Climate Change and Communicative Capitalism (1): “Too big to be felt”


Climate change is, in the words of Timothy Morton, a “hyperobject,” a phenomena too big and too complex to be seen or felt from the standpoint of any solitary human subject — in other words, an object that stretches the very limits of what it means to be a phenomena, a phenomena for which there is no phenomenology [1]. While we as individuals experience weather, such as heavy rain, extraordinary heat, maybe snow in June, this is only a freeze-frame of climate, the macro-level trajectory of an atmospheric system that extends far beyond our personal view of the sky. It is not as if we are somehow too technologically numbed to recognize this condition; no amount of Heideggerian ‘letting-be’ could ever open ourselves to experience something like climate change that is literally too big to be felt. Yet, while we may not be subjectively affected by the climate in its totality, it still affects us, in the humanitarian crises brought on by extreme weather events, in the rising sea levels that threaten to extinguish both low-lying atolls and coastal cities, and in the socio-economic reverberations of droughts and other climate shifts. The scientific community is basically in agreement that anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions have the effect of net increases in global temperature — but how do we convert this knowledge into the public will for the necessary changes?

The deadlock of environmentalist politics in the Western world forms around a few crucial points. Mainstream liberal politicians and media figures form their rhetorical strategy around the ‘truth’ of studies such as those of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, relying on what Bruno Latour might refer to as the ‘force’ of scientific consensus, emphasizing that the science is finished, over with, complete. But what if this has misunderstood the problem? What if the problem was never about completion, but translation — a matter of considering where we are in our social (human) milieu, and not simply our “natural” (non-human) surroundings? In other words, what if it’s not merely a question of ‘getting the word out’ and ‘completing the truth’, but of shifting who and what we are targeting? It seems that our mainstream figureheads have presupposed that ecological salvation can be found in ‘getting to the bottom of things’, when science makes contact with the bare truths of our ontic substance — but what if there is no such ground to build a politics from?

My basic thesis is as follows. The role of science in contemporary society is not a simple question of disinterested interrogation of the ‘truth’ that is subsequently distributed to social actors like politicians or businesspeople. This division of labor has falsely presupposed the accessibility of a ‘real’ from which the power of truth may be derived. To make matters worse, liberal capitalism has adapted to benefit from this ‘science of truth’; today, the opiate of the masses is the “ecology of fear” [3] — the bombardment of society with facts and images of absolute destruction, more and more noise presented within the guise of significant information. Simultaneously, science’s lack — its continual incompleteness — is exploited by Republican political figures to stall social and technological developments that are necessary for our very survival. All of this adds up to a communicative strategy of more and more images, more and more truths that ultimately compounds a deadlock around the destructive status quo. I suspect that we should instead begin precisely from the incompleteness, the continual experimentation of science — and likewise, the incompleteness of ourselves and our own worldviews — to craft political and rhetorical strategies that can attend to and exploit the fractures within the symbolic sphere.

[1] Timothy Morton, “Hyperobjects and the End of Common Sense,” The Contemporary Condition, 3/18/2010 []

[2] Bruno Latour, Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy, Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 2010

[3] Slavoj Žižek, “Censorship Today: Violence, or Ecology as the New Opiate of the Masses pt. 1,”, 2/2/2008 []


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