Tales from the Abyss
I was invited to respond to Harriet Bergman’s essay Trips Across the Abyss (2019), itself a response to Bridge Over Troubled Water (2016) – a short film by performance collective MSL and Jaakko Pallasvuo. This response to a response to a film, that is itself a response to the nonsensical affect swirling through and about human and non-human life in the face of climate change, is structured by a series of questions, of political orientations of an often acutely depoliticised subject, and, of course some fictitious (or predictive depending on your point of view) interjections.
I’m sitting at my desk looking out at the end of the evening and it’s raining.
You can barely see it but it’s raining outside, I know it is, I can see it.
You can barely see it but I can see it and it’s raining outside.
I open the window and stick out my arm and you can barely feel it but it’s raining out there.
You can barely feel it, really just the suggestion of a drop every now and again and the clouds stretched in an arc like a bridge, like the echo of a rainbow in a world without colour, but it is raining out there.
It is raining out there. You can barely feel it, barely see it, but I know it, I know it, I know it’s raining out there.
This is a little what climate change is like – you can barely see it at times, yet it remains undeniable, overwhelming, all-encompassing, everywhere all the time. You can barely feel it, yet it’s there continuously – everywhere – here: right now, in this room, as well as outside my window.
Bergman’s literary exploration engages a number of key concepts that similarly rise and fall from consciousness in her reflections on Bridge Over Troubled Water. Like the short film says:
“Am I aware of this inevitable destruction even when I am thinking about something else and think that I’ve forgotten?”
Or in the words of Naomi Klein on the impossibility of coexisting with climate breakdown: ‘Living with this kind of cognitive dissonance is simply part of being alive in this jarring moment in history, when a crisis we have been studiously ignoring is hitting us in the face – and yet we’re doubling down on the stuff that is causing the crisis in the first place. […] We look for a split second and then we look away.’ (Klein, 2014: 3)
‘I have come to understand’ Bergman writes, ‘that the way we deal with climate breakdown is of more importance than the outcome.’ (Bergman, 2019: 1)
I have come to understand that who are we in the face of climate change and who we work to be as we manifest climate change futures are more important than who we think we are, or who we think we want to be.
Who are you in the face of climate breakdown? Who is your partner/s, your family, your community, your office, in the face of climate crises?
In other words, who are you right now?
Much of my work considers the ways in which both the potentiality for and imagination of, Black futures in Sub-Saharan Africa and across the diaspora are cancelled out by the contemporary discourses and policies of Euro-American states, whose colonial legacy has erased so many Black histories. I use the speculative frameworks of queer/feminist science fiction and decolonial black poetics to respond to these totalising narratives, and to incite new questions and perspectives.
Traveling through Bergman’s piece – her futuristic ideations of ‘Fossil Fuel Break-Up’ and ‘Climate Break-Down’ centers the human experience, or more specifically her human experience. By naming political and cultural landmarks that have paved the way to our contemporary relationship with ecologies, there is a gesturing towards the push-back against a-historicising histories. Such narratives of climate change create dichotomous and oppressive destinations between the Global North and the Global South, between agent and victim, between possible and impossible, between genocide and tragedy, between cause and effect.
Within the arts, many of these totalising narratives have come to the crux of their a-politicisation under the supposedly progressive discourse of the ‘anthropocene’, one which I will not go into in great depth here. Suffice to say the term was coined by Dutch atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen, who simply stated:
‘For the past three centuries, the effects of humans on the global environment have escalated. Because of these anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide, global climate may depart significantly from natural behaviour for many millennia to come’ (Crutzen, 2002: 23).
This inherently depoliticised statement, which associates ‘anthropogenic emissions’ with ‘global climate’ has gone on to play a vital role in discourses across the disciplines of ecology and cultural studies as well as later postcolonial theory1, feminist theory, art writing and more. The article incited many cultural critiques of Crutzen’s depoliticised homogeneity. Amongst others theorists, Zoe Todd has challenged the alienating assumption that the anthropos to which Crutzen is referring relates to all humans, when in fact it only represents the interests and experiences (and carbon footprints) of a Euro-American heteronormative white cis able-bodied man, with white cis able-bodied male ancestors. I would argue that, notwithstanding succinct arguments by Zoe Todd and others2 , the very existence of the anthropocenic debate in its complete disregard of Othered human and non-human life relies heavily on this dichotomy of white/Other, North/South.
In contrast then, I am particularly committed to speculative works and artists that raise questions around environmental and embodied vulnerability through conversations on domestic abuse/survival, violence/resilience, and patriarchy/evolution, challenging racist, patriarchal and neocolonial power structures by reconstructing the possibility of understanding Black futures beyond the sole framework of genocide and death.
There is an urgency in disrupting this framework, which escalates the conditions of ‘slow violence’3 that Black and indigenous communities are currently living under globally. Outside of the historical context of colonial oppression, this narrative continues to dehumanise and homogenise the 1.332 billion people that make up the continent of Africa, whilst also reinforcing well-disseminated tropes of poverty, civil war and primitivism. Their intervention returns the gaze to both a violent colonial past and an oppressive contemporary discourse that continues to respond to global warming with heteronormative anthropocenic theories and policies, erected upon a naturalised and homogenous white Euro-American ‘anthropos’.
The at times cacophonous engagements of writing styles that I’ve introduced above, that prevails in so many of the texts I am most passionate about, are an attempt to engage in a ‘decolonial vulnerable writing’ inspired by Fred Moten and Steve Harney’s taking up of the undercommons as a methodological approach:
‘…to inhabit the ruptural and enraptured disclosure of the commons that fugitive enlightenment enacts, the criminal, matricidal, queer, in the cistern, on the stroll of the stolen life, the life stolen by enlightenment and stolen back, where the commons give refuge, where the refuge gives commons.’ (Harney & Moten, 2013: 28)
Decolonial vulnerable writing is a methodological double agent, taking that which was stolen by enlightenment — autonomous fractious modes of being — and working to refract homogenous dehumanisation. In other words: ‘Vulnerability implicates us in what is beyond us yet part of us, constituting one central dimension of what might tentatively be called our embodiment’ (Butler, 2015: 149). Bergman’s work can be seen as an attempt toward this embodiment, powerful in its vulnerability. Seeking a break to think through climate change and affect — an urgent opportunity for the extinction of patriarchal neocolonialism, rather than the completion of its project after which, as sonic critic and visual cultures theorist Kodwo Eshun stated: ‘We are all silenced, or sick, or assimilated, or dead.’4
Our impulse as undercover agents — feminists, ecologists, queer, crip/disabled, trans, Black, brown and indigenous peoples within the great institution of Euro-America — towards academia and away from the emotional responses so often employed by neo-colonialism and patriarchy to silence and ridicule us, must now be forced to rupture. To become the ‘subversive intellectual’ (Harney & Moten: 26) is to feel rather than deflect affective learning, to insist on the manifestation of queer futurity with tears as well as citations, to disintegrate the filter that allows most academics to keep their feelings out. This intention is reflected in Bergman’s active working to ‘copy the feel of the film, more than the content. Because in the future, what matters is the feel’ (Bergman, 2019: 1). Or in the words of José Esteban Muñoz: ‘We must strive, in the face of the here and now’s totalizing rendering of reality, to think and feel a then and there.’ (Muñoz, 2009: 1). Because we have always been standing eye to eye with ‘the end’, for some of us, apocalypse is nothing new.
They’ll repurpose you to Gay Highway when you’re thirteen or when you come out, but I was always here. I helped to build this place. I helped to make it what it is. I’m down at the darker end of POC, between the trans queens and the butch dikes, the indigenous survivors and the Black diaspora. It’s not segregation it’s keeping the peace. We don’t call it segregation, we call it keeping the peace. And it does mostly. Keep the peace that is.
They used to say ‘Recycling is taking responsibility. Responsibility. Responsibility.’ (Bergman, 2019:4).5
But is it really?
Everyone I knew from before used to recycle, but I’d say on average maybe 2 percent of them actually gave a shit. Not like me, I always gave a shit. Even as a baby I used to sneak outside on all fours in a storm and sink my pudgy fingers deep into the slits of earth and cry and cry alongside the rain. I mourned. I still mourn. It even stopped me from reaching orgasm for nearly a decade. The grief of it.
But things are better now, we’re all quarantined off with ‘our own’ and even though they’ve built walls around the highway, we still have access to the verges to grow and plant and weep, sometimes. And each year during rainy season more and more craters appear overnight in our road, trying to seduce the moon. And in those craters, slowly, slowly green returns. Freeness. It’s such a relief not to be the dominant species on this planet, for all the death and horror still going on out there, that responsibility is no longer ours. Responsibility. Responsibility. Wow, how royally we fucked that up.
But here we’re spared all of that, spared even the guilt – at least when we’re awake. Yes there’s no-one here but the gays. Black, brown and indigenous gays. And a few robots. Yes that’s it. Nothing else here. ‘Nothing but fully automated gay space.’ (Bergman, 2019: 3).6
In the face of Bergman’s reflections on Bridge Over Troubled Water, I think of Rob Nixon’s use of the word apprehension as: ‘a crossover term that draws together the domains of perception, emotion, and action.’ (Nixon, 2011: 14). When our perception is warped by the disavowal of historic lineage — the understanding that we are not born onto an equal playing field upon which the ‘American Dream’ (and its international equivalents) are enacted — but rather into the hands of inherited trauma, privilege, complexity and international relations, our emotions are often stifled or misdirected. This in turn misdirects our action. For example, during the December 2015 floods in Yorkshire, the British media focused not on the realities of climate change now manifesting in Northern England, but rather on the Black and brown migrants whom, they denoted, would put even more strain on public health services.7 No longer can the repercussions of the colonies be said only to be felt ‘over there’ by what Stuart Hall theorised as ‘the rest’ in his text The West and the Rest: Discourse and Power.8 What Klein described as the ‘sacrificial zones’9 of climate colonialism are expanding. Or, as Bergman questions:
‘The climate crisis is represented as if the burdens fall on everyone equally, as if it has the unique ability to inspire fraternisation: we’re all in this together, aren’t we?’
It is this gesturing towards uncovering the a-political de-historicisation of climate change - or more accurately: climate colonialism - I wanted to highlight but also to question.
Who are the ‘we’ you speak of?
I remain concerned by who gets to time travel, as the reincarnated Simon & Garfunkel do?
They comment on not knowing why they are in Finland or speaking Finnish, but the global distribution of arts funding, standards of living, and artist support would suggest otherwise. It would almost go so far as to suggest that such a film could only be made in a socio-political site such as Scandinavia, a collection of countries many of which - much like the Netherlands - continue to disavow their colonial past, as well as their debts to the Global South for the Primitive Accumulation10 of their wealth. These are not coincidences. Nor was it a coincidence that the term Anthropocene was borne out of a nation famous amongst marginal communities for the extent of this disavowal. Yet for me Bergman’s essay does not go far enough. The first part of her essay finishes: ‘I feel gratitude for being alive. At the right time. At the right place. I have all the opportunities to fight back. On my way back, I order a coffee without a plastic lid, and I know it’s only minimal, but that for the most significant acts, I’m in the perfect place to act [my emphasis].’ (Bergman, 2019: 4)11
The streets are deserted, wide and black and endless. Is there anyone left in the world but us two, I wonder absently, as we drift along the sidewalk searching for a large Black man with a huge white wolf who’s apparently having a party. Traffic lights. I stop. He carries on across the road. I’m broke and over-anxious about the rumoured blasphemy they call ‘jay-walking’. He stops across the other side until the green man turns white – it’s a white man here. He shakes his head disparaging. ‘Ama,’ he reproaches, the yell reverberating off of the abandoned pavement, ‘do you always wait for the white man to tell you when it’s okay to go?’
‘Simon and Garfunkel disappear from our view and outside is only white, white, white.’ (Bergman, 2019: 4)
I know Simon & Garfunkel wrote Bridge Over Troubled Water but I listen to Aretha’s version on repeat whilst I write this as an act of decolonial defiance, but also because it’s just better.
“Is thinking about the climate thinking about death?”
Over the past five years of writing, thinking, dreaming and articulating notions on climate justice, Black futures and pleasure activism, I’ve come to terms with a wonderful and terrible thought. That we – humans – may not survive, and I’ve come to be okay with this, I’ve almost come to feel relieved. That does not mean that we all get to give up, buy Ferrari’s and jet ski into a tsunami. Nor does it mean you get to find higher ground and say fuck-it to everyone else. Now in the time of Coronavirus, as never before, are we increasingly aware of our power over the lives, deaths and wellbeing of everyone around us.
In his fabulous essay Science Fiction after Extinction, Gerry Canavan speaks of the despair of his students after collectively reading ecological science fiction (also known as “cli-fi”, although I would dispute this term), he talks about the misanthropic slide ‘from the recognition that someday humanity will die, to the darker suspicion that it should.’ He continues somewhat emphatically: ‘But this suicidal ideation, a longing for extinction that challenges and at times perhaps even surpasses the fear of it, warrants some additional consideration […] To the extent that the concept of the Anthropocene shocks us into some new relationship with our sense of our society, and/or of human nature, its speculations and articulations of a future of human absence thus retail philosophical and political implications for the present, for the way we live before extinction.’ (Canavan, 2016: 141)
Do you hear that people – that means now!
I want to suggest that nuancing, complicating and extending these notions of wonder, accountability, futurity and who has the right or ‘opportunity’ to both engage and reject these states of relation to climate change, is essential for our positioning now, for the ‘way we live before’. If MSL and Jaakko Pallasvuo began that conversation, Bergman continued it and this humble contribution – but a scratch upon the surface of a turbulent cauldron – is an attempt to deepen, challenge and most importantly as those situated within the privileged “West,” to hold accountable.
In conclusion, then — whether it is our role to reimagine/re-become what cohesive human/e existence after the Western-dominated ‘Anthropocene’ can look like, or to gracefully bow-out and let another species take its shot — every action matters now, the how, the why, the who-by, the for-whom and the for-what. It matters how we live, die, survive and imagine. It matters that we resist.
2 See also the work of Elizabeth Povinelli, Dwayne Donald and TJ Demos.
3 See Nixon, R. (2011). Slow violence and the environmentalism of the poor. Harvard University Press.
4 I/Mages of Tomorrow anti-conference, Goldsmiths University, June 3rd 2017. See I/mages Of Tomorrow. (2017). I/mages Of Tomorrow Anti-Conference. [online] Available at: www.imagesoftomorrow.wixsite.com/2017 [Accessed 30 Aug. 2017].
5 Editor’s note: Since Ama Josephine Budge was commissioned to write this response, an updated version of Harriet Bergman’s essay Trips Across the Abyss has been published. Some of the quotations that appear in this essay therefore differ from Bergman’s most recent published version. In Bergman’s new edit this extract has been changed to: “Recycling is taking responsibility. Responsibility. Responsibility. Re-sponse-ability. The ability to respond.”
6 Editor’s note: Since Ama Josephine Budge was commissioned to write this response, an updated version of Harriet Bergman’s essay Trips Across the Abyss has been published. Some of the quotations that appear in this essay therefore differ from Bergman’s most recent published version. In Bergman’s new edit this extract has been changed to: “Although climate change is depicted as being exquisitely capable of inspiring fraternization between everyone, the existence of climate racism and other forms of climate injustice refute this vision. Feelings matter – I therefore like to focus on how we treat one another, how our affective relations are built, maintained and kept. But I also like to consider the 'we' that I just evoked, for ‘we’ is often spoken about in climate change discourse - think of the 'Anthropocene' or 'spaceship earth'.”
7 See International Organization for Migration report, Migration and Climate Change (2008). [online] Available at: publications.iom.int/system/files/pdf/mrs-31_en.pdf [accessed 18/4/20].
8 See Hall, S. (2013). Formations of modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press.
9 See Naomi Klein: Let them Drown - The Violence of Othering in a Warming World. A full recording of the Edward W Said London Lecture. 2016 by Naomi, 4th May 2016 at the Royal Festival Hall, London) [online] Available at vimeo.com/166018049 [accessed 31/8/17].
10 As theorised by Karl Marx in Capital Volume One, Part VIII: Primitive Accumulation (1867)
11 Editor’s note: Since Ama Josephine Budge was commissioned to write this response, an updated version of Harriet Bergman’s essay Trips Across the Abyss has been published. Some of the quotations that appear in this essay therefore differ from Bergman’s most recent published version. In Bergman’s new edit this extract has been changed to: “I have all the opportunities to fight back. I take my coffee without a plastic lid, it’s only minimal. For the more significant acts, I’m in the perfect place to act. I will change what I can’t accept.”
Mister Motley X ArtEZ studium generale: online lunch events
online event13 May '20