In the January issue of e-flux journal, Jodi Dean critiques the rhetoric of the Anthropocene that has emerged in art and political circles in recent years. She argues that this rhetoric figures climate change as a massive, intractable, inevitable disaster that humans can barely grasp, let alone stop. This kind of Anthropocene talk, she argues, leads to political paralysis. Instead of approaching climate change “directly” in this way, she counsels approaching it “from the side,” and cites efforts to expose oil company sponsorship of art museums as an example of doing this. Read an excerpt below or the full piece here:
Climate change tethers us to a perspective that oscillates between the impossible and the inevitable, already and not yet, everywhere but not here, not quite. Slavoj Žižek reminds us that such oscillation indexes the “too much or too little” of jouissance. For psychoanalysis, particularly in Lacan’s teaching, jouissance is a special substance, that intense pleasure-pain of enjoyment that makes life worth living and some things worth dying for. We will do anything to get what we think we will enjoy. We then discover after we get it that it wasn’t what we really desired after all. Likewise, we try to discipline, regulate, and control enjoyment, only to find it emerging in another place. We get off even when we think we are trying not to. Jouissance is what we want but can’t get and what we get that we don’t want.
Some use climate change as a vehicle for jouissance, for enjoying destruction, punishment, and knowing. A current of left anthropocenic enjoyment circulates through evocations of unprecedented, unthinkable catastrophe: the end of the world, the end of the human species, the end of civilization. Theorists embrace extinction, focus on deep time, and displace a politics of the people onto the agency of things. Postmodern Augustinians announce the guilt or hypocrisy of the entire human species. Hubris is humanity’s, all of humanity’s, downfall. Philosophers and cultural critics take on the authoritative rhetoric of geoscientists and evolutionary biologists. Those of us who follow the reports of emissions, extreme weather, and failed states enjoy being in the know. We can’t do anything about climate change, but this lets us off the hook when we stop trying.
Getting to name our new era, marking our impact as the “Anthropocene,” provides a compensatory charge—hey, we changed the world after all. Even better than coming up with a name for our era is the jouissance that comes from getting to judge everyone else for their self-absorbed consumerist pleasures—why didn’t you change when you should have? Anticipatory Cassandras, we watch from within our melancholic “pre-loss,” to use Naomi Klein’s term, comforted by the fantasy of our future capacity to say we knew it all along. We told you so. Your capitalism, instrumental reason, or Cartesian dualism killed us all. Or so we fantasize, screening out the unequal distribution of the effects of warming—Russia doesn’t worry about it as much as, say, Bangladesh.
The perfect storm of planetary catastrophe, species condemnation, and paralyzed incapacity allows the Left a form of jouissance that ongoing deprivation, responsibility, and struggle do not allow. Overlooked as too human, these products and conditions of capitalism’s own continuity can be dismissed as not mattering, as immaterial. Organized political movement appears somehow outmoded, its enduring necessity dispersed into individuated ethico-spiritual orientations on a cosmos integrated over eons.
Image: The Natural History Museum, Will the Story of the 6th Mass Extinction Ever Include the Role of its Sponsors?, 2015.