Guilt, Anxiety and Glory in the Anthropocene

Dr Joanna Zylinska of Goldsmiths university was interviewed recently on the Cultures of Energy podcast, in the context of her 2018 book The End of Man: A Feminist Counterapocalypse. The short book considers technology and techno-utopianism, with its attendant myth of progress, and feminism, in the context of the climate crisis and coming transformations. There are a thousand different ideas in there, but the words that kept resonating for me as I listened were guilt, anxiety and glory. I’m not sure if I fully grasped everything she said – I’ll listen to the podcast again later, and I’ve ordered the book – but if you’re interested in reading this, you should try and find time for the podcast.

The first word that resonated was guilt. The crushing order of our species is one that insists on a perceived failure, in the face of extraordinary opportunity. We have caused the climate crisis, because of our myopia, our greed, our self-centered nature. Not just that, but economic precarity, global inequality, and the generally poor state of the world today. It’s all in there: despite magnificent technologies and epoch-defining political structures, we have persistently failed to progress.

The second word was anxiety, perhaps less dwelt upon in the podcast (we’ll see about the book) but this pearl-clutching and hand-wringing at our impotence in the face of such enormous challenges: we can fight against fossil fuel consumption, but not at the cost of our way of life. We won’t pay more for bread; that lesson was learned in Paris more than two hundred years ago. So how is real change effected? We are stuck in this dreadful mess, somewhat in denial of our latent hypocrisies.

The third word was glory. Our experience of the world is increasingly mediated by machines: sleek, bright, shiny, airbrushed. It is an artificial world, a made up world, a sanitised non-existent reality that is magnificent! Our politics, our sports, our media are all relayed to us as absolutes, binary versions of life that are simply excellent. There are few grey areas: bad guys are invariably bad; good guys, if they do bad things, do them for good reasons. You’re either with us, or against us. This world presented to us is a world of perfection, a mortal impossibility, only sustainable as a utopian representation, a theological dream: this is the world as in some abstract, objective, good sense it should be. All hail the shiny screen, the tinselled glimmer of the comforting unreal.

This of course has echoes of the bewilderment I’ve written about before, the dichotomy of one the one hand extraordinary technological and even socio-political achievement, eulogised in media and the salvational elements of which are extolled by politicians; and on the other hand, accelerating inequality, impending climate catastrophe, and political apathy and disenfranchisement that delegitimises the so-called ‘public’ sphere.

Zylinska also published a short film – Exit Man – which is worth a look. Her adventurousness in terms of media and platform is praiseworthy, as she considers avenues outside the academic mainstream to connect and communicate: in this time where experts are rejected, and public intellectuals appear to have vanished from the stage, we need new mechanisms to inject thoughtfulness into our politics.

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