Friday, September 28, 2012

review: nicholsen on the bio-meltdown

Shierry Weber Nicholsen, The Love of Nature and the End of the World: The Unspoken Dimensions of Environmental Concern (MIT Press, 2002)

Those concerned and alarmed by the biospheric meltdown need to understand the obstacles that are blocking effective responses. These obstacles are mainly of two kinds: social and psychological. The unsustainable logic of accumulation that drives our contemporary capitalist society is also driving the biospheric crisis. But to change this logic would be to change the form of society itself. To do that, we would have to overcome formidable processes of social reproduction, including the addictive enjoyments of commodified life and the coercive enforcements of war machines and state terror.

The psychological blockages are no less formidable. To respond effectively to catastrophic ecocide, we would first need to bring it fully to awareness and attention. The extent of the damage being done is staggering and the implications are intimidating. We would need to acknowledge the destructiveness of our current way of life and our own deep implication in the global social process. Such awareness is painful and distressing. The feelings of fear, anxiety and guilt it may arouse are so threatening, in fact, that they provoke all our psychic defenses: we avoid this awareness by repressing and disavowing it, or by projecting it outward in the form of more violence or self-violence.

The social and the psychological are of course knotted together. The social process conditions our formation as individuals and shapes the forms of our subjectivity. Both kinds of blockages must be confronted and worked on, if we are to change the social process in the ways needed to achieve self-rescue. Reasoned critique of the given is certainly necessary, but even the most compelling evidence and arguments will not suffice to transform accumulationist modernity into a more sustainable and symbiotic form of inhabiting the biosphere. Such a transformation will also require working through the intense emotional attachments to the given that society mobilizes, as well as the anxieties and guilt we would much prefer to avoid. The needed work of mourning ‘involves both feeling and thinking.’ In its absence, we are doomed to act out our avoidance or despair in unconscious and uncontrolled ways.

The psychological blockages are the focus of Shierry Weber Nicholsen’s The Love of Nature and the End of the World. Nicholsen is a practicing psychotherapist, and her reflections here are informed by the psychoanalytic insights of Harold Searles, Wilfred Bion and Robert Jay Lifton, as well as Donald Meltzer and D.W. Winnicott. She also draws on a wide range of cultural figures, from artist-writers David Abram and Christopher Alexander, to novelists John Fowles and John Steinbeck, to philosophers Merleau-Ponty and Arne Naess, to poets Gerard Manley Hopkins and Gary Snyder. 

But Nicholsen is also steeped in critical theory. Some will know her as the translator of Adorno’s Notes to Literature and co-translator of his Prisms. She has also written a study of Adorno’s aesthetics, Exact Imagination, Late Work (MIT, 1997). This background is evident even in the form of her current book, which unfolds as a series of paratactical meditations, sequentially developed as Adornian ‘variations’. The critical grounding is especially welcome, given that attempts to register the emotional trauma of ecological devastation have so far been fairly disappointing, tending too often to regress into New Age fluff and magic or else to harden into furious and self-righteous ranting. So Nicholson’s approach, tempered by psychoanalysis, the critical theory of society and close readings of art and literature, promises the kind of careful cross-disciplinarity we need to work on our impasses. It is encouraging to learn that Nicholsen is a sensitive naturalist and is passionately committed to remediating the damage we are inflicting on the nonhuman.

In its courageous exploration of the emotional loss and trauma of ecocide, this is a most helpful book. It is also, although to a lesser degree, a practical book: in its modestly programmatic moments, it sets out some conditions for productive collective mourning. My one complaint is that Nicholsen does not sufficiently consider the social conditions that would permit this mourning to become responsibly politicized. Nicholsen is well aware that we cannot mourn alone, merely as individuals: ‘We need the psychological safety of a loving bond, in order to dare to face our conflicts, our fears, our apathy and our loyalties.’ One role of culture is to ‘communalize grief’. However, the psychological and social blockages are entwined and mutually supporting; they cannot be coped separately. I wish Nicholsen had risked following the psychological further into the social and had offered more of a reflection on the social forces that liberated critical subjectivities must contend with, particularly if they aim at transforming the dominant social logic as a strategy for collective self-rescue. Nevertheless, what she does offer here is richly inspiring. 

Nicholsen’s point of departure is two uncompromising sentences written by Harold Searles in 1972, in an article pertinently titled ‘Unconscious Processes in the Environmental Crisis’: ‘Even beyond the threat of nuclear warfare, I think, the ecological crisis is the greatest threat mankind collectively has ever faced. My hypothesis is that man is hampered in his meeting of this environmental crisis by a severe and pervasive apathy which is based largely upon feelings and attitudes of which he is unconscious.’

Nicholsen agrees that the biosphere is relegated by the public mind ‘to the periphery of concern’ and sets out ‘to explore the psychological reasons for what appears as willful stupidity’. Her thesis is that we all, as infants growing within the aesthetic space constituted by the supportive relation to the mother, have had early and formative experiences of bonding with the natural world. As a result of these experiences, we share a ‘sense of connection with the nonhuman environment – its beauty, its mystery, its provision of a sheltering home for us’. Under the social pressures of adulthood, we may lose, forget or repress this sense of connection. But if we have lost or buried it, we can also recover it. It is through the trace of these early experiences, recovered or not, that we register and recognize the damage inflicted on the biosphere as a terrible loss – so terrible that it triggers the defense mechanisms of avoidance and disavowal.

The psychoanalytic point is thus a basic one: unconsciously, we know what we are doing to the biosphere and hence to ourselves. But because we grasp that we are destroying what we love, we defend ourselves from the pain of this knowledge. We don’t allow it to reach the full consciousness that would compel us to change and act. We cannot form an understanding and responsible relation to the biosphere as individuals until we have worked through this embodied conjunction, or more precisely this splitting, by which we carry an attachment of love for nature that we refute in practice. Working through our losses, we can begin to acknowledge these emotional legacies and put them to work productively, as an ethos. Until we do, we remain stuck in an inability to mourn.

As an example of how we become alienated from our love of the natural world, Nicholsen relates a very American story of boyhood trauma. The passages convey the unpretentious flavor of her prose and something of her modus:

‘A friend told me this story. He said he had never told anyone before. As a boy, he used to visit his “cowboy” grandfather during the summer, the one who carried a Magnum in case he encountered a rattlesnake. He feared his grandfather and dreaded those summer visits. Going fishing for catfish in the cowpond during those summers was part of the ritual of coming into manhood his grandfather’s way. One day his grandfather landed a big catfish and asked the boy to grab it. The boy let it slip by mistake, and it escaped into the pond. He was ashamed, and he cried; he was failing as a man. He tried to make up for it by catching a catfish himself, and he did catch one. Then it had to be cleaned. His grandfather’s way of cleaning a catfish was to nail the snout of the living fish to a board and then pull the fish’s skin off with a pair of needle-nosed pliers. The fish the boy caught must have revived a little during the process, for it screamed – the horrifying, chattering, unforgettable scream of a creature in agony. The boy could never forget that scream, or ever make up for what he had done by catching the fish, or ever speak of the experience to the one he had shared it with, his grandfather. The scream of agony was matched by the silence and shame with which the experience was buried.’

‘Sometimes the bond with the natural world is forged through suffering. The scream of the catfish is received by the boy, who knows suffering. But how loud and how excruciating is this suffering that cannot be acknowledged and talked about! And how strong a role fear plays in this unspokenness. The boy is afraid of his grandfather, who has shown how he can deal out pain to living creatures, and he is afraid to acknowledge this experience of shared suffering, of which he and his grandfather are the witnesses. And the pain in the grandfather, which led him to be so hard? Unspoken, the food of truth denied, the child condemned to silent shame.’

Nicholsen chooses to leave undeveloped the obvious eco-feminist resonance of this story of macho violence and hardness, but she returns to it at some key points in her text, allowing it to develop some of the density of a haunting musical motif. Through this and other stories, she probes the knots of trauma and ‘the unspoken dimensions of concern’. The sequence of variations does not pretend to exhaust the possibilities and combinations that lead to blockage and apathy. Instead, Nicholsen gently teaches us how to recognize the signs and symptoms of damage and loss and suggests some ways for recovering our attachments to the nonhuman. The gist is that we cannot do it alone. We need an emotional ‘safe place’, a sympathetic milieu, within which we can try to express such intensities in language and share them with others. This process of mourning, growing and maturing is the basis for individual change and responsible action.

There are treats and surprises, too, as these meditations unfold: wonderful discussions of aura and the aesthetic field, re-framings of familiar figures such as Cézanne, and careful illuminations of a latent ethics of reverence and reciprocity. Among the many references that were new to me, I greatly enjoyed learning of Christopher Alexander, an artist and builder who recovers a tradition of craft and ideal of beauty as he learns to ‘see’ and read early Sufi carpets from Turkey. The ‘art’ Nicholsen recommends to us here is understood as a form of gifting rather than commodity. Taking a basically Adornian line, she emphasizes that encountering art is a lesson in relating to difference, and in keeping the delicate balance between the shared and the singular; this radical use-value is the template for non-dominating relations – both to other people and to the natural world. Seen in this light, the archives of human culture are full of traces of more respectful and reciprocal relations to the nonhuman. In such relations, eros and ethics meet, and the pain and suffering of existence, mortality and human limits can be accepted and coped through productive cultural processes.

The young Marx famously suggested that the social process of liberation changes us ethically and bodily: as we learn, we literally ‘grow’ new senses, capacities and practices. What we badly need to grow, Nicholsen suggests, is what Wilfred Bion called ‘binocular vision’: the ability to see and think together the general and particular, local and global, the past and the possible, our losses and dead and our potential to change and transform a deadly process. It is very late in her book, in the context of an extended meditation on this dialectical optic, that Nicholsen finally gives a name to the global social process:

‘Capitalist-oriented globalization and “economic development” are based on abstract and infinite notions of commodity production, proceduralization, and standardization, notions that obliterate the particularity of place and local context. Such processes effectively “psychiatrically disinherit” not only the individuals who live in particular places all over the globe but also all other living beings.... To deal with problems in external reality, however, we require localization of attention as well as the broad categories that identify general issues and large-scale processes. This is why local control, sense of place, and collaborative decision-making have become such prominent themes in our efforts to deal with the environmental and social crisis. They represent efforts to turn attention back toward particulars and away from the mania of growth, expansion and abstraction.’

Capital encloses the commons and commodifies the local, thereby alienating locals from their place and devastating its ecologies. I only wish she had developed this passage further, or at least placed it earlier. That, I suppose would have made a different book. True as these lines are, they beg too many questions for such passing treatment. This self-restriction was no doubt a tactical discursive decision – and one we can well understand. Certainly in her national context (the US) direct criticisms of capital and the logic of accumulation still provoke conditioned reactions: eye-rolling, fist-clenching and the falling curtain. And yet, if we fail or fear to name the process, how can we critique the futility and false promises of ‘green’ development and consumption? If it does not question the logic of accumulation or challenge its grip on us, 'sustainable development' is a mere slogan, behind which the posthistoire assertions of neoliberalism are still hanging on: there is no alternative to capitalist modernity as the master form for satisfying human needs. 

Go slow, the wise counsel, with reason. Yet a binocular ethos would have to balance tactical discretion with the urgent demand that violence end now, immediately, right away. (Derrida’s point, as some of us remember.) Every hour, three more species go extinct – an ‘end to birth’ that is forever. And a just-released study commissioned by Climate Vulnerable Forum, a group of twenty countries from the Global South, warns that global warming could claim 100 million lives by 2030. Whatever the actual figure, debates about what is no longer questionable need to end. The current social process is both genocidal and ecocidal. The debate must now move on to how we shall respond to this.

To her credit, Nicholsen does not duck the ‘what to do?’ moment. She devotes her concluding pages to some indications. In order to mourn and cope the biospheric crisis, she summarizes, we need a ‘safe emotional “place” in which we can feel supported enough to notice the irrational churning away in ourselves’. In these mutual support groups – we might think of local affinity groups, informal reading groups, film nights, seminars and workshops – we can share our experiences, losses, fears, hopes and dreams, and begin to articulate the commons of a practical vision for the future. (Nicholsen suggests as an example, Thomas Berry’s collective ‘dream of the earth’. The building and proliferation of networks of such ‘reciprocal nurturing relationships’ focused on the meltdown are therefore a high priority. Extrapolating from Nicholsen a bit, these could serve as learning laboratories and platforms for adaptive change that fosters relations of concern rather than domination and ‘mobilizes intelligent collaboration’. Careful attention to group dynamics is needed to keep these processes from lapsing into bad phantasms and vangardist hierarchies.

This prescription is wonderful, but, alas, is hardly news. We recognize the same points and emphases, for example, in Deleuze and Guattari’s ‘lines of flight’ and ‘nomadic machines’. Whatever idiom we choose, we also have to confront the realities that Nicholsen downplays at this point: these ideas, circulating for many decades, have not yet opened a durable passage beyond the impasse of capital and accumulation, nor have the ecological movements succeeded in slowing the pace of meltdown, let alone stopping it. If this is the best we can do, it will be too little, too late.

At this point, Nicholsen’s discrete deferrals become more serious. We need to think the social and psychic blockages together – through, yes, an adequate dialectical optic. If networks of mutual support groups, affinity cells and labs of intelligent ecological adaptation have not sprung up everywhere and accomplished their urgent work, there are specific social reasons for it. In the US and elsewhere, enormous funds are expended to propagate confusion, division and fear about any deviation from business as usual. This ‘investment’ makes reciprocal nurturing a very unlikely prospect and rapidly marginalizes any voice that dares to speak for the interests of the nonhuman. Nicholsen probably was not aware, when she wrote this book, how a new and powerful apparatus of enforcement, heavily bankrolled and manufactured, would emerge to make ‘warming denial’ a new core badge of right-wing identity in the US. Through its dark mediations, sober and well-meaning scientists appear as fools or frauds.

As soon as any network of ecological concern emerges into view and becomes effective, it becomes a target of enforcement. If it is a militant network, it is quickly called terrorism and the war machines are deployed. That is the reality of our social process, not be avoided. We need either to anticipate such attacks with adequate defenses (which we have yet to discover or invent) or we need to accelerate the learning and growing process to reach a level of robustness that deters attack. Both tacks are problematic: even defensive violence can be corrupting and traumatic, and the pace of mourning cannot be forced or rushed. These dilemmas and aporias are the forms of our tactical and strategic challenges, the constraints imposed on our campaigns, movements and struggles. They have been fully on view over the last few years, among the Indignados, Occupy and the Arab Spring.

Nicholsen’s book appeared in 2002, and much has occurred in the decade since. The magnitude of climate change and mass extinction is far clearer to us today. It may be, and I hope that it is, that networks of mutual support, eco-affinity and change are forming and bubbling all around us. We need every precious one, and for each one ten thousand more like it. But if our networks cannot become effective in slowing the loss of species and collapsing ecologies, the world will soon be a far more dismal place, and our work will be even more difficult. We need to live this problem as urgency, and let it jump like a current through all our relations, rather like that vivifying enervation Benjamin wrote of in his Surrealism essay. In this way, can we spread our values of care, concern, the refusal of domination? More crucially, can we spread the practices that actualize these values? It may be alarmist and even presumptuous to speak of self-rescue on a global scale, but it is not untruthful. The fires have arrived and are on us.

The Love of Nature and the End of the World is, I think, required reading in these times. We will need what we can learn there. And something else - still latent or emerging, clear enough in impulse but in form still obscure.

Coming soon, reviews of:
Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am (Fordham UP, 2008)
Edward O. Wilson, The Future of Life (Little, Brown, 2002)
Andrew Biro, ed., Critical Ecologies: The Frankfurt School and Contemporary Environmental Crises (U of Toronto, 2011)

No comments:

Post a Comment