It’s hard to find an outlet for everything that I get to think about when I’m doing research for my thesis, my songs, or for other things I write. I’ve decided to write a bit about art and my research here. Maybe someone else will find it helpful or interesting too.
So, I’m writing a PhD thesis on the connection between art and culture and environmental justice.
When I started my PhD two years ago, I had this ambitious idea about art as transforming society — about stories as an ethical “tool” which could make human beings moral actors in a complex global system. A kind of environmental justice cosmopolitanism. (That kind of cosmopolitanism is becoming quite popular in parts of the environmental movement, it seems to me. Literary scholar Ursula Heise is one of its proponents.)
But can those who are responsible for the present situation of environmental degradation and injustice really be trained to be moral actors through art? How likely is it that the strata of human society that is responsible for environmental destruction and human inequity is going to listen to the poetic, existential musings of artists and cultural critics? Why would bureaucracy be susceptible to such nuanced, quiet voices?
It seems to me that the ones who listen to objections to injustice and destruction, and who find Western ideas of the good life unsatisfactory, are already living on the outskirts of the society that is being questioned. It is as if being marginalised is a prerequisite for viewing life and society from that kind of critical perspective. In The Utopia of Rules, anthropologist David Graeber writes about “the lopsided imagination” and “interpretive labor”; about the way underprivileged people are forced to analyse and interpret social relations and structures in order to understand people who have control over them, while those with power over others only have to maintain their position by force and so never have to face any imaginative challenges. Graeber concludes that this leads to a specific kind of stupidity.
Because of the unimaginative, uncritical stupidity of privilege, it’s mostly people who are somehow marginalised within the Western cores of the modern world system or denied access to these territories through militarised border control who agree with objections to that society’s success story.
How many are we?
I don’t think the arts alone can “save the world” any longer, nor do I think cosmopolitanism can. Because people who have ended up pursuing power don’t give a fuck about objections to the unequal world system and they couldn’t care less that some depressed misfits feel that the lives that privileged Westerners are supposed to live are meaningless. Or rather, they probably don’t understand where people who dissent are even coming from. They might not even think we really exist. This makes me think that Argentinian literary scholar Walter Mignolo is on to something when he suggests that people live in different worlds, in different universes of value and meaning.
How can people be so different from each other? Whom should dissenters try to reach? How many people are enough like us to understand what we’re saying?
I’m writing about “us” — as if I’m writing only for those who already know what I mean. Who else would read my blog? Definitely not people who couldn’t care less about art.
Art. What is it about art — about language and melodies, colours and patterns — that connects the dots of the world (as Amanda Palmer writes in The Art of Asking) and renders reality visible? What is the feeling of seeing through to another dimension but one that is at the same time part and parcel of this life here on earth?
I almost understand but then it slips away again — like Virginia Woolf’s “moment of being”, that short glimpse of a feeling.
It feels magical. “Magical thinking is what you need to get by” (“Det är det magiska tänkandet man behöver för att klara sig”), Joakim Berg sings in “Ett år utan sommar” (“A year without summer”). But the magical thinking that gives hope to the global upper class, the bullshit white-man’s-burden putative development apologetic of those who live off of inequity and environmental load displacement to other parts of the world, that kind of magic is the exact opposite of what anyone needs. One needs hope, but never that kind of hope.
I once said something to that effect in a seminar and got the response that it sounds like a kind of depressed outlook on life. But I’m not depressed – I’m angry, and I think we need much more anger in struggles for environmental justice. If environmental justice cosmopolitanism is about playing down conflicts and proposing reforms and compromises within existing institutions, environmental justice anger is about seeing that there is no way to negotiate or compromise with those who have already stolen everything from you, who have no interest in listening to you, who even think you don’t exist, and who may well threaten to kill you if you don’t comply with their demands.
The follow-up question then becomes: Is anger about violence? Maybe I’ll write about that (and Franz Fanon) sometime in the future.