Good messes to be had from their catastrophism

It  is  an  interesting  fact  about  the  world  we  actually  live  in  that  no anthropologist, to my knowledge, has come back from a field trip with the following report: their concepts are so alien that it is impossible to describe their land tenure, their kinship system, their ritual… As far as I know there is no record of such a total admission of failure… It is success in explaining culture A in the language of culture B which is… really puzzling.
                                                   Ernest Gellner, social anthropologist

The overall skeptical argument that we know nothing at all about other people’s minds, for instance, is painless, because it is totally theoretical; it is more disturbing to consider that perhaps we know something about other people, but a lot less than we suppose.
                                                 Bernard Williams, philosopher

–Start by observing that, “There is no alternative but to experiment,” imports a silent clause for catastrophists: “There is no alternative but to experiment, even if the consequences of doing so are uncertain.” We face certain catastrophe if we don’t experiment, no matter what.

A parallel exists in psychoanalysis: Just as a traumatic dream represents for Freud an exception to dreaming as wish fulfillment, so too does catastrophism, their wide-awake trauma, represent an exception to thinking more before acting.

–But do think about it. The business of Empire and Finance is to ensure The End continues. For disaster capitalism and speculative finance, more catastrophism means more ways to make a buck (think: artificial pollination after the bees go extinct).

–So, the policy analytic challenge–the challenge of thinking–isn’t to come up with new money-making crisis scenarios for profiteers. It is for us to think through what is instead-of-catastrophism or how the profiteers’ preoccupation with their catastrophism poses good messes for the rest of us.


–What are some good messes to be had in the catastrophism of others? Let me suggest a few:

Who wouldn’t be right in resisting burn-out, early or late, if told repeatedly they haven’t “taken control” of climate change, species extinction and biodiversity loss?

It would be good to know if we are, as some say, nine missed meals away from civil unrest, or is it only four missed meals, as others say.

Isn’t everything-connected-to-everything-else an odd kind of stasis rather than always-primed for worse?

Hasn’t surviving the remains of war been the only real place where everything is directly connected to everything else by virtue of barter (e.g., your fuel for my food)? If, as novelist Henry James put it, what is real is what remains, then the playwright Samuel Beckett’s “nothing” in “Nothing is more real than nothing,” is what remains—before or after—everything has been directly connected? It’s dangerous to assume we don’t manage different interconnections differently, and with different effect.

Conversation stoppers like “human fallibility” and “radical uncertainty” reverberate with original sin and basic evil. Better to say we still find it reasonable to assume we’re not as rational as we thought, even now (a good indication, btw, that the Enlightenment continues).

To say endemic crises have many causes and are overdetermined is like saying there’s too much wind-up for the pitch thrown.

And since when has inequality been best described as a crisis only or even primarily? Norms are different from crises, and inequality is very much the norm. Inequality is better understood as the scandal of the status quo. Shaming, humiliating and ostracizing the profiteers don’t solve crises, but together they are a very important way to respond to inequality.

Compare economist, George Akerlof, who put it that the most efficient way to look as if you’re honest is to be honest, to the poet, Frank O’Hara’s “It’s easy to be beautiful; it’s difficult to appear so”. Can we say that only when it is difficult to be honest does honesty, let alone efficiency, appear beautiful?

How many times have we heard that we must never rely on those who created problems to help solve them. That rules out those working on reducing global climate change who use water from the tap, turn lights on, and run appliances—the very same people who insist on having reliable infrastructures so they can get on with the necessary environmental work

“Would it really be incoherent, then, or an affront to fairness, to impose a penal draft—i.e. to randomly select citizens to serve their country as inmates, probationers or parolees, perhaps under the (all too familiar) pretense that they must be guilty of something?. . . .What better way could there be than some form of ‘prison duty’ to embody our commitment to protecting the guilty from unjust punishment?” (Benjamin Ewing, “Socializing Punishment,” in The Point Magazine)

A doctor tells me that I have 1 out of 5 chances of having a heart attack or stroke within the next ten years. But for the life of me I can’t explain why the lines of poet, A.R. Ammons, seem much more certain:

                                     though I
have not been here long, I can
look up at the sky at night and tell
how things are likely to go for
the next hundred million years:
the universe will probably not find
a way to vanish nor I
in all that time reappear.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s