A review of Roy Scranton‘s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of Civilization, (San Francisco, CA: City Lights Books, 2015).
Written in colloquial, accessible, and at times coarse language (he drops a couple f-bombs), Roy Scranton’s book is 117 pages of unfiltered fatalism about the coming storm of global warming in the Age of Acceleration (or, as I call it, the end of the Age of Deferral). Scranton, throughout his book, keeps his sights firmly set on what he predicts will be a self-inflicted apocalypse, while simultaneously — and surprisingly –hinging the other, somewhat more hopeful half of his argument on the revitalization of the humanities. In essence, his book is a call to reinvigorate the humanities in the era of posthumanism. On the whole, it is a message I can get behind. Skipping to the end, we can see his argument neatly summarized:
“Our collective obligation to maintain traditional humanistic study in the posthumanist era is at once developmental and prophylactic: we must practice interruption to nurture new flows and at the same time to guard against them. As we struggle, awash in social vibrations of fear and aggression, to face the catastrophic self-destruction of global civilization, the only way to keep alive our long tradition of humanistic inquiry is to learn to die. We must practice suspending stress-semantic chains of social excitation through critical thought, contemplation, philosophical debate, and posing impertinent questions. We must suspend our attachment to the continual press of the present by keeping alive the past, cultivating the info-garden of the archive, reading, interpreting, sorting, nurturing, and, most important, reworking our stock of remembrance [Cf. Van Wyck Brooks “On Creating a Useable Past”]. We must keep renovating and innovating perceptual, affective, and conceptual fields through recombination, remixing, translation, transformation, and play. We must inculcate ruminative frequencies in the human animal by teaching slowness, attention to detail, argumentative rigor, careful reading, and meditative reflection. We must keep up our communion with the dead, for they are us, and we are the dead of future generations.” (108)
The argument here, more or less, is humankind needs to embrace history, literature, and wisdom in order to prepare for what is store for us in the near future. We need to calm down, take a deep breath, and think clearly and intensely about what is coming. We must not simply respond to all threats with kneejerk reactions and ad hoc solutions to satisfy short-term demands. In short, humankind must at last appeal to its higher order powers of reflection, contemplation, and prediction. We must not behave like animals. Animals scrabble, stampeded, flee, fuck, and fight all out of fear of death. No, Scranton says, we have to behave like samurai, we have to accept that we are already dead, only then can we have the clarity of mind to collectively make good decisions.
Granted, I’ve just skipped to the end of the book. There’s a lot in between: the important role of the philosopher as “interrupter,” the truncated reading of The Epic of Gilgamesh, and a brutal takedown of hashtagtivism. Let’s start where Scranton starts:
“We’re fucked. The only questions are how soon and how badly.” (16)
Without a doubt the greatest influence on Scranton’s writing is the Hagakure, the Book of the Samurai (which I’ve elsewhere written about). Given that humankind is in dire straights ecologically — metaphorically tampering with our own collective life support — Scranton, a veteran of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, relies on samurai philosophy: accept that you are dead, only then can you live. “The rub,” Samurai-Scranton-Hamlet explains, “is that we have to learn to die not as individuals, but as a civilization” (21)
“Our choice is a clear one. We can continue acting as if tomorrow will be just like yesterday, growing less and less prepared for each new disaster as it comes, and more and more desperately invested in a life we can’t sustain. Or we can learn to see each day as the death of what came before, freeing ourselves to deal with whatever problems the present offers without attachment or fear. If we want to learn to live in the Anthropocene, we must first learn how to die.” (27)
Scranton here is echoing the first lines of the Hagakure both in syntax and contact:
The Way of the Samurai is found in death. When it comes to either/or, there is only the quick choice of death. It is not particularly difficult. Be determined and advance. To say that dying without reaching one’s aim is to die a dog’s death is the frivolous way of sophisticates. When pressed with the choice of life or death, it is not necessary to gain one’s aim. We all want to live. And in large part we make our logic according to what we like. But not having attained our aim and continuing to live is cowardice.
Roy Scranton is an unusual scholar. Though it used to be common that many professors had also served in the military (via the GI Bill), it is not so common now. Scranton is an exception in this regard. Few academics have had close brushes with death. Fewer have taken the lessons of the Hagakure as part and parcel of their day-to-day lives in a war zone. His experience as a soldier undergirds the assumptions of his argument: the inevitability of death on a massive scale; the likelihood of extreme violence as a result of global warming; his implied support for the 2nd Amendment. For Scranton, raising awareness of global warming isn’t enough. We are well-aware (minus Republicans). Hell, we even have a name for it now: the Anthropocene.
“Everybody already knows [that global warming is a threat]. The problem is that the problem is too big. [cf. Tim Morton’s Hyperobjects]. The problem is that different people want different things. The problem is that nobody has real answers. The problem is that the problem is us.” (68)
Let’s be clear: when Scranton says “the problem is us,” he means it. In fact, he means it a little bit like how Agent Smith means it. That the main solution to global warming is likely inevitable: self-inflicted climate change will eradicate a large portion of the human population in a Malthusian leveling of the problem. He quotes Heraclitus to support this argument:
It should be understood that war is the common condition, that strife is justice, and that all things come to pass through the compulsion of strife.
This is the “Learning to Die“ part of Scranton’s title. However — Scranton’s message — as unusual and alarming as it is in its humanities-supported anticipation of mass death, and the need to come to terms with that inevitability, goes even farther in his predictions when he discusses the impotence of environmental protests, marches, summits, etc. They have no teeth, he explains. They are utterly ineffective therefore. No one cares about these marches for the environment in the long run, and maybe not even in the short run. Nobody cares about the Kyoto Protocol (Tim Flannery has written brilliantly about this in The Weather Makers, 2004), nobody cared about the 2014 People’s Climate March. For successful protests, leverage is necessary — Scranton points us to Timothy Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy as an example of how coal miners could effectively organize by controlling the flow of energy resources. He argues the Civil Rights Movement could not have succeeded without armed support. Here is where Roy Scranton’s inner soldier comes out — here is the implied call for armed resistance to the forces of capitalism.
Though he never uses the word, Scranton’s deflation of Hashtagtivism is remarkably persuasive. He outlines three major points:
- Our political and social media technologies are not neutral, and serve particular interests.
- The more we pass on or react to social vibrations, the more we strengthen our habits of channeling and the less we practice autonomous reflection or independent thought. We become stronger resonaters and weaker thinkers.
- However intense our social vibrations grow, they remain locked in the machinery that offers know political leverage.
For Scranton, “liking” things on Facebook, re-Tweeting, Ice Bucket Challenges, whatever — all this stuff is equivalent to those ineffective marches. Toothless. Inconsequential. All it does is provide the feeling of participation. Under the guise of “raising awareness” hashtagtivism merely molds public opinion into the same unreflective, unanalyzed mass. Hashtagtivism is confused with having actually done something; emotion is misunderstood as action; the feeling of having thought about something replaces the actual act of reflection and contemplation. Hashtagtivism provides a proud sense of “making a difference” or “raising awareness,”but really, it is media technology channeling collective outrage into a safe, anonymous, forgettable place to die.
Despite not agreeing with much of this book, I enjoyed it immensely. It read easily in one sitting. However, the book suffers from a serious case overgeneralization. Chapter 1 summarizes the entirety of human evolution — nearly 200,000 years — in 14 pages. That’s nearly 15,000 years a page, and we should keep in mind, this is an itty-bitty book. Further, the book concludes with a five page summary of all of cosmology. Whenever Scranton falls into these broad-brush anthropological/geological/cosmological vignettes to support his arguments, he is at his weakest, demonstrating the potential for academics interested in Deep Time to get carried away. A writer could prove just about any argument by preceding it with a 200,000 year body of evidence, cherry-picked to make a particular point. But then again, this is not a scientific or historical text in any way whatsoever. Scientific literature must necessarily maintain a disinterested tone, excise personal opinion, and avoid generalization. Scranton by contrast generalizes, opines, and moralizes with dramatic rhetorical flurry, as if reaching out of the pages, grabbing us by the shoulders, and shaking us rigorously.
The book itself falls into a very interesting set of genres. It is apocalyptic literature, it is ecocritical literature; it is environmental philosophy — it has a lot in common with Pascal Bruckner’s The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse: Save the Earth, Punish Human Beings. Its tone, so matter-of-fact, authoritative, and moralizing, is rife with allusions to the Great Works curricula of the mid-century, echoing the genre of literature that Mark Greif outlined in his recent book The Age of the Crisis of Man (2007). He sounds a bit like Lionel Trilling, Paul Weiss, or even C.S. Lewis’ Abolition of Man.
This is not an optimistic book, nor should it be. But whatever reservations I have about the violence underlying Scranton’s discussion of our collective environmental crisis, as much as I disagree with him that our human future promises and must necessarily be as violent as our ancient past, it is an engaging and worthwhile read. Let’s close with a quote from Peter Sloterdijk, Scranton’s favorite contemporary philosopher:
The input of stress inevitably enters me; thoughts are not free, each of us can divine them. They come from the newspaper and wind up returning to the newspaper. My sovereignty, if it exists, can only appear by letting the integrated impulsion die in me or, should this fail, by retransmitting it in a totally metamorphosed, verified, filtered, or recoded form. It serves nothing to contest it: I am free only to the extent that I interrupt escalations and that I am able to immunize myself against infections of opinion. Precisely this continues to be the philosopher’s mission in society…His mission is to show that a subject can be an interrupter, not merely a channel that allows thematic epidemics and waves of excitation to flow through it.
…which of course echoes my favorite philosopher, who somehow went unmentioned in Scranton’s book.