Note — Sep 13, 2020

Beginning with the End

Seen in → No.141

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Using books/quotes from Frank Kermode, Murray Bookchin, and others, Roy Scranton explains how we tend to consider ourselves (humanity) too much in the “middest” of things, apart from nature, central in time, and look at the end of the world as if it’s one future thing we might determine ahead of time. Worlds are constantly ending, civilizations pass, eras pass, the end of this world is coming but it doesn’t mean the end of humanity or of nature. Actually, we don’t know much of anything for sure. That’s the other important part of the piece; that we create fictions, futures, scientific projections, but all of them, even those based in science, are incomplete and we must remember them as such.

Nothing is certain, determined, even the “human species and the Anthropocene are all passing phenomena in the seething flux of energy and matter that is the universe.” We can stare into the abyss, believing wholeheartedly in one of the fictions we make up, but “there is another way: Accepting unknowing. Embracing the void. Recognizing the limits of human knowledge. Relinquishing our consoling fictions about the future. Acknowledging the transience of the present and seeing in the death of what is the birth of what will become.”

Scranton calls it “apophatic futurism: a commitment to a future existence which by definition cannot be described.”

“The Long Perspectives,” and his main concern, broadly framed, was the fictional structures we impose on time and experience in order to make them bearable. Kermode was interested in how we relate an individual human life, with its beginning, middle, and end, to grander narratives (historical or cosmological in character) about the fate of the world, and he was skeptical though not unsympathetic toward the all-too-human desire to see some kind of concordance between the two—the desire, that is, to believe that time has a shape like life, and that we happen to occupy a privileged place within it: the beginning, perhaps, or the end. […]

Are we living in the Anthropocene or the Cthulhucene, the Plantationocene or the Capitalocene? Should we call it climate change or global warming? Does our framing need to be more hopeful? Are we telling the right story? […]

Bookchin advocated a kind of ecological anarchism, or what he called “social ecology,” a theory connecting the biological fact of human dependence on environmental health and ecological diversity with a communitarian vision of small-scale direct democracy and egalitarian, non-hierarchical social organization. […]

What axis is left to us, “in the middest,” to orient our lives along, when the future is at once wholly catastrophic and wholly unknowable? […]

The world of the future will likely be unrecognizable to those of us alive today, just as the world we live in today would be unrecognizable to Homer or Laozi or even Frank Kermode: human worlds survive for generations, but not forever. Like everything else, this too shall pass.