There is a long line of thinking and writing that frames ideological negation as emancipatory, or as an advancement of cognitive ability towards a more fluid interpretation of experience that, in turn, affords a wider range and flexibility of adaptive behavior. Dogma is for fools while pragmatic communication is the more useful game, we have been told.
In the early 2000’s some friends and I played with the notion of a move towards post-nihilist thought, which at its simplest meant embracing and weaponizing uncertainly and curiosity in light of the collapse of metanarrative, various kinds of cultural decoherence, and the naivety of traditional humanistic philosophy. What struck us at that time was that the center no longer held anywhere, and that the trajectory of this pathological capitalist civilization was empirically ruinous and incapable of providing the kinds of foundations for meaning and value in the contemporary that many had hoped for.
Instead, we suggested that it is better to let go of untenable delusions and institutions, and lean into the liberating effects of nihilism and existential experimentation. If nihilism was the recognition of the sheer emptiness of sign and the symbolic then post-nihilism was the suggestion that emptiness was an ontological gift that we could use to reconfigure our philosophical dispositions and individual to collective praxis. Embodiment, enaction, and ecological causality replaced discourse, standard politics, and a belief in rational agency as the vectors of productive attention.
A post-nihilist turn would thus be an exciting opportunity for becoming that salvaged from the fragmented and degenerate present to design some semblance of adaptive futures.
Over a decade of escalated planetary heating and civilizational malignancy later a relatively unknown professor of sustainability Dr. Jem Bendell proposed the notion of “deep adaptation.” Deep Adaptation is a heuristic framework for confronting, interpreting, and integrating recent climate change trends and the related implications for “inevitable near term social collapse”. Bendell’s work not only asks us to shift focus of mainstream sustainability efforts and environmental movements from mitigation and reactive adaptation to acceptance and proactive adaptation, but also prompts us to confront the psychological and cultural challenges that living through multiple collapses entails.
Read my primer on deep adaptation here.
Having studied the evidence for collapse and embraced a post-nihilist ethos and cognitive style for years, Bendell’s work resonated with me on many levels, and has provided somewhat of a rudimentary intellectual operating system from which to evolve pragmatic applications for my personal life and my work as a community organizer. Praxis, in its generic sense, is everything. And deep adaptation offers post-nihilist agents (coping-beings) and assemblages a basic model for engaging what seems to be our current metacrisis.
I would like to write more on a productive synthesis between post-nihilist thought and deep adaptation, but for now I’ll just let all possible connections mingle and percolate in the space of Bendell’s latest essay, “The Collapse of Ideology and the End of Escape.” In some alternative timeline the text could have also been titled, “post-nihilist praxis: notes towards a lesser dystopia.”
Here are two excerpts to lead you into the text itself:
If you have begun to anticipate the climate-driven collapse of societies, what can you wish for? I have written elsewhere about the problems of being attached to hope, if that means we falsely assume we can’t engage in the world creatively unless we have an expectation of a lasting positive outcome. But it can still be useful to reflect on what we actually wish for, given our assessments of what we think is inevitable, likely or possible in the near future. When asked by Vicki Robin recently “what might possibly go right,” I took some time to reflect on what might be a realistic wish of mine: one that I could honestly believe, rather than desire to believe in order to feel a bit better or to please an audience (which could be colleagues or a wider public). I found that what I wish for is a collapse of the ideology which has caused so much destruction and suffering, and which will continue to do so as our ecosystems, economies and societies break down. I wish for that ideology to collapse as soon as possible, because the longer it lasts, the more destruction will occur and the less able we will be to reduce harm, experience joy and find meaning as societies break down.
So what is this ideology that I blame for our predicament and wish would collapse as soon as possible? Why is it so bad? Why did it proliferate and, therefore, what could bring it crashing down? How can we live creatively and meaningfully by consciously freeing ourselves and each other from that ideology?
These are the questions I will attempt to answer in this essay. I will not be sharing anything particularly new when describing specific elements of this ideology, but I group those elements in a new way for ease of recollection and discussion. I call this the ideology of e-s-c-a-p-e, which comprises our assumptions of, or beliefs in, the following: Entitlement, Surety (which is another word for certainty), Control, Autonomy, Progress, and Exceptionalism.
I will use the word ‘surety’ to describe the 3-fold assumption that we can be certain of reality, that it is good to be certain, and that there is a universal standard through which we can all agree what is reality and how to know it. One way this assumption manifests is in relation to the idea of ‘rationality’. Which posits that we can be certain of reality by using rational intellect and, secondly, that more use of rational intellect and the artefacts it creates, such as computer models, are always positive in the pursuit of knowledge. The third aspect of this is the idea that knowledge claims are better because they relate to an imagined notion of ‘objectivity’ which is universal by virtue of not being influenced by subjective bias. These are all lies, debunked by critics of logical positivism and scientific empiricism over many decades. At first, the new power of institutions that promoted rational scientific method were widely welcomed as they provided opposition to religion and superstition. Today this approach persists in most cultures, which means people and organisations privilege measurement over depth of understanding. It persists because it is convenient for the power of some, particularly because it requires significant resources to produce the knowledge that will be considered valid in fields like medicine, economy, engineering, planning and suchlike.
However, on one matter rationality and religion are not so dissimilar, because institutionalised religion typically involves its own repressive ‘surety’. It suggests we can make concrete with human concept and language the nature of reality that is universal and transcendent. Any invitation to adhere to simple stories of reality, whether with a religious, nationalist or political flavour, is an invitation away from staying fully present to experiences, complexity, ambiguity and unknowability. With spirituality, sadly religions can F the ineffable.
The cross-cutting theme for all of these ‘delusions of surety’ is that they arise from an attachment to stable forms and an aversion to fluidity. A key part of the ideology of surety is that we assume that because a word describes a concept which describes a reality, that the word is somehow ‘true’ about a reality, rather than being a contingent, fallible and provisional tool for helping us communicate about things whose real nature we don’t fully comprehend through language. The formulas of science and creeds of religion, are all too easily used as escapes from the ambiguity of infinitely complex existence that is only revealed to us through our limited senses, limited capabilities of cognition, and limited modes of conceptualisation and communication with language.
This desire for surety has led humanity to fixate on our stories of reality and add new information into those stories, rather than staying curious about realities. It has encouraged us to look for sensory information that affirm our stories of reality and ignore sensory information which doesn’t affirm those stories. Because of that, we pay more attention to our stories of good and bad than what might be happening around us and how we might be feeling if we didn’t let those stories shape or deny those feelings. In the world of rational thinking, we see this emphasis on surety manifest in a focus on what can be considered credible knowledge claims according to established norms, above attentiveness to what might be happening in the world. It is not an accident that we invest more on measuring and modelling environmental destruction than stopping it. It is why we have more intellectual texts on the precautionary principle than policies that enforce it. It is why there are more people praying to God than giving to charity or taking risks for social justice and environmental protection, despite the destructive times we live within. In each case the rehearsals of personal identity and concern can override our ability to remain radically present to all that is.
Read more: here.