The future is showing its teeth

Why aren’t you doing anything? Why do you cling on to a system and its attendant politics when it is becoming increasingly clear that it is leading to planetary destruction? These were the questions that striking school pupils and students have been asking politicians across Europe over the past few months. Simply carrying on as we were before is not an option. Reports about climate change have been extremely alarming for more than ten years. Nature as an inert backdrop to human action is an obsolete idea. Nature itself has become a political player. The backdrop has moved to the front of the stage, causing a fundamental plot twist.

The Dutch sociologist Willem Schinkel calls it diluvial politics: political action that wittingly makes the Great Deluge more likely and that is prepared to suffer the destruction it causes. We understand the danger, we know the reasons, and yet we do not change course. Despite all the scientific evidence and despite a scientific panel proposing necessary alternatives, the youth for climate movement was again confronted with diluvial politics on 26 May.

De Standaard ran the headline Is that what we worked so hard for? To sacrifice all our luxuries?, expressing the deep suspicion in Flanders to more radical environmental policies. Perhaps the average Fleming does realize that the promise of an ever-better, more ‘modern’ life is impossible to achieve, but he or she does not yet believe in the alternative either. Our mental map has one deeply ingrained path that leads to the good life. Alternative routes are hardly imaginable or incite great fear. Emotions very quickly run high. Rationality is often difficult to find. If we want to change course, scientific systems analyses are clearly not enough. We must also learn to understand the passions at play here.

And we might as well start with the passions that we project onto that grand modernist-capitalist project, born of the Enlightenment, erected by the French Revolution, and declared paradisiacal by The American Dream. The optimism associated with this dream finds its origins not only in actual material progress, but also in the unconscious fantasies that are implicated in this dream and which guide our emotions. For two centuries, the path of progress, innovation, growth, development, boundless possibility, self-realization and profit has led us away from the church tower and towards the whole world. The affect of this path, the unconscious framework that shapes our emotions, has been incredibly effective. It has led our imagination to run wild even though we knew that there were risks involved and that there would inevitably be victims.

It is in ‘living with’ these victims that the ingenuity of modernistcapitalist affect truly lies. It is a different relationship in space-time that enables us to tolerate the problematic mix of good and evil, luxury and precarity, winners and losers, revenue and refuse. Automated production and an economic system that is almost impossible for outsiders to penetrate have made the relationships in the market of human and material transactions much more abstract. What would happen to the human and material refuse of all this production today and in the future has increasingly little effect on us. Truth has become abstract! It is difficult to identify many paths on Modernism’s material map, and that is precisely how the one path of the modern dream could become so ingrained on our mental map. The dream has become increasingly detached from reality, leading to a profound sense of disorientation.

The American philosopher Lauren Berlant calls it Cruel Optimism: clutching on to a dream while knowing full well that its fulfilment is being obstructed by structural and social circumstances. Berlant researched artforms in different disciplines to analyse how the depletion of reality is experienced, how people attempt to adapt to the situation sensorially and affectively, and which new modes of experiencing the present are being explored. This research resulted in the concept of Lateral Agency, small acts of selfinterruption, self-abolition and self-deferment through which one can tamper with one’s own value structure without immediately focusing on ‘all will be well’. She thus avoids the paralyzing dichotomy between hegemony and counter-practice, between acceptance and rejection.

In Down to Earth, the French philosopher Bruno Latour likewise argues that the solution to our disorientation is no longer to be found in settling the dispute between old and new, between local and global. Especially after the merciless neoliberal version of globalization and the increasingly furious reaction against it from the losers, in the form of extreme nationalism and religious orthodoxy, no solutions can be expected from the modern axis between local and global. Like Berlant, Latour argues in favour of lateral movement, a sideways shift of attention, energy and innovation, in a direction that has not been precisely defined but which is being charted gradually. He calls this new direction the Terrestrial, a place where local specificity and global interdependence coalesce, a complex biophysical web of human and non-human stakeholders full of feedback effects and which is no longer controlled by anyone. A place with no midway point and certainly not with the human in the middle! But if our new place is a complex tangle that we can no longer control, how do we generate desire for this place? How do we make this Terrestrial attractive? Not only do we need to make material reality concrete again by carefully describing as many complex relationships as possible. But more than anything, we need to make our mental map richer. The Terrestrial must be charged with affect. Latour argues that the arts will play an important role in this process, and specifically the theatre. He considers the theatre to be an ideal forum to increase awareness and sensitivity to the Terrestrial: a potential parliament of people and things that can strike chinks in the armour.

Let us hope that all our politicians understand that the future is showing its teeth and that the bite might actually be very venomous. Let us hope that their answer does not simply subscribe to the derailed modernist-capitalist project, but that the concrete material truth is accorded its rights and that they invest in developing a new mental map that charts new paths to the good life.

– Guy Gypens & Katleen Van Langendonck


Willem Schinkel, Pleidooi voor Prepresentatie, De Groene Amsterdammer, 2019 nr. 9
Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism, Duke University Press, 2011
Bruno Latour, Où atterrir ?, Editions la Découverte, 2017 / Waar kunnen we landen?, Octavo, 2018 / Down to Earth, Polity Press, 2018