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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