Thay passing

Readers of Shadowing the Anthropocene will know that Buddhist thought has influenced my own thinking in profound ways. To be more precise, Buddhist thought, feeling, and practice has influenced my own thought, feeling, and practice. But there are many forms of Buddhism; like all philosophical and religious systems, it is a long and complex historical tradition, whose “essence” is debated among its representatives, and some of whose forms may be less adequate for contemporary needs. The form I have found most fruitful is connected to the more life-affirming variations of Mahayana (including Varjayana) Buddhism, particularly in their East Asian (Chinese and Sino-derived) forms such as Chan and Zen. (I should add that the duality “life-affirming” and its opposite, “life-denying”, like any conceptual duality, is ultimately meant to be overcome through the liberating insight of Prajnaparamita.)

Of latter-day representatives of this tradition, Thich Nhat Hanh, known to his followers as Thay, was perhaps the best known and most celebrated and beloved. He passed away this week at the age of 95.

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Here’s a working thesis on the present global moment:

1. For many people around the world, life has always been precarious. But for a certain class — the global middle class (and up) — the world had felt more or less secure and comfortable, as long as one knew how to navigate it: play by the rules, stick to a job, don’t get involved in violent crime or too addicted to illicit substances, etc. Environmentalists, religious millenarians, and others may have known or suspected all along that this world of comfort and security was a facade or a temporary and ultimately unsustainable foothold in a more precarious universe, but for the most part those doubts could be ignored, with the secure and comfortable world lying within reach. All of that has now changed: the world of “business as usual” may remain an option, an available leap of faith, but it is clearly not the only one, and it requires effort to sustain. The world of “not going back to business as usual” is now also a very viable option. The future, for many who had previously felt themselves immune to such a prospect, has become uncertain. In this sense, the “feeling of the world” has changed.

2. The Covid pandemic is the most obvious global correlate for this change in affective circumstances. But there are others: for some Americans there is the George Floyd murder, Black Lives Matter, and the racial reckoning that has followed, and of course there was the election of Donald Trump, with its continuous drip of unbelievability; for Britons, there was Brexit; and for others there are various populist ground quakes, conspiratorial emergences, and the like. And in the background, there is the looming prospect of climate change, which has become incontrovertible for a great many people. All of these things contribute to the sense of a sea-change in the feeling of the world, and that there may be no going back. Underlying this sense is the premonition of trauma: the sense that the ground beneath our feet has shaken, shifted, or become radically unstable.

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Mark Bould’s new book The Anthropocene Unconscious makes more or less the same argument as I made in my 2008 New Formations article “Stirring the Geopolitical Unconscious: Toward a Jamesonian Ecocriticism,” later expanded in the “Terra and Trauma” chapter of Ecologies of the Moving Image, but he applies it to literature rather than film. The level of critical acclaim Bould is getting indicates either that he is a much better writer than I am, that he has access to PR machinery I didn’t have (and/or the tenacity to promote his work better), that the timing is right for the argument to resonate, or, quite possibly, a mix of all of the above.

Bould’s overarching question — “What if all the stories we tell today are fundamentally about climate change,” or at least about the constellation of forces now known as “the Anthropocene”? — was my question except that back in 2008 there wasn’t an obvious and well-known author to use as one’s foil (for Bould, it’s Amitav Ghosh). And Bould is drawing out his argument over a much broader canvas. I haven’t read the book yet, so I’m not sure how directly he gets at the geopolitical and psychoanalytical dimensions that I tried to get at. At any rate, it’s great to see the argument getting a broad hearing.

Ride or Die? Mark Bould and the Fast-and-Furiocene

Wouter Hanegraaff has proposed that we rethink the study of religion as the study of “imaginative formations.” Much of my research has focused on something like that, or at least on the creative role of imagination in mediating the ways people come to live in the world, shape that world, and contest it among each other.

My recent review essay on the “religious imagination” covers several books that help us think through the relationships between religious creativity, imagination, and what Jacques Ranciere has called the “distribution of the sensible.” The books include T. M. Luhrmann’s How God Becomes Real: Kindling the Presence of Invisible Others; Jeffrey Kripal’s The Flip: Epiphanies of Mind and the Future of Knowledge and Secret Body: Erotic and Esoteric Currents in the History of Religion; Jennifer Gosetti-Ferencei’s The Life of Imagination: Revealing and Making the World; David Morgan’s Images at Work: The Material Culture of Enchantment; Mary-Jane Rubenstein’s Pantheologies: Gods, Worlds, Monsters; and Jack Miles’s Religion As We Know It: An Origin Story.

You can read a pre-publication version of my paper here, or find the whole issue of this journal — a special issue of the Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture on the “‘spiritualization’ of ecology” — at the journal’s web site. (The journal is paywalled by its publisher, so if you’re at an academic institution that doesn’t subscribe to it, you can urge your library to do that. Full disclosure: I’m an associate editor of the journal.)

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It’s been a few weeks since the last post on this blog, and will likely be another month before it starts up again in any serious way. This is because the fall semester has been wrapping up around me, with teaching, advising, and an overload of academic committee work building up to a rather deafening crescendo. And the first thing I will do once grades are in will be to take my first trip outside the U.S. or Canada since the pandemic began — a three-week family trip to Mexico (primarily Mexico City and Oaxaca, with a brief few days in the Yucatán).

The good news, looking forward, is that I will be on sabbatical starting in January, and will spend January through May in California, where I’ll take up a visiting scholar position at the University of California Santa Barbara’s Carsey-Wolf Center. The center is a leading research hub in the world of media studies, with a particular focus in “Global Media, Media and Democracy, Information Media, Media Industries, and Media and the Environment” (from their web site). They are also the primary institutional sponsor of Media+Environment, the journal I co-edit with Janet Walker and Alenda Chang (who are both based at UCSB), so the position will allow me to do some concentrated work with colleagues.

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(Warning: This post goes into ontological questions of interest only to philosophers.🙂 I leave aside their potential ecological implications for another time. But see Arne Vetlesen’s Cosmologies of the Anthropocene: Panpsychism, Animism, and the Limits of Posthumanism for one take on those. I hope to discuss that book in a future post.)

One of the most rigorous philosophical proponents of panpsychism, or panexperientialism — the idea that everything that exists experiences, or that all that is is best thought of as a form of experience — is philosopher Galen Strawson. In publications like this one (from which all quotes I cite below are taken), Strawson makes the case that experience is the one thing we can be sure of, precisely because we experience.

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The work of environmental/climate humanists is premised on the assumption that the way we make sense of the world matters. This means that the dreams we have — Covid pandemic dreams, climate change dreams — also matter. The best artists, in turn, help shape our collective dreaming. The environmental arts and humanities aim to help dream a new world into existence.

Brooke Jarvis’s “The Global Dream Lab” (“Did the Pandemic Change How We Dream?“), which appeared in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine, captures a bit of the reason why I do what I do, and why I often find the wilder, more speculative variations of ecocinema (like the films I focus on in Ecologies of the Moving Image) more promising than empirical, fact-based eco-documentaries.

Jarvis’s key interlocutor, psychologist and dream researcher Dierdre Barrett, is cited as describing dreams as “another way of thinking,” when “the unheard parts of ourselves are allowed to speak.” The dreaming brain, Jarvis writes, is “tuned differently” than the waking brain; its “most bizarre and nonsensical elements” keep dreams from being “‘overfitted,’ or unable to make sense of new information.” Dreamlife, in this sense, represents the opening up our creative capacities for integrating the challenges of an unmoored world. (That in turn connects with my interest in A. N. Whitehead, the metaphysician of creativity.)

For making sense of the new world represented by Anthropocenic climate change, we may need to “seed” our dreams with new imaginative possibilities, like the ones I refer to in my recent talk on navigating climate trauma.

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I’m happy to share my talk from the recent Vermont Humanities conference. It captures the essence of things I’ve been writing and thinking about over the last while. And rather incredibly for a humanities conference, it was 100% glitch-free (despite the talk’s audio-visual intricacies; well, the image fades aren’t perfectly smooth, but those can be difficult for videoconferencing software to deal with).

The talk is 40 minutes long; the remainder is Q&A. Thanks to Vermont Humanities and its director, Christopher Kaufman Ilstrup, and programs and communications director Ryan Newswanger, for the invitation to speak and for the smooth delivery of the event. And thanks to Bill McKibben, Elizabeth Yeampierre, and the others who made This Mazéd World a provocative and rewarding week of climate-focused presentations, and to the UVM Center for Community Engagement for supporting it.

It seems the world is coming to realize what Environmental Studies folks have been saying since I first became a Master’s student in that field 34 years ago: that humanity risks careening off the rails into a species-wide, if not planet-wide, smash-up unless it profoundly reorients the way it functions on this planet.

That three-decade time lag — characterized by disbelief by most, and systemic denial and obfuscation by some (especially vested interests like Big Oil) — has given much greater punch to the pessimism of that message, a pessimism that media are recognizing as “existential” for the current generation of young people. Today’s episode of On Point on “The Pessimistic Generation” was all about that. Host Meghna Chakrabarti’s response to a question about how she deals with news about climate change is revealing: “I read less of it.” That’s the response of someone whose job it is to read more than the rest of us. (Wow.) But her interlocutor turns it into the real point here: that we are all vulnerable to PTSD (exactly I’ve been saying about climate trauma) and that it’s a matter of survival to be selective about what we take in.

Given that my field has had 34 years to think about this issue (33 if we date it to Jim Hansen’s Congressional testimony about climate change) — the issue of how to come to grips with an apocalyptic prognosis for humanity — what have we come up with in response?

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As we prepare for another Climate Change Conference of the Parties, and all the activist organizing around it, it’s important for us to come to terms with exactly what we are dealing with. This post approaches climate change from a somewhat oblique, exo-planetary perspective.

I have given a few talks recently in which I propose that climate change, along with its “traumatic core,” is analogous to the phenomena encountered by the fictional scientist-visitors to the planet Solaris in Stanislaw Lem’s 1962 novel of that name and its cinematic adaptation by Andrei Tarkovsky. As Lem put it,

The peculiarity of those phenomena [witnessed on Solaris] seems to suggest that we observe a kind of rational activity, but the meaning of this seemingly rational activity of the Solarian Ocean is beyond the reach of human beings.

Attempting to make sense of that “seemingly rational activity” comes to be called “Solaristics.” But alongside that activity, the Solarian ocean triggers psychological and metaphysical traumas for the humans who visit it. Solaristics, or the effort to learn about this ontologically indeterminate alien Other, becomes a profoundly unsettling activity: it is, Slavoj Zizek describes it, an encounter with one’s own “traumas, dreams, fears, desires… the innermost of your inner space.”

Here I want to compare that argument with a different kind of “encounter phenomenon,” that of reported sightings and encounters with scientifically anomalous non-human intelligences, or SANHI. I take that term from the literature on UFOs and ETs, but modify it to make clear that it doesn’t include scientifically accepted or explainable non-human intelligence, such as that found in other mammals, cetaceans, cephalopods, and the like.

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One of the things modern humans aren’t very good at is being fully present in a given moment — being here now, as Ram Dass famously put it — and remaining so in the midst of the activities, distractions, and challenges of the day. Meditation apps and mindfulness teachers can train you to do that while sitting with your eyes closed, but being fully present while feeding your kids, running to catch a bus, reading a blog post, or arguing with your boss is not as easy. (Okay, I don’t scream often, so the heading of this blog post is a bit over the top. But sometimes I’d like to.)

One can ask what it means to be “fully present.” My quick answer is: with all of one’s capacities. If there’s one thing that process-relational philosophy, considered as a way of living, intends to help you with, it’s that. As napkin scribble #8 puts it: The present is all that there is; how you respond to it is all you can do. Philosophy-as-a-way-of-life is the theme of the second third of my book Shadowing the Anthropocene, and its core question is “How can I best engage this moment in its full range of possibilities?” (followed by “How can I get better at that?”). The other parts of the book deal with the reasons for doing that — for instance, to lessen the suffering occurring around us as the Anthro/Capitalocene unfolds — but here I focus only on the method.

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Videos from the Aarhus (Denmark) conference “The Garden and the Dump: Across More-than-Human Entanglements” are available and free for the viewing, here on the conference YouTube channel. They include talks by philosophers Timothy Morton and Michael Marder and a wonderful conversation between Chen Quifan, Alice Bucknell, and Angela YT Chan.

My own talk, “Event, Time, Trauma: Perambulations in and around the Anthropocenic Zone,” is here, and reproduced below. It’s short, but the Q and A rounds it out to half an hour. The talk is a brief version of a rather longer one I’ll be giving at the Vermont Humanities Conference in a few weeks. (More background on it here.)

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