The Consolations of Horror in the Anthropocene

We do not live, we are lived. What would a philosophy have to be to begin from this, rather than to arrive at it? —Eugene Thacker

I guess by this point I’ve got to my feet and I’m trying to marshal my thoughts to tell him about extinction, about how we’re at the very end of the sixth great extinction to hit this planet, caused by us, by man, by progress, and how speciation will occur after we’re gone, an explosion of new forms springing up to fill all the vacated niches, a transformation like nothing we’ve known since the Cambrian explosion of five hundred seventy million years ago, but he’s not listening. —T. C. Boyle. A Friend of the Earth

Why do people continue to believe in the myth of politics? I assume most of these people still believe in “hope,” as if the world might one day change, that people like the fabled children of some primitive world of Rousseauistic fantasy are all essentially good and if given the opportunity to grow up in the right environment under the right conditions will become optimistic harbingers of the Good Society. Who still believes that?

With the doom and gloom of potential catastrophic climate change, with the slow burn of Amazonia, of the genocides around the world, of wars and rumors of wars, plagues and rumors of pandemics, of asteroids, of … well you get the picture… the future environment is turning and swerving toward a very hostile place indeed. Will the children of Rousseau growing up now in the chaos and catastrophe of our current age of political and social unrest, malfeasance, genocide, immigration blockage, rising fascism and authoritarianism, displaced and erroneous science perpetrated by the rich, powerful, and corporate/political nexus of a pro-right reactionary system …

Will these children become mere pawns and puppets of a rising dictatorship ruled over by advanced AGI, pharmaceutical engineering, apocalyptic religious views, and survivalist terror; guerrilla warfare in our modern streets and country towns; a totalized surveillance state with divisions and apartheid…. will the Walls of Hate rise up everywhere and consume us like dark denizens of some cannibalistic world? In such an environment will these supposed optimists turn psychopathic, indifferent, affectless, and full of hate and anger at themselves and everyone else enter an age where a self-lacerating, murderous society of self-hatred and decaying aspirations is all that is left of the human species?

Who will inherit the earth? Cyborgian psychopaths? Affectless machinic intelligences? Or, the children of a dream gone bad and bitter leaving them alone, destitute, and without any sense of hope of life and future left?

Reading a recent book on the Anthropocene and our future I came across this all too human and hopeful, nay – optimistic passage:

The Earth we have inherited from our ancestors is now our responsibility. It is not natural limits that will determine whether this planet will sustain a robust measure of its evolutionary inheritance into the future. Our powers may yet exceed our ability to manage them, but there is no alternative except to shoulder the mantle of planetary stewardship. A good, or at least a better, Anthropocene is within our grasp. Creating that future will mean going beyond fears of transgressing natural limits and nostalgic hopes of returning to some pastoral or pristine era. Most of all, we must not see the Anthropocene as a crisis, but as the beginning of a new geological epoch ripe with human-directed opportunity.1

One will find over and over such secular beliefs in the progressive world-view of optimism in book after book that at first fills our minds with all the present and future horrors of climatic catastrophe only to end in this muddle of hopeful fantasy. Why? Do people truly believe that we can blindly go forward with such beliefs as these while watching passively the atrocity of nations across our current planet in every form of destruction imaginable? Have we become insane in our adherence to such optimism that flying in the face of utter ominicide and planetary suicide at the hands of nations, corporations, and the rich who are plundering every last resource on the planet; that we will live beyond the present doom and gloom scenarios of collapse?

I mean when even Edward O. Wilson is calling for setting aside half the earth from human occupation what do we think:

I propose that only by committing half of the planet’s surface to nature can we hope to save the immensity of life-forms that compose it. I’ll identify the unique blend of animal instinct and social and cultural genius that has launched our species and the rest of life on a potentially ruinous trajectory. We need a much deeper understanding of ourselves and the rest of life than the humanities and science have yet offered. We would be wise to find our way as quickly as possible out of the fever swamp of dogmatic religious belief and inept philosophical thought through which we still wander. Unless humanity learns a great deal more about global biodiversity and moves quickly to protect it, we will soon lose most of the species composing life on Earth. The Half-Earth proposal offers a first, emergency solution commensurate with the magnitude of the problem: I am convinced that only by setting aside half the planet in reserve, or more, can we save the living part of the environment and achieve the stabilization required for our own survival.2

Once again Wilson is hopeful, optimistic that we as humans can survive this vast planetary threat. Why?

Even Roy Scranton in an otherwise bleak view of our future proposes a return to “philosophical humanism” and the light:

Light comes to us from millions of miles away, through the emptiness of space, and we can see it. Its heat warms our skin. Pleasure arises in feeling ourselves attuned and connected to such sublime power. The only practical question remaining is whether we, existing as we are, will be that light.3

The thread through almost every one of these bleak purveyors of the Anthropocene is that somehow, somewhen, someway humanity will come through in the end, survive it’s own stupidity, and once again thrive in the warmth and glow of the Sun.

Why is it that I do not believe this? Why am I so doggedly in the opposite camp? Why is my pessimism, which I like to assume is a form of materialist realism; even speculative in its inherent capacity to imagine the bleak future ahead so against all these stubborn efforts to believe in human survival in the face of the current plight of what extinctionist scientists term the Sixth Extinction? Most of the works on the current extinction event speak of the non-human creatures: animals, plants, insects etc. that are being obliterated day by day due to the Anthropocene impact; and, yet, even most of these elide the possibility of humanity itself as a species becoming a part of this ongoing mass extinction event. As if because of our supposed consciousness, our intelligence, our technology… our whatever we will make it out of this event alive.

Instead in my mind I imagine the bleak news of finality, of an actual and real end game being played out in which we as a species continue to deceive ourselves with illusions and deceptions right up to the end when the last human knowing what is happening all around her still dreams of hope… why is hope so persistent, and not despair… Why? Jules Bahnsen one of the last of the great pessimists of the 19th Century believed that humans would end in tragedy, that it was inescapable and inevitable, that even against earlier pessimists like Schopenhauer, Hartmann and Mainländer, who believed in some form of redemption for our species, Bahnsen instead believed their ethics of redemption was based on the false assumption that we can somehow escape the world, whether it be through aesthetic contemplation, asceticism or suicide. For Bahnsen on the other hand the tragic view of life shows us that we are inevitably and inextricably caught in the drama of the world. When we must often prove our integrity by struggling against trying and demeaning circumstances, and when we have obligations and commitments to others and to the community as a whole, we cannot escape into another world or even annihilate ourselves. No, we are trapped here in this world; we must take a stand, fight and suffer the consequences . There is, then, no redemption, no reconciliation, in Bahnsen’s deeply tragic view of the world. This is not to say, however, that his worldview is grim or sad. For Bahnsen still offers some relief from all the suffering and tragedy of life. That relief comes from humour, in learning how to laugh at ourselves and our predicament. Humour makes us recognize our predicament and powerlessness but it also allows us to stand above it. By laughing at our situation we abstract and detach ourselves from it, and so escape, if only momentarily, from the fate and weight pressing down upon us. Although Bahnsen bids us to appreciate the role of humour in bearing the tragedy of life, he is at pains to insist that it still brings no redemption. It offers no enduring remedies, no fail safe recipes to escape from the suffering and moral dilemmas of life; its only power is to lighten the load and to prepare us for even more to come.4

J.G. Ballard in The Drowned World would envision the last man wandering south into the harsh world of extinction seeking some extreme event of psychic if not physical redemption:

Half asleep, he lay back thinking of the events of the past years that had culminated in their arrival at the central lagoons and launched him upon his neuronic odyssey, and of Strangman and his insane alligators, and finally, with a deep pang of regret and affection, holding her memory clearly before his mind as long as he could, of Beatrice and her quickening smile. At last he tied the crutch to his leg again, and with the butt of the empty .45 scratched on the wall below the window, sure that no-one would ever read the message: 27th day.

Have rested and am moving south. All is well. Kerans.

So he left the lagoon and entered the jungle again, within a few days was completely lost, following the lagoons southward through the increasing rain and heat, attacked by alligators and giant bats, a second Adam searching for the forgotten paradises of the reborn sun.5

The hope here is not for man – in the form of this mad questor, but of the natural order which will suddenly return once again into organic blooming under the stark necessity of the sun. In this sense it is a pessimism founded not on the exceptionalism of the humanity, but of the indestructible organic necessity that seems to pervade existence in the universe. Whether that life, that vitalism is of a malevolent will is another matter…

In the end that is what horror fictions and science fictions do best, they imaginatively envision this future that is seeping into our lives out of the darkness of the unknown, provide us with both images, symbols, and allegories of mind, intellect, and affect that can guide us through the coming extinction event which is still to be decided. For that’s the real truth: we just don’t know. We are all alone in the dark for all the power of our scientific models of the future we are still in that position of darkness and the unknown, left with our daily fears and tremors, our feelings and affects concerning this unknown terror of a world bent on catastrophic collapse. Our bestsellers are fictions of apocalypse, social and environmental degradation, dystopian and horrific scenarios of political and religious madness and insane blood baths. It’s this shadow of fear seeping in from the dark futurial world of pain, suffering, and catastrophe that pervades our collective nightmares. So that we turn to horror films, novels, and tales for consolation:

This, then, is the ultimate, that is only, consolation: simply that someone shares some of your own feelings and has made of these a work of art which you have the insight, sensitivity, and – like it or not – peculiar set of experiences to appreciate. Amazing thing to say, the consolation of horror in art is that it actually intensifies our panic, loudens it on the sounding-board of our horror-hollowed hearts, turns terror up full blast, all the while reaching for that perfect and deafening amplitude at which we may dance to the bizarre music of our own misery.

—Thomas Ligotti, The Consolations of Horror

  1. Michael Shellenberger; Ted Nordhaus. Love Your Monsters: Postenvironmentalism and the Anthropocene . Breakthrough Institute. Breakthrough Institute (November 27, 2011).
  2. Edward O. Wilson. Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life. Liveright; 1 edition (March 7, 2016)
  3. Scranton, Roy. Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization (City Lights Open Media). City Lights Publishers.
  4. Beiser, Frederick C.. Weltschmerz: Pessimism in German Philosophy, 1860-1900 (pp. 266-267). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.
  5. Ballard, J. G.. The Drowned World: A Novel (p. 198). Norton.

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