Review of Isabelle Stengers, In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism (Open Humanities Press/Meson Press, 2015), 156 pages, $20
Reviewed by Nicholas Beuret
Publisher’s website: http://www.openhumanitiespress.org/books/titles/in-catastrophic-times/
In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism (2015) offers a welcome intervention into the current state of global political impasse and ecological catastrophe. Less a cautionary tale or a series of political injunctions, In Catastrophic Times sets out a clear account of how the ‘cold panic’ induced by looming ecological crises such as climate change is actively produced by the managers of the status quo – those Stengers calls ‘Guardians’. Stengers’ claims it is the convergence of governance without legitimacy with enclosed knowledges and the cult of expertise that has produced a general state of panicked political impotence. Against this mode of governance, Stengers offers a series of tactical experiments from paying attention as intervention to acts of scientific commoning, articulated through what she calls the GMO event, that seek to seize environmental issues and sociotechnical problems as political questions in order to resist the devolution of Modernity into a global social apartheid state.
catastrophe, commons, capitalist realism, risk, expertise
When doing fieldwork among environmental Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO) back in 2009 at the 15th international climate change negotiations in Copenhagen (the ‘COP15’), one NGO campaigner told me that the best possible outcome to the international negotiations would be for there to be no outcome at all; that the best deal would be no deal as any deal would just make the problem worse. I asked what she meant and she told me that with climate change what we were confronted with was “degrees of fuckedness”, and that any international agreement between governments would in all likelihood make the problem worse by enshrining the particular economic processes that produce climate change, making them legitimate and giving them the veneer of being solutions to a problem rather than its cause. An international agreement would make things ‘more fucked’, rather than less. It is not the case that there is any situation that is not bad in this framing; there are some solutions that make things more bad than others however.
This is the planetary situation we find ourselves in according to Isabelle Stengers. In her recently translated book In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism (2015), she sets out how the current moment is characterised by “many manners of dying” (2015: 9) all of which are a result of the impossibility of resolving contemporary ecological crises, what she terms the “intrusion of Gaia” (2015: 41).
The background to the book, a sequel (in a sense) to her 2007 book Capitalist Sorcery co-authored with Philippe Pignarre, goes beyond climate change into the deep morass of global ecological crises that now defines our geological epoch. We live in the ruins of the Holocene, in what is an unending global ecological disaster (Clark 2014) that has been named the Anthropocene (Zalasiewicz et al 2010). The period to which the book is a political response is one marked by ecological catastrophe above all else. Catastrophe here is distinct from either a crisis or a disaster insofar as it designates a crisis from which there is no recovery: as Stengers claims, there is no future where nature can be safely put back into the background of everyday life (2015: 47).
Instead what it means to live in catastrophic times is to be in a moment where problems manifest as having no solutions. Progress has broken down (2015: 58) and has produced the kind of situation Lauren Berlant (2011) describes as an impasse – a moment where existing social imaginaries and practices no longer produce the outcomes they once did, but no new imaginaries or practices have yet been created. Or, according to Stengers, they have been fabricated, but they are not solutions that could be made use of within existing political institutions. As she suggests, “the State must not be trusted” (2015: 74).
Stengers provides a detailed account of the catastrophic impasse. Not so much how ecological catastrophe has been produced (there are already countless catalogues of ecological destruction), but of the mechanisms that maintain the impasse as a form of governance without legitimacy (2015: 54;117).
She does so in order to set out a suggestion for how politics can be practiced within catastrophic times, times where there is no afterwards, no repairing the damage or leaving it behind (2015: 57). In these times there is a need to learn how to live with the damage done to ‘Gaia’, the active biosphere we inhabit as she names it, and Gaia’s indifference towards us (2015: 57).
In Catastrophic Times could thus be read as having two parts: the first, setting out how the current impasse is maintained and by whom. The second, laying out a suggestion for how to engage with catastrophe, to take hold of it as a common problem and make it the grounds for other ways of living with Gaia.
The current period is one marked above all by fear, particularly fear of ecological catastrophe (2015: 17; 22). Gaia has intruded into our world, and this intrusion marks the end of any possibility of ignoring the damage done to the Earth’s biosphere or what such an intrusion signals – the end of progress as a guiding myth of contemporary society (2015: 41; 58). This fear is the result of a particular mode of governance. Stengers argues that those authorities she names ‘Guardians’ (2015: 27) actively work to produce a situation where it becomes impossible to imagine anything other than the status quo. As a result, humanity is rapidly moving into a state of global apartheid, one organised around questions of security and access to resources, a glimpse of which Stengers suggests we can see in the response to the impact on New Orleans of the 2005 Hurricane Katrina with its racialised violence and failed State responses (2015: 22). This is a world of disaster capitalism, one where government has lost any broad social legitimacy but proceeds apace as a kind of disaster managerialism that makes use of the political realism of ‘the facts’ to depoliticise social and environmental issues and maintain order (2015: 27).
Guardians are more than those at the summit of political or corporate power. They name those who participate in governance in the broader Foucauldian sense (2015: 118). Stengers here distinguishes her articulation of modern governance from various postpolitical frameworks by suggesting that it is not scientific or technical frameworks that depoliticise governance, but rather that there has been the cultivation of stupidity within the governing milieu (2015: 117). That what has happened is that a broad inability to think differently or otherwise has taken hold of those in authority, and that this manifests as a stupefying sense of political realism (ibid.) that works to evacuate politics from governance (54). As such, the Guardians have nothing to offer as a solution to catastrophic times: there is no ‘realistic’ solution to climate change, which can be limited to ‘only slightly dangerous’ levels by “changing everything” (Klein 2015). Hence, they govern without legitimacy (Stengers, 2015: 118).
How they maintain their authority without legitimacy is through the production of what Stengers calls “infernal alternatives” (2015: 55). Infernal alternatives are the mechanisms that maintain political realism. They are a series of non-choices presented as choices by Guardians to their various ‘publics’; the choice between doing nothing about climate change or geo-engineering the climate; the choice to do nothing about deforestation or the choice to trade forests as commodities in order to preserve their ‘value’. This production of two bad alternatives, where one is ‘less bad’ than the other, is a means by which Guardians make problems inaccessible to anyone other than Guardians and produce at the same time a “cold panic” (2015: 32) where an impotent fear of the future sets in, functionally demobilising people.
While there is more to be said here about how the facts are constituted and mobilised, something Stengers has explored at length in her other works and something that could serve as a useful corrective for much of the current talk of an era of ‘post-truth politics’, here I would note that Stengers characterisation of a global state of cold panic and ecological fear is not entirely convincing.
While in many countries clear majorities of the population believe in climate change, and demonstrate concern around a host of other environmental issues, there is a disjuncture between belief in these problems and a belief in the seriousness of these problems. While there is a genuine politics of ecological fear, I feel it may be overstating the case to say that this is a general social condition. It is also not the case that fear is always politically demobilising. There is an interesting contrast to be made between how fear works to demobilise environmental politics but, for example, energise xenophobic anti-migrant politics. The fear of the Other, of the migrant, produces social mobilisations, just as the fear of Islam and the Muslim Other also produces powerful social reactions.
It may be that the difference lies in the particular governing technologies of these problems. While all are subject to expert management, environmental issues are scientific concerns. Stengers argues that science is complicit with the production of the cold panic and is part of the Guardian milieu. Or, at least, those scientists and scientific institutions that are allied and integrated into the State and Capital (2015: 91). Against this complicity, Stengers calls for a reclamation of science as a series of open plural practices against what we could call Royal Science, science as complicit in State-making and profit-taking, a science synoptic in its perspective an intolerant of ‘outsiders’ and ‘non-experts’.
This is the starting point for Stengers’ solution to the current state of impasse. In many ways what she calls for is a kind of radical amateur scientific engagement, a reclamation of science as a common practice, one that is experimental and open, and one that seeks to work with the intrusion of Gaia against the continuation of the present and political (capitalist) realism.
Stengers uses what she terms the ‘GMO event’ (2015: 35) as a means of articulating this alternate political vision. The GMO event names a period of political activism around the proposed introduction of genetically modified food crops into Europe (particularly France and the UK). In response to this proposal there was a wide social revolt, comprising a range of campaigns from public demonstrations to direct action where GMO crops were destroyed, the result being the banning of many GMO crops across much of Europe and the delegitimization of GMO crop science.
For Stengers this event demonstrates how a seemingly expert or scientific issue – crop science and genetics – can be reclaimed from expertise and become a ‘common’ question, and thus a basis for political action and collectivity. The first step involved in this reclamation is what Stengers calls “paying attention” (2015: 100). Paying attention means not only looking closely at how governance functions and the problems it produces. It means asking questions of and intervening into those things non-Guardians are not meant to “meddle with” (2015: 88). Paying attention is a political act as it claims a technical question as a political problem. Paying attention in this way is an act of commoning knowledge and resisting the on-going enclosures of science and knowledge (on this point Stengers makes the link to open source programs and the struggles of computer programmers against corporate enclosures and copyright).
Commoning is a means of avoiding stupidity, as it works to produce a different context for problems. It socialises technical issues, and asks that they respond to broader concerns, concerns beyond those of ‘political realism’, concerns that attend to life in a boarder everyday sense. It brings these problems into contact with non-experts, and in doing so creates new relationships and collectivities. By contesting what ‘the facts’ can mean, and who can interpret them, commoning refuses the depoliticisation of problems by articulating a community of the problem, refusing its relegation to governance.
Such an approach is not without its risks. But as suggested by Stengers there are no experiments that are risk-free (2015: 104). There is no position of innocence. Nor have facts ever been neutral. But we cannot avoid the intrusions of Gaia – we are already living amongst the ruins in the Anthropocene and with the legacy of climate change. Hence all political practice is already catastrophic, and all politics takes place after progress. The question is how to make the future less bad than it would be otherwise, to resist and refuse a coming barbaric global apartheid.
Berlant, L(2011) Cruel Optimism. London: Duke University Press.
Clark, N (2014) Geo-politics and the disaster of the Anthropocene. The Sociological Review 62 (Issue Supplement S1): 19-37.
Klein, N (2015) This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Stengers, I (2015) In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the coming Barbarism. Open Humanities Press/Meson Press.
Stengers, I and Pignarre, P (2007) Capitalist Sorcery: Breaking the Spell. London: Palgrave-Macmillan.
Zalasiewicz, J, Williams, M, Steffen, W and Crutzen, P (2010) The New World of the Anthropocene. Environment, Science & Technology Viewpoint 44: 2228-31.
Nicholas Beuret is a research associate at the Lancaster Environment Centre working on issues of climate migration and security. His work explores how environmental issues are produced as sociotechnical matters of concern and how they function to shape political practices and imaginaries. Interrogating the construction of environmental agency and its modalities, his current research focuses on the environmental politics of climate change and resource use, emerging energy infrastructure, and extinction and the catastrophic imaginary.