Responding to Anthem’s post on the BP oil spill, Graham writes:

There’s been a bit of a sick feeling in my stomach since late April because of this story. As I was telling someone this morning, it’s not just the disaster that’s making me feel that way, but the worry that quite possibly nothing will change as a result. Is that possible? I hope not, but that’s what it feels like. Disasters can be strangely useful as long as they are the motive to set up permanent taboos and completely new ways of tackling problems. Yet here I’m getting the sense that the public is just not shaken up enough by this incident. Then again, maybe the public is simply choosing to go into avoidance as I did until this is solved, and then the post-mortem will aggressively begin. Who knows?

Like Graham, I’ve been walking about in a haze of sickness and depression in response to this oil spill (and the response to the financial crisis, and the turnout on healthcare, and the Middlesex situation, and…). Not only is there the profound economic fallout that will accrue as part of this event, but there is the extensive ecological impact this will have. But, I think Graham, above all, hits the nail on the head with the public response to this. It just seems as if people aren’t shaken up by this, but, as the old Pink Floyd song would have it, that we are comfortably numb:

Do I just yearn for my life to change so much that I harbor unconscious apocalyptic fantasies of ecological and economic disaster bringing about complete economic disaster, or are my worries on the ecological and economic front genuinely warranted? I don’t know. But, one way or another, I cannot help but feeling that very bad things are coming down the pipes. I wish I had more faith in my fellow humans, but being the cynical misanthrope that I am, I can’t help but feel that things will be very ugly should these economic and environmental collapses occur. Nor are the two separable. The devastation of the environment is a direct biproduct of capitalistic neoliberal economic systems. And people given what they are, coupled with what American ideological history has been for the last few decades, it’s not difficult to predict that with economic and environmental collapse, with the plague, hunger, scarcity, and natural disasters that it will bring, will be brutal towards one another on the grounds of religious and ethnic differences.

But as Graham puts it, one of the most disconcerting aspects of the BP oil disaster is that people aren’t more shaken up. This numbness, this lack of outrage, this lack of shock, isn’t unique to this disaster. Somehow it seems that people responded this same way to the economic crisis, to the fiascos of the Bush administration with respect to fabricated reasons for going to war, torture, assaults on privacy, the theologization of government, etc., etc., etc. Nothing seems to phase us anymore. It’s as if nothing could happen to shock or surprise us.

How has this come to be? How have we come to be so indifferent? Is it that we really are this indifferent? Or is it as if somehow our social system has lost all capacity to register events? Doesn’t everything today somehow seem to be like a wedding or a high school prom where affect is experienced as thoroughly fabricated such that you painfully experience that you are supposed to experience a certain affect but are incapable of experiencing that affect precisely because you experience that affect as something that you’re supposed to experience it. As a character in Burton’s Willy Wonka put it, “things are just so much more realistic on television”. Or is it again that somehow we sense that the social system we live in is so redundant, that it has so many “backups” guaranteeing that the distribution of power will remain the same, that we experience anguish at these things but feel powerless to do anything to change them. Ah, what hopeful words Marx articulates when he points out that capital can only exist as a process. At least then we can imagine ways of halting this process.

But today it seems that there is no way to escape from capture. Like quick sand or a spider’s web, we perhaps feel as if the more we struggle the more we’re trapped within these relations (anyone wonder why I’m so suspicious of relations? They’re not liberating.). And maybe this is why people are responding with this indifference. They mourn the destruction of the beauty and fecundity of the Gulf Coast, they are fully aware of the economic devastation this will bring, but towards their government they also feel that the hooks of corporate power are so deep that they can’t be plied loose in any meaningful and significant way. And if such is true, all we can say is “yes sir! can I have another!” for there is no democracy or representation in such a system (and here I always wonder why certain so-called radicals decry democracy, rather than recognizing how undemocratic our system is). Is this all that’s open to us? To wait for that angelic point where it all collapses, where it isn’t a question of realizing that we can’t sustain this sort of exploitation and consumption forever (a mere 150 years so far), but where this system of exploitation and consumption actually breaks, and where we have to deal with the brutal actions of our fellow great apes who failed to recognize that they were snakes eating their own tails and who instead conclude that such devastation is the judgment of God, or the result of other ethnic groups, or the result of secular humanists? Is this what we have to look forward to?