Tim Morton has a brief, yet interesting, post up on ethnographers problematizing climate change. I found the comments particularly interesting. Jerome Whitington, to whom Morton is responding, writes:
All of climate science is organized around a problem of anticipating an uncertain future. Hence it plays into the quasi-apocalyptic fears …
I actually wrote a post along these lines a couple years ago. There I was intent on analyzing the prevalence of apocalyptic discourse in the contemporary American social imaginary. Whitington’s remark is too brief to be sure, but he seems to be suggesting that worries about climate change are yet another variation of apocalyptic fantasies. This would be a way of reducing climate change to a phantasmatic entity.
My view is rather different. While I readily recognize that discussions of climate change have an apocalyptic dimension, I think Whitington– if I’m reading him right –draws the wrong lesson from this. In my view, we should read the theme of apocalypticism in popular culture psychoanalytically as a symptom. Here I am thinking specifically of religious apocalyptic fantasies, as well as the sort of apocalyptic fantasies we see in various disaster films.
Recall that a symptom is often a compromise formation. While we do indeed suffer from our symptoms, with a psychoanalytic framework, symptoms are a solution to a deadlock of desire that allows the subject to attain jouissance under the mark of erasure. Symptoms speak a truth, but in disguised form. Thus, for example, in his analysis of jokes, Freud shows how the joke allows the person to enjoy a repressed desire in a socially acceptable form. The desire here is the truth, while the joke is the symptom (or, at the very least, the parapraxis). As solutions to deadlocks of desire and jouissance, symptoms can often be compromise formations. In this context, Freud often gives the example of obsessive hand washing. Obsessive hand washing here is conceived as a compromise between the unconscious desire to masturbate and the social prohibition against masturbation coupled with the imperative of cleanliness. Obsessive hand washing becomes a substitute satisfaction that brings all of these elements together in a single activity. This is, in part, what Freud means by overdetermination.
The first question, then, is what truth apocalyptic fantasies might express? Rather than treating the apocalyptic as grounds for dismissing something, we should instead ask what truths these fantasies are speaking in a disguised fashion. Second, we should ask what compromises are being forged in these apocalyptic fantasies? When Freud speaks of fetishes and screen-memories– other forms symptoms can take –he discusses them as ways of averting recollection or confrontation with something traumatic. For example, Freud discusses a screen-memory in a patient who intensely remembered the print of his mother’s dress. He speculates that the reason the free association or recollection stops at this particular memory is that the next thing the person saw was what was under the dress, thereby confronting castration. The fetish, Freud argues, functions in a similar way. Unable to confront castration, the fetishist through displacement or metonymy instead transforms another object such as shoes, stockings, dresses, undies, etc., into the object of sexual desire.
One can find Freud’s points about castration suspect, but the concept of screen-memories is nonetheless very useful in this context. Returning to Whitington’s point about quasi-apocalyptic fantasies, the proper gesture is not metonymical, such that we argue that worries about the impact of climate change are just one more variation in a series of apocalyptic fantasies. Rather, the proper gesture lies arguing that the sorts of apocalyptic fantasies we encounter in religion and popular culture are metonymical displacements or screens of real (intended as a homonym) catastrophe’s that are facing us.
Take your average End of Times apocalyptic fantasy, so popular among variants of Christianity in the United States today. These fantasies refer to a real, but in disguised, screened, or fetishized form. There is a truth in these fantasies, without a knowledge of this truth (recall that for Lacan, knowledge is in the position of the unconscious). The truth of these fantasies is that we really are facing global catastrophe. Knowledge of this truth would entail seeing how this global catastrophe is deeply linked to capitalism, climate change, and the link between the two. Instead, within the popular imaginary, we get a distortion of this link, presenting impending catastrophe as the result of cosmic supernatural forces fighting a battle between good and evil.
The question, then, is why this knowledge must disguise itself in this way. The answer to this question, I believe, is the same as the answer to the question of why the obsessional repeatedly washes his hands, but now in inverted form. Apocalyptic fantasies allow those that harbor them to simultaneously acknowledge the truth of the ravages of capitalism and impending environmental disaster, while simultaneously continuing to live as they wish, keeping the system in place that is leading in these directions. Safe in the imaginary “knowledge” that catastrophe is the result of divine will, I go and buy a Hum-V and McMansion. However, the fact that these fantasies have intensified in recent years– and could the fact that much of this imaginary revolves around the Middle East, ground zero of fossil fuels, be any more telling? –indicates a growing awareness of the real and its omnipresence in our current situation.