Analyzing a Picture

2

AntiNote: This article was written for The Barbarian Review, an anarchist publication in Athens very dear to us.

You certainly know of Liberty leading the people. Marianne is holding a banner, tits out, and the revolted people of Paris, fully armed (a gun toting crowd), is following her, stepping on the barricade among dead bodies.

Now imagine a Panda rising from the haze – not tear gas; no one is crying or coughing there – surrounded by ecocitizens from all over the world wearing t-shirts and holding banners reading approximate Gandhi quotations “We have to change, not the climate!” Everybody (i.e young hipsters) is “peacefully rioting.” A couple is even taking a selfie in the background.

The COP 21, a conference on climate change, is going to take place in December in Paris. Respectable NGOs and big industrial groups talking seriously about slowing down the end of the world. At the same time, François Hollande was advised to organize a counter-event denouncing the hypocrisy of such meetings: the village of alternatives, which incidentally will take place in the center of Paris whereas the “actual” negotiations will be set in the Parisian suburbs. As a result, you can see in the Parisian metro the picture previously described. WWF, which is taking part in the summit, seems to be suggesting how the opposition movement should look. No wonder the meta-protestation will have a great work of imagination to do.

This way the authorities have of neutralizing their own opposition is very well known: you just have to make it yours. Everyone trying to follow an alternative way of living or thinking can bear witness to how institutionalization leads to schizophrenia. One day subcultures inevitably become mainstream. Of course it is not the same once it’s on their side. The intellectual challenge remains to make the difference appear.

Who Made This Mess?

Eco-activism is a good example of this phenomenon. Further analyzing the image, we can assume that, unlike the original Romantic work painted during the revolts of 1830 in Paris, the panda and his cronies are suggesting an allegorical version of an eco-activist demonstration that hasn’t happened yet. Still it makes one wonder: who made this mess? People are well-groomed fashion addicts, probably turning up late for the party – even the cops have called it a day. Someone should perhaps let them know that the revolution has already happened. No one is carrying a weapon, or even a tool of any sort (how on earth did they manage to remove cobblestones?). They have no material capability to destroy the pavement or wreck a petrol station. Also, they are busy: every visible hand is holding something: a smartphone, a banner, a skateboard, a scooter, a dog on a leash, the shoulder of a girlfriend – there is also this mysterious black-hatted guy with no hands, maybe the only suggested black block in his Clark Kent’s suit. Those objects are equivalent to weapons, omnipresent in the barricade scene of Delacroix.

If we explore the reference more deeply, technologies of communication and human-powered modes of transportation are presented as means of action against climate change. The modern revolution (the one depicted by the original picture) brought us into modernity: from the closed hierarchical world to the infinite democratic universe. According to Kant, those unfortunate bloody revolutions were epiphenomena of both a scientific and a philosophical kind. Humanity became a constitutive power as soon as we came to realize that the world can be understood and explained. This “exceptionalism of humanity” brings History and Nature to become two separate things. In turn, this distinction leads to another: Us and the World.

Us (Humanity) as “master and owner of Nature.”

The world or Nature as an object submitted to the scientific gaze and experiment.

But this specificity of Humanity makes things more complicated and quite painful (if we go further, as some did after Descartes): because we consider Nature as an object, the world is kind of disappearing, we get lost if we try to imagine any view of the world that is not seen through a subjectivity. On the other hand, the Human subject is also threatened by the same phenomenon of disappearing: it can be absorbed by the world, as it also constitutes an object of Nature. We are simultaneously empirical and transcendental, out of Nature and part of it.

In the end, the ecological problem makes the situation even more messy: if we are losing the world, how can we save it, now that science is telling us that something is going wrong? And how can science help us, when scientific people are limited by their own naturality?

Those two questions are the starting point of an article “The stopping of the world,” by Viveiros de Castro and Deborah Danowski [1]. The idea is to use the anthropological gaze and method to interrogate this very “non-event” that is necessarily contained by the ecological catastrophe’s speeches. Actually, as I previously tried to make obvious through some rhetorical procedures, the “philosophical perspective” is considered among a lot of “materials” such as movies, myths, manifestos, etc.

Now that this introduction is done, let’s go back to our picture.

Gently Manipulating Little Stones

The ridiculous tension between the scooter, the selfie, and the idea that our world is being destroyed sheds light on something utterly tragic. Here’s what one of the “creatives” responsible for this picture has to say:

“I grew up surrounded by nature, and from an early age I was made aware of the importance of protecting Nature – and particularly marine ecosystems. I lived close to a marine wildlife area and I went there often. I’m pleased that I brought a small stone to the building of true environmental protection by taking part in this protest. I hope with all my heart that our generation and the next ones will get to understand the impact that we have on the planet before we reach the point of no-return – and that’s if we haven’t got there already.” [2]

9-wwf-1erprix

We obviously have here the expression of a certain relationship with Nature, slightly different from the positivist-Cartesian one I was referring to before. Once again, the subject doesn’t consider itself part of Nature: it’s around, even preserved within some kind of box, an “area.” It would seem, then, that the only link that we can nurture with Nature is contemplation, protection and awareness – but little room is left for action, apart from the gentle manipulation of little stones. The last sentence is all the more tragic in that it is as evasive as the prognoses established by scientists: nobody can really say if it’s already too late to do something.

Here again we can identify the trouble with Nature. Nature as wilderness brings us into confusion, as we have to consider it “untouched” or “virgin” to think of it as an object. But, and here comes the paradox, we have an impact on it (a bad one). This time, confusion comes through another door: Human, as a part of Nature, is destroying it [3] .

Science and morale

It’s too late, and if we try to do something about it, it’s too little. Together with the acknowledgement of the impact we have on the planet comes the concept of the Anthropocene. A team of climatologists have coined this new term to define the geological age that is succeeding our current age, the Holocene, which started 10,000 years ago. The geological scale sheds a new light on the problem we’re considering: the extinction of species is indeed a rather common phenomenon. Whether humans roam it or not, the Earth will overcome the situation and keep on going round.

Once again, considering Nature as an object (of science) isn’t helping. The World we are losing is not this neutral entity that we call Earth. The affliction of imagining the end of Humanity has nothing to do with geology. From now on, it would be more proper to say that geology is becoming a moral science.

A recent movie, Interstellar [4], gave shape to this Humanity facing its end. In the future, nothing is left but dirt, wind and corn. There is nothing to do but to become a farmer, helped by high-tech machines. Meanwhile a few scientists understand the tragedy that is going on, and try to find a solution. The earth is being lost; they must find another planet and bring a few women there as well as some frozen embryos. This way, Humanity might be able to survive.

Hopefully this scenario won’t happen, although the happy ending is so convoluted that explaining it will prove difficult: it entails relativity, the 4th dimension, and, most importantly, (family) love.

In the end, a blockbuster being what it is, the scenario emphasizes moral and sentimental issues, and proposes love as a practical solution to the end of the world. Intuitions and feelings (namely a father’s love for his daughter) clash with the cold calculating scientific mind (embodied by a character: the bad guy). Of course, the way we perceive love or family is not being called into question; moreover those links between people are subconsciously leading the physical course of the world. We can then assume that the message being conveyed is that we should pay more attention to our instincts (especially scientists). The time for cold science is over.

Anyway, this kind of reflection leads us to an unsustainable vertigo that has something to do with all the arguments of de Castro and Danowski. The eternal silence of these infinite spaces is producing all kind of side effects that we have to take seriously, including in silly movies – or for that matter advertisements for WWF.

They Have Lost The World

Taking a look at the image again, something akin to a decadent atmosphere prevails. The color of the sky is unreal, dark-polluted blue, the whole picture is tinted by a yellowish filter conveying the feeling of unbreathable air. The main characters look dull, unexpressive, worried and ill at ease. Fortunately, after all this, the girl will put her headphones back on her ears, the black guy will run to his local thrift shop, the pale one will get back behind his computer, etc. There is no hippie, no alter-globalist full of hope over there. Our fashionable crowd was in on it though. They are disenchanted: they have already lost the world.

We’ve lost the world. What can it mean? A state of mind, a stance, a perspective.

In one way, it seems better than having a blind and naive faith in technology. But, in both cases, those Humanities – both the one who knows that we’ve lost the world and the one who thinks that science has to handle the problem – consist of people without a world. And despite the tremendous mise-en-scène, nobody believes that something can be done about it.

From moral to perspective

“White people think that we are ignorant only because we are different. But their thought is short-sighted and obscure. It cannot expand nor rise because they want to ignore death. […] White people don’t dream as far as we do. They sleep a lot but only dream about themselves.” [5]

A shaman, Davi Kopenawa, expresses here criticism of the occidental perspective. Let’s put the picture analysis aside and try to get inspiration from Amerindian cosmogonies: they offer another perspective through which we can consider a people without a world. This exercise may help us approach the ecological issue differently. The genesis of the Amerindian world can be formulated this way: at the beginning, there were only humans and the sky. Then came the time of transformations: some humans (of course, not all) turned into animals, stones, trees, etc. Comparing this cosmogony with the Christian one: we didn’t lose the world because of some original mistake, but we (partly) became the world. The story of Adam and Eve tells us how we lost the world from the start whereas the Amerindian cosmogony explains that there is no original, radical difference between Humanity and Nature.

But if everything is human, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we are getting access to a complete understanding of the world, or that it is easy to interfere with it. If the world is people, then it rather implies that things are a lot more complicated between the world (them) and us.

As a matter of fact, things already tend to be complicated with other Humans. Recently, while spending some time in the countryside, I heard the following : “We are not Nature, that much is clear. Look, animals are not interacting with us, they stay away from us.” Of course, it was easy to reply that it’s also pretty clear that there is no big gathering of all of the animals in the wild – no party we’ve not been invited to. Trying to comment on the beauty of Nature, our friend felt compelled to emphasize our separation from it. Cities are evil, unbreathable, unsustainable, whereas here, in the wild, we feel so much better. As a psychological consequence, and considering our possibilities of action, one feeling is prevalent: guilt.

It’s Just An Image

Do the characters look guilty? Remember our hipster friends from the “Panda revolution”! Alright, let’s face it: they’ve been placed there, shaped and touched up by powerful software. They look like characters in architectural mockups: randomly selected out of a database (woman with a stroller, man on the phone, etc.) in order to indicate the scale of a building. Plain, dull and emotionless people who kind of symbolize the absence of necessity between someone and their surroundings: they could be anywhere. Of course, emotions can be found on the other side of the image – in front of it.

Let’s try to be imaginative and assume that people working for WWF have good intentions. They want people to understand the historical importance of the COP 21 as well as the fight going on against climate change. This fight may take the shape of an uprising in French civil society, but since the Revolution has already taken place, being a part of it doesn’t mean taking to the streets. It’s obviously yet another eye-catching poster churned out by advertising agencies. The onlooker and would-be ecocitizen will take some distance: “I guess I’d better go and install those low energy lightbulbs then…” [6]

From Perspectives to Practices

Now in order to get an alternative emotional dimension, let’s consider the reaction of several putative onlookers. If you’ve ever participated in a demonstration, this will look like a joke to you. If you’ve ever heard of the alter-globalization movement, this will sadden you. And if you’re already trying to get organized, this will downright piss you off. The détournement of future demonstrations that will take place during the COP 21 can be understood as a provocation, or even a preliminary humiliation. As a matter of fact, some people are currently organizing debates and getting ready to take action. Here’s an extract from a call for discussion:

“The technocrats of the COP21 want to “manage” the earth through the use of legislation, taxes, big data, nanotechnologies and carbon markets. But this way, they also get to govern our lives. Maybe it’s the opportunity to try and envisage the ecological debacle differently, out of this scenario that deprives us of any possibility of action and leaves us nothing but a feeling of guilt towards the ecological impact of each and every of our daily actions ?” [7]

In this call, they identify this feeling of dispossession through the concept of governmentality. As mentioned in the introduction, it’s all about making a difference. We are talking about a phenomenon that is already under way i.e the end of the world, and its management. Saving pandas and planting trees is all very well but their ecological disaster seems to be encapsulated in our everyday practices.

Βelieving that Humanity isn’t part of nature is a disaster in itself. Due to this fact, they leave us nothing beyond being regulated eco-subjects. Which is quite convenient, because it looks easy to answer guilt with normative behavior. Moreover, acting as we are supposed to fits totally with the cynical spirit of the times. As an example of this widespread disenchantment, we can assume that the creators of the panda-picture have no clue of the sadness, or the wrath, they could provoke. They are so cynical that they don’t even notice it anymore.

In the end, breaking through cynicism and apathy implies not only feeling something but also reacting. Which means taking sides and understanding that the ecological disaster is about us, but not as a species, nor as responsible individuals, but rather as a bunch of people who have already figured out that something isn’t quite right. And, in this way, understanding that there is a war going on between different kinds of people. Some people are already organizing their life differently and have in mind identified enemies to struggle against. Believe it or not, the anthropological article contains quite an exhaustive list.

To sum up, this struggle is not about saving the world by asking for some decision to be taken (cut CO2 emissions, as written on the banners), the struggle is about forms of life to invent, to go on with. It’s about making room to let it expand and rise.

By the way, those forms of life include the very practice that is suggested by the picture in itself…

Auta.

Source: AntiCOP21

[1De l’univers clos au monde infini, coordinated by Bruno Latour, 2014. There is no translation yet in english, although it is possible to find there arguments in some other book recently published (Is there any world to come?, 2014).

[2J’ai grandi entourée par la nature, et j’ai été très tôt sensibilisée à la protection de celle-ci et plus particulièrement aux milieux marins -je vivais tout près d’une réserve marine et je m’y rendais souvent-. Je suis ravie d’avoir apporté un petit caillou à l’édifice de la protection environnementale en participant à ce concours. J’espère de tout cœur que notre génération et les suivantes, parviendront à prendre conscience de l’impact que nous avons sur la planète avant que nous ayons atteint le point de non-retour, si cela n’est pas déjà fait.” (http://blog.francetvinfo.fr/fais-pas-com-papa/2015/07/09/wwf-et-cop21-pandarevolution-la-campagne-pour-une-revolution-ecologique.html)

[3Destroy or protect as only possible actions of Human towards Nature. The concept of Wilderness express from the XVIII century some kind of fascination for a lost Eden necessarily spoiled by sinful humans. Here two concepts are opposed: Life and Humanity. Cf Michael Cronon, Uncommon ground: rethinking the human place in Nature, 1995.

[4By Christopher Nolan, 2014. Earth is not sustainable anymore for humans, scientists and pilots are trying to find a solution by space-time travelling and difficult calculations.

[5Davi Kopenawa and Bruce Albert, The Falling of the sky, words of a Yanomami shaman, translated by me from the french version, 2010.

[6From You are now fucked, a pamphlet proposing an alternative light on the Camp for Climate Action at Heathrow in August 2007. http://www.climatecollective.org/media/uploads/resources/you-are-now-fucked.pdf

[7Les technocrates de la COP21 veulent « gérer » la Terre à coup de règlements, d’impôts, de taxes, de Big data, de nanotechnologies et de marchés carbone. Mais, ce faisant, c’est aussi nos vies qu’ils gouvernent. Ne pourrait-on pas profiter de la situation pour tenter de penser la débâcle écologique autrement, hors de ce scénario qui nous dépossède de toute capacité d’action et ne nous laisse qu’un sentiment de culpabilité devant l’impact écologique de nos moindres faits et gestes quotidiens ? From a call for discussion Which ecology against the COP 21? the 13/10/15, in Paris. https://paris-luttes.info/quelle-ecologie-contre-la-cop21-3877

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