The way isn’t forward, it’s awkward
Selah works as a device to frame Meillassouxian advents and the responsibilities/imperatives they instigate. In this case, the imperative of the pause. But this frame is too wide. It doesn’t tell us what we can pay attention to. It says approach with hesitation, but what to approach? Further insights into the nature of Selah and the advents it frames are possible when we read both concepts with Walter Benjamin’s idea of the messianic.
Though Walter Benjamin – German-Jewish thinker, historical materialist, cultural critic, born nearly fourscore years before the First World War, fascinated with photography and images, dead by morphine pill overdose as his escape from the Gestapo proved futile – may not have written specifically about the diapsalmata, the Selah, he did write about the injustice of history and the messianic ‘moment’ when another temporal realm bursts through the linear continuity of history, upending the tyrannical march of modern progress. Reading Benjamin – and those who are writing the dynamics of our time through his revolutionary texts – it becomes difficult to fail to notice how Selah, especially when seen together with the phenomenon of climate change, is about time.
Or specifically, history as progress. And the imperative to end it.
Benjamin witnessed the rise of Hitler’s Nazi, and obviously had a lot to worry about. Though the shadow of the Third Reich loomed large over Europe, spitting fire and crashing the cymbals of war upon every notion that stood in the way of its realization, eventually driving Benjamin to take his own life in 1940, through his lifetime he was deeply concerned about a larger “war” – one which engulfed the forces of fascism and focused his keen attention on a ‘resolution’. This war was the war between the past and the present. When Benjamin sat with studying this war, he unearthed the hidden construction of social and material relations that instigated an oppression of the past and fetishization of the future – the very same relationships between humans and the world that are part of the climate collapse phenomenon today. His critique of progress emerged from a desire to offer a “total reconception of the way history is written and understood”… a desire to wrench time from the unidirectional flow of history with the might of the messianic. Only with this effort could he address the oppressive forces at the heart of capitalist Europe – forces we still contend with today.
Arcades grew in popularity in Paris after 1822, demonstrating an architectural mastery over iron – and leading to “an unprecedented ability to display goods…” Blending this mastery of elaborately constructed covered passageways with the capitalist urge for newer and newer things, Paris became for Benjamin a “dream world” or mythical fairyland lost in its addiction to its own fetishes. Agreeing with Marx, he noticed that social relations were being displaced into objects. In time those objects took on a life of their own, becoming more and more fantastic in their distortion of the ‘primary’ relationships they once referred to. In other words, capitalist Europe had fallen into a commodity fetishism that was increasingly committed to consumption.
Today, in contemporary society, one might notice this commodity fetish in the exhausting tautology of social networks like Facebook, where communication becomes a discretized object in itself, taking on the hitherto inconceivable values and attributes of likes, emojis and tweets in ever fantastical dissociations from prior material needs of communication. The same might be true of pornography and the erotic fetishization of sexual desire – the possession of which denies the experience of possessing. Because of the drive for novelty and the deadening self-referentiality that results when we allow ourselves the luxury of variability while simultaneously stabilizing (objectifying/fetishizing) everything else, our social relations become deleterious and predatory. One may think further along with Benjamin and his alarm about the transformation of relationships into objects of fantasy by pointing to the ways that contemporary justice is fetishized, becoming increasingly subservient to class interests and the desire to wrest modern power away from an ‘enemy’. Or the ways that climate disaster feeds back into our self-assurance of righteousness, and guilt becomes a narcissistic reinscription of human agency over nature.
By focussing on the Parisian arcades as a crystal instance of European capitalist modernity and the hidden structure of time that fuels the feverish quest for commodity novelty and progress, Benjamin worked to reimagine the matter of history, no longer as the flow of progress, but as something different. He wanted to rehabilitate the past, not by seeking to recover it but by breaking it loose from its methodical decommissioning by the forces of progress. By de-fetishizing it. The answer to fascism, to oppression, to exploitation and totalitarian regimes, wasn’t going to be a new fetish, a new object down the line that maintained the phantasmagorical sleep in modernity’s fairyland of commodities, but an awakening from that dream-filled sleep. The dream is progress: the “illusion” of continuity, the tyranny of a single story or time mode, the promise of a future summit or telos where history is actualized, the hope that in the course of things we might create a progressive response to climate change; the awakening is a standstill. The montage. Selah. The lightening shock of rupture undoing the steady phantasm of rapture.
Benjamin really called for something revolutionary: a cessation of history in a “flash that excludes any predetermination and prohibits continuity in whatever follows”. This is the reason why Barad notes that “Walter Benjamin was a philosopher of fragments and constellations. Discontinuity and juxtaposition played strongly in his works, over and against continuity and linear succession.”
For Benjamin, (climate) justice isn’t something to come down the line, pinned to some future time, since the historical continuum itself – the unidirectional and ‘inevitable’ flow of time from past to present to future – is the injustice to address. Redemption for the oppressed past and from late capitalist fascist tendencies isn’t written into enacting ever more progressive values, or relying on the promises of the nation-state or Silicon Valley, its politicians, technocrats and their bureaucratic legislations and inventions to come. History itself is the problem – the linear trajectory that treats moments as infinitesimally thin slices of ‘Now’ stacked upon each other, rushing from the irredeemable past to the fleeting present to the elusive future. The colonial assemblage of industrialized minutes, synchronized seconds, neoliberal economic considerations, flattened telluric bodies, rushing trains, and migrating spirits that together produce, sustain, and centralize the dominant modern figure of “Man”.
Progress, the unfurling of a manicured red carpet over moss-tinged stones and through the dense forests of the more-than-human, worlds the world in ways that centralizes Man. It is the matter that is at stake here – the issue to address head on.
Barad writes that for Benjamin, “a critique of the notion of progress is a central theme… including a certain faith in progress among those on the Left who would invoke it in the fight against fascism. But for Benjamin, progress is powerless to act against the destructive force of fascism: ‘No unfolding historical development will overcome fascism, only a state of emergency that breaks with a certain faith in historical development.” As Benjamin says, ‘One reason why fascism has a chance is that in the name of progress its opponents treat it as a historical norm.’ If both fascism and protests against it function not according to some exceptional mode of operation, but through the usual way things get done, through ‘democratic’ elections and state-sanctioned forms of violence, then resistance to fascism requires a rupture of the continuum of history, the bringing about of a ‘real state of emergency’.” For Benjamin, the Left and Right are the same idea.
The challenge of emancipation from oppression lies in rethinking time-as-progress. Progress comes with its own world. When “time” is performed as progress, what results is a linear causality of events and – as such – a sterilization of the ecstatic connections and dynamic relationships that breathe life into everything. Linear agency is a teleological highway that runs through a field of invisible others rendered as resources. Progress is the view from the architecture of permanence and human centrality. It looks at the wilds and gives it purpose – converting and distilling its wildness into figures and bits and usable data we can manage; it insists on universal meaning and instrumentality. In a more-than-human world, insisting on pervasive purpose is violence, not discovery. This is the violence of the state. The violence of activist justice as inclusion within the state and access to citizenry.
The ‘trick’ of redemption is the interruption of this temporality of progress. A “state of emergency”, meaning more than violence applied by humans on humans, but an energetic event that “blasts open” the corporeal logic of progress, allowing multiple other temporalities to stream through.
How did Benjamin reinvent history, or think about the disruption of the flow of history? He offered the image of a constellation, a “dialectical standstill”, about which Barad writes:
Constellations, like crystals, seem to be purely spatial arrangements, but Benjamin uses them in a temporal modality: In particular, if “standstill” indicates the arrest of time, the crystallization of history in that configuration indicates an array of times. How can we understand this? When we gaze up into the night sky and see specific spatial configurations of stars we call “constellations,” the stars are not all the same distance from us. Some stars are farther away than others. And since the speed of light is a constant, when we look at more distant objects we are looking deeper into the past. For example, when we look at our closest star, the sun, we are seeing the way it looked eight minutes ago—that is, we are watching in the present something that happened in the past. Staring at a constellation, we are witnessing multiple different pasts in the present, some more distant than others. Constellations are then images of a specific array of past events, a configuration of multiple temporalities, “a constellation in being.”
Thinking of history as a sprinkling of radical discontinuities, as a constellational assemblage of multiple temporal modalities, as an explosion that blasts through the highway of the single timeline of progress – making the past seductively available to the present and the present to the past – is the offering of the image of the standstill Benjamin wrote about. This image is the emancipatory awakening flashing up obliquely to render out of joint the inexorable march of progress. This is the messianic, this showing up or making evident of other temporal modes. The fourth advent.
But not so fast. We shouldn’t be so much in a rush to enumerate advents, indexing them as if they could fall into a progressive sequence. In fact, the concept of the messianic that Barad demonstrates through her reading of Benjamin takes her to her comfort zone of quantum field theory. Here, she shows how every atom is actually the point at which infinities cross each other out. A self-touching perversity in quantum field theory shows that every ‘thing’, every bit of matter, is already an “enormous multitude”:
Each “individual” is made up of all possible histories of virtual intra-actions with all others; or rather, according to QFT, there is no such thing as a discrete individual with its own roster of properties. In fact, the “other”—the constitutively excluded—is always already within (but not fully enclosed by the self): the very notion of the “self” is a troubling of the interior/exterior distinction. Matter in the indeterminacy of its being un/does identity and unsettles the very foundations of non/being.
Barad affirms that the messianic, this flashing up of indeterminate temporalities, this radical discontinuous springing forth of advents, is built into the very structure of matter itself. Advents are thus not ‘events’ that happen once in a while; every moment is charged with an advent. Every moment is charged with messianic power. This thick and constellational “Now” is the politics of Selah, the imperative to hush in the presence of the (new) ordinary, to notice the messianic in collective practices that slow down the flow of progress.
For Benjamin-Barad, we need not “wait” for some future moment. Here, in the thick now, dwells revolutionary opportunities for redemption.
It is important to stress that Benjamin isn’t speaking of the Messiah of theological conception – not a human figure that steps in at the end of history, but messianic time, splinters and traces of the eternal that interrupt the passage of time and its conformism to the dictates of progress. This stepping in (like advents) happens within history: the trace flashes up in history, but it is not of history. It is outside the text, seeing the text in the very posthumanist way the aliens in the movie, Arrival, saw time – as a constellational image, as rhythms of transience, not the transcendent and monotonous fetishization of the next.
Could what we call climate change be read as a messianic arrest of happening in its resistance to neat conceptualization, in its colossal rejection of temporal succession, in its defiance of thinkability and referentiality, in its ability to manoeuvre away from resolution, and in its demand for unprecedented forms of organization? And is this Selah a messianic moment, an advent that hushes us up and brings everything to a standstill, while charged with an invitation for unprecedented forms of organizing? Could it offer a revolutionary chance to address the past? Could climate change be the Meillassouxian World in its rhythmic passing away, in its inhalation/exhalation, tearing down the apparatus of progress, mocking the figure of the propertied Man, streaming in from other temporalities we have relegated to the “pre-Holocene” (the Ice Age we conquered)?
Postactivism: Living with the Ruins, Learning to Die, Decorating Downfall (A Conclusion?)
The world is not about to end; we are already living with a different World. We are already in the midst of loss and downfall. Suddenly, 2030 is not the object of our keen interest. “2030” is a framework of progress, another gesture that insists on noticing climate change as a challenge or problem. But the advent of the messianic forces upon us other temporalities. We see not just “2030” (the year when the IPCC says we reach a milestone in our efforts to ‘defeat’ climate change) but the lingering years of 1945 (Hiroshima), 1619 (first African slaves brought to Virginia in America), 1622 (Indian massacres), 1836 (lynching of Francis McIntosh), 1692 (Salem witch trials) and 1919 (Jallianwala Bagh massacre).
In a World that exceeds thinkability, in a world we have no language for, one ‘fundamentally’ delinked from a prior due to the traversal flashing up of ‘nature’ in her flamboyant passing away, and one in which forward movement is now impossible, we need new forms of inquiry. We need new ways of making sense. We need new ways of listening.
Postactivism is the collective inquiry into the kinds of organizing, capacities, response-abilities, im/possibilities and desires we intra-act with in a strange World. Instigated by Selah, the call for creative foreclosure, postactivism is the kind of work that feels fitting in these messianic moments.
A climate morality now divides between those fighting hard for climate justice and those who are said to deny climate change even exists. The conversation is locked between these opposing sides. And every opinion that even slightly deviates from the centrality of carbon, from the drive for new climate legislation, from the efforts to educate people about carbon emissions, is said to be tantamount to climate denial.
However, justice itself is queered in this strange new circumstance. With the container of justice blasted open, a rhizomic abundance of response-abilities spill forth.
I have often thought of the trickster God of the Yoruba people and diasporic communities in the Americas, Èsù, and stories that are told about ‘him’ and his relations with history. First of all, he is said to be the Dark Man of the “Crossroads” – the point at which forward movement is queered. Where bodies meet other bodies in strange intra-actions, and become diffracted. Stories abound about how he travelled with the slaves from the old Slave Coast in the Middle Passage towards the New World. Because of the duplicitous nature of the trickster, and his role as an instigator of new kinds of bodies and worlds, I believe that Èsù not only travelled on the slave ships, but also guided them to African shores in the first place. The world ended for millions of African communities who lost their kin to the transatlantic slave trade. But for Èsù, an experimental apparatus was being stitched; he was making creolized bodies, disturbing the purity of identities and opening up other places of power. For Èsù, from a posthumanist perspective, the Middle Passage was a rite of passage. A passing away.
Rites of passage are ways of dying wisely. In ways that are often unnoticed, in modest gatherings that belie the weight of their considerations, in ‘small’ and barely perceptible ways, people are experimenting with dying. They are heeding the call to fail, to embrace loss and transience, to notice themselves within a web of life that does not privilege human bodies or the fetish of survivability.
What is this death?
It is a multi-levelled one – the loss of a civilization, the irreversible death of difference (biodiversity) and the ultimate limit of the human project. This is a difficult conclusion to make, but speculative realism is the ability to write the statement ‘the end of organization’ without inserting a sub-clause – what Meillassoux would call the ‘secret codicil’ of modernity – namely all the statements, practices and strategies that buoy up a secret belief that this civilization will last forever. It is a bleak perspective because current ecological conditions can only elicit such a mood. An unflinching look at this situation invariably leads to despondency. Human activities have had irreversible consequences. The majority of humans who have lived on Earth have not been responsible – there will be many unjust deaths.
This bleak perspective is not anti-futural. As Campbell, McHugh and Ennis aver, the space for optimism in this picture comes from the opportunities within the creative foreclosure of the old World. By this we mean organizing for the end of the World that is an escalated…commitment to divest justly – a preparing for an end without apocalypse. Accepting what has occurred will, we contend, be the first step toward to an organizing without hope – without hope that we can return to the World that has ended. Bleak optimism is therefore Janus-faced; one side finally acknowledges the unbounded, unthinkable, incalculable nature of this new reality, the other side, a chance to experiment with organizational forms of justice, ethics, politics and reason that are without precedent. The bleak optimist realizes this, and enacts the creative foreclosure…
This death is not the version of anthropocentric imagination. In a world that is entangled and entangling, the severity of an absolute terminal point and a cessation of being seems to me a reinstatement of that old binary that prohibited the material world from being a place of vitality. What if our dying is a spreading out, a creolization of bodies, a sanctuary that reworks our exhausted boundaries? What if dying is making sanctuary? And what if this apprehension of dying as a posthuman endeavour is the happiness Benjamin connects to the messianic?
Powehi. Climate change. Monsters at the gate. Advents. Selah. Their guttural cries must be heeded. Something ancient asks us to give account for our centrality. To heed is to die. And therein lies our deepest hope for potentially wiser worlds.