Monthly Archives: July 2012

Staying Alive

Survival is our politics now. So says French political anthropologist Marc Abélès in The Politics of Survival. And so say many cultural producers today, although this admission often comes by way of what cultural theorist Fredric Jameson called the political unconscious more than through any overt acknowledgement of the true character and gravity of the crises we confront today.

Take Ridley Scott’s recent film Prometheus, for example. The film is a prequel to Alien (1979), a film which shared a great deal in common with previous Cold War-era paranoid movies such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).

Of course, Alien was a film of its time. The movie’s focus on the biopolitical threat of contagion was clearly influenced by the ecological crisis of the 1970s and by previous works of biopolitical horror such as Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain (1969). In addition, the bad-ass heroine Ellen Ripley was very much a product of second-wave feminism.

Nonetheless, just as in earlier films of paranoid American empire such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Scott’s Alien features a hapless crew of (multicultural but clearly American) explorers who stumble upon an alien horde that subsequently annihilates them. The message seems to be that the expansion of U.S. capitalism can bring its agents – the crew members of the spaceship Nostromo (in a nice reference to Joseph Conrad) are bringing a freight of iron ore back to Earth – into contact with threatening populations of aliens. But it is the survival of this small group of explorers alone that is at issue.

Contrast this with Prometheus. In Scott’s prequel, released thirty three years after the original, it is the survival of humanity itself that is at stake.

In Prometheus, we find out that the aliens which Ripley battled are the product of a toxic biological weapon engineered by a race of god-like extraterrestrials who, having created humanity, have now decided to wipe us out for some inexplicable reason. The struggles of archeologist Elizabeth Straw to survive the various alien threats that assail her thus stand in for the struggle of humanity itself to stay alive.

One could perhaps say that the inscrutable motives of the “Engineers” who created us and now seem bent on our destruction in Prometheus might stand in for our planet’s environment, which seems to be turning against us with increasing virulence and unleashing multiple unanticipated plagues upon us. This is perhaps stretching allegory a bit far, but the crux of the film is indisputably the struggle for species survival, a marked shift from the earlier Alien films.

The obsession with survival in contemporary U.S. culture is virtually inescapable. Soon after seeing Prometheus, I wandered into Amie Siegel’s exhibition Black Moon (2012) in the Austin Museum of Art. Siegel’s video installation offers a powerful evocation of the current obsession with apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic scenarios. Long panning shots through blighted suburban housing developments in what appears to be Phoenix or some other city of the Southwest evoke the sub-prime mortgage-fueled bust.

Erupting into this bleak landscape of politically engineered economic abandonment, a small band of women guerrillas struggles to survive an unnamed and invisible nemesis.

Like Scott’s Prometheus, Siegel’s video exhibition remixes an original from the 1970s, in this case Louis Malle’s film Black Moon. Siegel’s piece updates the original, though, by situating the unexplained civil war in the context of neoliberal blight. Like Scott’s film, Siegel’s work also focuses on women as protagonists. The exhibition shares a great deal with Sarah Hall’s dystopian novel The Carhullan Army (2007), in which a commune of radical feminists takes to the Scottish highlands in order to survival the ecologically driven collapse of modern society.

This kind of apocalyptic narrative exerts such as strong appeal on the contemporary political unconscious, I want to argue, precisely because of the absence of genuine acknowledgement of the gravity of the crises that confront us in mainstream discourse.

The exhaustion of the neoliberal model of capitalism has been addressed by elites since the onset of the present crisis in 2008 by wave after wave of heightened austerity that is doing nothing but exacerbating the crisis, as well as drowning average people in misery. The political systems in both the U.S. and E.U. seem gripped by total gridlock, with rule being carried out in Europe by conservative bankers whose feckless measures have plunged the economic union into interminable crisis. Meanwhile, in the U.S., a political system riddled with corruption as a result of the influence of big money has spiraled into previously unknown extremes of partisanship and polarization. And, of course, underlying these crises, we continue to push the planet through incremental increases in carbon emissions into a climate crisis from which there is likely to be no exit for the vast majority of humanity.

There is, of course, little substantial admission of these crises in mainstream discourse, let alone an attempt to grapple with the kind of serious, systemic transformations that would be necessary in order to stem our current headlong rush towards oblivion.

Given this fact, the apocalyptic political unconscious proffered by films such as Prometheus can often seem very attractive. Hell, at least someone is willing to admit we’re in deep shit.

There are, nonetheless, significant dangers associated with such an outlook. As Eddie Yuen and the other contributors to the forthcoming volume Catastrophism point out, apocalyptic thinking distorts our understanding of the organic crisis faced by contemporary civilization. As a result, such thinking more often impedes rather than fuels progressive responses to crisis. In fact, if catastrophism has any basic DNA, it is in the apocalyptic thinking of fundamentalist religious movements, which tend to be animated in their responses to crisis by highly reactionary social mores.

The challenge we face, then, is to survey and help the multitude understand the depth of the crisis we currently face, while not giving in to apocalyptic rhetoric. We cannot afford to wait for the slate to be wiped clean before we build new, sustainable societies. That battle has to be waged in the present, through initiatives both pragmatic and visionary enough to engage people in genuine campaigns of hope.

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Staten Island Noir

The first short story I’ve ever written is forthcoming in Akashic Books’ fantastic noir series. I just got this copy of the cover; the book comes out in early November.

Each volume in Akashic’s series is based in a different city around the world. The publisher has been particularly attentive to cities in the global South, with titles like Kingston Noir, Delhi Noir, and (forthcoming) Lagos Noir featuring prominently in their catalog.

The series features and is edited by local writers, so it plays an important role in bringing collections of authors to the attention of audiences in the North who might otherwise remain below the radar.

I intend to explore the rubric of noir in future scholarly work. In what ways, I want to ask, are crime and policing responses to the contradictions of neoliberal capitalism that have forced literally millions of people off the land and into sprawling mega-cities in postcolonial nations? How adequate is the discourse of noir to reflecting critically on the impasses of neoliberal globalization? What gets left out of crime lit, and what crimes cannot be solved be even the most hard-boiled sleuth?

I hope my scholarly work on these kinds of questions will be productive. For now, though, I can say that I had great fun writing “Teenage Wasteland.” This story, set, of course, on Staten Island, explores the politics of toxic garbage disposal in the Fresh Kills dump during the late 1970s. The protagonist is a young Italian-American woman who gets diverted from her career as a fledgling punk rocker in her favorite stomping ground – CBGBs – by a rash of toxin-induced illnesses in her home neighborhood on Staten Island.

I definitely feel that there is more ground to explore here. Both in terms of garbage politics in NYC and in terms of the protagonist I created. I have ambitions to send her to Love Canal and to Italy. After all, the story is set during the anni di piombo (the years of lead), when the Italian government colluded with the mafia, NATO, and the CIA to shift Italian politics to the right by staging a series of bombings which were blamed on anarchist groups and on the Left in general. Lots to explore… Stay tuned.

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Heat Wave

By late June, 72% of the US landmass was in drought or was classified as dry.

US agriculture department undersecretary Harris Sherman, who is in charge of the US Forest Service, told the July 2 Washington Post“The climate is changing, and these fires are a very strong indicator of that.”

The heat wave is slated to get worse throughout July and August across much of the U.S.

The heat, a recently released study concludes, is caused by global warming. The study, published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, found that global warming made the severe heat wave that afflicted Texas last year 20 times as likely as it would have been in the 1960s. For a summary of the study’s findings, check this article from the New York Times out.

For a fuller account of the many heat records that are being toppled this summer, check this out.

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Rio+20 Postmortem

Assessments of the Rio+20 Conference have been appearing since the conference ended on 22 June. They are every bit as bleak as could have been imagined from the discussions leading up to the conference.

The Rio+20 Earth Summit was supposed to be a triumphant follow-up to the Earth Summit that took place 20 years ago in Rio, a summit at which three three significant conventions were adopted on climate change, biodiversity and desertification. Despite the lofty ambitions to address anthropogenic climate change that these treaties articulated, the record since their adoption has been a dismal one. Since 1990, yearly emissions of carbon dioxide have increased 45 % and soon the atmospheric concentration will pass 400 ppm, a stark contrast with pre-industrial rate of 280 ppm. The contemporary extinction rate of species is also alarmingly high with some 30 % of amphibians, 21 % of birds and 25 % of mammal species at risk.

Yet if the original Rio conference has proven to be insufficient to address the climate crisis, its successor last month was nothing short of a full-scale capitulation to the forces that are wreaking havoc on the planet. The vacuousness of the official documents emerging from Rio+20, including the capstone report The Future We Want, is caught with withering scorn in an article by George Monbiot. In his assessment of the conference, Monbiot traces the shift from (vague) notions of sustainability that world leaders signed up for at the original Rio conference, to sustainable development, a concept promulgated in short order following the original conference, to sustainable growth and, in the 2012 Rio+20 text THE FUTURE WE WANT, sustained growth.

As Monbiot notes, “if sustainability means anything, it is surely the opposite of sustained growth. Sustained growth on a finite planet is the essence of unsustainability.”

On this score, the Rio+20 declaration is filled with empty platitudes promoting harmony with nature. There are no specific regulatory mechanisms or concrete timetables included in the official Rio+20 documents. In fact, through its overarching focus on the green economy, the conference foregrounded capitalist market-based solutions – such as REDD – that are the source of the problem. As Rikard Walenius puts it in a recent article assessing the Rio+20 conference:

While never clearly defined, green economy usually refers to attempts at “internalizing the environmental externalities” through the objectification and commodification of ecosystems (reduced to their “environmental services”). These newly minted services can then be bought, traded or securitized as any other financial commodities. Experience so far implies that such market-based solutions have weak environmental impacts but strong social impacts. Evaluations of the the CDM market, part of the carbon trading scheme of the Kyoto protocol, reveal that between one and two third of the projects do not deliver the promised emission cuts. In Africa, India and other parts of the world, poor rural dwellers are those most dependent on the free “services” – e.g. fresh water, food, firewood, medical plants – that the natural commons provide. Payment schemes may perhaps slow down deforestation at a high social price, but the “avoided emissions” are then traded and exchanged for continued emissions in a developed country. In this way, financialisation often means zero gains for the environment but a de-facto transfer of rights and properties from the poor to the rich. Essentially, it provides a way for those who can afford it to occupy double the environmental space, as they can continue emitting, while assuaging their guilt through “green consumption”.

Rebuttals of the CDM market are legion, but Carbon Trade Watch’s recent report, Green is the Color of Money, which exposes the failure of the European Union’s Emissions Trading System, is a particularly damning indictment of the green economy rhetoric that dominated official circles at Rio+20.

As has been true in previous climate conferences, Rio+20 also provided an opportunity for grassroots climate justice movements to network and flex their muscles. As the gridlock at the top worsens, these movements become increasingly important through their articulation of non-market based, genuinely sustainable alternatives. Indigenous protest figured particularly prominently at the People’s Summit in Rio, as the photographs included with this post suggest. As Windel Bolinget, of the Cordillera People’s Alliance in the Philippines, put it:

When we look at the policy proposals of the draft document drawn by UNEP, basically the green economy is converting nature as a capital, so it is basically the commodification of nature – our carbon credits and eco-system. The corporations are to make cash value off these investments. It does not address the root causes of climate change such as nuclear power, extractive industries, the polluting of rivers and [the destruction] of our mother Earth.

An article by Preethi Nallu summarizes the interventions by indigenous groups, women’s organizations, and other grassroots activists at The People’s Summit in Rio. As has been true of People’s Summits held at previous climate conferences, such as COP17 in Durban, these alternative voices tragically made virtually no impression on the myopic global leadership who gathered in official venues to fiddle while the planet burns.

As has been emphasized repeatedly by activists, we have the solutions to the climate crisis. All that is lacking is the political will to implement such solutions. A dossier published by leading academic activists to coincide with the Rio+20 conference underlines this by focusing on genuinely sustainable solutions in areas such as food sovereignty, sustainable cities, oceans, and decent jobs.

Faced with the inaction of elites and resulting environmental and social cataclysms, the movement for climate justice must stress the fundamental power imbalances that lead to carbon colonialism. As the climate crisis hits home, the movement’s analysis of the political ecology of global warming cannot but resonate with more and more people. In such conditions, the movement’s awareness of sustainable alternatives can play a crucial role in repudiating current unsustainable models of ceaseless commodification and endless growth. Climate Justice Now!

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Publication

I finally handed my manuscript off to the publishers about a week ago. What a relief!

I got this potential cover image back almost immediately.

The proofs are due back in September, and the book has already been advertised for publication in Routledge’s 2013 catalog.

Although I don’t have full control of the graphic design, it’s exciting to see the project moving closer to publication.

I also don’t have full control of the title: would have liked to call it A Radical History of Twentieth-Century British Literature, but maybe A Concise History is just as good – that way it springs the radicalism on unsuspecting members of the general public.

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