Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Quitting the environmental shame game.

California State University, Fullerton

Many of us have had that particular social media experience: we read a post railing against a behavior or taking a self-righteous stand on an issue and feel “called out.” Do I do that? Am I part of the problem? Are they talking about me?! I had this experience recently, when a colleague in my field of environmental humanities sent out a Tweet chastising academics who flaunt their conference jet-setting on social media, thereby stoking the desire for a fossil-fuel intensive lifestyle. I felt particularly shamed by this commentary since, at that very moment, I was headed from L.A. to the International Conference on Environmental Humanities in Alacalá, Spain. And, yes, I had also Tweeted about it.

I could have sputtered back defensively or picked apart my colleague’s logic, but I ultimately chose not to engage in an old and tired circuit of eliciting and shouldering shame—a circuit that, as I show in my new book from the University of Minnesota Press, a recent wave of environmental artists and activists are also rejecting. This book, Bad Environmentalism: Irony and Irreverence in the Ecological Age, demonstrates how said artists and activists avoid, and even mock, the palette of affects historically associated with environmentalism: not only shame and guilt but also sanctimony, self-righteousness, “gloom and doom,” reverence, and sentimentality. Recognizing that these affective modes are limited and limiting, they instead embrace modes such as irony, irreverence, glee, absurdity, perversity, and playfulness.

As I establish in the book, many environmentalists are familiar with shame. We both feel it and inflict it. And our enemies attempt to stoke it as well. Recall, for example, how conservative critiques of the 2017 People’s Climate March seized upon the minimal trash produced by marchers, deploying it as evidence of their hypocrisy. And when I call this circuit of shame old and tired, I really do mean it: while my book focuses mainly on contemporary Anglophone media, we can trace the shaming of environmentalists back to at least the early 1800s, when a critic of Joseph Ritson, the British author of An Essay on Abstinence from Animal Food, as a Moral Duty, snarked that Ritson was a hypocrite because he “murder[ed] whole ecologies of microscopic organisms every time he washed his armpits” (as paraphrased in Tristram Stuart’s The Bloodness Revolution, 368).

Most of us (I hope) are guilty of washing our armpits. But do we need to feel guilty? As I argue in Bad Environmentalism, affects such as shame and guilt are stultifying, especially for budding activists. They feed into so-called “purity politics,” or the view of art and activism as zero-sum games in which any imperfection renders all other efforts moot. Since we can assume that anti-environmental forces will always manage to find problems with environmental movements, perfection is an impossible goal. Thus, I prefer the mindset that nature writer David Gessner, drawing on his friend Dan Driscoll, has proposed: “‘We are all hypocrites…But we need more hypocrites who fight’” (All the Wild That Remains, 165).

In my book’s fourth chapter, titled “Gas-Guzzling, Beer-Chugging Tree Huggers: Toward Trashy Environmentalisms,” I examine the works of some exemplary “hypocrites,” from Edward Abbey’s cult-classic novel The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975) to David Silverman’s animated The Simpsons Movie (2007) to Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens’ mountaintop removal documentary Goodbye Gauley Mountain: An Ecosexual Love Story (2013). I show how these works deflect shame and accusations of hypocrisy, developing in the process a kind of “trashy environmentalism.” That term, of course, invokes lower-class designations such as “white trash” and “trailer trash”—which is no coincidence, as the texts in my chapter feature lower-class perspectives that have historically been shamed, and shunned, by mainstream culture at large: those of white populations known variously as “rednecks,” “bogans,” “crackers,” and “hillbillies.” As I discuss, mainstream environmentalism is associated primarily with the middle classes; the performance of voluntary restraint and refined consumerism defines both mainstream environmentalism and middle-class lifestyles. These artists and activists, instead, make “vulgar” excess—material, aesthetic, as well as affective—the very basis of their environmentalism.

For example, I highlight how Abbey’s radical, anticapitalist environmentalists, when they’re not busy
sabotaging development in the U.S. desert, spend their free time painting penises on Smokey Bear signs and making impulse purchases of beer coozies and harmonicas. These characters consistently refuse to get bogged down in guilt or otherwise relent in their activism, even when they do grasp their own shortcomings—which often makes for hilarious interludes. At one point, for instance, The Monkey Wrench Gang’s narrator focalizes through protagonist George Hayduke’s consciousness as he steers his Jeep, intoning, “Gotta remove that bridge. Soon. Them bridges. Soon. All of them. Soon. They’re driving their tin cars into the holy land. . . . There’s a law against it. A higher law. Well you’re doing it too, he reminded himself. Yeah, but I’m on important business. . . . Anyway, the road’s here now, might as well use it” (27).

Sprinkle and Stephens, the creators and protagonists of Goodbye Gauley Mountain, offer a queer, feminist twist on the masculinist hijinks of The Monkey Wrench Gang. Self-described “ecosexuals” who think of Earth as “our lover, not our Mother,” Sprinkle and Stephens spend a fair portion of their screen time writhing naked in creeks and rubbing themselves with mud, their ample, imperfect, middle-aged bodies on full display. The pair thereby enacts the kind of shamelessness and pleasure that, as I argue throughout Bad Environmentalism, has been so glaringly absent from mainstream environmentalist movements. Perhaps most importantly, as the pair clowns around at mountaintop removal protests and stages mock weddings to the mountains in Stephens’ native West Virginia, they enact a reversal of the classic dynamic in which the environmentalist is rigid, inflexible, and, therefore, the butt of the joke. Sprinkle and Stephens deliver the jokes, and they bring the joy rather than killing it.

I think we have much to learn from these fictional and real-life figures. As they pursue their environmentalist agendas, they eschew any attempt to be perfect, refined, tasteful, or classy, and instead revel gleefully in hypocrisy, impropriety, indecorum, vulgarity, excess, bawdiness, and the body itself. “Trashiness,” they suggest, is not just a class designation or a material description but a sensibility, a political attitude. We might take an even larger view here: ideals of perfection often function as a way of policing vulnerable bodies in a rigged system—as Black Lives Matter activists who critique “respectability politics” have shown us, and as many of us realized during the recent Supreme Court nomination hearings, when a theoretically “perfect victim” (white, educated, well-spoken, upper-middle-class, heterosexual) was cynically and cruelly ignored. As a political attitude, “trashiness” combats myths of meritocracy such as purity politics, respectability politics, and perfectionism.

This is not to say that we should, for instance, jet off every other week in the name of “trashy environmentalism.” But we might spend less time worrying what others think about us as we march, teach, write, think, connect, donate, and otherwise pursue change. We might also shift our targets. If, as a new report indicates, just 100 companies are responsible for the majority of global emissions —and if, as the most recent IPCC report shows, the climate change forecast is quite dire, then perhaps we could spend more time confronting the root causes of and the big contributors to environmental crisis. And less time Tweet-shaming each other.


Nicole Seymour is associate professor of English at California State University, Fullerton. She is author of Bad Environmentalism: Irony and Irreverence in the Ecological Age and Strange Natures: Futurity, Empathy, and the Queer Ecological Imagination.

"As it turns out, climate change and the environment can be a laughing matter—at least, at an absurd or satirical level."
—Foreword Reviews

"Bad Environmentalism confronts serious environmental problems by way of ‘unserious’ texts. Nicole Seymour takes on complex ideas with lucidity, economy, and a witty sense of humor. Against the familiar affects that tend to characterize both environmentalism and environmental studies—such as awe, love, guilt, reverence, and earnestness—Bad Environmentalism pits less solemn alternatives, including playfulness, impropriety, irreverence, irony, frivolity, and glee. I am a convert. Bad environmentalists, unite!"
—Jennifer K. Ladino, author of Reclaiming Nostalgia: Longing for Nature in American Literature*

Thursday, October 18, 2018

#DeleteFacebook: Users always have the option of disconnecting—right?

Assistant professor, University of Toronto

Want to #DeleteFacebook? You can try.

Deleting Facebook is easier said than done.

These are examples of headlines written after the news about Cambridge Analytica harvesting the data of 50 million Facebook profiles. These suggestions do not speak of getting rid of Facebook, Inc. – the company and its business models – but rather they question the possibility for an individual decision to stop using Facebook’s services.

Yet at least implicitly, campaigns such as #DeleteFacebook also threaten the company. Regardless of users actually leaving the site, privacy scandals and threats like #DeleteFacebook reflect on the company’s stock price. In the aftermath of the news, Facebook was said to lose $60 billion in market capitalization and its stock faced the worst week since 2012. Mark Zuckerberg took actions posting an ad in several British and American newspapers explaining the reasons for the data breach and explaining how they would respond and change their practices. “I promise to do better for you,” Zuckerberg said.

In Disconnect: Facebook’s Affective Bonds I argue that the threat of users leaving the site gives us a needed opening to re-think how our relationships with Facebook are being designed. The current discussion of what would be better for Facebook users circulates around regulation of data and controlling the access to one’s data. But if we start from the difficulty to #DeleteFacebook, instead of the problems of data and privacy, we quickly see that our data is not Facebook’s product—our engagement is.

#DeleteFacebook as an expression of revolt against Facebook is not the first of its kind. Facebook has often received criticism when the users have felt they are no longer in control of their social media engagements and what takes place on the site. In 2010, a group of dissatisfied Facebook users organized a Quit Facebook Day. Out of 450 million Facebook users, thirty-one thousand users decided to leave the site that day.

The users potentially abandoning Facebook also became the target for other social media sites. Diaspora in 2011 and Ello in 2014 started marketing their services as an alternative to Facebook. “Every post you share, every friend you make and every link you follow is tracked, recorded and converted into data. Advertisers buy your data so they can show you more ads. You are the product that’s bought and sold,” Ello said, positioning its service against Facebook.

The suggestions to download one’s Facebook data in order to see what the site knows about you were also happening before the most recent data leak. In 2015 artist Liam Scully produced over 1,000 drawings on top of his downloaded Facebook data. The name of the exhibition: Digital Suicide.

For a decade, different artists and tactical media groups have been playing with the ideas of detox, digital suicide, and making the act of leaving Facebook a performance. gamified digital suicide giving users points based on how many of their friends followed their lead and deleted their Facebook account. Web 2.0 SuicideMachine removed users’ Facebook friends one by one, transformed her profile picture into a noose logo and changed the password making a return impossible.

If Facebook abstention demands measures comparable to taking one’s life, it is no wonder that its use has been described as an addiction. In 2017, Chamath Palihapitiya, Facebook’s former vice president of user growth, suggested that users should take a break from the site. Facebook is built to engage users in dopamine-driven feedback loops, he argued. “Quitting Facebook isn't easy. Facebook is engaging, enjoyable and quite frankly, addictive. Quitting something like Facebook is like quitting smoking,” the organizers of Quit Facebook Day had already declared.

But #DeleteFacebook does not only let us consider our relations with the platform. Quite on the contrary, the moments when users plan to leave Facebook are not only feared by the company but also anticipated in the designs of the platform. #DeleteFacebook as a threat, as a potential, shapes how the platform changes and evolves. If you try to deactivate your Facebook profile you see images of your friends “who will miss you.” At every moment, the platform pulls you back and engages you more.

If you want to know what user engagement really looks like you do not measure how many times people log in to their Facebook accounts, how many links they click, or what is the number of videos they create. User engagement is what you get at when "Nothing" is an answer to questions like what did you do when you heard that Facebook accounts of approximately 30 million users were hacked in September? or What did you do when you heard that sensitive personal information including a phone number, recent Facebook searches, and location history was leaked?

This notion of user engagement does not explain but needs to be explained. It is at the heart of Facebook’s business and it is shaped against projects like #DeleteFacebook. As illustrated in its Annual Report of 2015: “If we fail to retain existing users or add new users, or if our users decrease their level of engagement with our products, our revenue, financial results, and business may be significantly harmed.” #DeleteFacebook for Facebook, then, is a known problem of how to keep users engaged, and its proposed solutions are intensification and expansion of relationships and services.

Digital suicide as a concept speaks volumes of how integrated Facebook has become to users' lives beyond data and its regulation. Research in the North American and European contexts show that to quit, one needs strong social networks outside social media; otherwise, one may become the outsider in their social circles and events. But it is also said that for the citizens in many other countries, Facebook is the main access point to the internet and the only means to communicate with friends from a distance. Facebook has become a lifeline.

“There is a huge need and a huge opportunity to get everyone in the world connected, to give everyone a voice and to help transform society for the future,” Mark Zuckerberg noted in 2012. In 2012, the company was becoming publicly traded, and in 2017 it exceeded the $500 billion mark, becoming the fourth most-valued company in the tech business. The world disconnected from Facebook is and was a world not yet connected. Hence, Facebook is developing drones, satellites, and technologies that would help to anchor their services around the world not only as a website people use but also as an infrastructure used to access those sites. More engagement.

Expansion of user engagement, one of the mechanisms that both stops existing users from leaving and engages more users, has made Facebook a global player; it operates across and beyond national borders and so must the attempts to regulate it. Because not everyone can quit. And this is the new feature in the #DeleteFacebook discussion, a viewpoint that was lacking from the earlier critiques. Fear of missing out is no longer the reason that prevents digital suicides; Facebook has a much deeper role in how our societies are organized.

Being on Facebook is no longer only a lifestyle choice but also a question of politics. The Cambridge Analytica revelations imply that mundane actions such as Facebook Likes can be turned into politicized mechanisms used to influence decision making. But there is a political level at stake here that exceeds national elections and individual decisions. With 2 billion users, Facebook has become the medium of the masses and its users are no longer a community but a population without geographical limitations. How population remains under its control is the key question for Facebook’s survival. And to ask that question we need to move the focus from individual engagements and personal privacy to the biopolitical and geopolitical engagements of the 2 billion.


Tero Karppi is author of Disconnect: Facebook's Affective Bonds. Karppi is assistant professor at the University of Toronto and teaches in the Institute of Communication, Culture, Information, and Technology and in the Faculty of Information.

"Through its clever structure, Disconnect affectively lures the reader as Tero Karppi tells a convincing story of how social media sets the tone, mood, and modality of our everyday existence. Compellingly written, this is a must-read modern tale of engagement and disconnection."
—Zizi Papacharissi, author of Affective Publics: Sentiment, Technology, and Politics

"Disconnect is a timely, theoretically rich assessment of Facebook as platform and assemblage."
—Amit Ray, Rochester Institute of Technology

"Disconnect could not have come at a more important time. Tero Karppi’s nuanced writing brings out the rich complexities of social media life and disconnection. This must-read book shows that walking away may not remove Facebook’s presence in our lives, but it reveals the limits of social media in our world and the business models that are built to keep us connected."
—Jason Farman, author of Delayed Response: The Art of Waiting from the Ancient to the Instant World

Monday, October 8, 2018

Heidegger’s thinking today is, perhaps, the possibility of the world

University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU), Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain

In the 1957 lectures he delivered in Freiburg under the title “Basic Principles of Thinking,” Martin Heidegger speculated that “dialectics today is, perhaps … the actuality of the world [Weltwirklichkeit]” (GA 79: 88). For all its hyperbolic thrust, one should not take his statement lightly, dismissing it as a dated intellectual artefact from the Cold War era, when antithetical political camps were locked in a life-and-death struggle on a world scale. Speaking against such an easy historicizing explanation is the fact that the insight cropped up as Heidegger reflected on nothing less than the very foundational principles of thinking. Another piece of evidence corroborating its seriousness is that the notion of the world, presumably actualized by dialectics in a “today” that is more than sixty years old now, is itself a cornerstone of Heidegger’s philosophy. So, what is going on here?

Heidegger’s point is that dialectics, whether of the Hegelian variety or the Marxist iteration of dialectical materialism, has long ceased being either an abstract idea or an applied political ideology intended to explain reality in the simplest terms imaginable. Dialectics actively determines, commands, and steers the course of the world, split into camps sharing the same general goal: to master, subdue, and appropriate the earth. Fractured and conflictual, the world’s dialectical actuality is rooted in a silent consensus of overtly opposing parties, namely that the true purpose of world domination is the seizure of the earth. Far from an opportunistic aberration, this goal inheres at the heart of Western thinking. The ideal capture and appropriation of the object are the means for, and the end of, the real imposition of the thinking will upon whatever and whomever it captures. Dialectics thus accomplishes the mission of thinking with unprecedented success.

Despite simmering new tensions between Russia, on the one hand, and the European Union and the United States, on the other, the Cold War is over. Heidegger’s “today” is no longer ours… And yet, it is utterly relevant. Dialectical actuality makes sense within the broader project of constructing a world (frameworks of meaning, extending all the way down to the meaning of meaning) deployed with the view to appropriating and dominating the earth (the ultimately meaningless source of meaning, that upon which life unfolds) in the shape of territories to conquer or natural resources to extract. The triple knot of phenomenology, ecology, and politics is as tight as ever: a network of lived meanings is subject to behind-the-scenes political integration, or disintegration, such that its elemental substratum is, at the same time, controlled and threatened, secured and rendered fragile, appropriated and pushed to the brink of non-being.

With that said, I would like to update (and so, in some sense, to actualize) Heidegger’s assertion for our “today” in the following way: Heidegger’s thinking today is, perhaps, the possibility of the world. Immediately, readers will retort that I am indulging in a hyperbole more blatant still than Heidegger’s take on Hegel. How can a one-time card-carrying member of the National Socialist party not only gain admission into the philosophical canon but also become pivotal in contemporary thought, not to mention in contemporary world?

As I argue in my book on the German philosopher, with reference to the contributions of his Russian translator Vladimir Bibikhin, it is a gross mistake to consider Heidegger’s thinking a piece of intellectual private property. In its enduring relevance, generativity, and receptivity, Heidegger’s thinking is not his own; it is the thinking of the world. Its lacunae and pernicious blind spots are, of course, the thinker’s responsibility, chief among them the unquestioned persistence of anti-Semitic prejudices in reflections on the agency and figures of uprooting, displacement, and what we now call globalization. But they are just that—lacunae of the unthought in the midst of the world thinking itself on the hither side of the modern distinction between subjects and objects, theory and practice.

Even then, I raise the stakes in my claim that Heidegger’s thinking is, perhaps, the possibility of the world today. In light of his fresh phenomenological approach to the possible disentangled from its deficient position in a strictly teleological order, existence understood existentially retains inexhaustible possibilities. For the finite world as the domain of existence to be, it must still be possible up to its demise. And, indeed, the possibility of the world as world is exposed the moment it is overshadowed by a grave danger, the moment its time is almost up and it may no longer be possible—say, after a nuclear Armageddon or as a result of catastrophic global climate change. By emphasizing the priority of possibility over actuality, Heidegger enables the creation of a living archive of what has not been, nor can ever be, accomplished in keeping with the domineering mission of thinking, an archive of another world not superimposed onto the tamed earth.

The essentially belated disclosure of possibilities at the end of “today’s” day is patently Hegelian. What is not at all dialectical is the mechanism that makes it happen: instead of relying on the retrospective standpoint of a mature concept, Heidegger urges thinking to unclench its grasp, reverting from the capture to the release of the world and of the earth alike. If there is still any hope left, it has to do with the world letting itself go and freeing the earth. Only in letting go of itself does the world remain possible.

Heidegger’s thinking release will not save us. Without it, however, we are more lost, more devastated and devastating than we are with it. This is the take-home message of my book.


Michael Marder is Ikerbasque Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU), Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain. He is author of twelve monographs, including Heidegger: Phenomenology, Ecology, Politics (Minnesota, 2018); Grafts: Writings on Plants, a Univocal book (Minnesota, 2016); and Energy Dreams: Of Actuality (2017).

"For many years, Michael Marder has been one of the most interesting philosophical interpreters of Heidegger. What he gives us to think here is really remarkable. The readers of his book on Heidegger will be inspired."
—Peter Trawny, editor of the collected works of Martin Heidegger

"Often indefensible, always indispensable: Heidegger, for all his errors, continues to provoke us as modernity draws nearer to a reckoning. In this thoughtful book, Michael Marder sifts through Heidegger’s texts in a search for an open yet finite dwelling, a home beyond parochialism and globalism."
—Richard Polt, Xavier University

"Deploying an exceptional familiarity with Heidegger scholarship, Michael Marder highlights how Heidegger’s thinking of the Thing offers a rich opening for ecological resistance to consumerist politics and economics."
—David Wood, author of Deep Time, Dark Times: On Being Geologically Human