An Interview with Roy Scranton

This month, I have for you an interview with Roy Scranton, the award-winning author of five books, including Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization, the monograph Total Mobilization: World War II and American Literature, and the novel War Porn. Roy, who is also an associate professor of English at Notre Dame, has published in more magazines and newspapers than I can count. In the interview below, we discuss one of his most recent projects, the “climate crisis” issue of the Massachusetts Review, which he co-edited with Noy Holland. 

The issue contains original work from such luminaries as Shailja Patel, Omar El Akkad, Rick Bass, Alex Kuo, Laura Dassow Walls, CAConrad, Maryam Haidari, Lisa Olstein, Amitav Ghosh, Sarah E. Vaughn, Eugene Lim, Rob Nixon, Gina Apostol, and many others. It also includes a previously unpublished essay by Barry Lopez.

In your introduction to the Massachusetts Review Climate Issue, you write: “Our dilemma: that we must see without sight, imagine without vision, hope without hope, and somehow persist even as we are consumed with grief and terror.” Would you expand on what you mean by this?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this line from Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth: “Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.”

What this speaks to for me is the apophatic quality of our relation to the future, the fact that we do not know, cannot know what will happen, and indeed have only an obscure sense of what is happening now, in our own time, and yet are nevertheless compelled to act out of our ignorance. We can’t know if we’ve found our mission, if it’s the right one, or whether any particular act will lead to its fulfillment or betrayal. History is too grimly ironic to comfort the complacent or offer cheer to the zealous. And this is just the human condition, under quote-unquote normal circumstances of contingency and uncertainty.

Our situation today is even more precarious: the stakes are the greatest imaginable, on par with nuclear annihilation, while our obscurity is deepened and compounded by the utter novelty of our predicament. It’s all too easy to forget, even or maybe especially for those of us who spend a lot of time thinking about climate change, that we are in totally uncharted territory. I often go back to The Great Acceleration, by historians J.R. McNeill and Peter Engelke, who articulate the point well:

The entire life experience of almost everyone living now has taken place within the eccentric historical moment of the Great Acceleration, during what is certainly the most anomalous and unrepresentative period in the 200,000-year-long history of relations between our species and the biosphere. That should make us all skeptical of expectations that any particular current trends will last for long.” (my italics)

And they’re not even talking about climate change, but rather the human techno-social matrix that has emerged globally over the past eighty years. Climate change is even more of a wild card, a fact which is often obscured by too-credulous reliance on speculative computer models. Notwithstanding the tremendous richness and complexity of contemporary earth systems research, scientists don’t really know what’s happening, or what will happen, in any but the broadest and crudest sense. This is in part because of various challenges when it comes to data collection, in part because our knowledge of similar climatological transitions in the paleoclimate record remains fairly coarse, and in part because there is simply no analogy for the high-speed, high-volume transfer of subterranean carbon into the atmosphere we’ve witnessed in recent decades.

On that point, it’s worth noting again the often noted fact that more than half of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions have occurred since the IPCC was founded, in 1988 – which is to say, after world leaders knew about the threat carbon emissions and climate change pose.

So here we are. Climate activism and progressive climate politics have failed and continue to fail. The US political situation is schizophrenically sliding toward further crises, while the global situation is unstable and deteriorating. Each new year offers another sequence of climate-related disasters, another series of political catastrophes, another round of slow violence against the poor, and we may choose our sorrows from an ever-growing banquet of grief. Yet as Fanon reminds us, we go on, even in our obscurity. We go on, even in our despair. We go on, even in our pessimism and hopelessness and rage, fulfilling or betraying our mission.

To crib a line from King Lear, “The worst is not, so long as we can say ‘This is the worst.’”

How to go on – what is the mission? – that remains the question.

In addition to essays and other works, this issue contains several works of poetry. What role might poetry in particular play in our collective thinking about climate change?

There is an argument one hears today that the roots of our predicament lie in extractive Western rationality, that the original sin of modernity lies in the malignant collusion of science, empire, and white supremacy, and thus salvation can be found by turning to indigenous epistemologies or neo-animist thought. This argument sometimes takes form as slapdash anti-scientific primitivism, but in more sophisticated hands it emerges as a robust, thoughtful, deeply historicist articulation of the inextricably entwined genealogies of racial capitalism, colonialism, imperialism, Baconian rationality, and progressivist optimism – as we can see in the work of Sylvia Wynter, Achille Mbembe, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, and Amitav Ghosh (who has a piece in this issue).

But whatever the analytic power of such genealogical critique, which is significant, in practical terms it comes up against the granular technological and conceptual affordances of the lifeworld “we moderns” inhabit, with our screens and our drugs and our cars, perhaps the most important of which (and yet one of the least examined) is universal compulsory literacy. As argued by anthropologist Jack Goody, historian Walter Ong, classicist Eric Havelock, philosopher David Abram, and poet Anne Carson, among others, learning to read alienates us from our environment, deforms our evolved sensory-cognitive matrix, and transforms how humans experience spatial, ontological, and temporal relations. Alphabetic literacy may be particularly crippling, but I’m not sure that enough work has been done in comparative literacy studies to make any strong claims about that. In any case, there can be no question, as Walter Mignolo, David Wallace Adams, Chinua Achebe, and others have shown, that enforced literacy in the colonial world, for instance in the American Indian Residential Schools, was one of the most disruptive and destructive forms of cultural genocide unleashed by European conquest. As Caliban says to Miranda and Prospero in The Tempest, “You taught me language; and my profit on’t is, I know how to curse.”
 
The danger this understanding poses lies in the wish that it might be otherwise: the primitivist hope that we could “go back” to a pre-industrial, pre-agricultural, pre-literate mode of life. Without foreclosing the possibility that some future humans may, in the ruins of our present, develop post-literate, post-civilizational cultures, which I find a rather cheerful alternative to extinction, it must be recognized that there is no clear path we can take from here to there, no way to truly “decolonize” ourselves without in actual fact destroying the human world we live in, because doing so is not a matter of changing our ideas or even our “narrative,” but totally dismantling how those ideas are embedded in practices, institutions, habits, structures, and material relations. As Tuck and Yang famously argue, “Decolonization is not a metaphor.” We would literally need to burn it all down and start over. But while such apocalyptic violence may appeal to some, on the right and the left, I’ve seen what it looks like when a society gets wrecked – in Baghdad, circa 2003-2004 – and I would not wish that future on anyone.
 
But here’s where poetry comes in, with all respect to the poets from whom I’ve learned so much: from Sappho to Chatterton to Amiri Baraka, from Sharon Mesmer to Lisa Robertson to Tan Lin. Poetry is a return to the fount of language: a return to the oral, the mythic, the inchoate: a return to the undifferentiated stream, the unconceptualized relation, the primordial matrix of being grounding both the human and the nonhuman, both ontology and alterity. In my view, which admittedly may be idiosyncratic, all poetry is “nature poetry” insofar as all poetry recapitulates the emergence of relational being in speech prior to the appearance of anything we might begin to conceive as a subject, and indeed recapitulates the traumatic, ecstatic emergence of subjectivity as such in relation to the world and the word, physis and logos, again and again and again, always anew. And thus poetry – poiesis, or making, if you’ll grant me the Greek – is the ever-renewing spring of what Hannah Arendt identified as natality, or our capacity to begin again, to create new meaning.
 
Of course, the Massachusetts Review published poetry every issue, and it was a pleasure working with the journal’s regular poetry editors, Franny Choi and Nathan McClain, in bringing together the work of poets from around the world, including Khairani Barokka, CA Conrad, Jeanine Hall Gailey, Johannes Goransson, Jennifer Schomburg Kanke, Soheil Najm, Lisa Olstein, Alexis Orgera, Shailja Patel, Craig Santos Perez, Vanessa Place, Derek Sheffield, and Joseph Earl Thomas.

Front Cover by Mercedes Dorame, Smoke to Water, Chyaar Paar ‘Apuuchen 2013

The issue contains a never-before-published 1996 lecture by the late Barry Lopez, author of Horizon and other works of deeply affecting nature writing. What themes are present in this piece, and how do they speak to the issue as a whole?

We were phenomenally lucky to be able to publish this piece, which came to us via my colleague Laura Dassow Walls, the eminent Thoreau scholar who is currently working on a biography of Lopez. Laura has her own essay in the issue, sketching out moments in Lopez’s intellectual development, particularly his time as an undergraduate at Notre Dame in the 1960s and his encounter with Trappist monk Thomas Merton. What’s most striking to me about the work Laura does in her essay is in showing how little influence Thoreau and what we think of as the canon of American nature writing had on Barry, how in fact his striving toward the “horizon” was a spiritual striving, shaped significantly by the teaching of theologian John S. Dunne. Laura Walls describes Dunne as “a sort of Catholic Transcendentalist, someone who urged on his students the need for a sympathetic entering into the lives of others, what [he] called ‘passing over.’”

This “passing over,” it seems to me, is at the very heart of Lopez’s work: an effort to reach across the horizon of being toward sympathetic interrelation, while remaining assiduously, painfully open to the impress of the world upon oneself, and painfully alert of the perpetual risk of moral error. For me this too is a kind of poetry, a poiesis, precisely through its effort to complicate, dissolve, and reach across the boundaries that separate us. The question here is less whether one writes in lines and stanzas or in paragraphs, but rather how one uses language to restage the drama of our undeniable oneness with the world in tension with its inescapable individuation. This dynamic is what I think of his magnum opus Horizon as being “about,” if that’s the right word, but it subsists throughout, and emerges powerfully in the 1996 Three Rivers lecture we published in this issue.

In that lecture, Lopez begins by questioning and complicating the city-nature binary we tend to operate within, to make the point that what we should seek in turning to the nonhuman isn’t actually “nature,” which in fact is all around us even in the densest urban environment, not least since we too are natural beings, but precisely an encounter with nonhuman alterity that affords the opportunity to re-experience being in scales that escape and transcend human value, whether through eons of rock or the transient, swirling coalescence of a flock of pigeons.

As Lopez writes, in speaking of himself and fellow so-called “nature writers”:

All of us are concerned with the fate of human society and have examined that question in the context of natural landscapes in order to get at pervasive truths. It is my conceit, I suppose, that what each of us is doing is bringing to bear a kind of inner landscape of ideas, trying those ideas out, consciously or unconsciously, on an outer or exterior landscape of weather and landforms, of migrating birds and stalking polar bears, of silent desert playas and wild orchids. In bringing the interior landscape of the individual mind together with the shared, exterior landscape of the physical earth, it is possible to create a useful and enduring pattern of factual or emotional truth – what we call a story.  

You could say this is merely anthropocentric projection, but in doing so you’d be missing the most vital element, which is opening one’s inner landscape to the outside, submitting to the impress and projection of the other, and humbling oneself before the world, which is only possible through being willing to undertake the kind of communion he discusses (and which indeed he not only dramatizes but occasions in his work).

Today, in a world of frightening, ungrounding change, amidst an all-too-silent planet-wide extinction, such openness means being open to grief, terror, anger, impotent regret, and even despair. I can’t help but think of Leopold: “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” We do indeed live in a world of wounds – catastrophic wounds – mortal wounds – but we are not alone. And that is just what this special issue of Massachusetts Review hopes to demonstrate: that even in our grief, even in our error, even in our pessimism and sorrow and division, we are going through this together. Being open to that, and to the potential for collective meaning that poetry and fiction create, can be just as painful as the grief it seeks to assuage, yet in sharing this pain we might begin to find a way to live through it.

“Why does tragedy exist?,” writes Anne Carson. “Because you are full of rage. Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief.” 

Let’s turn from grief to pessimism. In a recent talk on “the virtues of pessimism,” you write that “focusing on a future that could be rather than on the actual history that got us where we are” fosters “a dangerous complacency.” Would you elaborate on what you mean here?

In one respect, this goes back to my previous point about apophatic futurism, or the idea that we are committed existentially to a future we not only don’t know, but we cannot know. We act necessarily with incomplete knowledge of our situation, and in total ignorance of the consequences of our actions – and yet we act on the world, and indeed cannot escape acting this side of death – withdrawal, silence, and forgetting are not the opposite of actions but actions themselves, which cannot help but affect reality – even suicide, as anyone who’s had a friend or family member do it can tell you, is an action with consequences.

The question then is what, in our obscurity, should inform our decisions? Is the mere possibility of an event sufficient to make it worthy of attention, and if so, what kind of possibility, under what conditions, and what kind of attention? Take for instance the idea of rapid and systemic decarbonization of the global economy, which is certainly imaginable and could even conceivably be planned, but which is so unlikely in the framework of contemporary national and international politics that it should be grouped with the kinds of dreams we categorize as utopian, like the end of war, poverty, or hunger. If mere possibility is insufficient for convincing us to take such a desideratum seriously as a factor in our decision making, as I believe is the case here, then we need some kind of evaluative mechanism for considering the likely probability of different possible future events, which in the old days they called judgment, or wisdom. This is, I take it, the core value of historical, cultural, and philosophical reflection, or what we call “the humanities”: abstracting general principles of action and ethics from the accumulated salvage of the past. So my point is more or less the banal one that we should be making our decisions based on likely outcomes, arrived at by careful consideration of historical evidence, rather than by clinging desperately to the outcomes we’d prefer without regard for their actual likelihood.

On the other hand, sometimes mere possibility is enough to warrant significant attention: the possibility of nuclear war, for instance, or the chance that rapid permafrost melt could trigger catastrophic methane release. While the latter event is currently considered unlikely by many leading scientists, and indeed often denounced with an insistence bordering on the pathological, there is enough evidence to suggest that it cannot be ranked as wholly impossible. Since the possible consequences of such an event, however unlikely, include the extinction of the human species, any responsible consideration demands we take it into account. This point is made very well by the philosopher Hans Jonas, who called for a “heuristics of fear.” As Jonas writes in his opus The Ethic of Responsibility:

Even at its best… an extrapolation from presently available data will always, in certainty and completeness of prediction, fall short of the causal pregnancy of our technological deeds. Consequently, an imaginative “heuristics of fear,” replacing the former projections of hope, must tell us what is possibly at stake and what we must beware of. The magnitude of those stakes, taken together with the insufficiency of our predictive knowledge, leads to the pragmatic rule to give the prophecy of doom priority over the prophecy of bliss.

In your talk, you bring this up in a wider context of philosophy and the fact that climate change “is hard to talk about.” Would you expand on this as well?  How would “the virtues of pessimism” change climate discourse?

Pessimism is a form of heresy in a country which insists with childish stubbornness that it deserves a happy ending. Even more than the market, even more than the flag, even more than their own eternal innocence, middle- and upper-class white Americans believe in optimism: the faith that things can get better, indeed that they will get better, and that the right combination of hard work, reason, and moral outrage can solve any problem – whether its Making America Great Again or Building Back Better, it’s the same fatuous bullshit. As W.E.B. DuBois wrote in his 1940 “autobiography of a race concept,” Dusk of Dawn, “The greatest and most immediate danger of white culture, perhaps least sensed, is its fear of the Truth, its childish belief in the efficacy of lies as a method of human uplift.” And since the United States has been a white supremacist culture for so long, this fear and belief – this cruel optimism – is baked into the ideological framework of major cultural institutions, largely through narratives of progress, the notion that we live in a meritocracy, and a mawkish tendency toward salvific moral fables (which I’ve critiqued elsewhere). As a consequence, pessimism tends to be derided and confused with nihilism, a “counsel of despair,” hopelessness, and fatalism.

But when we look closely at the histories of these conceptual schema, which we tend to naturalize as “dispositions” but which in fact are fairly modern phenomena, emerging only in the 18th century, we find that they are distinct and contrasting philosophical approaches to modern ideas of time, suffering, and progress. In the words of political philosopher Joshua Foa Dienstag,

The optimistic account of the human condition is both linear and progressive. Liberalism, socialism, and pragmatism may all be termed optimistic in the sense that they are all premised on the idea that the application of reason to human social and political conditions will ultimately result in the melioration of these conditions. Pessimism… denies this premise, or (more cautiously) finds no evidence for it and asks us to philosophize in its absence.

Progressivist optimism is deeply entwined with the histories of racialized expropriation, instrumentalized rationality, and imperial expansion that I talked about before, and indeed cannot be extricated from them: it is the moral and teleological axis that sustains the transformation of European Christian universalist metaphysics into secularized liberalism: a faith in the power of rational human free will to overcome “brute” matter. Pessimism, which emerges first out of the rigorous skepticism of Pierre Bayle and Voltaire, then develops through the anti-progressivist ethics of Thomas Malthus, Schopenhauer’s encounter with Buddhism, and Nietzsche’s attempts to synthesize the philosophical implications of Darwinian evolutionary theory – and can be seen more recently in the work of Sylvia Wynter, Saidiya Hartman, Frank Wilderson, Jared Sexton, and Achille Mbembe, to name just a few examples – is a fundamentally empirical rejection of such self-serving narratives.

When it comes to climate change, there are good empirical reasons for being pessimistic about our prospects: on top of the science, which seems to be consistently warning us that things are moving faster than predicted, we can point to more than forty years of total failure from climate change politics and communication; fossil fuel industry capture of ruling elites (indeed, the idea of capture may be redundant here); complacency among voters; genuine structural difficulties in narrating climate change as a salient threat; moralizing and divisive tone policing from overzealous activists; competition between states; a refusal to reckon with the real costs of decarbonizing the global economy; and the probability that as the planet’s transition to a warmer climate system speeds up, it will only exacerbate existing political challenges, increase political pressure to deal with short-term crises rather than long-term transformation, and motivate elites to shore up their fortresses of wealth and privilege, leading to what Daniel Aldana Cohen and others have called “eco-apartheid.”

Recognizing these challenges may lead some to despair. Fine. That’s better than a false or complacent optimism. And maybe despair is where some of us need to go in order to realize how profound the problem is, how deep we’re in it, and how immense are the stakes. But more importantly, I believe pessimism can, through its very negativity, open up new ways forward, new ways to think into our future, new possibilities for imagining what it means to live in the new world that fossil capitalism has unleashed.

Moreover, consciously choosing to consider the worst case helps us prepare for it, and if the worst doesn’t happen, so much the better. As Jonas put it, “The prophecy of doom is made to avert its coming, and it would be the height of injustice later to deride the ‘alarmists’ because ‘it did not turn out so bad after all.’ To have been wrong may be their merit.”

But if the worst does happen and we’re prepared, then we’ll be ready to act, rather than being paralyzed by our shock and disbelief, as so many liberal optimists were for so long after Trump’s election in 2016, for instance. Indeed, as I talked about earlier with Fanon, a pessimistic approach demands that one conceive of the future as a realm of action, even if that action must necessarily be taken in ignorance and obscurity, since one can in no sense depend on hope, a complacent optimism, or the arc of history to create a just world for us.          

What action is next for you, then, either as a writer or teacher?

I’ve got a cli-fi novel with my agent. It’s about a young woman who’s displaced by a hurricane, and how she survives and copes with her trauma. The manuscript is titled Pilgrim, and it’s more narrative than my other novels – it’s kind of an adventure story, but I also tried to squeeze in what philosophy I could. I think of it in the tradition of Camus, maybe, though I tried pitching it as Jane Eyre meets The Road Warrior. I’m also working on a book about eco-pessimism, climate change, and narrative, which goes more deeply into a lot of the things we’ve talked about here.

The writing is going slowly, though, because much of my time is taken up with trying to build institutional structures at Notre Dame, where I teach, to help address the climate crisis. I’ve started an Environmental Humanities Initiative, and am working with other folks at the Environmental Change Initiative, the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, and the Keough School of Global Affairs to establish some kind of center on campus in the spirit of Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’. Despite being one of the leading Catholic universities in the country, if not the leading Catholic university, Notre Dame has been slow to respond to the ethical and intellectual mandate in Laudato Si’, and has so far rather shamefully shirked its responsibilities on the issue.

Institutional inertia is paralyzing, but there are motivated people across campus working to roll that boulder up the hill, and I’m glad to be working with them. Part of my effort, related to that, is developing a new, large, writing-intensive course on “Witnessing Climate Change,” which I hope will inculcate wave after wave of Notre Dame undergrads in heretical strains of ecological thought, ethical adaptation, action-oriented pessimism, and the techniques of creative nonfiction.

I’m not hopeful that any institution is going to save us, but I do believe we can carve out spaces and build structures that might actually help people, and I’m not without hope that we can embed ideas within institutions in ways that may turn out to offer ethically transformative possibilities. I realize that’s not as sexy as blowing up pipelines, but frankly I’ve seen enough dudes saying we need to blow shit up – and have seen enough real explosions – to last me a lifetime. In any case, the real work isn’t tearing the system down. Any teenager can start a fire, and the system is going to collapse on its own soon enough. The real work we need to do is to prepare for that collapse, work to mitigate human suffering, and plant seeds that might grow in the ruins.

This article is part of the Climate Art Interviews series. It was originally published in Amy Brady’s “Burning Worlds” newsletter. Subscribe to get Amy’s newsletter delivered straight to your inbox.

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Amy Brady is the Executive Director of Orion Magazine, and the former Editor-in-Chief of the Chicago Review of Books. She is also the co-editor of The World As We Knew It: Dispatches from a Changing Climate (Catapult) and author of Ice: An American Obsession (GP Putnam’s Sons). Every month she edits the newsletter “Burning Worlds,” which explores how artists and writers are thinking about climate change. Amy holds a PhD in English and is the recipient of a CLIR/Mellon Library of Congress Fellowship. Read more of her work at AmyBradyWrites.com at and follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.

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