It’s cold and flu season. There’s a bronchial illness going around so powerful that my partner, who in the thirteen years we’ve been together I’ve never seen sick more than a day or two, has been sick for over a week. Cold and flu season is like a tincture of death. If you don’t get seriously ill, it’s an immune system reboot and a shivering little reminder that winter is coming. The body’s impermanence is permanent, Ray Kurzweil and his ilk notwithstanding. Kurzweil has said that he has “a very good chance of living indefinitely.” For the immortalists, or “longevists” mortality itself is a kind of illness in need of a cure: its extension. What David Benatar asks in The Human Predicament is, if life itself is bad, why would it be a good thing to extend it? While we can have meaning for one another, Benatar feels certain that life has no inherent meaning cosmically speaking. For him this makes life and death equally bad. If life is bad, so is death, because by it we are annihilated. But because death is not worse than, but only as bad as life (“death is the second jaw of our existential vise”), more life cannot be the solution.
Benatar is very conscious that his pessimism will be found by most to be depressing, that it’s not a favorable market for what he’s peddling. I find his argument (perhaps perversely) amusing, though I disagree with it. Right where Benatar finds meaninglessness is where it seems to me meaningfulness begins. Just as courageously facing impermanence might bring about what Roshi Joan Halifax calls “positive disintegration” so acknowledging the ways that suffering inheres to life is the only way to begin to alleviate it.
The Buddhist image for suffering, from the Pali, is dukkha. It refers to an axle that is not centered in its wheel, an ill fit that causes bumpy rides, over-turnings, catastrophes, from the Greek kata “down” and strephein “turn.” In ancient Greek drama, catastrophe is the word for a fatal turning point, a reversal of fortune. Nowadays, dramas that hope to describe contemporaneity can’t confine themselves to just the one cata/strophe. There are too many going on at once, and all of them matter.
Take the unusual show Years & Years. At the most basic level, it’s as familiar a TV show as can be: its about a family, which means its about a group of people sitting around a dinner table, getting together for holidays, going through the various rites of passage and ceremonies of life and death. Its unusual-ness is two-pronged. For one thing, much more than most shows about families, it shows the various political feelings and experiences of its protagonists, and depicts them having political conversations. For another, its unusual in how it fast-forwards, well, years and years, from one episode to the next, showing how some things never change (family arguments around the dinner table) and how everything can and does change completely because of politics. The theory of the show, its fair to say, is that the personal is political. One character’s lover is deported and the whole families’ life is transformed by that event. Another character, a young daughter, is transhuman: in merging her body with the internet she comes to know things that catalyze world-historical events. The show is a thought experiment, a work of speculative realism exploring the near future implications of the right-now entanglements of climate change and neo-liberal capitalist nationalism. It argues for revolutionary action, and the necessity of a complete transformation of thought and conditions in a moment that demands thinking at a planetary magnitude. The episodic format with multiple, equally primary protagonists connected through kinship, is well suited to storytelling at this scale.
What Years & Years enacts is the way in which our personal catastrophes of meaning are inseparable from our collective, social, historical, political catastrophes of meaning. In After Fukushima: The Equivalence of Catastrophes, Jean-Luc Nancy discusses a new kind of universal equivalence (Marx’s “universal equivalent” was money): the equivalence of catastrophe represented by nuclear weapons. He writes: “The “equivalence” of catastrophes here means to assert that the spread or proliferation of repercussions from every kind of disaster hereafter will bear the mark of that paradigm represented by nuclear risk.” A “symbiosis of technologies” means that consequences of what had been local misfortunes, however transformative (he speaks about the Lisbon earthquake of 1755), will no longer have limited effects: “Catastrophes are not all of the same gravity, but they all connect with the totality of interdependences that make up general equivalence . . . it is this equivalence itself that is catastrophic…meaning and value themselves become catastrophic…we are being exposed to a catastrophe of meaning.”
Recently I went to Norway to be present for the scattering of the ashes of my partner’s grandfather. One night we found ourselves drinking box-wine on a fjord at a beach party. I got to talking with a guy named Morten. Morten works in the energy sector and we discussed hydropower, from which Norway gets some 98% of its power. I commented that given climate change, it must feel like a meaningful time to be in his field. He agreed and shared a saying he said was from the Netherlands: “I’m in the right movie.”
As a conscript in what Mackenzie Wark calls “the carbon liberation front”—a “disaster [that] ruins everything, all the while leaving everything intact” to quote Maurice Blanchot—and lacking anything like my new friend Morten’s direct ability to contribute to the transition off fossil fuels at scale, I don’t feel I am “in the right movie.” Or, I am an expendable, complicit extra in a disaster movie running from fire and flood, a movie the heroes of which are, lately, children, young students. What does it mean to play your part well in this movie, this dream life of oilmen and financiers?
Reading The Human Predicament I wondered how Benatar would write if he was writing for children. I thought of Xiuhtezcatl Roske-Martinez and other children climate activists suing the U.S. government, of the unique pain and burden being handed to them, the sorrow of the sixth great extinction. I am sympathetic to Benatar’s anti-natalism but his argument that life is bad because it is evidently cosmically purposeless bespeaks a lack of imagination. Climate lawsuits and strikes are an expression of the purpose of life itself, for its own sake, and there is ethical beauty in that. The question is, what do we do when we don’t know what to do? How do we respond in the face of what appears to be meaninglessly catastrophic? Jacques Derrida wrote that “The critic and the doctor are without resource when confronted by an existence that refuses to signify . . .” Meaning-making is a two-way street: when an illness or an art work (or a nation or a universe!) “refuses to signify”, the insufficiency of the vocabularies, the systems of meaning-making, of the doctor and the critic, is made visible. Brian Massumi writes: “A system is defined by its operational closure. A structure is defined by its functional parameters. A process is in touch with a great outside. It is defined by its openness to that great outside: by how it dips into and captures the tendential potentials stirring there.” We need processes “in touch with a great outside” in order to “dip into and capture” tendencies and potentials. On the show Diagnosis potential cures to illegible, seemingly un-diagnosable illnesses are discovered through tapping into the “great outside” of crowd sourcing in one of the most redeeming uses of the Internet I have seen, if not a justification for it. Diagnosis reveals that what at first appears to be hopelessly insoluble, a dead end, a catastrophe of meaning, is actually a missing piece that’s somewhere farther afield, in another place, whether that piece is access to testing equipment and researchers in another country, or the right lens on the situation in the case of one protagonist with Gulf War illness whose neurologist didn’t have the background to consider it, because this is an illness largely seen and addressed in VA hospitals.
It is, that is, because of a process, rather than a system or a structure, that the problems the show explores can be attended to. In this case the process is reaching out to the entire world: problem-solving at a planetary magnitude.