Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The tragic sense and the need for connection

Dave Pollard's latest at Salon is an interesting cry in the dark about how hard it is to connect with others when you see collapse coming. My guess is that some of my readers will respond with a great deal of identification, while others will be annoyed by Pollard - but I think it bears some considering.

For me, what's interesting about this is the most basic and ordinary social challenge - because this is a painful, hard and ugly place to do the most important work of adaptation from - building community. But in observing that it is painful, hard and ugly, I do not mean to imply it is not a reasonable response.

This, I think is a real question for people dealing with our collective ecological crisis - how do you keep talking, even if it doesn't seem like the rest of the world understands, even if their concerns seem wrong? How do you tell people we need to change without sitting in judgement - and without despairing when they aren't listening? How do you go on in the world without being a depressing jerk all the time? Or how do you go on without seeing everyone else as a depressing jerk? How do you, most of all, remain connected to people who care about things you don't, who value things you don't, and who do not care about the things that seem urgently necessary to you?

It is an unfortunate paradox - the most important thing you can do in the world is organize and work with others. Unfortunately, to get to the point where you see this kind of human-level organizing as central, you also have to suck up a big sense of loss and a recognition of radical change. Doing this can make things hard - it can make it hard to connect to people who haven't been through that transition, it can make you frustrated, or it can make you evangelical about collapse, unable to talk about anything else, unable to view ordinary discourse as normal. Indeed, Pollard gets quite clearly into what I see as the deep and legitimate tragic sense of living in a world that has missed the point.

I have taken to heart Dark Mountain's challenge that it is irresponsible, unforgivable, to do any work that is not devoted to the representation of civilization culture for what it really is, or in opposition to the worst manifestations of that culture, or the imagination, preparation and resiliency-building needed to transition to the next, post-collapse culture. But almost no one seems ready for this work, or willing or able to hear its terrible messages, its awful truths.

I've been ranting that I'm tired of conversation, and I thought this was because of the inherent limits of our modern languages. But I'm beginning to think it's not so much the limits of language as that, having rejected every notion of civilization culture, I no longer have anything to talk about with most people.

When I'm out in public I often listen to conversations, and what I hear is nothing but vapid time-wasting, echo-chamber reassurances, regurgitated propaganda, sob stories, unactionable rhetoric, appalling misinformation, self-aggrandizement, gossip, manipulation and denigration of others. I hear no new ideas or insights, no cogent discussion of how we can prepare for, and increase our resilience in the face of, the impending sixth great extinction and the economic, energy and ecological collapses that will push that extinction into overdrive and bring down the most expansive and least sustainable civilization in our species' short history. And what else is worth talking about?

Yet, all around me, people who have not had the luxury of time and resources, as I have, to learn how the world really works, and what is really going on, and to imagine what we might do about it, and how we might live better, carry on as if nothing much is wrong and as if everything in our unsustainable and doomed culture somehow makes sense, and will somehow continue, and get better.

For much of my life I felt as if I were the one living in another, twilight world, shut off from everybody else, unable to make sense of, connect with and be part of the seemingly exciting world they lived in. But now I feel it is all these people, lost in illusion, who are in the twilight world, the one that makes no sense and has no substance. Part of me wants to rescue them, but part of me knows that they are not ready or able to listen, that their worldview is so utterly different from mine that it is as if we spoke unfathomably different languages.

The funny thing is that this isn't a problem for me, although it is less virtue or vice in me than, I think a personality difference. I really like people and I find them interesting. That sounds banal, and it probably is, but I have found this to be a valuable personality trait - that is, when people at my synagogue tell me about their tourist vacation or an old friend tells me at length about his road trip to visit baseball stadiums, I'm not sitting there thinking "we're all doomed and you are destroying the planet." I actually can connect - it isn't that very long ago that I liked doing that sort of thing too, and I do find it interesting - or as interesting as I ever did find baseball stadium tours. I'm not sure the ability to compartmentalize is all that ethical, but it does make it easier to make conversation ;-).

And here's the thing - maybe because I spend my life around children and farm animals, I find that most of the conversations I have don't open up this vast gulf - they are about the ordinary details of day to day life, about subsistence as it is practiced in our crazy, energy intensive culture today. Sure, it is a kind of subsistence that can't be maintained - but that doesn't change the fact that the conversations about diaper brands and educational strategies, about recipes and health problems, about tantrums and potty training and elderly relatives and where to eat out - those aren't just variations on the conversations that we'll be having in this coming world. We're still going to eat, raise children, educate them, care for our elders, dig in the dirt, figure out where to buy things. I get criticized a lot as not being very serious as thinker, because I spend a lot of time on those subsistence activities that are so hard to theorize - and yet I think that serves me in not despairing. Because those things go on, as long as you do.

When I'm chatting with my son's aide on the special needs bus, I don't worry if she tells me about her bus trip to Atlantic City - I should judge? We talk just as much about her husband and his health problems and how tired and stressed she is trying to take care of him, and about her grandkids, and about whether it is hot enough to justify a trip to the lake - and I have in common with her the basic fact that we're both concerned about the heat, and family and the other stuff, that we both get tired and burdened. The very ordinary and material facts of my life - and the fact that I'm still in the stage of life where one's eyes are kept securely fixed on very basic things helps me stay connected.

I once got a ride to the train from a gentleman who'd been on a panel with me. The person in question was a minister, and as we got into an SUV, he began to apologize, saying "I don't usually drive a gas guzzler, it is borrowed from my daughter..." I just laughed and told him not to apologize asked him whether he this didn't sound like what he hears from people when they learn he's a minister "Oh, I'm sorry, I don't usually swear like that..." The assumption of judgement and alienation, I find is far greater than any actual time spent judging or feeling alienated - but again, I don't present this as either vice or virtue in me (indeed, I'm not really sure which one it would be) so much as a personality trait, and perhaps characteristic of my experience and way of life.

But what if you do feel alienated? What if your sense of impending doom places you at a distance from the rest of the world, and makes it feel empty? The difficulty here is that people do respond to your sense - even unspoken - that their works are shallow or empty - even if they are. At its root, community building works best when people feel liked and respected, as though they and their concerns matter to you. It is very difficult, then, to begin from the sense that everything others value is false - if there is a fundamentally insurmountable problem in community building, this may be it.

And yet, the tragic (and I use this word in its literal, literary sense) sense that the world is fundamentally wrong is not incorrect, or to be dismissed. We are living in a tragedy - and the fact that we do not see it most of the time is a part of what is so deeply wrong about our culture. And yet, I think there's a danger to becoming someone who views the world through the lens of tragedy

Walter Benjamin, the philosopher, writing _The Origin of German Tragic Drama_ observed that the Trauer or tragic sense "is the sensibility in which feeling revives the empty world in the form of a mask." That is, the sense of tragedy first empties out the world of meanings, and then reanimates it, as though it were a play and leaves one watching, disconnected, and apart. Benjamin goes on to argue that the observer in their tragic sense derives a perverse pleasure from this alienation, from watching from outside. And this, I think is a danger - that there's something that feeds upon itself about the depression that arises from seeing the world as a mask, and the satisfaction of viewing it that way - even the sense of loss that accompanies it can be oddly satisfying. Yes, it is terrible to feel apart. It is also at times ennobling to be apart - to be the person set apart by special knowledge (note, this is not a judgement of Pollard, just an observation about tragedy in general). The risk of seeing the world now in tragic terms is that we become accustomed, even comfortable with our status outside - and allow ourselves to pretend that we really are very different than others.

The distinction that I find useful is between the overall pageant and the individual lives, between the tragedy of the times and the realities - and tragedies in the small sense - of individuals. The moment I feel that I'm watching the world as though it were a play, and as though others were participants in something, rather than individuals, I know I've moved into the world of tragedy - which makes great art, great drama, but for me does not make a great life, or facilitate my larger goals. If I feel I'm in a different world than other people, that may be a legitimate feeling, but to my mind, as someone who wants to build the best possible responses, rather than make the best and most representative piece of great tragic art, that is a feeling to be overcome as best I can. Because nothing I personally want to accomplish can be gotten to from a sense of alienation.

Moreover, I am not truly alienated from others - and again, I find this sense of connection rooted in the fact that the one thing you can count on is that subsistence will be necessary. No matter how the world changes, the clothing will still need washing. No matter how the world changes, someone will still need breakfast. No matter how the world changes, the weeds will still grow in my garden. The sick will still need to be tended, the babies still need to be birthed and nursed. People and animals will be fed and watered. In all the vast events and disasters of our time, and as long as we each shall live, there are three meals a day and a thousand dishes to wash. These things could be disheartening - they are often seen that way, indeed, they are described as the opposite of productive work, as "reproductive" work, the kind of thing that must be done over and over again. We call it mind-numbing and anti-intellectual, and scorn this work.

But this basic common denominator, these acts too ordinary to stand inside the world of tragedy and drama, these things that get erased from stories as they are told - they carry with them a connecting force, a means of drawing near to other people. They can be dull, or engaging, just like anything - that is, our sense of them as low on the meaning register is mostly constructed, and emerges in large part from our contempt for the people who traditionally do this work. But here too is our point of connection - we all eat, we all need shelter, we all care for those in our lives who need our aid. Worldviews and the world of ideas are all very well - but hoping for the day when we will all share them seems to me pointless - maybe events will bring it, maybe they will not, but in the meantime, you and I, whoever we are, are not so very separate. We may live in the shape of a tragedy, but we are not characters in a play, but people in a world whose only narrative is not its tragedy - underlying the tragic tale is a vital, lively, earthy and very real narrative of our daily life, of the things we do to keep from becoming emptied out.

Nashville rising stars: NEXT UP RACHEL BELLLiving simply: Finding real happiness

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