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The desert grows

Schorched Earth
Forfatter: Jonathan Crary
Forlag: (USA)
PHILOSOPHY / Both the outer and the inner world are today being 'colonised'. What is the connection between the destruction of the mental landscape and the natural landscape, of the inner and outer environment? We look at this in the light of Jonathan Crary and philosophy – including Martin Heidegger.


In his new book Schorched Earth writes the American essayist and professor at Columbia University, Jonathan Crary, about the last stage of capitalism as a desperate war of extermination, where everything that stands against the economic expansion is systematically eradicated. He calls this "scorched earth", a term that plays against the military strategy we in Norway bitterly remember from the Germans' retreat from Northern Norway, where everything was burnt so that the enemy – or anyone else – could not survive in these areas. With Crary, the term is expanded to an unspoken strategy in capitalism's equally unspoken war against everything and everyone. The competition for growth and profit becomes a battlefield that destroys the very earth where the battle takes place, in a protracted war that leaves deserts behind.

Crary reacts against the compulsive optimism that often vulgarizes all pious hopes and turns them into wishful thinking.

Capitalism's raid is part plunder, part conquest of all that opposes it – and often both at once. The most vivid illustration of this can be found in the scenes Crary retells from César Augusto Acevedos movie The land and the shadow (Land and Shade, 2015). The film is about a family living in the middle of a sugar plantation in Colombia that was established after the FARC surrendered: the forests were cut down, monocultures of sugar cane were planted to produce biofuel, the families lost their livelihood and then worked as precarious semi-slaves, poisoned by pesticides, surrounded by clouds of smoke and ash from the sweatshops around them. Alfonso, the grandfather of the family, tries to teach his grandson bird sounds from the forest that once grew there, but is unable to connect with the child or the birds. "The land has become toxic," writes Crary, "and is no longer a habitat where life can flourish."

Crary elaborates: "Scorched earth is the suffocation of hope, the obliteration of the possibility that the world can be revived or healed." And he continues – somewhat surprisingly: "This crushing of hope continued through a hijacking and weakening of the youth." The children, the young people, are the new growth, the ones who are growing up. Crary believes this primarily happens through digital culture. His book has been mistakenly perceived as an attack on the Internet as such. But the decisive factor is that digital technology and new media ensure that the 'wasteland' takes hold ever faster the interior as well as in the outer life.

Crary makes a surprising leap of thought to the Romans' eradication of German forests in the fight against the 'barbarians' in Germania. Forestone became a problem, the hiding places themselves had to be overcome. He moves on to the United States' chemical destruction of the forests in Vietnam with Agent Orange and other pesticides, so that strategic targets and camouflaged enemies could be more easily identified and attacked. The wild and uncontrolled must not only be tamed, but destroyed – in what Amitav Ghosh has recently called a biopolitical war against the very basis of life. The aim of a kind of 'scorched earth tactic' is to create a tabula rasa, which can be described, calculated and controlled anew – monocultures grow from the ashes of rich rainforests.

Young people

The outer wasteland spreads in the dead zones of the sea, in monotonous soy plantations that take over for lush rainforests, and in open coal mines in Germany's old arable landscapes – abysses that will never become landscapes again. In Crary's book, the inner desolation spreads most noticeably in the passivation and numbing of young people, perhaps also the youthful and fertile vitality in all of us, old and young. The young are "encouraged to consider their own thoughts as boring or worthless, and commercial platforms encourage them to exchange and display the most superficial features of themselves".

This is more than the indignation of a middle-aged man, because, as Crary highlights, in the history of radicalism, and especially in the new left since the 1960s, it has been a decisive prerequisite that young people will be those who are ready to resist capitalism – with their passion, libido and creativity. These wild and vital forces are now channeled into social media – domesticated and put to use by capital itself.

Melancholy becomes a symptom of powerlessness. IN environmentcontext, the pessimists are accused of weakening their own cause by spreading resignation. Furthermore, climate scientists feel obliged to embellish the truth itself. Promises of solutions become a prerequisite for being heard. Crary is part of a tradition that reacts against this compulsive optimism, which with the logic of marketing often vulgarizes all pious hopes and turns them into wishful thinking and sugary sales tricks. Crary's pessimism lies not primarily in a prognosis or a claim that the problems he describes are all-encompassing or insurmountable, but rather in the articulation of the worst (lat. the worst). The worst is the destruction: not death, which is acceptable in its inevitability, but rather the destruction of the possibility of life, for new life.

Isn't life both sour and sweet, cruel and good, so that what we value depends on our temperament, mood and perspective?

The pessimism – at least in an environmental context – does not necessarily apply to the future. It is more relevant as an acknowledgment of the damage that has already occurred – and which nevertheless remains invisible. We read about the destruction of the world in the news, and at the same time (!) we look around us – and the world remains. The birds are still singing, we go to the shops, we have our holidays. Or: We have our sorrows, but also joys – isn't life at least complex? Aren't destruction and creation, like light and darkness, an eternal battle, a balance. Isn't life both sour and sweet, cruel and good, so that what we value depends on our temperament, mood and perspective? Aren't the shadows part of the light, and doesn't the sun still shine? Should we shake off pessimism as a malignant melancholy?

Eradication of possibilities

Everything seems very well in Vestens hager, at the shopping centre. It looks different in the mines, on endless logging areas, on monoplantations in underprivileged countries. In the global north, life seems fairly good, but the price is often paid by the global south. The colonialist premise of capitalism, the whole 'European world order' which has lasted for 500 years, is the shadow side of the West which we do not want to acknowledge. As Crary quotes from Aimé Césaire, who as early as 1953, long before post-colonialist theory was established in academia and otherwise, said: “They speak to me of progress, diseases being cured, highways being built, higher standards of living. I'm talking about societies that are drained of all their essence, cultures that are rolled down, institutions that are undermined, magnificent art treasures that are destroyed, unparalleled possibilities which is being erased.”

Photo: Ranveig Eckhoff

Eradication of possibilities, of possible futures, of possible life. This is the worst, the extreme the worst. Or the worst is the possibility that such an erosion takes hold, that man's and life's opportunity space and unfolding opportunities gradually weather away – together with our own ability to notice, not to say to stop, this weathering. Crary refers here to his recently deceased philosophical sparring partner Bernard Stiegler, which has explored the technological disruption of both internal environments – i.e. cultural, mental, psychological and bodily – and external environments or ecosystems. The rectification comes with technological changes that take hold and disrupt and tear up old patterns and relationships. But it also happens more purposefully in the form of a looting that allows itself to destroy or that really aims to destroy.

Heidegger and Nietzsche

Stiegler too is accused of being pessimistic, but once again we must distinguish between pessimism, loosely understood as a preoccupation with the negative, and the attempt to understand and identify the worst. Stiegler pointed out that what Nietzsche called nihilism, is now becoming an external process: From being a failing ability to give meaning to things, to recognize or experience value, today it has become a destruction and consumption of the valuable, which reaches irreplaceable rainforests with all its natural wealth is being removed for monocultures and cattle farming, for hamburgers and fast food. Such concrete annihilation grows strong through a mindset that reinforces it and makes it possible.

What can thinking really do with the destruction of the world? If we understand the task of thinking as pure criticism, we make it both too easy and too difficult for ourselves. We run the risk of being inundated with objectionable conditions – and end up with tirades that state that atrocities are cruel, that the superior power is overpowering, that the disease is sick, and that the monstrosities of the world are, on the whole, monstrous. In his lecture series what heyßt thinking ("What does thinking mean"), written in the 1950s, said the German philosopher Martin Heidegger: “This melody is well known ad nauseam […] Everywhere people trace and record the decay, the destruction, the imminent destruction of the world. We are surrounded by a special kind of novels that do nothing but gas themselves in this kind of decay and depression. On the one hand, it's much easier to write this kind of literature than to say something essential and really thoughtful, but on the other hand, it's already turning thirteen." Heidegger's own attempt to say something essential follows Nietzsche's recommendation to "not write about what we know".

"Thinking is thinking when it responds to the most thought-provoking, and the most thought-provoking thing in our thought-provoking time is that we do not yet think," writes Heidegger. He points out that we have a tendency to assume that the thought-provoking is always something harmful, that is to say something negative, "something dark, threatening, gloomy and altogether dangerous". The underlying assumption, he says, is that in all these things lies a core of something thoughtless, a lack of thinking. This premise, we could perhaps say, is the criticism's weak point: It assumes that thoughtlessness is the problem, and that thinking can solve the problem. But do we thus really find the core of all the destruction? Heidegger starts elsewhere, in the Nietzsche quote from the last part of the poem That's how Zarathustra spoke, where he has the prophet Zarathustra say: “The wasteland grows. Woe to the one who carries wastelands in him.” To understand the destruction of the world, we must understand the wasteland, the broken.


«This tune is well known ad nauseam [...] Everywhere people track and record decay, the destruction, the impending destruction of the world. We are surrounded by a special kind of novels that do nothing but gas themselves in this kind of decay and depression. On the one hand, it's much easier to write this kind of literature than to say something essential and really thoughtful, but on the other hand, it's already turning thirteen."

Martin Heidegger

Goddess of memory

At wildernessone grows, according to Heidegger, means something more than pure destruction, it implies desiccation. Destruction understood as desertification is far more sinister than destruction. "The African Sahara is only one form of desert", writes Heidegger, and continues: "The destruction of the earth can go hand in hand with a guaranteed standard of living for all people and just as easily with the establishment of a common form of happiness for all people. Destruction can be the same as both, it can haunt us everywhere in the most sinister way – by staying hidden. The destruction does not mean slowly sinking into the sand. It is a high-speed expulsion of Mnemosyne.»

Mnemosyne is the goddess of memory and the mother of the inspiring muses of the arts. If we go back to the scene from Acevedo's film about the family on the sugar cane plantation, we see the old Alfonso standing with his eyes closed and lonely recalling the sounds of birds from a lost forest. The forest itself is a memory that is about to disappear, the grandson does not understand him. He himself is old, on his way out of the world. The thread, the roots, the seeds, the memories and the tradition – everything is broken, and oblivion spreads. The erosion or erasure in question is precisely the kind that removes what Césaire called 'brilliant possibilities': In the past and memory lie the seeds of possible futures for species, cultures, human songs, bird songs, new forests, cities and art forms, existential moods and the diverse dialects of the feeling of life.

To think the fertility

The high-speed clutch is itself technologythe disruption and disruption happen – while planting new seeds and nurturing the soil is a peaceful and harmonious collaboration between a multitude of different participants. Stiegler, in his general ecology, which operates on the mental and social plane as well as in nature, was concerned with recovering a mental diversity – a 'noödiversity' (after the Greek we, meaning intellect or thinking). Even where the earth is burnt, new things can grow.

Heidegger's absolute destruction is an extreme formulation and a disaster scenario, just as Crary's argument is a rhetorical exaggeration, a culturally critical hyperbole. What is lost is lost, but the work we must undertake takes place in damaged, barren areas, where life can still be lured back. At the same time, there are still rich and healthy natural areas to learn from. There are also inner jungles and lush social gardens, for that matter! Even Crary's pessimistic sketch of the world conflagration in the last stage of capitalism contains a hope for new beginnings. The thinking must itself be fruitful, think the fruitfulness, step into fruitful spaces – and make these spaces themselves grow. This is how thinking can regain lost territory, overcome inner and outer desertification.

The work we have to undertake takes place in damaged, barren areas, where life can still be lured back.

What Heidegger called a high-speed expulsion of Mnemosyne takes place on the inner and outer planes in the space of one's own memory, one's own history – where deep roots and the transmission of culture between generations are torn away. Young people are hijacked, trapped by the standard digital culture. What Vanadana Shiva has called 'mental monocultures' is taking hold, and along with the will, the growth and a thousand fine-tuned balances where the mental diversity is threatened. What the ecologists call 'blindness to change', Heidegger has long since pointed out in the existential field: We lose the ability to see what abilities we are losing. The wasteland spreads, and 'brilliant opportunities' are erased and cut off. Both the outer and the inner world are being colonized.

But if the wasteland spreads, if we live in the era of the scorched earth, as Heidegger and Crary make it out to be, we must be able to ask for an answer to this the worst, this worst of all prospects. What is the connection between the destruction of the mental landscape and the natural landscape, of the inner and outer environment? And what can we do? Heidegger's explanations disappear into abstract and mystical traces without him finding his way back to the question of the world's daily destruction. He himself refused to give conventional answers for fear of giving "an answer which only serves to blur the question".

The soil of presence

Crary's solution is a displacement: He leaves the ecological track to explore an internal and interpersonal ecology. As he tracks down the roots of the world's destruction, he comes to the conclusion – entirely in Heidegger's spirit, by the way – that the problem is the erasure of the roots themselves. The roots should not be understood here as belonging to the past, or to 'Blut und Boden', for that matter, but as a connection to the surroundings that give us nourishment, feelers that give attention to the surroundings. In his book, Crary refers to the French philosopher and political activist Simone Because, which sees rootlessnessone as the problem of our time – he emphasizes at the same time that she does not interpret rootlessness as being displaced from her own place of origin, but rather as the lack of "a real, active and natural participation in the life of the community".

In Crary's essay, the destruction becomes a black mirror that, in a dark and unclear reflection, shows us the image of what it is to be creative, to live in an enriching and fruitful way. These days we can learn – belatedly, but not entirely too late – from devastated landscapes. What we learn from razed natural areas is a lesson in nuances, the filigree work of time, in what happens when the threads are torn. Only in the rips and the frayed tissue – in the ecosystems of nature, in the meaningful connections of culture – do we see the priceless slow continuation of thousands of precious patterns. In the razed wasteland, the nature restorers look for seeds in the soil layers: It is as if they are examining the ruins to find out who lived there, to see if anyone is home, if anyone can remember. Sometimes they also find intact root systems – where the desert is about to take over, and new forests can be coaxed out. Other times it is enough to spare a landscape, to ease the pressure, and then life itself remembers, a bit like a burnt-out person who finally goes on a retreat, or allows himself to open up to others and acknowledge his own deepest needs.

The high-speed attack on Mnemosyne, the disruption, must be countered through memory as activity, the patient work of continuation and unfolding of life. Crary's gloomy sketch of the world conflagration in the last stage of capitalism also contains a hope for new beginnings. In the last part of the book, Crary conducts such a soul archaeology, or a psychosocial botany, in which he advocates cultivating lost abilities to sense, to use the gaze and language to make real, living connections with other people. This is how we can avoid forgetting each other and ourselves and nurture the soil of presence. Blessed is he who carries jungles within him.

Anders Dunk
Anders Dunker
Philosopher. Regular literary critic in Ny Tid. Translator.

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