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Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Interrupters

The Interrupters

You’ve heard the call: We have to do something. We need to fight.

By Roy Scanton
Adbusters.org
June 28, 2016

We need to identify the enemy and go after them.

Some respond, march, and chant.

Some look away, deny what’s happening, and search out escape
routes into imaginary tomorrows: a life off the grid, space colonies,
immortality in paradise, explicit denial, or consumer satiety in a
wireless, robot-staffed, 3D-printed techno-utopia.

Meanwhile, the rich take shelter in their fortresses, isolating
themselves with their air conditioning, private schools, and
well-paid guards.

Fight. Flight. Flight. Fight.

The threat of death activates our deepest animal drives.

The aggression and fear that arise in response to perceived threats
are some of the most intense emotions we ever experience.

For human society to function at all, these instinctive reactions
have to be carefully managed and channeled.

Outbreaks of panic and hate are dangerous, but lower levels of
aggression and fear help keep a population controllable and productive.

Restrained aggression keeps people suspicious of collective action
and working hard to overcome their fellows, while constant,
generalized anxiety keeps people servile, unwilling to take risks,
and yearning for comfort from whatever quarter, whether the
dulling sameness of herd thought or the dumb security of consumer
goods.

Since at least September 11, 2001, people in the United States
have been subject to an unprecedented terror campaign—not
from Al Qaeda, but from the United States government.

National domestic policy transformed, “security” into constant
fear, threatening its citizens at every turn: first with alarms
of explosions and anthrax, then with prison, austerity-produced
structural unemployment, and harassment, and finally with
torture, SWAT tanks, snipers, drones, and total surveillance.

Owing to the racial logic of US politics, in which white/black is
the definitive semiotic distinction structuring American society,
most of the government’s violence against its own citizens is vdirected against those with darker skin, but in subtler ways its
terror campaign targets every single person who flies coach,
watches the news, or uses the Internet.

Fear comes to us every day in our encounters with an increasingly
militarized police and our humiliating interactions with metal
detectors, body-scan machines and full-body searches in isolated
rooms without windows.

Fear comes to us in the absence of job security, in our want of
appeal when confronted by institutionalized inequality, and in
our mistrust of corrupt institutions.

Fear comes to us in widespread surveillance, in the form of
a homeless woman or a hospitalized friend without adequate
financial support, and in the constant nagging worry that
we’re not working hard enough, not happy enough, never
going to, “make it.”

Fear comes to us in weather porn, unpredictable shifts in
formerly stable climate dynamics, and massive storms.

More than in any other way, fear comes to us in images
and messages, as social media vibrations, products of cultural
technologies that we have interpolated into our lives.

Going about our daily business, we receive constant messages of
apprehension and danger, ubiquitous warnings, insistent needling
jabs to the deep lizard brain.

Somebody died. Something blew up. Something might blow up.
Somebody attacked somebody. Somebody killed somebody.

Guns. Crime. Immigrants. Terrorists. Arabs. Mexicans. White
supremacists. Killer cops. Demonic thugs. Rape. Murder. Global
warming. Ebola. ISIS.

Death. Death. Death.

Sociologist Tom Pyszczynski writes:

“People will do almost anything to avoid being afraid. When,
despite the best efforts, [fear and anxiety] do break through,
people go to incredible lengths to shut them down.”

Sometimes when these vibrations shake us, we discharge them by
passing them on, retweeting the story, reposting the video, hoping
that others will validate our reaction, thus assuaging our fear by
assuring ourselves that collective attention has been alerted to the
threat.

Other times we react with aversion, working to dampen the
vibrations by searching out positive reinforcements, pleasurable
images and videos, something funny, something—anything—to
ease the fear.

We buy something. We eat food. We pop a pill. We fuck.

In either passing on the vibration or reacting against it, we let
the fear short circuit our own autonomous desires, diverting us
from our goals and loading ever more emotional static into our
daily cognitive processing.

We become increasingly distracted from our ambitions
and increasingly susceptible to such distraction.

And whether we retransmit or react, we reinforce channels of
thought, perception, behavior, and emotion that, over time,
come to shape our habits and our personality.

As we train ourselves to resonate fear and aggression, we reinforce
patterns of thought and feeling that shape a society that breeds the
same.

Fight-or-flight is compelling because it serves essential
evolutionary purposes.

It increases alertness and adrenaline flow, and generally
works to keep the human animal alive.

As we proceed into the Anthropocene, though, capitalism’s cultural
machinery for balancing fear and aggression against desire and
pleasure is grinding and sputtering sparks.

What cultural theorist Lauren Berlant has identified as the, “cruel
optimism” of a system sustained by hopes that can never be
fulfilled mixes dangerously with an atmosphere of beleaguered
anxiety, increasing frustration with working-class and middle-class
economic stagnation, and a pervasive sadistic voyeurism that grows
by what it feeds on.

While America’s fraying social infrastructure holds together, our
fear and aggression can be channeled into labor, consumption,
and economic competition, with professional sports, hyperviolent
television, and occasional protests to let off steam.

Once the social fabric begins to tear, though, we risk unleashing
not only rioting, rebellion, and civil war, but homicidal politics
the likes of which should make our blood run cold.

Consider: Once among the most modern, Westernized nations in the
Middle East, with a robust, highly educated middle class, Iraq has
been blighted for decades by imperialist aggression, criminal gangs,
interference in its domestic politics, economic liberalization, and
sectarian feuding.

Today it is being torn apart between a corrupt petrocracy, a
breakaway Kurdish experiment in anarchism, and a self-declared
Islamic fundamentalist caliphate, while a civil war in neighboring
Syria spills across its borders.

These conflicts have likely been caused in part and exacerbated
by the worst drought the Middle East has seen in modern history.

Since 2006, Syria has been suffering crippling water shortages that
have, in some areas, caused 75 percent crop failure and wiped out
85 percent of livestock, left more than 800,000 Syrians without a
livelihood, and sent hundreds of thousands of impoverished young
men streaming into Syria’s cities.

This drought is part of long-term warming and drying trends
that are transforming the Middle East.

Not just water but oil, too, is elemental to these conflicts.

Iraq sits on the fifth largest proven oil reserves in the world.

Meanwhile, the Islamic State has been able to survive only
because it has taken control of most of Syria’s oil and gas
production.

We tend to think of climate change and violent religious
fundamentalism as isolated phenomena, but as Retired
Navy Rear Admiral David Titley argues, “you can draw a
very credible climate connection to this disaster we call
ISIS right now.”

A few hundred miles away, Israeli soldiers spent the summer
of 2014 killing Palestinians in Gaza.

Israel has also been suffering drought, while Gaza has been
in the midst of a critical water crisis exacerbated by Israel’s
military aggression.

The International Committee for the Red Cross reported that during
summer 2014, Israeli bombers targeted Palestinian wells and water
infrastructure.

It’s not water and oil this time, but water and gas: some observers
argue that Israel’s, “Operation Protective Edge” was intended to
establish firmer control over the massive Leviathan natural gas
field, discovered off the coast of Gaza in the eastern Mediterranean
in 2010.

Meanwhile, thousands of miles to the north, Russian backed
separatists fought fascist paramilitary forces defending the
elected government of Ukraine, which was also suffering
drought.

Russia’s role as an oil and gas exporter in the region and the natural
gas pipelines running through Ukraine from Russia to Europe cannot
but be key issues in the conflict.

Elsewhere, droughts in 2014 sent refugees from Guatemala and
Honduras north to the US border, devastated crops in California
and Australia, and threatened millions of lives in Eritrea, Somalia,
Ethiopia, Sudan, Uganda, Afghanistan, India, Morocco, Pakistan,
and parts of China.

Across the world, massive protests and riots have swept Bosnia and
Herzegovina, Venezuela, Brazil, Turkey, Egypt, and Thailand, while
conflicts rage on in Colombia, Libya, the Central African Republic,
Sudan, Nigeria, Yemen, and India.

And while the world burns, the United States has been playing
chicken with Russia over control of Eastern Europe and the melting
Arctic, and with China over control of Southeast Asia and the South
China Sea, threatening global war on a scale not seen in seventy
years.

This is our present and future: droughts and hurricanes, refugees
and border guards, war for oil, water, gas, and food.

We experience this world of strife today in one of two modes:
either it is our environment, and we are in it, or it comes to us
as images, social excitation, re-transmitted fear.

People are fighting and dying in ruined cities all over the planet.

Neighbors are killing each other.

Old women are bleeding to death in bombed rubble and children
are being murdered, probably as you read this sentence.

To live in this world is horrific.

Constant danger strains every nerve.

The only things that matter are survival, killing the enemy,
reputation, and having a safe place to sleep.

The experience of being human narrows to a cutting edge.

I remember living in that world many years ago in occupied
Baghdad.

Today that world seems impossibly distant, yet every day it presses
in on me in a never-ending stream of words, images, appeals, and
reports.

I see videos. I read stories. I see pictures of this or that suffering
or injustice and I am moved.

To act, perhaps, but more accurately to emote.
To react. To feel. To perform.

We do not usually ask where these feelings come from or who they
serve, but we all know that the cultural technologies transmitting
these affective vibrations are not neutral: news outlets shape
information to fit their owners’ prejudices, while Facebook,
Twitter, and Google shape our perceptions through hidden
algorithms.

The specialization and demographic targeting of contemporary
media tend to narrow the channels of perception to the point that
we receive only those images and vibrations which already
harmonize with our own prejudices, our own pre-existing desires,
thus intensifying our particular emotional reactions along an
increasingly limited band, impelling us to discharge our emotions
within the same field of ready listeners, for which we are rewarded
with, “Likes” and, “Favorites.”

Our consciousness is shaped daily through feedback systems where
some post or headline provokes a feeling and we discharge that
feeling by provoking it in others.

Social media like Facebook crowd source catharsis, creating
self-contained wave pools of aggression and fear, pity and
terror, stagnant flows that go nowhere and do nothing.

Pictures of children killed by bombs or police, or pictures of the
devastation left in the wake of a tropical storm may move me to
sadness and horror.

Re-transmitting such images will pass along that
sadness and horror.

My act of transmission will mark me as someone who has
feelings about these things and who condemns them.

I can rationalize my re-transmission by saying that I am,
“raising awareness” or trying to influence public policy:

I want my fellow citizens to be as horrified as I am, so they’ll think
like I do, or so they’ll vote for a representative who works to
prevent such horrors from happening, or maybe so that if enough
of us all think the same way and feel the same way, the organs and
institutions of power will be forced to hear us and align themselves
along our vibrations, the way a honeybee colony will pick a site for
a new hive through the dance of its advance guard scouts.

These are perfectly reasonable human assumptions, because
that is how physical human collectives function.

Anyone who has been in a crowd, a basketball team, a nightclub,
a choir, or a protest knows how bodies resonate together.

But politics is the energetic distribution of bodies in systems,
and we live in a system of carbon-fueled capitalism that we
shouldn’t expect to work in physical human ways for several
reasons, especially when it comes to responding to the threat
of global warming.

First, our political and social media technologies are not neutral,
but have been developed to serve particular interests, most notably
targeted advertising, concentration of wealth, and ideological
control, and the vibrations that seem to resonate most strongly
along these channels are envy, adulation, outrage, fear, hatred,
and mindless pleasure.

Second, 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 critical thought.

With every protest chant, retweet, and Facebook post,
we become stronger resonators and weaker thinkers.

Third, however intense our social vibrations grow, they remain
locked within machinery that offers no political leverage: they do
not translate into political action, because they do not connect to
the flows of power.

Finally, while the typical collective human response to threat is to
identify an enemy, pick sides, and mobilize to fight, global warming
offers no apprehensible foe.

That hasn’t stopped people from trying to find one.

The Flood Wall Street protesters say the enemy is American
corporations.

Tanzania’s Jakaya Kikwete and Nauru’s Baron Waqa say the
problem is the United States and Great Britain.

Shell Oil and the Environmental Defense Fund seem to think
that it’s intractable UN bureaucracy that’s holding us up.

Barack Obama has implied that it’s China.

Tea Party Republicans would blame Barack Obama, I’m sure, if they
admitted that global warming was actually happening and caused
by human activity.

Meanwhile, NPR listening liberals want to believe that Tea Party
Republicans are responsible, so that they can frame the problem
as one amenable to solution by moral education and enlightened
consumerism, as if it were all a matter of convincing people to
eat more kale and drive electric cars.

One climate activist has argued that just 90 companies are
responsible for almost two-thirds of all historical greenhouse gas
emissions, which conveniently absolves billions of automobile
drivers, airline passengers, meat eaters, and cellphone users of
responsibility.

The enemy isn’t out there somewhere—the enemy is ourselves.

Not as individuals, but as a collective. A system. A hive.

How do we stop ourselves from fulfilling our fates as suicidally
productive drones in a carbon-addicted hive, destroying ourselves
in some kind of psychopathic colony collapse disorder?

How do we interrupt the perpetual circuits of fear, aggression,
crisis, and reaction that continually prod us to ever more intense
levels of manic despair?

One way we might begin to answer these questions is by considering
the problem of global warming in terms of Peter Sloterdijk’s idea of
the philosopher as an interrupter:

We live constantly in collective fields of excitation; this cannot
be changed so long as we are social beings.

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 my letting the
integrated impulsion die in me or, should this fail, by my re-
transmitting 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,
if I may express myself in such pathetic terms.

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.

The classics express this with the term, ‘pondering.’

With this concept, ethics and energetics enter into contact: as
a bearer of a philosophical function, I have neither the right nor
the desire to be either a conductor in a stress-semantic chain or
the automaton of an ethical imperative.

Sloterdijk compares the conception of political function as
collective vibration to a philosophical function of interruption.

As opposed to disruption, which shocks a system and breaks
wholes into pieces, interruption suspends continuous processes.

It’s not smashing, but sitting with.

Not blockage, but reflection.

He sees the role of the philosopher in the human swarm as that
of an aberrant anti-drone slow dancing to its own rhythm, neither
attuned to the collective beat nor operating mechanically,
dogmatically, deontologically, but continually self-immunizing
against the waves of social energy we live in and amongst by
perpetually interrupting its own connection to collective life.

So long as one allows oneself to be, “a conductor in a stress-
semantic chain,” one is strengthening channels of re-transmission
regardless of content, thickening the reflexive connective tissues
of mass society, making all of us more susceptible to such viral
phenomena as nationalism, scapegoating, panic, and war fever.

Interrupting the flows of social production is anarchic and
counterproductive, like all good philosophy: if it works, it
helps us stop and see our world in new ways.

If it fails, as it often and even usually does, the interrupter
is integrated, driven mad, ignored, or destroyed.

What Sloterdijk helps us see is that responding autonomously
to social excitation means not reacting to it, not passing it on,
but interrupting it, then either letting the excitation die or
transforming it completely.

Responding freely to constant images of fear and violence,
responding freely to the perpetual media circuits of pleasure
and terror, responding freely to the ongoing alarms of war,
environmental catastrophe, and global destruction demands a
reorientation of feeling so that every new impulse is held at a
distance until it fades or can be changed.

While life beats its red rhythms and human swarms dance
to the compulsion of strife, the interrupter learns how to
die.

—Roy Scranton, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on
the End of a Civilization
http://www.adbusters.org/article/8598

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