global, and the Planetary

William E. Connolly, author of
Facing the Planetary and of Climate Machines, Fascist Drives, and Truth
The Climate of History in a Planetary Age, by Dipesh Chakrabarty, is in my judgment the most compelling and encompassing book by a humanist on the complexities and asymmetries of the Anthropocene to date. Let me start by listing a few of its essential contributions and challenges to the humanities, and then hazard a couple of ways that it might be augmented.

First, Chakrabarty continually keeps our eyes, ears and feelings focused on the interdependencies and tensions between the global and the planetary. The global emerges as the invaluable focus by postcolonial and Marxist theories of the effects of capitalist imperialism and colonization, both on the colonizers and colonized. Attention to the global is crucial, but until recently its purveyors have ignored the ways volatile planetary forces set on deep time such as monsoon interruptions, ocean conveyor shifts, volcanic interruptions, asteroid hits, extinction events, glacier melts, drought patterns and so on become imbricated with national and global human histories.

Temporalities set on very different scales and vectors of time periodically intersect. Chakrabarty sometimes suggests that awareness of the planetary arose recently during the advent of the Anthropocene, intensified by the pandemic as the double crossing of a virus across two species. I would add that in what might be called the minor tradition of western thought a certain awareness of periodic planetary volatilities has been enunciated. I note the Theophany in the Book of Job, Hesiod’s Theogony, Sophocles, Lucretius and later Nietzsche as key cases in point. Danowsky and de Castro in The Ends of the Earth also show how this awareness is distributed in traditions of indigenous thought. What we encounter today mostly in Euro-American thought, then, is actually a form of awakening after the long period of cultural forgetting and denialism expressed most recently in theo-secular debates between Arendt, Heidegger, Tagore, Schmitt, Kant, Nehru, and others Chakrabarty reviews so compellingly. To me, the debating partners suppressed an alternative transcending their terms of debate.

Second Chakrabarty theme: extractive capitalism has played the most critical role in fomenting triggers to the Anthropocene as well as in helping to ensure that its worst early effects are imposed upon minorities within old capitalist states and upon tropical, semi-tropical and polar regions outside those states. But a focus on capitalism, while essential, is still insufficient. A large number of its critics within the old states and in decolonializing regions, Chakrabarty says, have also focused on promoting economic growth, fostering productivity, expanding classical modes of consumption and promoting mastery over the earth. These operative orientations are anti-capitalist, but they still embrace variants of a civilization of productivity and abundance, broadly construed. This means that while neoliberal capitalism, in particular, must be transformed to respond to the Anthropocene, classical ideals of socialist and communist productivism need to be reworked too. That combination poses a massive challenge. Chakrabarty’s critique of Jason Moore reflects the challenge. I will only add that, in my judgment, one source of aspirational fascist movements in so many countries today—-I note the United States, Brazil, the UK, Poland, Hungary as examples--is that many white members of the working class both sense that The Anthropocene poses a radical challenge to old projections into the future and mistrust alternative ideals advanced to respond to it. Fascism is a danger in this time tied to disavowed awareness of the Anthropocene amid adamant commitment to neoliberal capitalism under unfavorable planetary conditions. Neoliberalism both fosters periodic crises and invites fascist responses to them.

Third, in discussing the power of the Indian caste system Chakrabarty begins to explore how caste orientations are embedded not only institutionally sanctioned privileges but also in what might be called the visceral register of cultural life. It is overdetermined. The visceral register can sometimes be in tension with refined, deliberative articulations. Collective patterns of disgust, for instance, can become embodied in institutional dependence upon the Dalit mixed with a foreboding sense of the danger they impose to the health and dignity of the upper classes. We are “porous bodies” Chakrabarty insists; commitments to growth, productivity, and classical infrastructures of consumption have also become engrained in subject/object relations within the institutions to which we are habituated. I have affluent male friends, to cite one very modest instance, who tell me that the silence of electric cars distresses them. Others may find that preparing compost every day mildly disgusting. To come to terms with the Anthropocene means, in part, to retrain the visceral register of cultural life, including differential, visceral habits of attraction, expectation, and disgust engrained in us. I only add that this register of culture is also critical to the fascist dangers of today, as white working and lower middle class constituencies already pressed by job insecurities express visceral resistance to reformation of habitual practices with uncertain consequences for them in the future. I very much appreciate the attention to this issue by Chakrabarty--and now adopting the stance of the demanding reviewer—-I want to hear more. Disgust is ineliminable from life, but its cultural foci and intensities can be retrained by tactical means.

Fourth, classical notions of “the political”, particularly in western thought--but perhaps not only there—-prove to be insufficient to the obdurate challenges of the Anthropocene today. Arendt’s notion, for example, presupposes the earth as a rather stable background allowing a territorially privileged plurality of human beings to spawn a creative result under carefully crafted conditions. It does not speak closely to the volatility of planetary processes, both in themselves and in relation to triggers pulled by the history of capitalist CO2 and methane emissions. Schmitt, to me, is worse, with his drives to intensify friend/enemy conflicts in pursuit of a fascist nation compromising his late attention to the Nomos of the earth. Many others also spawn images of the political that fail to cope with the spatial scales and temporal multiplicities of the Anthropocene. I call them sociocentric.

So, four themes in Chakrabarty to be taken on board by those who seek to respond to the profound, urgent, and asymmetrical challenges of Anthropocene acceleration. They are enough to make us dizzy. And perhaps they provide hints about some sources of climate denialism and casualism today. Denialism is intense refusal to admit publicly that human induced rapid climate change is real, even when your own experience suggests it to be so. The doubling is what gives the phenomenon its intensity. It is anchored in a visceral fear of how you and your constituency would fare if the radical adjustments proposed are undertaken. That response is bolstered in some evangelical circles by insisting it is a sin against God’s cosmic governance to assert that a human civilization could alter nature in this way; it is intensified by high roller capitalist elites in a demand to project a system of profit and extreme inequality into the future anchored in fossil extraction, immense profits, and mastery of nature—-a combination the rollers themselves suspect to be unsustainable. These two spiritualities come together in the United States, at least, in an evangelical/neoliberal resonance machine that blocks every effort to respond to the Anthropocene.

Climate casualists, on the other hand, acknowledge climate change, but the acknowledgement does not sink deeply into the cultural register of belief and orientations to action. They find the topic depressing and move on quickly. Climate casualists are what Nietzsche might call passive nihilists: they acknowledge on the register of refined belief the Anthropocene; but that acknowledgement is immobilized by a series of old remnants lodged on the visceral register of cultural habit. The remnants form conceptually crude and affectively intense pre-orientations to action.

So, four invaluable themes by Chakrabarty: the volatile relations of the global and the planetary; the penetration of ends attached to a non-capitalist civilization of productivity in some post-colonial theories; the severe limits of classical notions of the political; and the role in these debates and struggles of the visceral register of cultural life.

I would now like to propose two possible augmentations to the analysis by Chakrabarty of the contemporary condition.

First, sprinkled throughout this text are various references to the insufficiency of contending models of time and temporality to encounters with the bumpy relations between the global and the planetary. The idea, I think, is not only a dominant modern model of time is wrong, but that classical and modern debates about time also need to be reworked. There are for instance, cyclical views of time found in the western geologies of Buffon and others, as well as variants in several nonwestern regions. There are, as well, linear images of time, sometimes linked to tendencies toward progress but not always so. Within this last domain there are those such as Descartes, Newton and Einstein who focus on time as a series of disparate instants and those such as Bergson and Whitehead who do or can claim human experiences of duration give us indispensable clues, too, about viral temporalities, monsoon temporalities, ocean conveyor temporalities, glacier temporalities, and so on. The latter, however, in ways that recall Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, tend to project the automatic tendency of these diverse temporalities to harmonize over the long term, and that, therefore, that they are predisposed in the last instance to human well-being.

Theorists such as Michel Serres, Gilles Deleuze, Stephen Gould, and I, however, try to excavate and rework this last assumption. We appreciate clock time—-extending from the time of your morning shower and first class to the deep time of the earth now measured at around 4.5 billion years. Tick, tock, tick, tock. We experience duration. And we also, in ways that do not contradict the first experiences, add what might be called evental time to the list. Evental time periodically interrupts both cyclical and linear temporalities. It can interrupt cycles such as the seasons, the eleven year cycle of sunspot variations, or even changes in the wobble of the earth. And it can interrupt the very long period of advance in dinosaur dominance or the much shorter period of dominance by extractive capitalism. An event, so conceived, occurs when an unexpected happening transforms future expectations and extrapolations. Or when many freeze because they refuse to allow such turns to elicit new extrapolations, ethical stances and political efforts. Evental time turns anticipatory time.

Such turning events are not always unpredictable in principle. They might sometimes merely stand outside operative horizons of attention, as that recent double viral crossing did in Wuhan. Other events may be, however, either because they exceed current scientific capacities to explain tipping points or because they involve real moments of creativity in the world. These are interruptions in the commonly projected future of, say, capitalism, seasons, climate, glacier flows or drought zones, occasioned by intersections between two or more temporalities moving on different vectors, speeds and capacities. A few examples may be pertinent.

When the orbit of the earth intersected with another planet moving on a different pattern perhaps 4.1 billion years ago, the moon was formed and the density of the planet’s mantle became imbalanced. Theia, some geologists now believe, also deposited “carbonaceous material” on the earth, from which oceans were later formed and life became possible. The jury is still out on that last claim, but it would be a huge turning event if true.

Another: About 250 million years ago in clock time eruptions in the Siberian flats heated the earth’s atmosphere; that warming event in turn probably released massive amounts of methane in Antarctica. The collision between three temporalities—-i.e., an event--probably set off the biggest mass extinction of life on earth, turning the course of future species evolution.

About 12,700 years ago, the ocean conveyor system, set on a cyclical temporality that had been in play for a few million years, collided with other flows and was brought to a sudden stop, creating a new ice age.

About 124 years ago (1897-99) seasonal monsoons (cyclical time) were interrupted over large parts of Indian, African and Asian regions. The interruption seemed to follow an intensification of El-Ninos over the Pacific and a shift in the intensity and absorbing capacity of western trade winds. These results were followed by incredible neglect by the British Empire of the famines that resulted. Four intersecting temporalities.

The above sampling is highly incomplete. But an event may now emerge as the confluence of two or more temporalities—-the temporalities can be civilizational, planetary or both—-turning a previously projected course to the future. This all may suggest that both cyclical and linear/progressive images of time need amendment. Both can be interrupted by evental time at surprising junctures. The Anthropocene is one of those junctures.

Finally, it may be timely to speak more sharply to the issue of political activism during the Anthropocene. Chakrabarty may think, I don’t know, that there are so many cultural assumptions to rethink that this issue should be put on hold for a while. However, the truth in that point deflates a second truth: the high probability that “we” have only six or seven years to act militantly before the cascading effects of the Anthropocene overwhelm several regions, setting into motion new refugee flows, wars, civil wars, and dangerous fascist reactions by old capitalist states. So, it is now urgent to pursue a set of improbable necessities within and across several regions, improbable because so many capitalist, theological, and cultural forces resist them; necessary because of the urgency of time.

As Chakrabarty knows above all there is no simple “we” with respect to cross regional citizen strategies to put pressure on states and regions. Variations of circumstance are far too radical for that. To get the ball rolling, then, I will review thoughts about a politics of swarming to be initiated within and across old capitalist states, inviting others to extend and/or modify these themes with respect to other regions.

You move, first, through a variety of role experiments with others at work, your household, your locality, your temple, your university, etc. Such interventions both change collective practices modestly, and they work on the visceral register of culture to prepare activists for more expansive actions later. Role experiments thus perform double duty. Changes in consumption, recycling, composting, invitations to speakers at your temple or school, curriculum, establishing institutional beacons of carbon neutrality, etc. are key here. Following that, you intensify participation in elections and public demonstrations, where this is possible. And, finally, building on those energies already in play you initiate cross-regional general strikes to challenge existing practices of production and consumption now in place in old capitalist states. Such strikes will involve withdrawal from work, radical reductions of consumption by those able to do so for a period of time, and intensive lobbying of state, temple, corporate, and educational institutions. The cross-regional character of such actions would impose pressure on old capitalist states from the inside and outside at the same time. I pose such a set of improbable necessities, again, in part to encourage others to push other proposals, amid the unwillingness of many states, regions, churches, and corporations to do act. Silence on the issue is not an option. Neither is mere critique of this or that positive strategic proposal. Alternative positivities are needed, given the urgency of time…

Part of the challenge to the global and the planetary during acceleration of the Anthropocene is to devise and enact political strategies that outstrip an old set insufficient to this era. For that reason, and others already noted, I appreciate the food for thought offered by this timely book.
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Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Michel Serres, Evental Time and Cultural Denialism

William E. Connolly

Time, says Michael Serres, neither consists of a uniform, singular flow nor a linear repetition of instants that curve under the influence of gravity, as Einstein had insisted. Both images are too streamlined, too invested with eagerness either to commune with a benign world or to master a unilinear one. Break, break, my friends the obdurate hold of both images. They are killing us. Commitment to them today fosters cultural rage in the face of events that rattle them.
You might, Serres says, start by beginning to appreciate how time “percolates”. That image turns us first to think about the turbulence and steam emanating from boiling water. But Serres extends it to ponder the bumpiness of streams and rivers. Indeed, when first encountering the metaphor I was drawn back to the stick races I used to stage with my children on this or that bubbling creek. One well designed stick would take a lead and then find itself whirling around in an eddie. Then it might turn with the flow and be blocked by a pile of rocks and branches before, if the youngster rooting on the bank were lucky, it pulled out. It might even flow back upstream for a while in the midst of a subcurrent or sink into a whirlpool only to pop up somewhere else soon. The winner of the race was not always the one with the stick best fitted to move with a stable current by weight, length, volume and density, though those features induced some advantages. Many other contingencies entered into the fray. Time percolates, even if you start with a river or a stream as the image to inform your thinking. Suppose, too, downstream there is a waterfall, pulling the water at an increasingly rapid rate until it pours over the precipice.
Here are a few things Serres says:

“Time percolates more than it flows.”[I]

“Sea, forest, rumor, noise, society, life, works and days, all common multiples…I am trying to think the multiple as such, to let it wash along without arresting it through unity…I am now trying to rethink time as a pure multiplicity.”[ii]

“…like the percolating basin of a glacial river, unceasingly changing its bed and showing an admirable network of forks, some of which freeze and silt up, while others open up.”[iii]

“I am disquieted, therefore I exist.”[iv]

“…time flows in an extraordinarily complex, unexpected, complicated way…; it folds or twists; it is as various as the dance of flames in a brazier—here interrupted, there vertical, there mobile and unexpected.”[v]

“For whatever praise you may hear, whatever love you may profess for the sea and mountains, the desert or marshes, plants and animals, nature doesn’t behave as a friend to humans or even their symbiont. By means of waves, fire, typhoons, poisoning, or devouring, it kills as calmly as bodies fall and eagles eat lambs.”[vi]
Serres tries to break the existential hold old images have over binary logics in general and the primacy of the mastery/organic debates about time in particular. The logics depress attention to messy processes of becoming; the debates block exploration of another alternative. Serres teaches us to master the will to mastery, first, because it cannot succeed and, second, because it fails to respond to the grandeur of that of which we ourselves are an intrinsic part. The nihilism with which many respond to the last sentences quoted here from Serres is, to Serres, a sign that they have not gotten over the profound disappointment that their favored images of time do not fit well rocky experiences they have themselves encountered. Confidence in eternal salvation or the indefinite advance of capitalism may hang in the balance. It is this disappointment that we are ethically enjoined to overcome so that our thinking and responses to the world become more decent and in-formed. For existential disappointment, unless it is overcome, can morph into ressentiment, and the latter can morph into bellicose cultural dispositions to aggressive nihilism.
Let us distinguish three dimensions of time, each christened by some to crown time: clock time, lived time, evental time. Clock time is indispensable to life in highly organized capitalist societies. You get up at 7, eat breakfast at 8, arrive at work by 9, if you are a privileged member of the middle class. The big meeting is at 10, and the day winds down by 5. Newton and Einstein loved clock time, the latter indexing it to the speed of light and showing how light bends in response to every gravitational pull. Clock time thus generates its own puzzles. And its own dogmas. Punctualists in science and political economy sense that only if it receives singular priority can they hope to construct a precise, verified, sufficient science tethered to mastery of the world. Lived time involves experiences of duration in which, say, new thoughts, ideas or projects bubble up and a creative dimension of becoming folds into life. William James and Henri Bergson found it to provide a better basis for philosophy than clock time, and both extended the compass of lived time beyond human beings to other animals, plants and bacteria.
Evental time involves the intersection of two or more previously separated temporalities, each on its own speed, capacities, and vector. Bumpy intersections between viruses, pangolins, and humans set on different temporalities illustrate evental time. Also, rising, salty ocean, the slow pace of sand formation, and established construction practices can meet to usher in a high rise collapse in Miami. Evental time, I suspect, is consistent with clock and lived time, though not reducible to either. We date key events, for instance.

Consider, then, merely a few galvanizing, planetary instances of evental time:

Perhaps between 4.1 and 4.5 billion years ago a planet, now called Theia, crashed onto the earth, which then was still covered with molten seas. A rocky meeting of two cosmic temporalities. The result seems to have been formation of a moon around the earth, with effects (later) on tides; it also may have created the tilt of the earth. Billions of years later adventurous sailors deployed the light of the moon and its orbital course to help guide them at sea. Adventurous Polynesian migrations to numerous Pacific islands were thus enabled by that collision. Another event. What if the planet hitting the earth had been much larger? The von Trier film, Melancholia, explores such an event, set in contemporary times.
About 250 million years ago (clock time), eruptions from the Siberian flats heated the earth’s atmosphere. Then, (clock time), the warming atmosphere probably activated methane sediments in Antarctica (another event), heating the planet so high that 90% of life was lost. If the methane release had been higher life might have been destroyed totally, waiting many million years before it became activated again.[vii]

About 66 million years ago a massive asteroid following its own trajectory hit the earth on (what is now) the Mexican peninsula. It was followed by a huge volcano in India, the second event perhaps triggered by the first. Almost all large land life was extinguished, including notably large dinosaurs. They had been exquisitely adapted to the settled environment for 130 million years (clock time). Now they could not survive. The new rules for flourishing and survival set the stage for small mammals to accelerate their own evolutionary development. Millions of years later, the event finally began to percolate into western philosophy and the human sciences, setting the stage for a belated focus on evental time. [viii]
About 12,700 years ago, the world-wide ocean conveyor system--which had only followed its cyclical pattern for millions of years--suddenly stopped, with profound effects upon climate. The Gulf Stream, a small part of the conveyor, was thus halted. The impetus for the stoppage is still under investigation and it itself was not discovered until the 1970s. A couple of thousand years later, the current was renewed and the Holocene stuttered into being, perhaps over a period of less than ten years. That latter event, of course, set the stage for the rapid expansion of agriculture and the human population.[ix]

About 1120 years ago (900 CE), a new warming period hit Europe, parts of Africa, Asia and the Americas, perhaps occasioned in part by intensification of the ocean conveyor and massive deforestation campaigns in Europe. The differential results extended the range of European agriculture, encouraged Mongols on the Russian Steppes victimized by new drought to invade Europe, and helped to destroy the massive Mayan Empire in the Americas.
About 124 years ago (1897-99), seasonal monsoons (cyclical time) were interrupted over large parts of India. The interruption seemed to follow an intensification of El Ninos over the pacific and a shift in the direction and intensity of western trade winds. The British Empire refused to respond to the massive famine and disease that followed. Conjunctions between the El Nino, shifting wind currents, a monsoon interruption, and the policies of the British Empire manufactured a devastating event.[x]
More recently, Hitler arose after defeat of Germany in World War I, soldiers wanderings aimlessly at home, and severe inflation, soon creating a holocaust before the Russian winter slowed him down. A conjunction of six events. American scientists invented a nuclear bomb at warp speed that was dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima; a racist American evangelical-neoliberal resonance machine was created that dominated that country for decades; the Anthropocene—underway for centuries under the hegemony of extractive capitalism—was finally discovered by scientists; and a devastating pandemic was spawned (perhaps) by the double crossing of a virus, first, from bats to a pangolin and then from the pangolin to humans. Clock time kept ticking to its two-step rhythm during each event.
This sampling of events is incomplete and arbitrary. Many more, of diverse sorts, could be added. Even the limited sample, however, identifies some characteristics of evental time. Each event emerges from the confluence of two or more temporalities, previously set on different vectors, speeds and capacities. The conjunctions throw heterogeneous forces and beings into contact, as they intersect through collisions and ingressions. The resulting event turns or twists the vector of time that preceded it, now making a linear projection or “extrapolation”—to use Darwin’s favorite word--based on processes that preceded it out of touch with the turn actually taken. The tendency to refuse to adjust extrapolations into the future in the face of new events provides one source of the recent turns to fundamentalism, denialism, and fascism across the world. Each refusal might involve a desperate desire to save an old faith, to preserve an old image of time, or to protect the assumption that the progress of capitalism on a linear track can proceed indefinitely. Or several of these, re-enforcing each other. Hence, the need to develop a philosophy of evental time.
To give evental time its due physicists, philosophers, theologians, humanists and social theorists must become more familiar with bacteria temporalities, viral temporalities, fungal temporalities, civilizational temporalities, capitalist temporalities, planetary temporalities, climate temporalities, geological temporalities, asteroid temporalities, scientific temporalities, and theological temporalities, noting how any of these can intersect with one or more of the others at any time.

Evental time disorients expectations; it unsettles cultural assumptions and temporal extrapolations already in play. To broach the phenomenon of evental time is to disrupt several theological and scientific views in Euro-America. So many hopes and demands are anchored in the other images. To refuse to consider evental time, however, is to court even worse dangers, including the return of fascism and devastating climate change.
There are a few other lessons brought into relief by a focus on evental time. First, each previous event—each turn in time—continues to carry implications today. The shape of seasons, the current hegemony of homo sapiens, the organization of the ocean conveyor, the shifting monsoons, the current conditions of indigenous peoples, the insistence on white triumphalism, the current trajectory and pace of climate change, and the continuing danger of nuclear war, all find expression in part because of events that turned the course of time. And indeed, conjunctions between a Covid viral crossing and autocrats in the United States, India, and Brazil who refused to cope with them continue to find expression as new variants proliferate. Events periodically percolate together.
Second, when an event occurs, previous extrapolations into the future must be adjusted. This recurrent condition suggests that more of us should cultivate a double orientation to extrapolation. During periods of reasonable regularity in a domain—such as regular seasons, a settled civilizational pattern, the confinement of viral crossings, the slow pattern of species evolution, the consistency of climate patterns, the reliability of monsoons, the long aftermath of indigenous conquests, etc., etc., it may be reasonable to extrapolate forward probabilities and goals from the recent past. Thus, I as a young democratic socialist in the 1970s, extrapolated a possible future in which more and more people in the world achieve material abundance, while neoliberals projected a probable future in which the mastery of nature accelerated, wealth distribution within and between regimes became more extreme, racial hierarchies corresponded roughly to the old hierarchies within and between capitalist states, and so on. But upon the advent of the Anthropocene, modified extrapolations of possibility, probability and desirability need to be made. Indeed, the recurrent pressure to make such turns in extrapolation helps to explain cultural denialism and/or scapegoating in many circles with respect to such things as the failure of Christ to return, holding Jews responsible for the Great Depression, blaming Blacks for their own exploitation, the failure of communism, the inability of capitalism to thrive into the indefinite future, and the advent of the Anthropocene. Those who accept the prominence of evental time are thus encouraged to adopt a double entry orientation to extrapolation. Extrapolations into possible futures are always needed, but with each major turn of event adjustments of extrapolation are needed.
Third, the periodic prominence of evental time also means that entire cultures are called upon to fight off the existential disappointment--or even cultural rage--that can arise collectively when reassuring images of time no longer so confidently control the cultural terrain. The task for many now becomes how to overcome the assumption of progressive time, how to appreciate the grandeur of bumpy time, how to affirm a world punctuated by events that turn time. Doing so to encourage struggles against the worst things when a bad turn occurs without seeking racial, religious, scientific and theological scapegoats to hold responsible for that turn. This is the most difficult existential issue posed by evental time. For several religious and secular constituencies are rattled by it.

In the western traditions, broadly defined, noble struggles with this issue can be discerned in Hesiod, Sophocles, the Book of Job, the Book of J, Heraclitus, Lucretius, Nietzsche, Kafka, James Baldwin, Catherine Keller, Jairus Grove, and Michel Serres himself. None of those existential struggles is apt to suffice today. But several are pertinent to those who acknowledge the significance of evental time, seek to affirm a world in which events turn life, and struggle against the worst effects of temporal turns or accelerations without seeking scapegoats who must be made to suffer for them.

[i] Michel Serres, branches (London: Bloomsbury, 2004), p.

[ii] Serres, Genesis (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1995), p. 5.

[iii] Serres and Latour, Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995), p. 105.

[iv] Serres, branches, p. 125.

[v] Serres and Latour, Conversations…, p. 58

[vi] Serres, The Incandescent, p. 161. I should also note two other books that have helped me to come to terms with Serres. The first, Michel Serres: Figures of Thought (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020, by Christopher Watkin, explores the development of Serres’s orientation to nature, logic, and time across several decades. The second, Time and History in Deleuze and Serres, edited by Bernd Herzongenrath (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2012), helped me to compare Deleuze, a figure more familiar, with Serres. Jane Bennett and I have an essay in the latter volume, “The Crumpled Handkerchief,” pp. 153-172.

[vii] Michael Benton, When Life Nearly Died: The Greatest Mass Extinction of All Time (London: Thames Hudson, 2005)

[viii] Wally Broecker, The Great ocean Conveyor: Discovering the Trigger for Abrupt Climate change (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.

[x] See Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts (New York: Verso, 2001). Davis, at odds with most western social theory of the day, combines a history of the colonial holocaust with an account of how the intense El Ninos were formed and altered the wind patterns over India. A social theorist who refuses to succumb to sociocentrism.
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Friday, February 19, 2021

Mission Statement

Because of the weather in Houston there was no way for me to prepare for my stint with the wonderful Eyebeam organization. So I sent this mission statement instead:
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Sunday, February 7, 2021

Storming the Capitol: The Predictable Efficacy of (Hyper)Mimesis

Nidesh Lawtoo is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at KU Leuven, PI of an ERC project titled Homo Mimeticus, and author of, most recently, (New) Fascism: Contagion, Community, Myth.

The storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021 was a harrowing moment in U.S. political history that cast a shadow on democracy more generally. It confirmed what a minor tradition in political theory had been warning against for some time in theory yet left dominant institutions surprisingly unprepared in practice. In the wake of Donald Trump’s election in 2016, a number of dissenting theoretical voices had been consistently warning that Donald Trump should not simply be dismissed as populist, conservative, or right-wing. He should rather be seen as a leader inclined toward “tyranny,” “neo-fascism,” “aspirational fascism,” or “(new) fascism,” with all the differences from historical fascism these concepts entail.
If Trump’s “fascist aspirations” (Connolly’s phrase) were made manifest on January 6, his contagious, mimetic, or as I call them, hypermimetic powers on his crowd of supporters had been operative all along his presidency. It is in fact becoming increasingly clear that (new) fascist leaders in the digital age rely on new media and the simulations they entail not only to blur the distinction between truth and lies, facts and alternative facts—though they do that repeatedly. (New) fascist simulations are hypermimetic for they operate on digital users’ affective, embodied, and immanent actions and reactions that are most manifest in a violent mob but are equally at play in conspiracy theories that go viral online before triggering contagious insurrections offline.
The conspiracy theory of “election fraud” that went viral on social media asserting that Joseph R. Biden “stole the election” was not based on the simple logic of mimesis understood as realistic “representation” or mirror of reality (Plato). And yet, this conspiracy should neither be dismissed as a “hyperreal simulation” that has nothing to do with imitation (Baudrillard). Rather, a recent mimetic turn, or re-turn of attention to mimesis in political theory strongly suggests that conspiracies retroact performatively on the immanent materiality political life, generating contagious actions and intoxicating reactions that emerge from the interplay between hyperreal simulations online and all-too-real mimetic behavior offline. I call this spiraling process, hypermimesis.
Following Donald Trump’s electoral defeat and refusal to concede to Joseph Biden as the 46th president-elect of the United States, the mob assault on the U. S. Capitol concluded

four years of Trump’s catastrophic presidency amplified by a global pandemic with a violent insurrection qua domestic terrorist attack that led to five casualties including a police officer.
Unexpected by politicians and police alike who left the Capitol disarmingly open to the assault, the insurrection did not surprise political theorists attentive to the contagious powers of (hyper)mimesis. The efficacy of these powers can be schematically diagnosed on the shoulders of a Janus-faced genealogy of collective intoxications that looks back to crowd behavior in the past century to better diagnose hypermimetic behavior in the present century. I consider four points.


First, the insurrection required the organized assemblage of a crowd of supporters at a rally primarily composted of white supremacists and right-wing extremists whose unconditional adherence to the outgoing president and refusal to accept the nominated president-elect provided a shared consensus (con-sensus, feeling with) injected with violent anti-democratic potential. Promoted under the dramatic hypernationalist banner of “Save America March” with the explicit intent of gathering a highly mimetic, suggestible, and potentially violent crowd that could be put to (new) fascist use contra the Capitol and the democratic process it symbolizes, the organizers of the rally demonstrated good insights in the contagious and mimetic dynamic of what a marginalized tradition in the social sciences called “crowd psychology.”
Despite their differences, figures like Sigmund Freud, Gustave Le Bon, Gabriel Tarde, and Elias Canetti agreed that individuals behave radically differently in a crowd than individually. In particular, they are prone to fall under the irrational spell or suggestive authority of a charismatic leader (meneur is Le Bon’s term, which Freud translates as Führer) who can use a theatrical rhetoric to trigger contagious and violent emotions that spread unconsciously from self to others, turning the I, or ego, into another, more powerful and collective ego. Le Bon, anticipating Freud, puts it as follows:

He [the man of the crowd] possesses the spontaneity, the violence, the ferocity, and also the enthusiasm and heroism of primitive beings, whom he further tends to resemble by the facility with which he allows himself to be impressed by words and images—which would be entirely without action on each of the isolated individuals composing the crowd—and to be induced to commit acts contrary to his most obvious interests and his best-known habits. (8)Crowds under the spell of fascist leaders have indeed been known to commit violent acts contrary to their own interests in the past century; there is no reason to believe that such spells are not effective among (new) fascist leaders in the present century. Violent affects are suggested directly by the leader’s inflammatory rhetoric itself that operates vertically, from the top down, and whose mimetic efficacy is amplified horizontally, from within the crowd, as the violent intoxicating pathos becomes a shared pathos. Tied both horizontally and vertically in this mimetic double bind, the man of the crowd no longer feels lonely and isolated but heroic and empowered, delegates conscious responsibility to the leader, and turns into a phantom ego ready to commit irresponsible political actions against his/her own “obvious interests.”
This also means that the crowd is vulnerable to what a pre-Freudian psychological tradition that had mimesis more than dreams as a via regia to the unconscious called, “imitation,” “contagion” or “suggestion”—the latter being a concept that specifically designated the hypnotic power to turn an idea into an action, including violent actions. 


Second, the insurrection was catalyzed by the presence of a presidential leader who relied on theatrical strategies to cast a suggestive spell on the crowd. The crowd’s affective identification with the meneur was already established due to Trump’s double role as media personality and political leader who, throughout his presidency, consistently relied on a violent rhetoric to continuously generate mass-contagion in the collective soul of his base. This rhetoric should not be derided for its linguistic simplicity but studied for its contagious efficacy. Its distinctive characteristics are well-known to crowd psychology and include aggressive affirmations rather than rational explanations, repetitions rather than arguments, use of images rather than thought, and a general awareness that violent emotions (anger, fear, resentment, etc.) work best to galvanize a crowd.
In the speech that incited the crowd to storm the Capitol, Trump’s implementation of the strategies of crowd psychology were obvious and manifold. In particular, he relied on the repetition of the Big Lie constitutive of his conspiracy theory (“rigged election”), an unproven and hyperbolic affirmation of victory (“we won by a landslide”), an emotional appeal to patriotism and love (“American patriots”), the direction of violence against scapegoats (“the weak Republicans,” the “fake media”), a stubborn refusal of facts (“we will never concede”), among other well-tested strategies constitutive of his rhetoric.
Strong of this affective support and of the resentment that animated it, Trump and his closest associates whipped up the crowd to the culminating point of suggesting a violent anti-democratic action contra the U.S. Capitol. They did so explicitly by inciting the mob not to be “zeros but heroes” (Donald Trump Jr.), promise “trial by combat” (Rudolph Giuliani), and suggest a violent insurrection that had performative effects: “We fight like hell, and if you don’t fight like hell you’re not going to have a country anymore” (Donald Trump)
The crowd of white supremacists driven by real material deprivations, grievances, and resentment amplified by an ongoing pandemic crisis was at this point galvanized and ready to turn the leader’s suggestion into a (new) fascist action. Members of the mob, which in addition to white supremacists, included far-right extremists (Proud Boys), followers of online cults (QAnon), as well as armed veterans, including former federal agents (FBI), were also ready to put themselves on the line by physically fighting for Trump—against themselves.


Third, this paradoxical turn of events cannot be dissociated from the proliferation of recordings of the storming that redoubled the event online, where the galvanization had initially started in the first place. Trump’s speech, riot, and subsequent insurrection was in fact planned and announced well in advance via new media like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram that effectively disseminated the conspiracy theory about “election fraud” by relying on what “conspiracism” does best: namely, promoting the idea that especially when it comes to big historical events (say, an election) but not only, official explanations inevitably hide a more occult, false, yet truly-believed plot that posits the conspiracy believer as a victim of an evil plan. Summarizing the main features of conspiracy theories under the heading of “nothing happens by accident; nothing is at it seems; and everything is connected,” in their informed overview of this growing heterogeneous phenomenon, Michael Butter and Pieter Knight confirm historically what we have all seen on January 6, 2021: namely, that “the leaders of populist parties and movements frequently draw on conspiracy tropes, and their followers appear to be particularly receptive to them,” specifying that “extremist violence” often ensues.
If this lesson applies to populist leaders is the dangers of insurrections are amplified by (new) fascist leaders. Gaining momentum by the proliferation of new platforms of dissemination online, conspiracy theories can no longer be considered a marginal phenomenon confined to few pathological cases, for they play an increasingly important role in influencing public opinion in the digital age, amplifying the hypermimetic powers of authoritarian figures.


Last but not least: the powers of conspiracy theories to erode the epistemic foundations of longstanding democratic practices are complex and manifold, but the assault on the Capitol could not have succeeded without a simpler, yet not less violent, racist supplement. While the U. S. police force is traditionally overprepared to violently counter peaceful protests among ethnic minorities (from Civil Rights to Black Lives Matter),
in a mirroring inversion of perspectives, it underestimated an announced violent insurrection among white majorities (from White supremacists to far-right extremists). For reasons that are still emerging and are currently revealing Republican officials’ complicity with the assault, although the Capitol police force was warned of the danger of insurrection in advance, it remained understaffed, and unprepared, allowing an intoxicated mob to invade the Capitol, loot parts of the building, and take possession of the Senate chamber. In an eerie confirmation of the genealogy we have been tracing, a figure dressed as a shaman and member of the far-right conspiracy cult QAnon, only made visible the underlying link between ancient ritual cults and contemporary conspiracy cults.
Importantly, the feedback loop between online and offline violence continued during the storming of the Capitol itself as the insurrectionists not only filmed Trump’s speech but also their own terrorist attack, re-doubling the event in the digital world. This digitized recording of a (new) fascist suggestion turned into terrorist action generated a parallel reality that, once again, did not simply represent reality according to the laws of imitation; it also generated performative hypermimetic effects that cut both ways, both with and contra democracy: on the democratic side, the recordings online were instrumental in helping the police identify insurrectionists, track them down, and inflict severe penalties; on the insurrectionist side, these videos went viral and contributed to disseminating violent anti-democratic feelings that are not limited to the U.S. but are operative transnationally via a growing cosmopolitan network that connects (new) fascist movements across the world. To be sure, the insurrection eventually failed, and a lawful (though heavily policed) transition of power ensued. And yet, as the Biden Administration is currently restoring basic democratic accords (Paris Accord, WHO membership etc.) disrupted by the previous Administration, let us not forget that (new) fascist sentiments will not magically disappear as the crowd momentarily disperses offline to reconnect online. The example of how conspiracy theories can easily lead to a violent insurrection that reveals the fragility of democratic institutions will leave lasting traces in the history of democracy, both in the U.S. and around the world. Conspiracies are also leaving lasting traces online that can serve as possible models for future insurrections to imitate offline, in an hypermimetic spiral of endless regress.
In the end, the assault on the Capitol left many politicians shocked, caught security forces unprepared, and was considered unprecedented within the sphere of U. S. politics; and yet, a minor tradition in mimetic theory consistently showed that its contagious dynamic has a long genealogy that should be taken seriously in political theory. It has been my contention that looking back to the powers of mimesis in the past century is a necessary step to foresee and counter (new) fascist insurrections to come in the present century.

*This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program (grant agreement No 716181: HOM): http://www.homomimeticus.eu/
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Tuesday, February 2, 2021


Hyperobjects is included in the College Art Association virtual exhibit display and sale. The annual conference begins Wednesday, February 10 and goes through Saturday, February 13 with pre-conference activities beginning in late January. With the transition to virtual conferences and exhibits, the overall success is amplified when authors participate in promoting to their audiences in concert with the efforts from our marketing department. CAA collection website: https://www.upress.umn.edu/book-division/collections/caa-2021 40% discount code for CAA titles: MN87380 On Twitter: #CAA2021, @UMinnPress, @caavisual
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Thursday, January 21, 2021

Counting to 400,000: Mourning on the National Mall

Thomas Dumm
Amherst College

Joseph Stalin once infamously observed, “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.” Knowing the consequences that may follow from the reduction of many lives to a number – trivialization, and in the worst cases, a forgetfulness that encourages the suppression of otherwise overwhelming truths concerning the terrible things we human beings are capable of doing -- we want to resist thinking in such reductive terms. But when we try to imagine how to grieve mass death as a public, how can we otherwise memorialize, how can we remember, how can we grieve?
As the number of deaths in the United States from the Covid-19 virus have mounted at an accelerating pace, following the merciless laws of multiplication that accompany uncontrolled contagions, a common measure of comparison has been used by many members of the commentariat. To whit, the daily toll from the pandemic has now exceeded the total number of deaths suffered on 9/11. Another comparison has been to deaths suffered in American wars. (Indeed, in his inaugural address, President Biden himself noted that more Americans have now died from this plague than died in World War II.) But for some reason, perhaps because war itself involves volition and deliberation, if not always explicit declaration, we do not immediately think of casualties of war as being victims, but as being heroes.
The vacillation between hero and victim is but one expression of the many simplifying dualisms in the American lexicon of power. In this case, heroes are powerful; victims are powerless. (Of course, another dualism pits the hero against the villain, the enemy of the good. The villain too is reducible to the binary logic of absolutism, judged regardless of context, without any attempt to learn of the circumstances that created their villainy, to absolute condemnation.) But dualisms of power only work when there is a conscious refusal to acknowledge the imperfections of all, to imagine that there a conclusion to our grief, a psychic closure that gives one permission to move on, move away, from the site of such difficult pain.
But many of us who have directly experienced grief – and who hasn’t? -- know that there is no certain end to it, and that when we attempt to evade the pain of loss through suppression or distraction, or conversion of pain into anger, we do damage to ourselves and to those around us. Judith Butler has noted the destructiveness of blocked grief, especially in her meditation on 9/11, Precarious Life. There she suggested that all grief has a public dimension, and she realized that as a consequence of that public dimension of grief, it is inevitably politicized. When there are mass deaths, especially, the politics of grief becomes more visible to all.
The public life of grief didn’t have any noteworthy face during the Trump Administration, Trumpism being the quintessential dualistic ideology. (Simple binaries have supported the rule of tyrants throughout history, but they are especially well fitted to modern fascistic regimes.) By political imperative, but also by personality, it is abundantly clear that Trump was unfit to lead the country in grieving. In fact, his actions throughout 2020 and into this year were largely based on his denial of the seriousness of the pandemic, as has been extensively documented.
Every milestone in this plague – whether the initial explosion of cases in the states of New York and Washington, through the ongoing documentation of 100,000, 200,000 300,000, and now 400,000 deaths as the virus has spread throughout the country in a second wave – has passed, not only without meaningful comment by the Trump Administration, but with ridiculous lies and an absurd politicization of such basic precautions as wearing masks in the name of a freedom of choice, a freedom akin to that of choosing to drive on whatever side of the road one might prefer. (The significant failure of Trump to act as head of state and chief executive should be one more reason for a general rethinking of the present constitutional system of governance. But that is a subject for another time.)
And so it came to pass that the citizens and denizens of the United States, following the catastrophe of an insurrection incited by Trump and the Republicans in Congress in support of the Big Lie of a stolen election, came to the nation’s capital, virtually if not in person, on the eve of Joe Biden’s inauguration, at dusk, to witness the first national ritual of grief for those deaths approximately one year after the first recorded mortality from Covid-19 in the United States.
    The event was staged at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool on the National Mall. Four hundred obelisks of light lined the sides of the Pool, one for every thousand deaths, counting to 400,000, stretching from the Memorial to the Washington Monument, devoid of people, not only because of the ongoing pandemic but because of the lockdown of the capital following the attempted putsch on the 6th of January.
There were brief comments by the by the president and vice-president elects, and the singing of two songs. The first was “Amazing Grace” (the lyrics written by a reformed slave owner in 1788 (the melody adapted from the song “New Britain” in 1835), a song deeply familiar to all, a song of hope that was sung by President Obama at a memorial service for one of the nine murder victims of a white nationalist in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015.
   The second song was, to me anyway, a more surprising choice. Although famous in its own right, Leonard Cohen’s 1984 sorrowful love song, sung in the voice of a person broken by his lover, now has entered the pantheon of national recognition for a reason far different than its origin might suggest. “Hallelujah” has been transformed into an anthem of mourning and resolution, with the use of its title word serving as the chorus, both ironic and beyond irony, in its singing.
A key lyric in that song, one Yolanda Adams chose not to sing that evening – it is a long song when fully performed – was this: 

And I've seen your flag on the marble arch

and love is not a victory march

It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah

I wish she had. It would have been fitting. Cold and broken, flag still flying, no victory march: what better describes that which we still may call the national mood?

This country’s national grieving has begun. What we might make of that fact I do not know. But as our morning progresses, we may begin to see glimmers of hope.

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