Notes From Underground #3: Is There Hope?
The ABF House stands on a corner, halfway up Sveavägen, in the centre of Stockholm. Across the street is the party headquarters of the Social Democrats. Two doors along, the Grand cinema where Olof Palme spent the evening in February 1986 that would end with his assassination. The last of the three great Social Democratic prime ministers whose rule stretched almost uninterrupted across half a century, the mystery of Palme’s murder still lingers in the shadows of Swedish politics; the suggestion that it was connected to larger geopolitical struggles has never been ruled out. Whatever else it represents, his death has come to mark a watershed: beyond that point, the draining of confidence from the grand project of modern Sweden became unstoppable.
A blue-tiled box of a building, six storeys high, home of the Workers Learning Association, the ABF House stands as a relic of that lost confidence – yet on a late November night in 2017, its rooms are busy with classes and meetings and talks. There’s a queue outside the first floor lecture theatre for which I’m headed. The organisers are on the point of turning people away, when word comes through that the main hall is free and so we file along back corridors and into its raked seats.
On the stage in front of us, two prominent professors meet to debate the question: ‘Is there hope?’ I can’t help think how strange this would have sounded to the generation who built an institution like the one in which we are gathered.
We’re here for a clash that has spilt out of the comment pages of the Swedish press, a local echo of the alarm sent up by David Wallace-Wells with his original New York magazine version of ‘The Uninhabitable Earth’. On one side, there’s an anthropologist whose books on technology and capitalism have won an international audience. His opponent is better known on his home ground, an environmental historian who has written a series of books that introduce Swedish readers to ideas already circulating internationally; his latest is on the Anthropocene. A regular contributor to newspapers and TV programmes, he knows how to work an audience and is not above debating society tricks; he’ll caricature the other guy’s position, then make out this was an innocent misunderstanding. In short, he is not my kind of academic, yet it’s something this guy says tonight that will stick with me: a contrast he offers between two worldviews.
There is a division out there today, he says, between ‘those who believe in science, reason, technology and progress’, and ‘those who see a future undermined by fear and threat’. The first group, subscribers to what he calls Worldview A, are the ones who are engaging with the issues of the Anthropocene, while the others, the Worldview B-ers – ‘Well,’ he shakes his head, ‘these are the ones who don’t even believe that climate change is happening!’
The point he meant to make is clear enough: if there is to be hope, the first group must prevail. It’s a version of a story you hear a lot these days, since the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump. Yet in the pantomime simplicity of the way he tells it, I catch something else, an unexpected echo of an old argument that began as a bold generalisation about the history of English poetry.
* * *
In 1921, T. S. Eliot was working as a clerk in the Colonial & Foreign Department at Lloyds Bank. His first major poem, ‘The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock’, had been published in 1915; a twelve-poem pamphlet followed two years later. Now in his early thirties, he was an established presence within the world of the little magazines, a poet whose originality excited his peers, and a critic writing for larger audiences in places like the Times Literary Supplement. Still, confident as he was in his own judgement, he could hardly have expected a theory thrown out as a series of sweeping asides within a review essay to start a debate that would run for decades and shape the thinking of a generation. That was to be the fate of Eliot’s remarks on ‘the dissociation of sensibility’.
‘Something … happened to the mind of England’, Eliot wrote, ‘from which we have never recovered’. It happened around the middle of the 17th century: a threshold was crossed, on this side of which a new distance opened up between thinking and feeling. In the Metaphysical poetry of John Donne and Andrew Marvell, those two activities were still inextricably linked; since their generation, Eliot claimed, poets ‘thought and felt by fits, unbalanced’, no longer able to do both things at once.
As a claim about the development of English poetry, this would be disputed, and in later years, Eliot himself would revise his position: ‘All we can say is, that something like this did happen; that … it is a consequence of the same causes which brought about the Civil War; that we must seek the causes in Europe, not in England alone…’ To Craig Raine (Eliot’s successor as poetry editor at Faber), this amounted to ‘a Tour de France of backpedalling’, yet the revision is also a broadening of the argument. Indeed, it’s doubtful whether the influence of Eliot’s theory ever really rested on his diagnosis of the stylistic differences between Donne and Milton, so much as on the memorable formulation he offered for a larger historical idea. Over the following decades, on the left as well as the right, thinkers from F. R. Leavis to E. P. Thompson sought to articulate their sense that a great loss had accompanied the obvious technological and economic gains made on the journey to the modern societies in which they found themselves. If their attempts to account for this loss sometimes fell short or led into dangerous culs-de-sac, if such lines of thinking were routinely dismissed as nostalgic fantasies about a golden age, I am not convinced that those easy rebuttals really settle the matter.
Yet it is not my purpose just now to resuscitate Eliot’s historical claim about the 17th century. Rather, I am struck by the curious way in which it maps onto the frame that we were offered that night in Stockholm.
* * *
Look again at the terms in which they are set out, those two worldviews, the keywords used for each side of the divide: you have the people of science, reason, technology and progress set against the people of fear and threat. This is not a clash of ideologies, it is a map of a dissociated society.
Start with the partisans of science and reason, things which – almost by definition – stand apart from matters of feeling. A neurobiologist may introduce us to the chemical substrate of our emotional experience, but illuminating as such explanations are, no one acts as if her own life can be reduced to this layer of material causality. To make sense of the felt experience of being human, we tend to draw on other ways of talking and other kinds of knowledge. We may agree that there are purposes for which it is useful and appropriate to treat the world as though it could be held at arm’s length, we may be glad of some of the fruits of this studied detachment, but we do not imagine that this is how the world is lived.
Now, notice how the sober set of nouns which define the first worldview are queered by the choice of verb: these people are not simply (or perhaps at all) the practitioners of science and reason and technology, they are the ones who believe in these things, who have elevated them to the status of objects of faith. I have nothing against faith, it is a delicate and precious thing, and like any such thing, you should be careful where you put it. To put faith in reason sounds to me like one of those loops in the code that causes a computer program to start spewing out numerical garbage.
Turn to the others, the Worldview B team, the ones who feel the fear and sense the threat – and I want to say, is this not an appropriate response to the situation in which we find ourselves? Is this not how you feel when you read an article by David Wallace-Wells? You might then want to move through the fear, to find courage, but you don’t get there by mocking the fearful.
If there’s some truth in the simple schema according to which those who are fearful of the future are also ‘the ones who don’t believe that climate change is happening’, then this paradox deserves more than scorn. The poisoned seeds of climate denial were planted quite consciously by people who were well paid for their trouble on behalf of industries possessed by a demonic drive for self-perpetuation and expansion. They may never face the trials which they deserve. Yet these seeds grew in soil fertilised by the overspill of a wider culture. As we account for the conditions under which such alienation from and resentment towards science could take root, some share of the responsibility belongs to those who bundled up the practice of science, the faculty of reason and the promise of technology into a belief system. Their grand story of progress long since ceased to make sense of the experience of many people’s lives; their faith-based worldview contributed to the conditions in which denial could thrive.
With all its well-meant calls to optimism and its othering of fear, this Worldview A ends up approaching the clinical condition of dissociation, identified by psychologists: a pathological detachment from physical and emotional experience.
* * *
Something happened on the way to modernity: a severance between heart and head, a loss from which we have yet to recover, which can’t just be written off against the gains that were also made along that journey.
T. S. Eliot was neither the first nor the last to attempt to tell a story along these lines. As the century went on, other voices began to be heard, at last: people carrying parts of the story that could barely be seen, let alone understood, from the vantage points of white men known to us by their initials. Women, people of colour, indigenous people, rural people told stories of the brutal enactment of the severance on which the modern world was built, the new forms of slavery and exploitation that it brought into being; stories written on the bodies of whoever was other. Beyond the seminar room talk of postmodernism, the calling into question of modernity was taken up – as Gustavo Esteva and Madhu Suri Prakash declared – by those who find themselves on the receiving end of processes of ‘modernization’.
That map of the two worldviews which set me thinking of Eliot risks to reduce the situation to a stand-off between two groups of old white men: the A-team in their university chairs, turning out paeans to reason and progress for their publishers; the B-team with their MAGA hats, barbarians at the campus gates.
As one more white man who isn’t getting any younger, I want to put my faith somewhere else. If there is any hope worth having, in a time when we are rightly haunted by the thought of an ‘uninhabitable Earth’, then I don’t believe it lies in the triumph of reason, nor in the recovery of an imagined past. If I have any clue where it lies, I’d say it’s in the difficult work of learning to feel and think together again; to come down off the high and lonely horses that some of us were taught to ride, to recognise how much has been missing from our maps, how much has gone unseen in our worldviews.