Learning in Island Ecologies: Aina Pomar, Andrea Ragno, Andrew Dobson, Anna Mikkola, Ashley Lewis, Cameron Alexander, Chris Fussner, Himanshu Halve, Jacob Meher, Jasmine Grace Wenzel, Mariah Reodica, Marie Klinger, Marjolijn Kok, Sindi-Leigh McBride, Richard Hames PDF
The infrastructural, political, cultural systems we live in are coming apart in a way that may well be conclusive. In short, the vast network of things that we depend upon to take us from our condition of mere existence to meaningful life is atrophying. This text serves as an introduction and teaser for a much longer and fuller text to come. Its excessively elongated sentences are as subject to infrastructural collapse as are our lives.
The realisation of collapse
The experience will be replicated in a billion isolated and distinct minds - perhaps in a moment of relative repose, watching a film with a loved one, or as an intrusive, sudden, slow-mo movie clarity amidst the cinematic wreckage of a system self-evidently in freefall - a deep and abyssal revelation: that the world of the last several centuries, that gigantic enclosure of hundreds of years from which almost everything you can conceive of has billowed forth, perhaps the world which has been in a single discernable arc since the late medieval period, is coming to an end.
Objects will appear unstitched
In these moments, everything will suddenly appear stranded in itself. No longer will the simple nouns of daily life glow like expectant signs, each waiting for their transfigured place in the true modernity to come. Nor will they appear as they would have done, 'cast in the messianic light', but each object will instead seem to detach itself bit by bit from its emplacement in the fraying fabric of this particular civilisation and make itself ready to become an archaeological artefact for some future incomprehensible being, shorn of context, of its simple and common mode of address, of its depth. All simple nouns will again become islands, populated only by their base matter in opaque configurations.
In civilisation, death is ennobled as ‘tragic’. It appears as a kind of gradual unfolding of the potency of coiled life, like relaxing one’s grip at the moment of sleep and scattering what had been held across the floor for others to pick up and grasp themselves. Outside of civilisation, this ennoblement is impossible, and what has been held falls forever through a void. Death simply happens. What other forms of Anthropocene-situated philosophical pessimism miss, most polemically Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, is that the conditions in which that death is understood - the social solace taken by the dying that the world they lived through and died into will, at the very least, continue to exist beyond them, with a trace of themselves still inscribed - is no longer clearly the case. This transforms the conditions of our dying: it is not just that our deaths may be sudden, or more violent than we had thought, and our children’s too, but that the largest systems of thought we know how to think of death within are themselves bound up in the civilization which is dying. We are heading for a planetary condition of ungrievability. Individuals can die in a way that is redeemed because they die into a society, but societies die only into the wasting cosmos.
Overview effect and suffering
Watching the bubble pop as a whole will be impossible. The overview effect - experienced by astronauts flying over the earth, by generals commanding a clear triumph, and through a mirror darkly, by philosophers - will progressively become less available to us. Our modernity, having constructed such a grand site of maximal seeing from which the whole of history can be grasped, having deracinated us into the unadorned space probe, will slowly begin to lose such a position as the implicit chain of social being and infrastructure that such an effect relies on atrophies. The final consequence of Copernican ungrounding will be the invisibility of collapse from the position of oversight that the Copernican revolutions have constructed. Instead, we are likely to encounter forms of crushed glass opacity or arthritic inflammations in the social body, a source of bodily, personal myopia, like being unable to think with pain, which tempers the grandeur of our decline’s cosmic background. Unlike in accelerationism, the impediment to thought is not the onrush of time complexity, but the bodily experience of suffering as our means of processing folding that suffering via ‘tragedy’ into redemption is instead unspooled into waste. We face a collective exposure to the possibility of our own extinction: the undoing limit of aesthetics called real horror.
Rifts, not unstitching
Or maybe this unstitching is only half the story? Perhaps something else is (also?) happening across the civilisational fabric: an uneven unweaving of connection through which the still accelerating part of the world, increasingly shrunken, is not coming apart but instead sclerosing and mineralising, militarising itself into one final green zone for the end of the world? No entropic decay, instead such a rift obeys the form of combined and uneven development. If that's the case, then politics is more familiar in the short run, but no more so in the long.
Layers and path dependency
We should not imagine layers of civilisation being peeled back in the inverse order to their addition. Here, as everywhere, path dependency is key. Our emplacement within the real universe revealed by modern physics and the apparatus of disenchantment is not nothing, nor is it reversible. Mathematical proofs, like books, are unlikely to perish in any new Library of Alexandria catastrophe. What we are facing therefore is a version of the Dark Ages again but with knowledge of quantum mechanics. Such astonishing unevenness will have strange children. Is it possible to develop a cosmism without technological modernity? What is tribal belonging in the age of complete theories of proton collapse? What is Being-towards-death after both the stripping back of the specifics of somewhere to die into and the end of the force of that stripping back?
These questions put us back unevenly in contact with the universe: in the mute - impossible - company of those things which have also already been extinguished. Impossible company because having already become unrecoverable, these other things scarcely exist. Ours is the community of the already non-existent.
Marxism and exogeneity
In some ways, the realism of Marxism - elaborating capitalism’s internal dynamics without adding in moralism - has left us without a viable theory of decline. Capitalism's so-far endless resourcefulness to consolidate the power of at least one strand of the capitalist class at any one time in all hitherto historical junctures has left us without a clear sense of what happens when shocks are properly exogenous or total. Similarly, none of the temporalities of radical politics (prefiguration, fealty to the struggles of the past in the present, following the contradictions of the system-logic of capitalism, or marvelling in the deep particularity of the present which only-just survived the past) offers shelter.
The politics of lastness
Even so, critique in some sense might last. What might a politics be that looks at the world around it - every minute - as the last moment of a conclusively undone civilisation? Never to be revolutionised into its finally achieved, communist, form, but also - crucially - not to be mourned? The utopias we premised on social systems that are sinking - the entire collection of political projects that define the modern era - must also be sinking too, and thus the utopian loadstars of our politics have vanished beneath the horizon too. It should be self-evident that the political distinctions ‘left’, ‘right’ and so on are not of much use in this context. There is no fascist Third Positionist 'beyond' these terms, no 'people' to appeal to, nor a race that will do anything else than fade (in the long run) like the rest.
Decline is the basso ostinato of conservative thought, although fascism is a more present danger in periods of conspicuous decline, where its myth of revolution holds greater potency. Society has continued in a vast number of ways without growth, as degrowth theorists remind us. Periods of active decline, on the other hand, have rarely been taken with sanguinity. Oversocialisation, opening the door for something like a return to a politics focused around 'first nature' of raw masculine power, but also a völkisch racism, remains the greatest threat.
Communist politics without conclusion
In critical theory, we find meditations on the transformation of society beyond capitalism. It is from here - the position of maximum opacity to us - that it is demanded that we nevertheless think (morality is the belief that there is a group of people who can tell you what to do. For the communist, that community exists in the future). But the messiah is not coming and the eschatological thought that this attempt to think beyond our historical containers falls back on is spent. If totality is never coming, then what?
Perhaps we should live as anarchists always have done: with a certain softness. Unable to posit a form of authority beyond those who simply happen to be alive now, anarchism always implicitly articulates our collective inability to make anything stick to the world. By refusing all forms of hierarchy, including those forms passed down from the past, each individual life is dealt the same predicament. Thus, we exist in the community of those who are finally, radically childless: unable to pass down a rule to their offspring, they can legislate only for now.
Interregnum means we have to start conjuring monsters
Although the project of modernity, lacking a future, has, in this sense, stopped, we remain within it, in full interregnum mode. Because more people have not yet noticed the breakage occurring, the monsters to conjure are all ours.
Apocalypse as charismatic power
Declaring the apocalypse is perhaps the original gesture of charismatic power; it is one way to retain the illusion of an overview effect. But it also has another source. Perhaps it is the moment at which dialectical thought, which chases the moment of its own interruption, passes into millenarianism?