scorched-earth

‘Scorched Earth’: Fighting Fire with Fire (Review)

In which blistering polemic rises to meet blazing global temperatures and our atomized social and civic lives.

Scorched Earth: Beyond the Digital Age to a Post-Capitalist World, by Jonathan Crary, has a multiple-entendre title — he’s describing what the internet is doing to society, he’s describing what capitalism’s long trajectory is doing to the Earth, and he’s writing in a style that can only be characterized as a scorched-earth approach to the platitudes that dominate our contemporary lives. 

In other words, it’s a blistering polemic worthy of the blistering heat waves wracking the Indian subcontinent as I write, and that are baked in to our future by our continuing inability to halt the complex machine of global capitalism. 

Crary’s 120-page screed follows in “a tradition of social pamphleteering,” but in a way that has long fallen by the wayside. Rarely do authors address our common predicament with the fine-tuned anger and precise rhetorical scalpel of a skilled surgeon working on the body politic. But Crary, a Columbia University professor, has done it before in his 2013 book-length essay 24/7, where he pulled down the facade masking the insanity of our sped-up world. 

In Scorched Earth he’s trying to knock the legs from under our endless narcissistic return to the screen in our hands, and proposes that if he succeeds, our tasks will only be much more daunting than even breaking that obvious addiction.

Any path to a survivable planet will be far more wrenching than most recognize or will openly admit. A crucial layer of the struggle for an equitable society in the years ahead is the creation of social and personal arrangements that abandon the dominance of the market and money over our lives together. This means rejecting our digital isolation, reclaiming time as lived time, rediscovering collective needs, and resisting mounting levels of barbarism, including the cruelty and hatred that emanate from online. Equally important is the task of humbly reconnecting with what remains of a world filled with other species and forms of life. There are innumerable ways in which this may occur and, although unheralded, groups and communities in all parts of the planet are moving ahead with some of these restorative endeavors. (p. 4)

These last points are key, and not just to Crary’s essay, but to a rising tide of critical thinking. The colonial project, which Amitav Ghosh’s carefully composed book The Nutmeg’s Curse argues was fundamentally a project not just of ecocide, or genocide, but omnicide — to kill everything — is just one volume that puts colonialism at the logical center of our ongoing predicament. 

[More by this reviewer: “‘Half Earth Socialism’: Half-Baked or Half a Chance?”]

In another new book by Peter Gelderloos (The Solutions Are Already Here: Tactics for Ecological Revolution from Below, Pluto Press: 2022), which parallels Scorched Earth in key ways, he argues “The cause of the global ecological crisis is colonialism. It is no coincidence that the political, economic, and cultural institutions that were developed by the most successful northern European colonizers are the ones that are now global.” (p. 34) 

Both Crary and Gelderloos are offering short but comprehensive and totalizing critiques of the world as we know it. Both take on basic categories of our lives such as science and technology, militarism, and our relationship to nature. Where Crary excels is in his directed criticism of our ongoing acquiescence to the internet. For most readers who are almost certainly seeing these words on a computer screen, it may be difficult to digest that the entirety of the internet is the target of his most potent critique:

… as a constitutive component of twenty-first-century capitalism, the internet’s key functions include the disabling of memory and the absorption of lived temporalities, not ending history but rendering it unreal and incomprehensible… The internet complex is now the comprehensive global apparatus for the dissolution of society. (pp. 8–9)

As a reader here you probably lean a bit to the left, and thus have no doubt participated in one of the many demonstrations of the past few years, whether the women’s march, or the Black Lives Matter protests, or climate protests. 

When you wonder about a blanket statement claiming that the internet is dissolving society, think back to that last demo you were at. How many of the participants were fully present? How many spent the time taking photos and videos and selfies and then furiously posting them to social media as their main form of “participation?” 

Crary details this kind of behavior and juxtaposes it to the face-to-face organizing that went on for years in the 1990s, building affinity groups, practicing tactics, debating strategy in large meetings, leading to the successful shutdown of the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle in November 1998 (for example). 

Looking back on those heady days (I was there), I remember the emergence of “Indymedia” was very exciting, the first time we had a sense that we could create the news ourselves and send it into the world, unmediated by the gatekeepers of the mainstream press. That experiment continues though it has long lost its uniqueness or sense of excitement. 

Long before Twitter, Indymedia was drowned by the 101st Fighting Keyboardists and their endless campaign to drown independent thought in ideological sewage. The swamp that is today’s social media is almost as oxygen-free as the anaerobic dead zones where agricultural wastes have saturated river outlets into oceans. It is Crary’s point that the analogous phenomena are actually profoundly related—our destruction of the natural environment depends on the destruction of our social lives.

One of the most noted and now banalized phenomena of contemporary urban life is the atomized crowd of individuals all seemingly absorbed by the contents of their screens. These all-too-familiar scenes, in any place of assembly, amplify the implosion of public space and constitute a ritual demonstration of the refusal of community demanded by neoliberalism … it is remarkable that at a moment of unparalleled danger for the future of the planet, for the very survival of human and animal life, that so many people should voluntarily confine themselves in the dessicated digital closets devised by a handful of sociocidal corporations. Pathways to a different world will not be found by internet search engines. (pp. 119 and 121)

Hilariously, Crary characterizes the internet as a “digital counterpart to the vast, rapidly expanding garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean.” The thread he wants to pull at is the diminishing human capacity for empathy that he sees as a necessary consequence of our ongoing withdrawal into the digital realm. In this he builds on arguments made elsewhere, particularly the sharp analysis by Italian revolutionary theorist Franco “Bifo” Berardi. 

I covered several books by Bifo on my blog, and through his body of work he emphasizes the exhaustion and collapse of empathy we’re enduring across society. Part of that is imposed by the replacement of what he calls “conjunction” with “connectivity” — or to put it another way, when we forego the unpredictable and open-ended possibilities inherent in face-to-face, in-person interaction with other people (conjunction) for the rigid simplifications of communication required to be connected, we deepen our isolation and reinforce our trauma. It is difficult to perceive the steady alteration of a sense of self that has been imposed by the simultaneous speed-ups that come with the firehose of online information, combined with the social isolation resulting from the reduction of our interactions into the code and needs of an advertising-driven social media world. 

It was supposed to be a new playground of endless utopian possibilities. Decentralization, networks, non-linearity, all promised new dimensions of life, but behind the rhetoric lay “a world in which everything was determined by the desultory metamorphosis of the free market.” Now we’re subject to the relentless selling of 5G as though the increased speed is somehow for our benefit. But echoing Bifo again, Crary nails it: “the overwhelming preponderance of data flows between “things” rather than communication between people… indicates the current emptiness of communicating and the degradation of its rich social etymology.”

Going back to the anti-climatic thunk that followed the unprecedented mobilization of millions in February 2003 in opposition to the Bush/Cheney war on Iraq, both Crary and Gelderloos highlight the role of militarism and its invisibility in our current predicament. 

Counterintuitively, a configuration that supported user-generated content and supposedly enabled a participatory internet culture was a factor in furthering the normalization of war and its invisibility to those millions of people cocooned online. Equally significant is the mass indifference to the quasi-permanent installation of U.S. military infrastructure across the entire planet. (Crary, p. 16)

Gelderloos emphasizes the fact that the world’s militaries are already the greatest producers of toxic waste and greenhouse gases, burn more oil than most individual countries in any given year, and are gearing up to violently suppress the inevitable flows of refugees caused by their own actions. Given the deafening silence towards the ever-spiraling military budget in the U.S., overwhelmingly supported by nearly all politicians whatever their party, isn’t it odd that few have connected the emergence of smart phones and online social media with the utter emasculation of antiwar political organizing? 

Crary takes on science and scientists in a way that doesn’t really serve his argument well. Scientists are far from a monolithic category; after all, the science-from-below that has checked corporate agendas from nuclear power to chemical-soaked agriculture needed renegade scientists, too, to succeed. In the wake of the pandemic and the bizarre convoluted idiocies of Trump and his team in addressing it, a lot of folks have fallen back on a simple admonition to “trust the science.” But that is an empty suggestion when you take seriously the long collaboration between science, scientists, and self-serving capitalist business. As Crary says, science “is the one remaining mirage of legitimacy behind which global capital continues its rampage of planetary looting and destruction.” 

He even goes so far as to hold scientists (all of them!) directly responsible “for the terminal wounding of living systems by plastics, herbicides, pesticides, and petrochemical fertilizers, as well as the toxic impact of the 120,000 compounds (increasing every month) that saturate ourselves and the environment.” 

He clearly overstates his case by using scientists this way—is he blaming the wage-slaves in the labs at biotech companies for the corporate agenda they carry out? Is he blaming the students at UC Davis for the ways corporate agribusiness has used their research? It hardly does justice to the nuanced way that people, at every level of our society, are co-opted into carrying out agendas over which they have no control. Either do your job or get fired, is the real predicament of most scientists, just like most wage- or salaried-workers across the economy. 

But Crary has a point, and it’s amusingly elaborated in Gelderloos’s book:

If you dangle a dollar bill over a cliff, today’s science-driven industries will jump and assume they can use their earnings to buy a parachute before they hit the bottom… The extreme naivete of brilliant scientists should never be underestimated. It was, after all, pacifists who gave us nuclear weapons (particularly Einstein, Meitner, and Szilard). The infrastructural and cultural context—who holds power and how power is shaped and conceived—matters. The intentions of inventors and researchers do not. (p. 55-56)

Both authors are critiquing the state of modern science in part because both are part of a new common sense that insists on what we might call indigenous science as a better way to address our planetary crisis. They come to these sensibilities from slightly different perspectives. 

Crary, an art professor, finds a 19th century painting of city life clogged with horses to highlight an interspecies future, a world of “urban ecosystems yet to come that will be landscapes of entanglement,” a delicious vision. He also invokes the 1994 rediscovery of the Chauvet cave in southern France, the same one that filmmaker Werner Herzog was allowed to digitally film for his amazing “Cave of Forgotten Dreams.” I remember watching it in the theater and being completely bowled over by the detailed rendition, 30,000 years ago, of various bears, horses, aurochs, etc., and my main thought was, “Oh, that bear is the artist’s neighbor! She knows that bear! Very well!” It’s a representation of co-existence, of a neighborhood of living beings, not all human. As Crary argues,

… it is inescapably evident that Western modernization and its disenchantment of the world has brought us to the edge of global catastrophe and extinction. The great heresy for the religions of techno-modernism and Western science is to affirm that the world is animate and that all living things are interconnected and interdependent. An animate world, as the etymology of the word suggests, is one that breathes, that unites everything in it with the rhythmic pulse of a world-soul. (p. 32)

Gelderloos expands the argument:

Plants and fungi are also capable of perception, learning, and making choices. They have their own stories, their own value, but why stop there? It has become clear that cultures that have traditionally viewed the soil or water as living things are effective at preserving them, while the culture that treats soil and water as inert resources has created a planetary catastrophe in which most fertile soil has been destroyed and huge swathes of the globe are facing water shortages. (p. 58)

In another recent small book published also by Pluto Press in 2021, We Are ‘Nature’ Defending Itself: Entangling Art, Activism and Autonomous Zones, Isabelle Fremeaux and Jay Jordan, writing from the ZAD autonomous zone in northern France where activists and farmers have carried out a successful years-long campaign to prevent a new airport from being built in the countryside, argue that the emerging science is as important as earlier paradigm shifts:

In fact, the revolution is as profound as that of a century ago, when relativity and quantum theory reframed Newtonian physics. Now biology, with its ability to sequence genes, to look deep in the microcosmic world, correlate huge data sets and study the entire genome of a being, is showing us what so much traditional and Indigenous knowledge knew all along. Life is not a machine, made up of discrete building blocks, but a dynamic interpenetrating interrelating whole. It does not calculate but feels, it is not dead matter, but alive and expressive at every scale. (pp. 120-121)

Both Crary and Gelderloos offer compelling statistics to help us grasp the ungraspable. Gelderloos informs us that between roads and parking lots the United States has almost 100,000 square miles of pavement, nearly as much as is dedicated to wheat farming. In any city, San Francisco being a good example, nearly 50% of the available “public” land is covered in asphalt for the convenience of motorists.

To produce this mad world, Crary tells us that there are over a half million active quarries and pits employing 45 million people across the world, leading to the obvious but usually elided point: “these minerals must stay in the ground and the urgent task is scaling down a need for unlimited 24/7 energy and for all the unnecessary, disposable products and services that warp our lives and poison the earth.” (p. 31)

Both authors, too, are advocating a revolutionary politics from below, something that cannot be blueprinted in advance, but that will surely share certain qualities and principles. Gelderloos imagines that most streets will have half their paving removed and then some seasons of fungal and vegetable bioremediation will make the recovered linear farms suitable for food growing. Crary acknowledges that each region will determine its own pathway, but suggests that most people will agree that the most urgent projects will “include the expansion of local food production and distribution, the making available of basic health care and paramedical services, the protection of clean water supplies, and the equitable remaking of existing housing stocks.” (p. 122). 

Whereas Gelderloos is fully focused on the kinds of revolutionary subjectivities that he believes can arrest our descent into irretrievable catastrophe, Crary hasn’t quite made up his mind. Not long after his hopeful list of urgent tasks he returns to his assault on the world system. He acknowledges what other critics have emphasized, that the system is riddled with cracks and fissures, any of which can be pried further open into perhaps remarkable possibilities. But Crary reminds us, for now, it is “still held together by individuals clinging to their separateness, their privacy, their freedom from other selves, and their fear of anything communal. The internet complex continues to mass produce these solitary subjectivities, to deter cooperative forms of association, and to dissolve possibilities for reciprocity and collective responsibility.” (p. 123)

It’s worth touching back on a early passage in Crary’s book where he brings in the remarkable German revolutionary of the WWI era, Gustav Landauer. Landauer, an anarchist, tends to be at the margins of most revolutionary thinking, but his basic idea about what constitutes the state and how we might free ourselves from its preponderance still rings true a century later. The capitalist state, Landauer wrote “is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of behavior; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently.” 

Perhaps with books like Crary’s and Gelderloos’s, and reviews like this one, we contribute to the momentum that is already clearly rising in the Global South, among the majority of the world that has never been fully integrated into the “desiccated digital closets” of the internet, to restore and reinvigorate natural systems and our interdependent relationship to all of life. 

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Chris Carlsson

Chris Carlsson

Chris Carlsson, co-director of the “history from below” project Shaping San Francisco (shapingsf.org) and its incomparable archive FoundSF.org, is a writer, publisher, editor, photographer, public speaker, and occasional professor. He was one of the founders in 1981 of the infamous underground San Francisco magazine Processed World. In 1992 Carlsson co-founded Critical Mass in San Francisco, which both led to a local bicycling boom and helped to incubate transformative urban movements in hundreds of cities, large and small, worldwide. Carlsson has written three books: Hidden San Francisco: A Guide to Lost Landscapes, Unsung Heroes, and Radical Histories (Pluto Press: 2020); his 2004 novel set in a future “post-economic” San Francisco, After the Deluge (Full Enjoyment Books: 2004); and his groundbreaking look at class and work in Nowtopia (AK Press: 2008) which uniquely examined how hard and pleasantly we work when we’re not at our official jobs. He has also edited six books. He has given hundreds of public presentations, and has appeared dozens of times in radio, television and on the internet.

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