Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Greta Thunberg: Fifteen Minute Pharmakon?

Sankaran Krishna
University of Hawai'i at Manoa

Why does Greta Thunberg trouble us? What is it about the spectacle surrounding her that leaves many of us with mixed feelings? Why do we ricochet from a momentary appreciation of the young woman’s courage and directness to regarding the attention she has been getting as a part of the problem to even harboring anger and worse at her stentorian self-righteousness and her persona as a global scold? This brief essay tries to untangle my skein of emotions by enlisting the idea of the pharmakon.
Let us peremptorily define pharmakon to mean a combination of poison + antidote that is essentially a smaller portion of the self-same poison + scapegoat or sacrificial lamb. In what follows, I try to show why the Greta Thunberg phenomenon keeps evoking this intermixture of hope, cynicism, and anger, in so many of us.
   Greta Thunberg, wittingly or otherwise, exemplifies the privilege that accrues to people from certain regions, nations, classes and races in the world when it comes to pronouncing on global issues. That people from these self-same categories are also overwhelmingly responsible for much of the crap we find ourselves in is a matter that goes relatively unmarked. She did not choose to be born as a white girl in Sweden, but that accident has a great deal to do with her contemporary visibility.
   What if, about a year ago, a Malaysian teenager named Rashida Ali had chained herself to the railings around the Parliament in Kuala Lumpur in protest over climate change? Would we have heard about her? I think not. In fact, I know not. Irom Sharmila’s was one of the longest hunger strikes in human history in protest over India’s Armed Forces Special Powers Act which allowed the Indian army to act with impunity in its border states. Sharmila eventually gave up and called off her strike as it seemed so futile. Few Indians, let alone people outside the country, heard that tree fall; most of us even didn’t even know it existed before it fell.
Others – fifteen year old Autumn Peltier who has been at the forefront of the struggle of the First Nations of Canada for clean water, Medha Patkar who has spent decades trying to stop the development of dams across the Narmada river which spell disaster for millions of villagers in the state of Gujarat, the women of the Chipko movement in northern India who were the first tree-huggers- have protested against injustices ranging from the proximate to the planetary. Yet they have never commanded the sort of global visibility that Thunberg has. The apocalypse that Thunberg warns of has already happened to millions over five centuries. They protested and continue to resist in myriad ways without drawing a fraction of the attention she is able to command.
Thunberg’s ability to scale her protest up to the level of the global is inseparable from the very industrial, technological, digitized, racialized, and mediated processes that have helped create the crisis she protests against. Her image and actions have gone viral through processes inextricable from the spinoffs of military technology, avaricious consumerism, and media sensationalism. They rely on platforms built on rare earths mined in Africa and produced by slave labor in third world export-processing zones. One can only imagine the amount of airline and other fuels consumed by media personnel who followed her across the Atlantic and over the American landmass to cover the spectacle.
 Thunberg’s calls for saving the planet for the future, for the children, for young people like her, attach a primal innocence to youth that grates in a world where for all too many the innocence of youth has long been lost if it ever existed. Whether its child laborers working in brick kilns since they were toddlers, or teenage soldiers conscripted into ethnic conflicts, or children deliberately mutilated to make them more efficacious beggars, Thunberg’s demand for the restoration of youth itself bespeaks a privileged locus of enunciation. 
Moreover, her foregrounding of lost youth needs to be queered for its heteronormative habitus: innocent youth need saving so they may go on to perpetuate the species through nuclear families. There is a normalized futurity in her narration of a world foregone. While I don’t expect her to show such awareness, the absence of it in so much of the moralizing discourse that surrounds her certainly highlights the incongruity of the desire to return to the innocence of youth in a world where both innocence and youth are unavailable to so many.
To put it simply, there is too much of the Heidegerrian world-as-picture in her imagination and protest, and yet, it’s arguably our ability to scale up to such global levels that has brought us to the current crisis.
Thunberg is from Sweden: the land of Abba and paternity leave. A place where Prime Ministers sometimes bicycle to Parliament and, even when they are assassinated, make sure they were merely walking home after catching a movie with their wife rather than in a bullet-proof limousine surrounded by a security cordon. Sweden is uncontaminated by histories of colonial atrocities (though the record will show that they did attempt, ineffectually, to become a colonial power back in the day) or the unnerving presence of large numbers of dark-skinned ex-subjects in its cities and towns or exotic loot from faraway lands displayed in quiet museums in her capital. There aren’t too many guilt-free white spaces left to which liberal causes can unreservedly affiliate themselves: Sweden (and the rest of Scandinavia) heads that relatively short list. (Sometimes I feel virtue-signaling Volvo drivers actually think their cars are less polluting simply because they are made in Sweden).
Thunberg cut a lonely figure in that ubiquitous photograph of the schoolgirl-chained-to-the-fence outside the Parliament. The idea of a heroic individual changing enduring systems is one that has a long and strong appeal to the liberal imagination: it allows us to retain the illusion that oppressive structures can be changed by acts of individual will and sacrifice. And that the failure to do so has less to do with the power of the structures and more to do with the weakness of our will.
When the individual in question may also be classified as ‘disabled’ (Thunberg is reported to diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome) it adds to the patina of heroism. As Jasbir Puar, among others, has argued, the figure of the disabled (western) hero draws our eyes away from the systemic global production of debility through the slow violence of neocolonial economic policies and the swift violence of war. 
In an era of glossy, freeze-dried celebrity heroes (think Brangelina) Thunberg comes across as authentic: an awkward, blunt-talking teenager who has pronounced various emperors naked. Yet, the third-worlder in me looks suspiciously at the combination of white saviorhood, innocent youth, individualist action and disabled heroine and wonders what all the smoke and mirrors conceal?
 Finally, Thunberg has already emerged as a scapegoat, a site of displacement for many forms of obvious and inchoate anger. Strident moralism, at the best of times, is likely to evoke a “fuck-you-too” as fatigue and over-familiarity set in. When it comes packaged with global celebrity it’s unsurprising that Thunberg has evoked much hostility. To the science-denying right wing, she is emblematic of the sort of extremist (and utopian) liberal politics reduced to absurdity. Their anger and mockery is transparent and quite easy to decipher.
More difficult to parse is the distaste of many who ostensibly share her politics and her ethics. At least one aspect of this distaste is a form of self-hatred: “this young woman has had the guts to say and do the right things. What exactly have I done lately to put my money where my mouth is?” These are dangerous questions for many of us who aspire to be environmentally responsible in the abstract but fail every single minute of every single day in our practice.
The world we inhabit and frankly enjoy is one premised on acting as if the planet is an infinite basket of resources for us to do whatever we please with. Thunberg is an irritating reminder that not only is that not true, but more importantly, that we can change who we are by an act of our will. That she seems to have that will and we clearly don’t transmutes quite rapidly from self-hatred to despising Thunberg. She has become a figure we love to hate and/or hate to love for relentlessly reminding us that even if saving the planet is probably beyond us, we could change who we are and how we act. 
There’s an even darker secret within some of us: it is increasingly obvious that as a species we lack the collective will or nous to alter our headlong rush into oblivion. Some of us, at least some of the time, harbor a feeling that if something bad were to happen to this unblemished heroine, this gutsy young girl from Sweden, maybe that will shake us into action? That might awaken us to our dire and impending doom? Perhaps Greta Thunberg is the sacrifice demanded of us by a gambling God who has evidently upped the ante beyond anything that has gone on before? That would, of course, bring the Greta Thunberg story to a classic terminus: she would become the golden child we sacrificed in order to regain our humanity and our planet.
I suspect the way it will actually play out is more mundane, or at least that is my hope. Just as Malala Yousufzai served a certain function in a different geopolitical moment and now probably languishes in a post-Nobel conference circuit from hell, Thunberg too may soon be pushed aside by the next posterchild of doomed salvation. But at this moment in time, Thunberg reigns as a fifteen minute pharmakon: poison, antidote, and scapegoat all rolled into one highly visible, ornery and ephemeral persona.


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