What I’m trying to do on this site is make links between things I haven’t seen connected together elsewhere*. Hence the links themselves are usually more important than what I have to say about them. In the last couple of days I have come across three things which I think vindicate (albeit, inevitably, in an infinitely more coherent and detailed fashion, one based on research and careful thought rather than guesswork and ‘affect’) the thoughts I’ve been trying to articulate over the past few weeks. First there is this article by Carole Cadwalldr which details the ways in which right-wing trolls have been able to infiltrate the algorithms of Google and Facebook in order to create their own reality, one which is increasingly conditioning ours:
The technology that was supposed to set us free may well have helped Trump to power, or covertly helped swing votes for Brexit. It has created a vast network of propaganda that has encroached like a cancer across the entire internet. This is a technology that has enabled the likes of Cambridge Analytica to create political messages uniquely tailored to you. They understand your emotional responses and how to trigger them. They know your likes, dislikes, where you live, what you eat, what makes you laugh, what makes you cry.
The extent of this manipulation is something I wasn’t aware of a couple of days earlier when I wrote this overlong piece arguing for the need to stick to trustworthy news sources in an age where confusion and insecurity are deliberately being manufactured and distributed. Then, in the new edition of the LRB, Richard Seymour looks at the mentality and ideology of trolls, arguing that in their war against all manifestations of ‘moral seriousness’ internet trolls serve the interests of the far-right resurgence:
“If anything unites trolls, cyber-sexists and conspiracy theorists, it is that they are out to derail the conversation, either for laughs, to shut women up, or to impose their own obsessions. It is not that trolls are necessarily right-wing; often they aren’t, though the right is increasingly trollish. Trump himself often gave the impression that he was trying to see what he could get away with saying for the lulz, whether it was claiming that tax avoidance just made him smart, or stating that his plan to profit from foreclosures was ‘the kind of thinking our country needs’, or denouncing the mothers of dead soldiers. As one of his high-profile alt-right supporters told the Guardian, ‘We’re the troll army! We’re here to win! We’re savage!’”
Finally, this week’s Guardian Books Podcast introduced me to two writers I wasn’t aware of. Amitov Ghosh, the title of whose book ‘The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable’ sounds like it’s been designed by an Amazon algorithm to appeal to me personally just in time for Christmas, talks about the ‘failure of imagination’ that has meant that we have seen very few writers of longform fiction take on the subject of our rapidly warming planet. He argues that the tools which fiction writers use are not up to the task of thinking through and dramatising climate change. He also makes the point that seemingly random events such as sudden hurricanes and floods challenge ideas of gradual progress that have been the foundation of western culture since the Enlightenment, and that since the 1970s in particular predictions of cataclysmic events have generally been treated as rather embarrassing, as something other than serious**/ ***.
Ghosh has, I think, colpito nel segno. Initially, after the available facts about climate change became front-page news in the late 1980s, there was a flurry of responses: Julian Cope’s album ‘Peggy Suicide’ featured a number of imaginative responses, Martin Amis’ ‘London Fields’ was set in a hellishly overheating premillennial London, and then there was (ahem) Ben Elton. Since then, as Ghosh mentions, the most notable writer who has taken on the subject directly is Margaret Atwood, particulary in ‘Oryx and Crake’ and ‘The Year of the Flood’. Other writers who have touched upon it include David Mitchell in ‘Bone Clocks’ and David Foster Wallace in the mind-bogglingly prescient ‘Infinite Jest’. Ben Lerner’s novel ‘10:02’ is bookended by two extreme weather events that hit New York on the first years of this decade and features the word ‘unseasonal’ on pretty much every page. By contrast,Gary Shteyngart’s ‘Super Sad Love Story’ is a set in a near-future dystopian New York but features no mention of any changes in temperature. One writer who is very interested in climate science is Ian Mcewan (see ‘Solar’), but he is pretty much alone in his generation of British writers to have taken on the topic directly. Ghosh also discusses science fiction; the most obvious precursor to Atwood is JG Ballard, with his early 60’s novels ‘The Drought’ and ‘Drowned World’****. Something tells me that in the work of Ray Bradbury speculation about future changes to the earth’s climate abounds, but I haven’t read much of it so I don’t know. Beyond that it’s a struggle to think of any other imaginative writers who have written about what a warming world will be like.
Poetry has been more consistent in its approach to the topic. After all, it is to that medium we turn when trying to dealing with great trauma or deep joy*****. The Guardian collected some poetic responses here. As for music, beyond the odd track by Radiohead and possibly Muse (who may have sung about global warming, but I’m not about to listen to them to find out), where are the climate change-themed songs, or indeed albums? For that matter, where are the works of art that have forced us to confront this central element of the unacknowledged present? There are films which have tried to tackle the subject, most notably ‘Children of Men’. We have also seen ‘The Road’ and, ‘Gravity’, both of which paint plausible nightmare scenarios while cowering away from giving the monster a name. It seems that, at least for Hollywood and almost certainly for its audiences, planetary overheating is too much to take on board on a ship that already appears to have lost its orbit. After all, knowledge of global warming conflicts with everything else we know about the world, everything that underpins our lifestyles and our worldviews, and therefore it is very, very hard to take the threat seriously, even for those who think for a living on our behalf.
I used to think this failure or refusal to take things seriously was a particularly British, or at least English, characteristic – partly because it is a tendency I recognise in myself. As someone who is both English and (a bit) German, I feel confident in my assertion that the English equivalent of ‘I was only following orders’ is ‘I was just having a larf’. Anyone who wants to understand the cultural context for Brexit is very well-advised to read the English (comic) writer Jonathan Coe’s extremely incisive LRB article on Boris Johnson. That article echoes a lot of what Momus wrote in his essay on English self-deprecation. This habit of not-knowing-when-you’re-being-serious seems partly to derive from a sense of what Paul Gilroy called ‘post-colonial melancholia’. I’ve often remarked to myself that a group of random English people meeting abroad will often find the subject of TV comedy the most comfortable and safest one. After all, as Freud pointed out, laughter creates community. As an English person I automatically see that statement in a positive light; the times we are living through suggest that it has far more troubling implications.
Perhaps, after all, it’s not only an English thing, or at least not only. Maybe it’s a general condition. Trolling seems to be motivated by the most infantile of impulses, the most puerile instincts. The current mood of infantilism, anti-intellectualism and contempt for experts seems to reflect this. I noticed many years ago that one of the key tropes of a programme such as South Park is its gleeful (and often very enjoyable) spite towards anyone who takes themself seriously, who has progressive or radical pretensions. Such shows and the culture they are part of delight in their apparent overturning of all moral values. The Schlemiel blog’s report on an election night online comedy broadcast featuring Doug Stanhope identifies a moment at which the exhaustion of this superficial nihilism achieves some sort of dismal self-awareness. Comedy as a hobby, a taste, a pastime is unavoidably a form of distancing oneself from reality, a mode of self-protection. So much online commentary, in all its spitefulness, recalls for me George Monbiot’s comment in his article on ‘The Road’: ‘a hardening of interests, a shutting down of concern, is taking place among the people of the rich world’. In an age which struggles to take anything seriously, which scoffs and sneers at any attempt to think and speak earnestly about subjects of any scale or import, how on earth do we begin to take climate change seriously? One way may be to simply stop treating it as a joke.
* Anyone is more than welcome to tell me I’m stating the obvious. I don’t understand why, if it’s all so self-evident, I haven’t seen these connections made elsewhere. So I’ll go on making them.
** I would like to posit my theory that the non-experience of the non-event of the Millennium Bug of 2000 is another factor in making us so much more complacent about possible catastrophes.
*** The podcast currently has two comments, one of which is from a climate denier.
**** It strikes me as significant that in his introduction to one of those novels Martin Amis glibly labels Ballard a climate denier because he failed to predict the exact nature of the changes to the earth’s atmosphere that would actually take place.
***** Having now read Ghosh’s book I agree with his argument that the form of poetry is better suited to the topic than the bourgeois novel is.