Notes on ecopessimism (1): decathexis as a mode of futural projection

(A slightly different version of this post was presented at the 2017 Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts conference “Out of Time,” on the panel “Collective Manifestations: Thinking Futures beyond the Dark Mountain.”)

A preliminary clarification: climate change isn’t the problem. Instead, climate change is a symptom of a much deeper problem called the ecological crisis. This crisis isn’t just climatological, but civilizational. It’s a collective crisis. There is no safe place it does not affect.

Our English word “crisis” derives from Latin medical vocabularies, where it refers to the turning point of a disease. A crisis is a “decision point.” In crisis, the body “decides” whether or not it will live or die. Fitting, then, that the Latin term comes to us from the Greek – κρίσις – meaning: a decision, a judgment, a cleaving.

Our collective crisis is fundamentally ecological because it is relational, which is not to say that only relations are real. Indeed, objects and relations bleed together – in both senses of that phrase: “to bleed together.” No object exists outside of its relational penumbra, and, likewise, relations adhere to objects and traverse them. Hence, lacerations and traumas affect both objects and relations reciprocally.

Our crisis is an ecological crisis, then, not only because it so pronouncedly concerns our environment and its constituents – that is to say, devastated landscapes, disappearing species, and displaced populations, mass extinctions, rivers on fire, tainted earth – but because the reality of the ecological crisis derives from consistent, patterned failures of collective action and collective imagination.

In other words, the ecological crisis is primarily a deep (and deeply) political crisis. I emphasize the importance of imagination here because it’s in our collective imagination that we alter or determine the conscious commitments and unconscious attachments we enact collectively. It’s just too simple to say that politics consists only of collective action, or failures of collective action. Indeed, if ecological ruin were our goal, then collective action in service to this goal would appear to be proceeding with alacrity.

Consequently, we need to examine the ecological crisis not only in terms of failures of collective action (like the total failure of the international community to forestall climate change in any substantive way, or the inability of the environmental movement to effect either cultural or policy shifts appropriate to the scale of the crisis), but also in terms of failures of our collective imagination.

That’s what I’m going to pursue here, albeit briefly. Specifically, I want to examine decathexis as a mode of futural projection. If you’re unfamiliar with the word – decathexis – I’m salvaging it from psychoanalysis, where it refers to affective or libidinal disinvestment, to the withdrawal of attachment or desire from some object.

As many of you know, Paul Kingsnorth is a former environmentalist from the UK, and his departure from activism resulted in the founding of what he and cofounder Dougald Hines call the Dark Mountain Project. They describe that project as an attempt to acknowledge frankly the failure of postwar environmentalism and to consider alternative modes of imagining what the worsening of the ecological crisis means for us. They conclude their 2009 text, “Uncivilization: The Dark Mountain Manifesto” by calling for a new imaginary, to be produced by what they call “uncivilized writing.” Uncivilized writing endeavors to abandon all the self-flattering narratives of human civilization as a progressive force – and instead seeks to destabilize our sense of collective and individual self, using affect, image, and word to break into the haunted house of the subject and kick open all the doors for all the beasties creeping around the Outside.

Kingsnorth is also a novelist.

His 2014 novel The Wake continues a difficult, inconstant tradition in speculative fiction. Like Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (1980) or Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (1962) before it, The Wake is written in an imaginary language – Kingsnorth’s attempt to hybridize Old English and modern English, which he calls a “ghost language” or a “shadow tongue.” The Wake also takes place in shadowed times – indeed, the material and political landscape of the novel is unambiguously inflected by destruction and loss. However, unlike, say, Hoban’s Riddley Walker – which is set millennia after a nuclear war and in which the idioglossia of the titular protagonist serves to make new meaning from the wreckage of the English language – The Wake takes place in the past, specifically, in the late 11th century.

The protagonist – Buccmaster of Holland, an Anglo-Saxon native of Lincolnshire, England – is a free farmer turned guerilla fighter (or “green man”) whose world is gradually unmade. Objectively, it is unmade by the Norman invasion of 1066, which violently dispossesses him and his fellows of their form of life. It is also unmade, subjectively, by his own anger, arrogance, and propensity to paranoia, envy, and inexpert violence, all of which contribute to the loss of a world – what Kingsnorth in the postface refers to as “a long-dead land: a place at once alien and familiar. Another world, the foundation of our own” (356).

Kingsnorth himself is sometimes accused of nativism (see his reply here), of defending a falsely nostalgic vision of a pastoral English landscape beset by foreigners on the one hand and industrialization on the other. However, despite his disdain for various encroachments, I think such accusations are determinably false. Not only is a central text like the “Dark Mountain Manifesto” a patently modernist text, for example, but consider also a few theoretical observations about The Wake.

Buccmaster of Holland is not an idealized figure, nor is he a noble indigene. He is ignorant and unforgiving. He beats his family – although, as he boasts: “many was called to beat their wifs mor than i many there was whose cildren ran wilder” (10). His rage at being treated “like fuccan swine in our own land” (41) turns into his inept commandeering of a loose resistance “movement” informed more by bloviating rage, factionalism, and ineffective, almost random violence than it is by any crafty or even principled defense of autonomy, dignity, or land.

However, I don’t mean to suggest that Kingsnorth treats the character as an object of contempt. Buccmaster is an abusive, troubled man whose caustic outlook sours into misanthropy as his material conditions worsen and his failures and losses mount. Principally, Buccmaster of Holland is a character overtaken by a future that has no regard for his illusions. In this regard, The Wake is a narrative of an apocalypse and its aftermath – a post-apocalyptic novel, set in 11th century. Not only the lives of so many of its characters, but a culture, a landscape, and a language all face destruction. They are invaded not only by the Normans, but by a future, which transforms them all under the absoluteness of its weight.

It’s worth turning away from Kingsnorth’s novel for a moment in order to dwell upon this distinction a little further. After all, we deeply misunderstand the post-apocalyptic when we confuse it with apocalypse. For the apocalyptic, there is an unrelenting focus on the circumstances of collapse, disaster, and emergency – the fury of a vengeful God trashing Sodom, or the riot of Mother Nature scorned. But the post-apocalyptic, in fact, refers us to a time after the time of destruction. In both senses of the word “apocalypse,” then – that is, catastrophe and revelation – there is danger, the risk of affective and political devastation, but it is only from this troubled background that alternative forms of life can emerge and proliferate. Perhaps for us, especially – the precarious subjects of an intensifying ecological crisis – the post-apocalyptic functions as a necessary mode of speculative futural projection. As Evan Calder Williams observes, “the post-apocalyptic is not an image of [what is]-to-be. It is not that which lies beyond the apocalyptic event. Rather, it is a perspectival stance to be taken up now” (157).

How do we do this, then? Principally, I argue that the register of the post-apocalyptic performs a distinctly political function that demands decathexis – that is to say, some degree of affective and libidinal disinvestment in our collective and individual modes of existence in the present. We are subjects of multiple regimes, yes! – of ecological crisis, of neoliberalism, of political decay – but we are also subjects of a future that perpetually invades the present. As such, we are subjects out of time, constantly departing from where we find ourselves.

The psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott relates to us a clinical case in which, for years, a man obsessively spoke his fear that his wife would leave him, that there would a breakup, or a breakdown, in their relationship. There was only progress in the analysis when the man realized that his wife had already left him, emotionally – perhaps even before he’d sought out therapy in the first place. The breakdown had already occurred; both spouses were in denial, perpetuating a hollow marriage. Winnicott summarizes the point: the “fear of [a] breakdown is the fear of a breakdown that has already [happened]” (90). Winnicott suggests that the analyst endeavor to recognize moments when “a patient needs to be told that the breakdown, a fear of which destroys his life, has already” transpired (ibid.). Winnicott argues that this process occurs when the analysand has not yet undergone the breakdown that has taken place already. In other words, although the breakdown has occurred, it has not yet been acknowledged, or experienced, in such a way as for its effects to register properly in the analysand’s life and object world. Instead, we might say that the breakdown is encrypted, rather than navigated or survived. (See Abraham and Torok.)

My claim is that we desperately need to decathect our collective and individual modes of existence in the present – as well as their projection forward into a future we assume will remain familiar. The standard assumption about the future is that it will resemble the past. Often, we adopt the standard assumption because it’s heuristically useful in everyday life. In the context of the ecological crisis, however, maintaining the standard assumption is blue sky thinking at best and ruinous at worst. Contemporary events and trends, historical precedent, and scientific models strongly suggest that our future will be shaped by institutional collapse, natural disaster, and political decay. Yet, collectively, despite engaging in frenetic, even manic activity, we take very few steps to offset any of these risks in meaningful ways.

Why? Because we are unconsciously attached to valorized imaginaries and to modes of existence that perpetuate these risks. If an alien anthropologist were to apply the cybernetic principle that “the purpose of a system is what it does,” her conclusion might very well be that the purpose of the human system right now is extinguish as much life as possible, including itself – and to maximize suffering along the way.

Lauren Berlant defines her concept of “cruel optimism” as a relation that “exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing” (1). I contend that our desire for a future – a future that resembles its past, that is to say, our present – is an instance of cruel optimism. Accordingly, I propose two strategic responses for combating this cruel attachment.

The first strategic response – you’ll be unsurprised to hear – is decathexis. But what are we supposed to decathect? There’s a wide range of cultural values and policy commitments I could challenge here, but, for now, let me foreground only our highly cathected vision of a future that resembles the past – our present. We rely on civilizational continuity because it supports our numerous demands to build careers, to fly to conferences, to make money, to produce children, to have a good life. Given the scale and severity of the ecological crisis, the irony, I think, is that we must destroy our attachment to these futures if we are to have any future at all.

You could say, riffing off Leo Bersani, there’s a big secret about the future: most people don’t actually want one. Instead, they want an eternal present – a posthistoire that ensures indefinite, unbroken continuity. As such, decathexis functions as a mode of futural projection because, by decathecting futures that only replicate the present, we free up our collective imagination to experiment with new forms of collective action and attachment.

The second strategic response is what I call gray sky thinking. Instead of blue sky thinking informed by the standard assumption – the future will resemble the past – gray sky thinking generates speculative engagements with new assumptions. In other words, gray sky thinking dispenses with our reliance on the assumption of civilizational continuity and assumes instead that the future will not resemble the past – indeed, that present conditions already are misperceived when viewed through the lens the standard assumption provides.

Note: The distinction between blue sky thinking and gray sky thinking is not exactly like the difference between optimism and pessimism, nor does it have anything to do with whichever kind of future we prefer. Rather, the distinction is purely pragmatic. We prefer blue sky thinking – especially when it comes credibly disguised as realism or revolutionary fantasy – because confronting the possibility of systemic negative events generally proves to be affectively distressing. In contrast, gray sky thinking intentionally navigates and operationalizes such distress in order to project alternative practices of worldmaking given the reality of existential risk factors, such as those epitomized by the ecological crisis.

I do have a set of nine practical strategic recommendations for operationalizing these responses, but I discuss those elsewhere. Suffice it to say that the first is affective dispossession – another name for a kind of decathexis, the destruction or withdrawal of our attachment to the standard assumption in all its disguises.

In conclusion, however, we can return to Kingsnorth’s novel. He portrays a character incapable of decathexis, who can in no way detach himself from the conditions of his present in order to navigate the future that overtakes him. For him, it is an invasion – the Normans – a traumatic dispossession that carries a violence of its own. For us, it is also a kind of invasion – the invasion of the ecological real that underscores our material existence. This is what the ecological crisis reveals – the catastrophic nature of the present – and, pace Williams, “we become post-apocalyptic when we start making something of what has been revealed” (158).

This yields imperatives – for example, to repurpose the material and political structures we inhabit, “to witness the uncanny persistence of old modes of life” (9) and to disrupt them, to create the new forms of life that we are. New forms of life – that is to say, post-apocalyptic forms of life – can and should take shape in the present, so as to ready us for the future bearing down upon us. Perhaps, we should consider, first and foremost, the things “we lose when we agree to let ourselves be told what the apocalypse means” (67).

As Buccmaster of Holland cautions us, “Be waery of the storm, [but] be most waery when there is no storm in sight” (2).

Abraham, Nicholas and Maria Torok. The Shell and the Kernel: Renewals of Psychoanalysis, Volume 1. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.
Berlant, Lauren. Cruel Optimism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.
Kingsnorth, Paul. The Wake (2013). Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2015.
Kingsnorth, Paul and Dougald Hines. “Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto” (2010).
Williams, Evan Calder. Combined and Uneven Apocalypse. UK: Zero Books, 2010.
Winnicott, Donald. “Fear of Breakdown” (1963). Psychoanalytic Explorations. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007. 87-95.