“This time, the crumbling empire is the unassailable global economy, and the brave new world of consumer democracy being forged worldwide in its name. Upon the indestructibility of this edifice we have pinned the hopes of this latest phase of our civilisation. Now, its failure and fallibility exposed, the world’s elites are scrabbling frantically to buoy up an economic machine which, for decades, they told us needed little restraint, for restraint would be its undoing. Uncountable sums of money are being funnelled upwards in order to prevent an uncontrolled explosion. The machine is stuttering and the engineers are in panic. They are wondering if perhaps they do not understand it as well as they imagined. They are wondering whether they are controlling it at all or whether, perhaps, it is controlling them.”
“Heidegger said that only a god can save us now. As we find ourselves waking up within a series of gigantic objects, we realize that he forgot to add: We just don’t know what sort of god.”
– Timothy Morton
The quote from Uncivilization: the Dark Mountain Manifesto above recalls both the rallying Henry V-style rallying speech in Pacific Rim and the apocalyptic monologue of Godspeed You! Black Emperor: “We’re trapped in the belly of this horrible machine, and the machine is bleeding to death.” One of the things that makes hyperobjects like global warming dizzying and terrifying is that we are inside of them. In Morton’s Hyperobjects, he talks repeatedly about stories of being inside of an object, Jonah and the Whale, and Pinocchio.
It’s tempting to think of the struggle with insideness as a struggle with the self. But the hero’s journey simply doesn’t apply here. When you are dealing with hyperobjects, like global warming, the world will not be saved from ontological crisis by Bruce Willis sacrificing himself like some nuclear messiah. There’s no waiting for Ubermensch, or whatever, as in Pacific Rim. What has been done by an irresistible collective action will not be reversed through abstinence or heroism.
What Tim Morton calls the Age of Hypocrisy is not something that characterizes not some, but all. Everything is implicated in what the Dark Mountain Manifesto names Ecocide – we are inside of the Ecocide, and we are its unwitting architects. When Abraham Lincoln said, “If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher,” he was talking about America. But his words reach much farther than he could have imagined.
I recently was able to watch Ensemble Mini, a miniature orchestra, with soloists rather than sections, play Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. This is a profoundly moving work. Usually it’s interpreted as his conscious farewell to the world, since it is his last completed symphony, or as him farewell to his daughter, as she had recently died. I think that what’s exceptionally exciting, and invigorating about Mahler’s Ninth Symphony is not just the bittersweet nearness of death, but the dread and anxiety of being alive.
Mahler’s Ninth was written in 1908, five year’s before the 1913 Armory Show where Duchamp showed Nude Descending The Staircase and the development of the theory of atomic structure by Niels Bohr which led to modern Quantum Mechanics.
Mahler’s Ninth Symphony is a both a grand and fragile work. The first and longest movement jabs with anxiety. But it’s not so much a fear of death as a panic about limits – themes rush in an out, “the center cannot hold,” there is no delineation, there is no absolute. This is a work that’s profoundly uneasy about existing. The first movement sounds like traffic noise from a busy street while a nature show plays on the television and a family fights in the next apartment. It’s a vicious milieu of sounds, but at times, in what almost feels accidental, there are moment of beauty and harmony.
It is a profoundly environmental work. Mahler anticipates Cage and La Monte Young and environmental compositions. The second movement is optimistic; it’s like going to work every day. It seems to have faith that there will be another day. Trills decorate the world, and for a few moments, it feels as if everything is working as it should again. But of course that’s not the case. The second movement is more like denial.
Acceleration to the third movement reveals that all the themes aren’t working together – they’re in fact in conflict. Here we have anger.
“The Rondo-burleske movement in Mahler’s Ninth Symphony parodies the whole idea of a march,” says the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. ”Much of it is a harmonically daring collage of stock gestures from Viennese marches.”
You can easily read the third movement as a critique of the military and the Austro-Hungarian Empire – remember this is only moments before World War I.
Finally, the fourth movement, an elegant, deeply sad, and quiet meditation, opens with a wall of strings that refuse, repeatedly, to resolve into satisfying closure. It’s something like acceptance. And finally something like nothing at all: Mahler’s Ninth Strips away qualifiers.
At Radialsystem V, a converted turn of the previous century pump-house, where I saw the symphony performed, Jools Gale, the mop-topped conductor, guided the players down into nothing – finally, the violins, making less, and less, and less. For moments of near silence, the players literally pushed the limits of what could feasibly be called music. Gale brought the orchestra down to a halt, but didn’t turn around. He simply stood there, hands down, back to us.
It would have been better if this silence could have gone on for some time. Instead, we all started clapping.
An environmentalist could pursue the reduction of carbon footprint down to zero. The mark of signification on the world made smaller and smaller, until nothing, no intention, or impact, is left. The logic of conservation inevitably leads to suicide — if preserving the non-human is the goal, then there’s one thing to do.
If this movement were written today, it would no doubt be considered cosmic – the slow decline of the universe expanding, growing colder, and dissipating into nothingness.
A Room With My Soul Left Out, A Room That Doesn’t Care, by Bruce Nauman, is a strange work. You walk down a dark industrial looking corridor, and you find yourself in a chamber with effectively six exits. Every direction you look is the same. It’s like Nauman is trying to evoke the universal background radiation. All directions evoke an utter insideness – but also an emptiness, and a homogeneity at a certain scale.
Nauman has produced some evocative works, but I think this one is perhaps the most moving to me. Standing in this dark, industrial, strange space, conveys the kind of confusion that we feel about our situation. It isn’t just anxiety that the world is ending, or already over – it’s the surety that we’re in the center, and the center doesn’t exist. I may have lost my train of thought here.
The Dark Mountain manifesto talks about the last taboo:
“The last taboo is the myth of civilisation. It is built upon the stories we have constructed about our genius, our indestructibility, our manifest destiny as a chosen species. It is where our vision and our self-belief intertwine with our reckless refusal to face the reality of our position on this Earth. It has led the human race to achieve what it has achieved; and has led the planet into the age of ecocide. The two are intimately linked. We believe they must decoupled if anything is to remain.”
Michel Houellebecq repeatedly writes about the end of humans in both The Elementary Particles and The Possibility of an Island. In both books, he writes about an engineered species, a product of human ingenuity, that ultimately supersedes, and succeeds, the homo sapiens. In the first book, it’s because of a clever microbiologist “hacking” DNA and the human genome, in order to get rid of the bad parts that make people immortal – the mortality part of course comes from sex, as any first year Literature BA couldn’t have told you. In The Map and the Territory the new species gets reengineered with an injection of chlorophyl for added solar power. They’re also clones of the last “civilized” humans from before some ecological catastrophe effectively wipes out the world.
These books are full of high-definition pornography, racist and sexist characters, and what seems like a broken world. The future is strange, dystopian, and absent civilization, sex, and humanity all together. But Houellebecq isn’t as inflammatory as he would like to be – the future is still populated by beings that look and act like us. They still have some level of society that resembles our own. His post-humanism depends on the human – like any post- or anti- prefix, the opposition is required for for navigation and location.
But, like so often when talking about concepts, what goes into human is Sorites Paradox. Or a Turing Test. Whatever you rather. If is smells like a human, and quacks like a human, then it might as well be one. When do you tally up enough human like features to call a thing human? The concept is meaningless – just like world – it’s constantly ruptured, permeable, broken. Nauman’s work highlights an absent center. The concept “world” will always be a working title, just like human.
Anthropocentrism is curiously reaffirmed and undermined by the Anthropocene. In acknowledging that we have had a profound impact on the world, we can begin to deal with the collective atrocities meted out by our species on the rest of the beings that occupy it with us. We find out that the sabotaging the existence of the honey bee might undermine our own – but we might find out that sabotaging the existence of the lice, the mite, the archaebacteria, the carrier pigeon, the black rhinoceros, the white tiger, might also, just as effectively undermine the tectonic plates that meet at the San Andreas fault, where my house sits in Oakland.
What I’m getting at is that scale of the objects like global warming and other hyperobjects are incomprehensible on the scale of the individual. It took a massive amount of collective action to bring about global warming and it requires a similarly huge amount of collective processing power to even begin to comprehend.
To illustrate my point, try to imagine the most aerodynamic shape. What does it look like? Without google, I bet most people imagine a dart or an arrow or a triangle because you would imagine that those pointed shapes could slide through the air easily. But the answer isn’t intuitive — but a raindrop (or teardrop) or airfoil turns out to slide through air much more easily than anything else. Everything is more complicated than it initially appears because not only do you have to take into account the forward face of an object, but you have to consider the consequences of passing through space and matter.
All this can lead to what David Foster Wallace calls “analysis-paralysis” – or it can lead to giving up entirely. Or you can do the best you can, stop driving, stop buying things that were shipped long distances, stop eating meat, etc. etc. You can, like Paul Kingsnorth, of Dark Mountain, retire to the hinterlands to grow your own food and prepare for the apocalypse, and practice your scything. Or you could sit by the beach and drink a bottle of #YOLO. Welcome to the Age of Hypocrisy.