a paradoxical solace that follows from the realization that we are fucked

I’m a bit all over the place as regards my information channel management*, so I can’t credit whoever it was that caused me to see this long review-essay at the European Review of Books… but I can tell you that the challenge was less finding a piece of it to pull-quote, and more deciding which bits not to pull-quote.

Venzke is here trying to approach the hope/optimism dichotomy with which long-term readers will be familiar, but is (again) using slightly different terms and examples. Given the seemingly intractable problem of getting people to commit to the hope/optimism dichotomy, I wonder if perhaps Venzke’s introduction of tragedy (in the Greek drama sense of the term) might not be a more productive direction in which to turn?

« We are fucked » is Extinction Rebellion’s much better slogan than the worn and tattered « it’s not too late ». There is a paradoxical solace that follows from the realization that we are fucked. The future’s openness is made to rest not on stubborn optimism but, far from it, on the inevitability of our fuckedness. Such a slogan inspires, paradoxically, as an antidote to false optimism and artificial smiles. A stubborn optimism that announces itself as being tied « realistically » to possibilities of a different outcome at some point becomes an obstacle to meaningful action and even a betrayal of freedom. Stubborn optimism, that is to say, becomes cruel optimism. The phrase is the late cultural theorist Lauren Berlant’s. Optimism is cruel when something we desire ignites a sense of possibility but makes it impossible to attain. The stubborn optimism of Earth for All risks being cruel because its recommendations have been known and unheeded. There is no reason to believe that this time would be different.

This is as much a problem of genre as a problem of ideology — or, more precisely, it is a problem of temporality: how we think about time. The « it’s not too late » of Earth for All misses what « we are fucked » demonstrates: a genuine grasp of tragedy. The condition of tragedy, at least in its classic, Greek variation, was the certainty of fate. Therein lay its wisdom about freedom. « It was by allowing its hero to fight against the superior power of fate, » Friedrich Schelling wrote, « that Greek tragedy honored human freedom. »

It’s not a cheerful read, but that’s the whole point. Cheerful reads on climate transition are consolation, pablum, soma… and if you’re tempted to respond “but no one will be motivated to change anything if you only offer them a spectrum of levels of fuckedness”, I would counter that the ongoing menu of optimistic solutionism doesn’t seem to be motivating much change either. Maybe hope is best served on a bed of fire and brimstone? If nothing else, it has the merit of honesty.

[ * I’ve been a bit all over the place generally, if I’m honest; lots of things happening at once, as per usual. Having managed to get past a big tangle of deadlines and imperatives, this week is earmarked as a get-your-ducks-in-a-row period… which is surely why I have woken up today with a head-cold. Selah. ]

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