The Poetics of Extinction Rebellion

Our global physical environment is increasingly altered by the consequences of human conflict and economic growth, as a global consumer market drives short-term profits and prioritizes technologies of degradation throughout the ecological inheritance of living species. Generally, people have great difficulty accepting and responding to climate change and large-scale pollution (including plastics, antibiotics, airborne industrial wastes, mining, and insecticides, as well as radioactive materials scattered by military violence). Many potentially toxic materials now infest our bodies from the time of conception, as well as our entire global atmosphere and all aquatic environments. It seems so terribly out of control. Is anyone in even marginal control?

Does humanity control climate?
Does climate control humanity?
Does climate control itself?
Does humanity control itself?

The omnipresent global climate emergency, like its feisty little sister, coronavirus-19, is comprehensible as the outcome of innumerable impulsively pursued means of generating economic and military advantage among humankind. A response that might preserve intelligent life forms on the planet will require a displacement of human intentionality from primarily human-centered purposes and goals, into the field of mutual co-creation between human and non-human forms of life and other agencies of our ecological given on which all living beings depend.

Realizing a flexibly integrated and self-adjusting mutuality among this range of agents and circumstances calls for a shift in identification from the human individual and also from the tribe or nation to what Donna Haraway calls sympoesis. Sympoesis involves a making and becoming cooperatively between unlike species that may lead to radically different outcomes than would one species acting alone. Sympoiesis means “making-with” and can be applied to the functioning of specific instances of the natural world as well as “to complex, dynamic, responsive, situated, historical systems.” Haraway states as an underlying principle that “Perhaps as sensual molecular curiosity and definitely as insatiable hunger, irresistible attraction toward enfolding each other is the vital motor of living and dying on earth.” A paradigm inclusive of such a factor as universal co-creation and perpetual mutual adaptation of all features and facets of existence will have to be ascendant, if humanity is to adapt constructively to the conditions we are precipitating.

Given the magnitude, the velocity, the tipping points, the snowballing, and misunderstandings of the climate emergency as we hear of it, we may struggle to understand what it is or would be to understand it, beyond an assembly of continually evolving and revised findings of the latest from applied sciences. Kish and Quilley, of the University of Waterloo’s School of Environment, Resources, and Sustainability, believe that the “profound transformation required of material conditions of life and corresponding social characteristics . . . would increasingly engender paradigmatic changes at the level of ideas, linguistic and perceptual categories, average personality structures and socially sanctioned patterns of behavior.” In other words, don’t expect to know your ass from anyone else’s elbow.

The mind doesn’t know what to try to wrap itself around, beyond this encroaching and actualizing flood of overwhelming crises and disruptions. Is social collapse within the range of what we may formulate as real, and thus within the range of humanity’s potential to encounter and affect, or is it, more brutally, simply beyond reckoning? Is the reality of our situation beyond our capacity to frame its truth?

We humans are familiar with splitting in our apprehension of natural forces and resources – what we are used to calling “nature” is an idealized, bountiful, generous source of life and freedom and inspiration, and on the other hand sometimes it is an impervious danger and an obstacle to be defended against when it cannot be eliminated or exploited as an instrument toward human goals. This splitting in our views on nature tends to obfuscate any means of appreciating how non-human factors may exercise agency and sustainability in cooperation with one another and even with human beings.

In a paper in 1919, Sigmund Freud viewed the uncanny as one feature of an aesthetics of anxiety. The uncanny may appear when what formerly seemed natural, familiar, even a comfort, is recognized afresh as dreadful, imminently dangerous, or terrifying. He writes that “this uncanny is in reality nothing new or foreign, but something familiar and old-established in the mind that has been estranged only by the process of repression.”

To awaken to the uncanny involves seeing, or seeming to see, that which was perfectly present and possibly evident but unseen, occluded or avoided in apprehension, until this time. The eerie alarm at this sort of acute ambivalence may result in a virtual paralysis of inactivity, reminiscent of “that sense of helplessness sometimes experienced in dreams.” Freud writes that the uncanny’s “factor of involuntary repetition. . . forces upon us the idea of something fateful and inescapable.” He then postulates “the principle of a repetition-compulsion in the unconscious mind, . . . a principle powerful enough to overrule the pleasure-principle, lending to certain aspects of mind their daemonic character . . . [W]hatever reminds us of this inner repetition-compulsion is perceived as uncanny.”

Along with anyone’s awe and admiration for the constructions and applications made possible by advanced technology, there may persist, under repression, the primordial infantile ferocity of anyone’s will to dominate, to destroy, to ravage any given space or relationship. Winnicott found it “necessary to describe a theoretical stage of unconcern or ruthlessness in which the child can be said to exist as a person and to have purpose, yet to be unconcerned as to results. He does not yet appreciate the fact that what he destroys when excited is the same as that which he values in quiet intervals between excitements.” Once this psychic appetite becomes abhorrent and unacceptable, it may be denied and projected onto the non-human world in a variety of ways.
I suspect such a will to power and violence may underlie our acquiescence to the global climate emergency, the extinction of countless other species, the horrors of war, and the persistent degradation of our environment. To come to terms with our share in and collusion with death and destruction on a global ecological scale may entail first our adjustment to “a feeling of the uncanny,” before we can surrender our habituated premises and identities enough to join in formulating well grounded paradigms for a livable future.
This road through and beyond the burgeoning calamities and catastrophes of climate change throws into radical uncertainty any premise of ‘control’ based in human agency alone. In a recent paper in response to the current pandemic, Jill Gentile offers an ambivalent acknowledgement that “the weird had been training us for [. . .] a break in the conventional ordering of knowledge, conditioning us to bear and possibly even acquire a taste for the uncertainty, precarity, and tumult of being alive. [. . . I]n this altering space-time, we must listen between orders of the familiar and dis/orders of the strange. [. . .] We can also inscribe into our theory such a new imaginary, a new (dis)order [. . .] a democratic, contradictory, uncanny Strange. This novel conceptual space would be a ‘position’ beyond the depressive position, that reliable old ‘final outpost’ of healing and ‘postoedipal’ living.” Haraway’s model of sympoesis may offer a template for this new position.
The activist movement Extinction Rebellion, from its choice of a name for itself to its worldwide simultaneous street happenings, has for nearly two years been applying principles of an innovative, improvisatory poetics to the contemporary conundrums, contradictions, and compromise-formations that keep our society stuck barreling down the track for eventual exhaustion of the conditions of life. Extinction Rebellion attempts to face the emergence of our uncanny predicament head on, disrupting the face and alliances of conventional contemporary continuities and the seeming reliability of an everyday model of business as usual.

Extinction Rebellion advocates and stages mass urban demonstrations that facilitate and structure episodes of civil disobedience, in order to disrupt the steady flow of commerce and rationalization, utilizing imaginative forms and props to draw attention to and encourage interest in the devastating climatic and social disturbances that are coming to alter everything. Roger Hallam, a co-founder, writes that “Direct-action design has to create desirable symbolic interruption – the meaning structures through which people interpret whether the disruption is justified.” Primary examples of such design are large-scale gatherings of young and old in public parks, in which creative and expressive activities can be generated, and in major thoroughfares and intersections, blocking the transit on which a “manic society” may depend.

Freud notes that under the conditions of fiction that normalize the supernatural and unpredictable, as do legends and fairy tales, fantastic occurrences do not appear uncanny to either characters or the reader. They are taken instead as magical, illusory, surreal, dreamlike, or otherwise accounted for within the logic of the story’s development. Extinction Rebellion’s major interventions are radical, showy, disconcerting. Their pageantry and spectacle may shift the frame of interpretation toward privileging the art within a non-violent confrontation to recontextualize what might have felt stultifyingly uncanny, so that it might be acknowledged and integrated instead as part of a fantastic, prophetic, and scientifically sound account of our impending future.

Legislative reforms addressing the climate emergency have been largely rhetorical and unenforceable, lacking decisive measures and programs to realize their goals. A series of strategic symbolic disruptions, evocative of a potentially graver and cumulative disorganization, may call ever greater attention to the need for radical adaptive adjustments that would otherwise seem impossible.

To allow truth an adequate time-and-space to realize itself in our attention, Extinction Rebellion displaces the grief and terror associated with our global climate emergency into celebratory drama and dream revelry. A polymorphous perversity of human wildness conjoins in Extinction Rebellion with a disciplined concentration on each action’s strategic goals to displace the climate emergency from its conventional conceptual frameworks. Extinction Rebellion theatrics and nonviolent aggression rewires competitiveness and domination into a polemic as play, as fussing, as goofing, as breakdown. Extinction Rebellion orchestrates metaphor, metonymy, magic, and disruption, surrendering as called for to its members’ potential arrest, as it derails prosaic patterns of linear stabilization.

Paul Hoggett affirms the need for the public to join in “forms of conversation which engage the imagination, make use of imagery and metaphor, elicit stories and narratives, and give recognition and respect to the inconsistencies, paradoxes, and contradictions of our efforts to engage with the ethical challenges posed by climate change.” Arousing such a conversation is the primary project of Extinction Rebellion, eventuating in civic assemblies that could be mandated by our governments to deliver enforceable programs, to be implemented immediately by each government, utilizing every resource available. Such conversations, small and large, can assist us in grounding and integrating the reality of changes to our planet and to our paradigms, dissolving their disorienting and thought-stopping qualities, which otherwise feel so nebulous, enigmatic, and uncanny.

[Steve Benson delivered this paper on 10/25/2020 at the annual conference of the Association for the Psychoanalysis of Culture and Society, on line.]

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